Discipling and Developing Leaders Through a Sermon Application Team
“What do you think went well with Sunday’s sermon? What could have been better?”
This is how I begin every Sermon Application Team meeting.
Over the last five years, I’ve probably asked these questions a thousand times with a small group of both lay and staff leaders. This weekly gathering is one of the most productive venues for discipleship and developing leaders.
It gives me a window into the life of our church, enables me to identify future leaders, creates a unique teaching environment, connects me to lay and staff leaders, and (frankly) helps me preach better sermons.
I can’t imagine sermon preparation without it.
Sermon Application Team wasn’t my idea. Like most of the creative things in ministry, it’s a combination of what I’ve seen others model. During a sabbatical, I attended the Weekender at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. Mark Dever invited me to attend his Saturday Sermon Application Team meeting, and I marveled at the simplicity and impact of a small group of lay leaders studying the text together. I watched with wonder as they studied a passage, debated its meaning, and shared applications. The Weekender also featured a service review meeting on Sunday nights where pastors and interns shared affirmations and critiques from the services earlier in the day.
Inspired by my experience, I considered how to implement these ideas in my context. For a number of reasons, a Saturday lunch and a late-night Sunday evening meeting were not feasible. So, I combined the best of both meetings into a late Tuesday afternoon meeting that fit my weekly study rhythm and our church cadence.
Our sermon application team usually includes six people. A pastoral resident serves as the administrator. Two non-pastoral staff members and three lay people are part of the team. Sometimes, we have a guest or a visiting pastor who are curious enough to join us for a meeting or two.
We meet for 75 minutes, long enough for a good conversation but short enough that people long for more. Each participant serves on the team for eight weeks which allows me to intentionally invest in at least 25 leaders a year.
Our meetings follow a particular rhythm (each section lasting 15 minutes):
1. Review the Previous Week’s Sermon
During this first section, we discuss the sermon I preached the previous Sunday. We start with affirmations, and I ask each person to share one or two things that they found helpful. I’ve found this to be fairly easy for most people. They enjoy reflecting on how the Lord spoke to them.
However, things get a little interesting when I ask for constructive criticism. I often have to coax people into sharing because they’re unaccustomed to tell their pastor—to his face—what was wrong with the sermon. Sometimes I have to explain that every sermon can be better in some way, and I know the sermon could be improved.
It’s remarkable how helpful affirmations and godly criticism of the sermon can be. At one level, it’s instructive to hear how my words were received, understand what was meaningful, and wrestle with what was misunderstood or unclear. Even if I don’t fully agree with the affirmation or the critique, it’s a great opportunity to see how my people are processing my sermons. Additionally, it models how to respond to godly criticism and makes future leaders more open to critique as well.
Being vulnerable about the most personal aspect of my ministry—the sermon—has created a healthier culture of feedback in our church.
2. Study the Text Together
The second step in our journey is to examine next week’s text together. We provide a print-out of the text with plenty of space for notes. We spend time quietly examining the passage on our own. For about 7–8 minutes, we circle important words, look for patterns, underline essential statements, and identify questions. The goal is simply to make as many observations as we can on our own.
Then it’s time to share. We move around the table identifying short observations. The goal is not long soliloquies. Even if the participants have researched the text prior to coming (something I encourage but don’t require), our goal is simple and clear observations. Sometimes we pause to talk about a critical issue, or I ask a Pastoral Resident to explain the background behind a particular topic in the text.
As we make our way through the passage, I’m not only getting a good sense of their spiritual competency for handling the Word, but I’m also teaching people how to study the Bible. It’s a beautiful discipleship and leadership development opportunity.
3. Create a Teaching Outline
The third step can be intimidating. We take additional personal time to create a teaching or homiletical outline. Since this is usually unfamiliar, I encourage them that this will be their greatest area of personal growth during our time together.
Going around the table, I ask each participant to share their outline. Sometimes we talk about how they determined each point. At other times, we compare the similarities and differences. I share my outline at the end, and I invite their feedback.
It might surprise you to know that nearly every week my first outline is not reflected in my final sermon. The thoughts and perspectives of the Sermon Application Team usually shape the structure. Sometimes I prefer their outline over mine, and I use it instead.
4. Identify Applications
The final step during our meeting is to consider the various ways the points in the text could be applied. Mark Dever created a very helpful application grid that you can use. Sometimes, we use this grid or a variation of it.
At other times we discuss how the text would apply to three groups: non-believer, believer, fake-believer. Given the nature of a particular text, I’ve also found it helpful to discuss how the text would apply to people in varying stages of life: child, teenager, single adult, married, and a senior citizen.
The goal of this step is to creatively make the connection between the text and life, especially in the lives of the people around the table.
By the time we’ve completed our meeting, we’ve thoughtfully reviewed the sermon, shared observations on a particular text, developed a teaching outline, and discussed applications. It’s a discipleship-rich environment.
Creating a sermon application team takes time, patience, and humility. But the benefits are incredible.
It creates a venue for life-on-life discipleship and personal leadership development as you study the text together. It promotes a culture of teachability as the Teaching Pastor willingly invites critique and suggestions. It keeps a pastor connected to questions and challenges of lay people. People have told me that they notice a difference in the sharpness and relevancy of my applications. I do, too.
It’s also a great place to identify future leaders. When we’re considering a person for leadership, I’m often asked about their participation in a team. Eight weeks of studying the Bible and talking about sermons give you a window into a person’s soul.
Sundays come every week. Sermons need to be written. Applications must be considered. And I’ve found great delight and lots of fruit from studying every week with a group of leaders.
I can’t think of a better venue for discipleship and leadership development than a weekly Sermon Application Team. And after five years, I can’t imagine writing a sermon without them.