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Students at commencement

Biblical Preaching

Trinity Episcopal Church

Location: Escondido, Calif.
Denomination: Episcopal
Size: 145 average Sunday attendance, two services

Download Trinity Episcopal's VCP report or see report contents below:

Ministry context
Southern California encourages a lifestyle that is both active and transient, both of which make commitment to church membership unusual. Many members of Trinity have not been in the community long, nor do they intend to stay. Trinity is a congregation with a history of conflict, some of it recent, which means that it can be hard to build a basis of trust from which to have deeper conversations.
Pre-existing practices

1. Preaching

With only one clergy person on staff, preaching at Trinity is done almost exclusively by one person. The rector preaches extemporaneously from the floor, not using the pulpit. Sermons average about 13 minutes in length. Almost all sermons are recorded and posted on the church’s website. Sermons tend to be open-ended, that is, challenging hearers to apply the scripture specifically to their own lives, while giving examples of possible applications.

2. Preaching with Props

Occasional sermon series invite the congregation to offer written responses to the sermon in the form of a contribution to an ongoing decorative project. For example, during Advent, the congregation was invited to write ideas on strips of yellow paper, representing hay, which were then placed in a large manger, symbolizing a preparation for the coming of the Christ Child.
Discoveries from listening process

1. The Congregation Likes the Current Situation

The congregation likes the current situation. Overall they are enthusiastic about the rector’s preaching style and message. This means that they are listening, which means we can expect they are hearing the message, and so we can encourage them to move from passive hearing to responding.

2. Many are Uncomfortable with the Bible

Many people in the congregation do not feel comfortable with the Bible. They wish they knew more about the Bible story. This means there is a need to provide the Biblical context because the congregation does not know the overall Biblical story.

3. Congregation Does not Hear Other Interpretations

With only one primary preacher, the congregation does not hear many different interpretations of scripture. This creates a tendency to depend on the “expert” to explain the scripture, which only deepens the discomfort with interpreting the Bible.

Opportunities for growth

1. Congregation Response  

Create ways for the members of the congregation to respond to the scripture message and gain confidence in their own abilities to understand and apply it to their lives.

2. Encourage Scripture Reading

Encourage members to read Sunday’s scriptures.

3. Listen to Scripture Understanding

Develop ways to hear each other talk about their understandings of scripture.

Experiments undertaken

1. Lent 2012

During Lent, sermons and questions about the scriptures have been posted on Trinity’s blog to encourage members of the congregation to think about the message during the week and respond. The scripture readings and a link to the blog were sent out in a weekly email, and a link to the blog was posted on the church’s Facebook. The questions were also handed out on Sunday for people to take home and use in personal reflection or group Bible study. We have only used two readings in order to narrow the focus. Finally, we put blank papers in the bulletins for people to use for writing their ideas or reflections. A cross in the back of the church has been the place where people can offer these reflections. As more papers are placed on the cross, it serves as a visual reminder.

Lent is a good time to encourage Bible study—people are willing to do something more about their faith at this time. But we have not been successful in building attendance at Bible study programs. We know that people are listening to the message; we hope for evidence that they are thinking about it as well. Since this system allows responses to remain private, we thought it would be less threatening than a conversation-based approach. We intend to measure the responses generated.

As Lent ends, we can see that hits on the blog averaged about 1/5th to 1/3rd of average Sunday attendance. In addition, at least one Bible study group began, using the questions provided. The cross in church has averaged 15 or so responses a week. In addition, at least one person each week has written their ideas in a blank book so that others can read their ideas. This program responded to all three of our challenges.

2. 21st Century Communication of the Good News

Based on the response from the Lenten program described above, we are going to build on the potential of our electronic communication tools. We will continue to post sermons and send out email links. We are going to teach people how to access and respond to the blog, using a Sunday morning teaching time for this. We are also going to set up the sermon recordings as a podcast. We will make improvements to the blog to build this as a center of communication.

Based on the response to the Lenten program, we think we are on the right track—there does seem to be interest in reading and responding to Sunday’s message in the week ahead. But we discovered technological barriers: posting on the blog was difficult for some people, plus not everyone is familiar with these modern things called blogs and so did not know what to do. Since getting people to gather at a time other than Sunday continues to be an issue, we want to create as many ways as possible for people to connect to the message without having to come to the church. We will continue to monitor use and adjust.

The Lenten obligation is a strong motivator. We do not know whether or not we will generate as much interest once Lent is over. Still, this is a good way to try to connect with people outside of Sunday morning and we expect this to be long-term process of changing behavior.

3. Bible Study Resources

Trinity subscribes to a one-page Bible study resource called Synthesis, which provide background and context for reading the Sunday scriptures. Use of this resource went up during our Lenten program. We plan to promote these materials through announcements and newsletter articles, and by putting copies of Synthesis in all the bulletins now and then during the summer. This will give information for preparing for the following Sunday.

Our second discovery is that people want to know more about the Bible, but we have not been successful in establishing well-attended Bible study programs. By offering the resources, we hope to meet the need and encourage members to engage in their own Bible study. We will know we are successful when more people are taking the materials provided.

This path doesn’t take much effort, and having the materials could be a first step toward talking in a Bible study, so this is a step toward challenges 2 and 3.

4. Community Art Wall

This isn’t about preaching, but Trinity has a blank wall in its parish hall which we use for displaying art shows. During the summer we plan to invite people to submit pictures of where they encounter God in their lives. We will post these pictures on collage bulletin boards for all to see.

As mentioned before, we have been somewhat successful in using “props” to engage the congregation in responding to the Word. However, these responses work because they are spontaneous and small, not the product of much thought or effort. In addition, the congregation grows tired of too many sermon projects. So we thought we would move the response opportunity out of the worship service and into the community life of the congregation. This will require more effort on the part of the people, but also allows for creativity. Our success can be measured by the numbers of pictures and the interest they generate.

This project has the potential of bridging the gap between church and the rest of life. Since it will go on all summer, we have lots of time to communicate and receive responses. We have been more successful in getting spontaneous responses—people writing an idea down in church in response to a sermon—but our Lenten program has opened the door to people bringing a response to church. We hope that people will be able to explain the pictures they submit, which will help us begin to hear each other’s interpretations, which is our third challenge.