In his book The Big Idea (Zondervan), pastor Dave Ferguson talks about how his church has taken the homiletical concept of a single driving idea for the sermon and extended that across the entire teaching platform of the church. Dave Ferguson and four friends from college launched Community Christian Church – where he serves as Leads Pastor -- a church that has grown to 600+ leaders with more than 5,000 in attendance at eight sites every weekend throughout Chicago area. Preaching editor Michael Duduit recently visited with Dave.

 

Preaching: What’s the Big Idea? When you use the phrase “Big Idea,” what do you mean by that?

Ferguson: What we really mean to say is we would like to see you do is communicate one big idea every week. Haddon Robinson is the one who introduced the idea in the preaching context, but for us we are trying to figure out, not only within the message giving people one big idea, but in the celebration service or worship, how do we communicate one big idea, have one big experience? And it is actually taking it beyond that experience -- how do you give one big idea within the large group and the small groups events and throughout the life of the church and throughout the whole family: adults, students and kids?

Our heartbeat about that is we are convicted we were hitting people with so many little ideas. I think I could make a case that a family, throughout the course of the week, if they are well churched you could bombard them with a thousand different little ideas. I think implicitly we are telling people that you don’t have to live this out, you just have to hear it; you just absorb it cognitively. What we want is for people to live it out. I think that is Jesus’ intent. Our premise is: if we want to better accomplish the mission that Jesus has for us, it is to give people one big idea; you go live it out this week and come back next week and do the same all over again.

Preaching: Give me an example of how that looks in a sermon you have done recently.

Ferguson: This last week, Wednesday, it was called ATM. The series ATM has to do with Attitude, Treasure and Mission. We are actually on the Treasure one. I wasn’t speaking, but we collaborate on everything with the preaching and teaching pastors that particular weekend. The big idea was: tithing is a clear demonstration of what you treasure.

At this particular celebration service, there was a video that we did playing off the Super Bowl; we had sports reporters, all that. We had a guy, kind of in slow-motion, and he was putting in his tithe and they were announcing it, and someone was tryng to take money out of the bag, and they were announcing that there was a flag on the play. That introduced the topic. We actually ended up using an old country song, a Johnny Cash tune, and they changed the words to have to do with tithing. So by the time we got to that people were already introduced to the big idea.

When the teaching pastor got up he took it and we used the scripture from Malachi and other places. Basically people came away with the one big idea that tithing really does tell you a lot about what you treasure. So we hit them with it in as many multiple ways, multi-sensory ways, as we possibly could -- this is what we want you to live out. I’m happy to report that this weekend we had the highest giving that we have had this year! That is what we are trying to see -- not just to communicate one big idea, but how do you communicate it for action, for living it out.

Preaching: The thing that is interesting is the way you’ve extended it beyond the sermon and even beyond the worship experience. Explain how you taken that concept of the big idea into the other settings.

Ferguson: If I was at home right now, tonight is when our small groups meet together in people’s homes. We have a discussion guide that facilitates the discussion based on the Bible and based on the teaching they heard the previous week. So we are following the same big idea: that tithing really says a lot about what you treasure.

I think that is really important. If you have small group material that is well written, it facilitates the conversation. You are able to bring in your story and other people’s stories, and that does make sure that life application is happening. That gets it in the large group and in the small group. It has taken us eight years to get us to this place. In the book we explain how you can incrementally begin to grow this.

Our student communities are using the same kind of series also called ATM, but they are doing it in a way that communicates effectively to junior and high school students, both in their large and small groups. In our Kid’s City, which is our children’s ministry, their series is called God’s Property. They have fun things that also communicate the same big idea. We also have a family page. Our hope is that it will foster communication in the family, really empower parents to feel a lot more confident: you have heard it in the large group and in the small group, and then you can enter into conversation with your kids when you have that question at home, “What have you learned at church this week?”

Preaching: You mentioned your collaborative arrangement in terms of the teaching process. How does that work, and how did you get into it?

Ferguson: I am the lead pastor at Community Christian Church (CCC), but I am not the point person on the teaching team; that’s a guy named Tim Sutherland. We teach about the same amount, then we have a couple of other guys on the teaching team. It started out of a friendship I had with Tim. Tim is probably one of the brightest people I know. When we first started the church I would call him every week and we would talk over the sermon back and forth. I would tell him, “Here is the topic we are going with,” and he would download – “Here are all my thoughts” -- and we would hash it back and forth. He was so taken with the vision of our church, what we were trying to do, he ended up moving his whole family to Chicago. He ended his practice; he was a marriage and family therapist at the time. We would do it on the phone and then we would do it over lunch and over tennis. Eventually he came on staff; now it is a much more formalized process.

There are a couple of kinds of teaching teams out there. A lot of churches have teaching teams like baseball; ours is more like basketball. The teaching teams that are more like a baseball team have a teaching rotation; this guy is up this week, this guy’s up the next week, lefty is up on the third week, and you have your four-man rotation and you start all over again. Each of them goes up and they do their own thing and they are on their own.

On a basketball team, everybody plays every game; maybe only one guy takes the shot, but everybody gets to touch the ball. Our teaching team is a collaborative that works much more like a basketball team. Every week we work together -- actually we work about nine weeks in advance starting, then three weeks in advance on the actual manuscript. We all work together to actually create that manuscript.

We call it the 105 fastest minutes of your week. Basically the format is we all come together; there are about five of us usually in the room. We also have a whole network that we helped start called the New Thing Network with churches across the country. We bring them in through video conference and teleconference and they also collaborate with us.

If I was going to break down the 105 minutes, the first five minutes is what we call Focus. The person leading that meeting will bring into focus here is the big idea that we are working on, that we are going to have to do a sermon on in three weeks. Then we have what we call the Desired Outcomes. We go around, and everyone is responsible for bringing something that will relay what are the desired outcomes that we want to have. We think very simply in terms of head, hearts and hands. How are we going to get people to think differently, how do we want them to feel, what do we want them to actually do differently?

Then we start Brainstorming. What are the possibilities? Anything goes. We use big white sheets and spill everything up on the board. This usually lasts about 45 minutes. We have enough stuff, in any one message, probably for a whole series. One of the things you discover in a collaborative process, there is never a time when you don’t have enough content. Sometimes when you are out on your own, you might say, “Oh man I am struggling to find some good stuff.” We always have more than enough good stuff; it is a matter of what we are not going to say. Then the next thirty minutes is Structure. OK, what are we not going to say, what are we going to say, how do we put it into some kind of structure? We use a variety of different structures, depending on what the topic is and how we can most effectively communicate that.

About ten minutes we spend in Consensus: “Is everyone really sold on this? Will we all really buy into this?” This is a thing we all created together. Once everyone is on board with that, then the last five minutes we Divvy it up, we divide up the message. Let’s say the message has an introduction, four mods, and a conclusion. That means at least six different people. So around the room each of us may takes a section, and another guy across the country by teleconference he would also take a part of the message, and they all agree to write that part of the message. They’ll have a week to write their part of the message, then they email it in. Tim, who is the point person on the team, he edits the whole thing into a manuscript -- we actually do everything by manuscript. That is what we call our 1.0. So we actually have our 1.0 done at least two weeks in advance before we have to deliver it. That gives everybody a chance to go out and let it marinate, to live with it for awhile. Then we can make it more our own throughout that creative process.

Preaching: So once you’ve got the 1.0 to work with, you have guys in multiple churches that have that manuscript. How closely does everyone feel the need to stick to the common manuscript or does each person have the flexibility to adapt and modify it?

Ferguson: Each person has the flexibility to do exactly as they want. I think because of how the whole process works -- the teaching teams actually pick the Big Ideas a year in advance, then we get to design the message three weeks in advance -- there is a high level of ownership. It is not like you get to one point and say, “What’s that? I have never seen that before.” You basically you own that – “Oh yeah, I remember when we agreed to do that; this is exactly the best stuff. That is the feeling you have when it comes in – “Oh good, here it is.”

But even at that, you still have those two weeks where you have complete latitude. Something can happen to you and you say, “Oh, this will be a great story,” and of course you put it in. What is a little bit different though, in our situation, is that every time you do an edit to the message, there is an understanding that you email that edit to everyone else on the team. So everyone has the advantage. You usually put in your notes for the 2.0 things like: “I have a brand new story, can you please check this out. I am not really feeling great about that first point -- you guys got any ideas?” So there’s that kind of ongoing collaboration that even happens going into the last couple of weeks. It is usually up to 4.0, 5.0 before it ever gets delivered. Everybody feels very comfortable and it’s nuanced to take on their own personality of what they want to say.

Preaching: How many churches are in a networked relationship with your church?

Ferguson: We have eight sites of Community Christian Church locally, and there are about ten churches as part of our New Thing Network.

Preaching: Are the pastors of those different settings all a part of the 105 minute process, or do they simply join if they choose to?

Ferguson: Within our CCC are eight sites, and we have about 25 celebration services -- about half of our services have in-person teaching and the other half are video-cast. So all of the people in the CCC are very involved in this process as well. Those people who are pastoring and teaching in the churches in our New Thing Network, they are as well. Like this week, I was gone so I wasn’t there on Tuesday for our Big Idea teaching team meeting. I missed it, but the process goes on. I guess there is enough relationship that even though they designed that -- I had input in the beginning when we first talked about it -- so that when the 1.0 shows up I still feel ownership about that and feel engaged. It does work that way, but that is not the ideal.

We have found there are a number of benefits. There was a time when I would get alone by myself and have to crank this baby out all on my own. I feel like we get a dramatically better content. I think that makes sense. There is a synergy, there is a collaboration -- if you have four people thinking on the same thing why wouldn’t you have better ideas then if you were by yourself. That is almost just common sense. We never have the problem that we don’t have enough content.

Something else happens. There are clearly times when the message is better than others, but with this process you never have a bad message. 52 weeks a year you may have some that are good or just ok but you are never going to have a bad one, because when you have that many people involved in it, it just doesn’t happen. There is never a time where everybody has a crisis going on and they just didn’t have time and they just pull something together at the last minute; it just doesn’t work that way. That is a huge benefit.

I think we end up with better illustrations because we pull from what everybody is reading. We pull from everybody’s life story. It is kind of fascinating that within our own teaching team, we have been together long enough, we can actually use other people’s stories. I can use the reference, “Tim told me the other day…” and everybody knows Tim because he is on the teaching rotation and they get a big chuckle out of the story. Those kinds of things work.

I think you get better theology. I think sometimes it can be dangerous, us just by ourselves. But when we’re holding our theology off each other, when we are doing the right kind of exegesis and the right kind of thinking, we get better theology.

I think you also get a better use of time. I discovered that when I wrote a sermon by myself it would take me about 20 to 25 hours a week. I think that is probably not atypical. What we are discovering in this type of process is it will probably take me more like 12 to 15 hours. That is a benefit for me, and for our New Thing Network we bring in church planters -- for them to be able to plug into that and say, “I can get a better message in less amount of time.” That actually empowers them to be able to do leadership development and other things that they have to do that are so challenging in those early stages of planting a church.

One more thing, for me -- maybe it’s just the way I’m wired -- I’m having a lot more fun.

Preaching: I wonder if some of the objections to this process are generational. Perhaps there are older pastors that grew up with the concept with the pastor studying privately in the office, developing the message, as opposed to a younger generation that is more open to the whole team concept.

Ferguson: It may be generational. I feel there is definitely the paradigm that people have going into preaching that it is something you do by yourself in your study with your commentaries, doing your own exegesis, that kind of stuff. It is also the paradigm you get when you come out of Bible college or seminary. I don’t know too many places that are really big proponents, who are saying: “Hey, you ought to be thinking about doing this.”

It does seem like there are a lot of places you can point them to now. Perhaps not that it is so much happening within a particular church, where there is collaboration like what we are doing. What you do see is a collaboration between many pastors of various churches that are getting together for study group, get together to work on a particular series, sharing, that kind of thing.

Preaching: You have built a team within your church doing this. How do you advise the solo pastor who is not part of a larger group or network? How can he or she find a way to create a team to be able to find help in this kind of process?

Ferguson: When it comes to the Big Idea, two things come to mind. One: whoever is the staff person or volunteer person who is responsible for what I call the other thirty minutes of the service -- you create a finish line that says: here is where I take where I am going with my sermon, and then you involve the worship leader or arts director in that process. Then I think you can create the experience of the one big idea. You can plan in advance, make that happen with that person. That is a beginning point.

Another thing is if you already have a pastor or two, I would try to organize my life around a second meeting. Who are some other people -- whether they are other pastors or some other spiritual mature people that I respect, that have some wisdom, that I can say, “How can I have breakfast with those people once a week, have lunch with them this week?” I can talk over this and get them to begin to give input in this. Eventually, even to switch with those pastors and begin to give different sections each and share in this. I think you will receive a lot of the benefits we have been talking about.

Preaching: As you try to frame the Big Idea, or phrase the sentence that is going to be the Big Idea for your message, what makes a good Big Idea?

Ferguson: Good question, I think we need to work harder on that. If you have one Big Idea that really calls people to a certain kind of change. It maybe goes back to is it something in your head, your heart, your hand. You have got to make them think differently, feel differently or do differently. So it is not just an idea but an idea that calls people to live something out, in our terms missionally.

Preaching: What do you enjoy most about preaching? What do you find to be the biggest challenge?

Ferguson: What I enjoy most about preaching? I probably teach from a leadership gift. For me, maybe that is why I became this big proponent of the Big Idea -- because I feel like it mobilizes people to actually live out what it means to be a follower of Jesus. So the part that I love about teaching is actually seeing people live life differently, the way Jesus wants us to. I don’t particularly get a buzz out of just the teaching part.

I know this guy, I got to baptize two weeks ago, I know his story -- he just came out of rehab, and he had overcome a cocaine addiction. He had a wife, a family, a great job, but he was on the verge of just screwing up the whole thing, just trashing the whole thing. What happened in the life of CCC and the Big Idea through the Holy Spirit helped made that possible for him to be like, “OK, now he has a chance again.” He has become a Christ follower. Those stories are what make it fun for me.

Challenges – I don’t like being by myself. I am more of an extrovert; I don’t like having to go off all by myself to study for long periods of time. When I am with other people I find it much more engaging. So, it will be interesting for other people to account for this process – is it more about the personality of our church or is there something to this kind of worship for everybody?

I would challenge preachers to trust and risk. Number one, in regards to your celebration service, you need to risk more with your arts people. I think that will so complement what you are trying to accomplish. In order to really have artists engaged and involve artists in what you are trying to do, real artists have to be allowed to take risks. Art by its nature is risk. I think as the preaching pastor, senior pastor, you need to empower your artists to let them take more risks.

The other challenge is trust. Trust a team of people to come up with what you are trying to do by yourself. If you will trust them, my experience has been you will actually get a better message for people and accomplish things more missionally.

Preaching: How involved are your arts people in the planning of the message itself, or are they purely involved in the other parts of the service?

Ferguson: We plan our Big Ideas a year in advance. That meeting is primarily driven by the teaching team, but we have our arts people in there and also adults, student and kids leaders in that meeting, so they have input from the very beginning. After we finish the Big Ideas, before we actually go to work on the manuscript, we develop what we call graphs -- about a half-page paragraph of where the Big Idea is going -- and those are given to the arts team. The arts team takes those and actually form everything else that is going to happen in the service before we ever write our message. So they know where we are headed based on that half page graph, but they have tremendous input that way.

They will also make suggestions like: have you thought about this clip, this as a prop, do you think about these kinds of things that will also complement what we are doing? There is a give and take about that. They are involved a great deal.

Preaching: Do the members of your church know that this process goes on?

Ferguson: I think so. I think for some it is a selling point for they will tell their friends, “You should see what we do. Not only do we get the same things, but our kids get the same thing in their classroom,” and they really enjoy this. I am not sure that is so much an added benefit, because we are really trying to reach the unchurched, non-Christian people. I don’t know if that is an added benefit for reaching that population. For invitations -- when people are inviting friends, for people who are looking for a new church home or relocating -- that becomes an added benefit for them.

I do think as far as spiritual formation it is a great benefit for people that don’t have any church background. If it an intact family, mom and dad show up and hear the teaching and go home and junior has already heard about this. They feel empowered that they have a heard a half hour and had a whole experience in this, and now they can engage in conversation with their child about it.