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Students at commencement

Biblical Preaching

Zumbro Lutheran Church

Location: Rochester, Minn.
Denomination: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
Size: 3,100 members; Sunday worship attendance averages 750

Download Zumbro's VCP report or see report contents below:

Ministry context
Zumbro is an almost 150-year-old congregation with a long tradition of outstanding music and adult learning programs. A substantial number of our members (and a disproportionate number of our visitors) have a connection with the Mayo Clinic – indeed, the church is sometimes jokingly called “Mayo Lutheran.” Zumbro is the downtown ELCA church, and is struggling to discern what that might mean as downtown Rochester expands and begins to face some of the social and economic issues found in larger cities. The church’s “code” – unnamed values that influence our actions and shape our reputation – include embracing tradition, expecting a certain level of excellence, and cultivating a strong sense of belonging.
Pre-existing practices

1. Reading the Biblical Text in Advance

A one-page devotional/reflection resource (the ZLC Text Message) written by the preaching pastor that includes a brief introduction to the text (context, summary, big-picture ideas), the text itself, a 200-300 word reflection, and a couple of discussion questions.  This resource is currently used by Zumbro’s pastors as a means of engaging people with the text before they come to worship. It is available the preceding Sunday and on the church website. It is also used as the devotional material for all congregational gatherings (team meetings, staff, choir, etc).

2. Getting into the Text Beyond the Sermon

Over the past year, we have had a couple of extended-length sessions focusing on one book of the Bible. They were the subject of sermons, a congregation-written devotion book, videos and small group discussion.  The size of our worshipping community makes any sort of intra-sermon engagement a challenge. This approach creates an atmosphere where people can participate in the conversation. Feedback shows that people really liked going deeper into one book of the Bible, and that the sermon was a great springboard for small group discussion.
Discoveries from listening process

1. Text Message Difference

Reading the Text Message (see above) makes a tremendous difference in how prepared and engaged people feel when they come to worship.  We want our sermons to be faith-feeding, inspiring, challenging and practical. If they have done some reflecting on the text in advance, it helps them understand the Biblical story and context, and make connections with their daily lives.

2. Style

It’s the substance, not the style … but style still matters.  Our sanctuary is as-yet technology free (i.e., no screens … straight manuscript preaching), but there was much more preferential variety expressed than we expected.

Opportunities for growth

1. Text Message

Continue to find ways to get members of the congregation reading the Text Message as a way of deepening their devotional life and better preparing them to encounter the word on Sunday morning.

2. Preaching Variety

Experiment with different ways of preaching – dialogue, drama, storytelling, etc. – to engage those who listen differently (especially teens and children).
Experiments undertaken

1. Text Message devotions

Find ways to expand use of the Text Message – in homes, for personal use, in online conversation.  Reading and reflecting on the text in advance really makes a difference in how people hear, retain and apply the sermon in their lives. Plus, having one big idea that permeates the congregation creates a sense of community (very important in a large church).  We recently started emailing the Text Message on Monday mornings. For those people who are reading this on their own (not part of a group discussion), we will start a blog in hopes of generating online conversation. 

2. Alternative Preaching Style/Worship Experiment

Explore the possibility of adding a different worship service during the week, particularly one that engages participants in a more experiential way (both in terms of worship practice and sermon event).  Our Sunday services are quite strong, but they only reach a small percentage of the congregation. Split shift workers (of which there are many in Rochester) and a growing youth athletics community make attending weekend worship services difficult.  And, we know there are folks out there for whom traditional worship is not attractive.  We have a Worship Discernment Night session for staff, council, leadership and congregation members set for May 15 that will guide us in deciding what this might look like.

3. Big Faith Questions Series

Give parishioners a chance to submit questions that will shape the sermon series in advance.  One goal is to give people more ownership in the sermon event – by submitting questions, the preachers get a sense of what people are wrestling with; it also continues to encourage people to develop their own sense of what God is up to, especially in the face of our struggles and doubts.  In addition to the Sunday morning sermon, we hope to create a couple of small groups that can discuss the sermon/question together. This will give people the language of faith and allow them to participate more fully than on Sunday morning.
Discoveries from experiments (July 2014)

Update filed in July 2014 by Shelley Cunningham

The Text Message (a devotional piece written by the preaching pastor that gives the text, some context, a brief reflection, and questions for discussion) remains the cornerstone of our congregation’s devotional life – though, like many new things that often receive a big push and then settle into the background, it would behoove us to find ways to keep it at the front of the congregation’s consciousness.

Our 40-Day spiritual adventures have continued to breathe life into the congregation, and pushed our pastoral team to use great biblical imagination. The six weeks that we have followed those adventures – which have lead us through the books of Acts, Ephesians, Ecclesiastes, Genesis, and Revelation – have by far been the most energetic and cohesive of the whole year. It’s a reminder that the sermon alone only goes so far in building faith – but when combined with dynamic worship, devotions, small group conversation and service projects, amazing things can happen.

The biggest change at Zumbro has come with the creation of a non-traditional Wednesday night worship service. We are trying hard to make the preaching event more experiential and engaging. It’s been a toss-up in terms of measuring success.

There’s been a much smaller crowd in the summer, but that group tends to be more willing to try out whatever is thrown at them -- moving around, dialogical preaching, small-group reflection. Sermons on those days always feel like a shared journey, and something that creates a stronger community.

During the school year, Wednesday worship has included many of our confirmation students (and some of their families, a welcome and hoped-for addition). They bring their own energy to worship. We’ve found kids to be much more engaged by video – whereas often, adults are checking out during video presentations. And although we have finally added a screen to our sanctuary for Wednesday night services, we don’t have added staff or technical expertise to really make the most of it. The conclusion of our pastoral team seems to be that we’ll make use of the screen during the sermon if it really adds value to the message, but that’s still the exception rather than the rule.


This project has been extremely helpful in encouraging us to take risks as preachers. Now that our team is four years into our calls, there is more trust by the congregation, and more freedom to try new things. It has been fun to experiment with biblical storytelling, story stitching (interweaving Biblical texts to present familiar parables in a new way), two-preacher dialogue sermons, panel conversations with members of the congregation, and more. If nothing else, it reminds us as preachers the presentation of God’s word can and should be as creative and engaging as the author of that word is.

Video: Engaging Community in Week Leading up to Sermon