I still remember my first sermon as a pastor. In a fit of homiletical hubris that every seminarian will recognize, I decided to impress my new congregation with my first sermon by unlocking the mysteries of the Minor Prophets. As I prepared that week, I became convinced that this could well be the most important sermon I would ever preach. If we were to grasp the holiness of God as presented by Hosea, our lives and our church would never be the same. I preached that message with passion and expectancy. But when I looked out over the congregation the next Sunday, we were pretty much the same crowd as the week before.
There isn't a preacher alive who isn't at once both energized and dismayed by the sermon's potential to effect change. Why aren't people more deeply transformed by their weekly encounters with God's Word? The deficiency can't be with the Scriptures, obviously. And most of us manage to communicate biblical truth with a measure of clarity, relevance, and conviction. So why don't we see more real, lasting change?
VIM, not just vigor
In his book Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard unpacks the dynamics of personal transformation. He begins by informing us that "we live from our heart." The heart, according to Scripture, is the control center of human personality. It's the deep, inner place where the mind, emotions, and will intersect, and where decisions are made. Our hearts have been malformed by our fallen world, and they need to be re-formed by the Spirit of God. This renovation of the heart, according to Willard, follows a predictable pattern involving vision, intention, and means—what he calls "VIM."
In the vision phase, we come to believe that a particular change is both possible and preferable. But desire alone isn't enough to produce that change. If it were, we'd all be fit, punctual, and debt-free! At some point we must decide—intend to actually get in shape, be on time, or live within our means. Having desired and decided to change, we finally need tools and practices, the means to get us to that new reality.
Any attempt to effect change that ignores one or more of these phases will fail. For example, many of us have dusty exercise equipment in our homes. We intended to get in shape, and obtained the means for doing so, but we have yet to embrace a vision compelling enough to follow through. Or consider those who dream of being professional singers but make fools of themselves on television. They have vision but lack the means—specifically singing lessons!
The same is true for preaching and spiritual formation. Some of us focus on visionary preaching, but fail to equip people with the means to achieve what is being described. Others focus their sermons on practical application. But without a compelling vision few people will actually implement the helpful wisdom we communicate. Transformative preaching requires planning so that vision, intention, and means all find expression. But this requires having a longer view.
A few years ago, we sensed the need to lead our congregation to a deeper understanding and experience of spiritual formation. In light of Willard's insights, and the depth of change we were seeking, we decided to devote an entire ministry year to the effort, and to apply the VIM template to our preaching and programming calendar.
We began in September with a vision series from the Beatitudes. The series was designed to paint a portrait of the kind of people we were capable of becoming in Christ—a picture so compelling that people wouldn't just "get it," they would "want it." Week by week we worked our way through the Beatitudes, offering descriptions of each quality, seeing how it was displayed in the life of Christ, and imagining what it might look like in our lives.