The North/West Lower Michigan Synod has applied for a grant from the Lilly Endowment’s Compelling Preaching Initiative. The grant would support the Synod’s “It’s about Jesus!” Program, which aims to make preaching in our congregations more “compelling” by making preaching more Christ-centered and increase our proclamation of Christ beyond our congregations by motivating and empowering our people to witness to Jesus for no other reason than Jesus is life-changing, world-shaping, good news.
“It’s about Jesus!” consists of annual preaching retreats focused on pastors and deacons and witnessing retreats focused on laypeople. The retreats are supplemented by goalsetting for both the pastor’s preaching and the congregation’s sharing the good news, coaching, bishop’s visits to congregations to discuss their experience of preaching and witnessing, and a designated colleague/partner with whom to collaborate.
A full narrative of the program is available below. The Lilly Endowment expects to make funding decisions in fall 2023.
In the meantime, the North/West Lower Michigan Synod is excited to announce the first of these retreats:
My Burden is Light Preaching Retreat: October 16-18, 2023
You Are Witnesses of These Things Retreat: September 17-18, 2023
“It’s about Jesus!” Proposal Narrative
North/West Lower Michigan Synod ELCA
The North/West Lower Michigan Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is establishing “It’s about Jesus!” – an initiative to (1) make preaching in our congregations more “compelling” by making preaching more Christ-centered and (2) increase our proclamation of Christ beyond our congregations by motivating and empowering our people to witness to Jesus for no other reason than Jesus is life-changing, world-shaping, good news.
We intend to make preaching in our congregations more Christ-centered and increase our people’s witness to Jesus beyond our congregations by strengthening our people’s relationship with Jesus and equipping them for proclamation, so that preachers choose to make proclaiming Christ crucified and risen the goal of every sermon and laypeople become eager to share the story of Jesus especially with people for whom it is new. By empowering both preacher and congregation to name Christ’s gracious presence in their midst and to share their experience with others in their lives, we are bold to believe the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen as the power and wisdom of God will be renewed in the church and move beyond the church to increase in the world.
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” The heart of “compelling preaching” is the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen as the power and wisdom of God. In Christ, God deliberately chooses to reveal God’s own self and exercise divine power to save, redeem and reconcile humanity and all creation, and to give abundant life. To “proclaim Christ crucified” is to facilitate God’s power to change all things for the better, upend the status quo, restore life and the world to what God intends, and transform death into new life.
Even when we are committed to preaching Christ crucified, we regularly give way to signs and human wisdom, letting go of the power and wisdom of God. We devote the sermon to subjects that seem more relevant, urgent, or important. We witness to the congregation or denomination rather than to Christ. We attempt to prove, coerce, convince, or persuade. We become enamored with “signs of success” and “wisdom” that will produce a desired result. The unanticipated consequence is that people—preachers, congregants, and especially people outside the church—lament that Jesus is absent from sermons, diminished in preaching, and tangential to the church’s life. Signs and wisdom might produce entertainment and understanding. Style and technology might increase our audience. Adapting these elements of preaching to meet our current context is beneficial, even necessary, and certainly worthy of consideration—after we address the heart of preaching that is truly compelling.
“We proclaim Christ crucified.” More than espousing a doctrine or formula to explain the significance of Christ crucified and risen in a theoretical or theological manner, compelling preaching proclaims “the now meaning,” the good news Jesus brings, in our hearts, that interprets or provides a perspective on Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection that is relevant and meaningful good news for the faith community, church, and world at a specific moment in time. This preaching is compelling because, through it, Jesus brings people from death to new life. People experience new life because this preaching participates in and facilitates an encounter with the risen Christ for preacher and assembly alike. People experience the real presence of Christ in, with, and under the words of the sermon spoken and heard. Compelling preaching leads the community to name Christ’s gracious presence in their midst and to share this experience with others beyond the gathered assembly. To accomplish these things, compelling preaching proclaims Christ as Savior before naming Jesus anything else. Aspiring preachers must be taught and current preachers reminded that Jesus’s death and resurrection is a mystery that can be explored, but never completely explained. Preachers must expand their proclamation of both how Jesus saves and everything Jesus saves us from.
While content, form, style, and delivery are all essential, the most important ingredient in compelling preaching is the preacher’s relationship to Jesus. This is equally true for Christians as they participate in sermons as listeners and share the story of Jesus with others, especially those for whom the story of Jesus is new. Connected to Jesus, committed to preaching Christ crucified and risen, and counseled by the Holy Spirit, preachers and proclaimers can experiment with other elements of preaching and witnessing, not as ends in themselves but as servants of the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen.
Compelling preaching has at its heart proclaiming Jesus Christ crucified and risen and witnessing to Jesus to share good news rather than to obtain or receive something in return. Contrary to human wisdom, which would have us direct or persuade, this preaching better inspires, encourages, and guides people to come to know and love God because this preaching and witnessing declares who God is and how God loves all people and all creation. Preaching that neither names nor defines God and preaching that moves quickly to naming how we are to act and respond both leave people to either create God in their own image or confine God to notions they agree with, cherish, or fear. Preaching that neither names or defines God leaves people yearning to know God better or more. With Philip, many people today request, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus answers us as Jesus answered Philip: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
Jesus reveals God. Paul calls Jesus “the image of the invisible God.” That Jesus reveals God is a prominent theme in John’s Gospel. John’s prologue declares, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Preaching to reveal the invisible God, the God made known in Jesus Christ, safeguards us from gods created in our own image by reminding us that those gods are not God. Aspiring preachers need to be taught and current preachers reminded not to confine themselves to a single or favorite portrait of Jesus but to take in and present the whole picture because preaching only a single portrait of Jesus distorts the image of God Jesus reveals.
To preach Christ crucified and risen is to interpret and preach from the Scriptures in a manner that proclaimed Christ rather than explaining the Bible as an end in itself. Jesus provided this interpretive key when he opened the apostles’ minds to understand the Scriptures and asserted that they attest that the Messiah is to suffer, on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be preached in his name to all nations. For Christians, the Bible is sacred, the norm of our faith and life, because the Bible proclaims Christ crucified and risen. For Christians, the event of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection is God’s most significant initiative and action in human history, to which the biblical events that precede it point and from which the biblical events that follow flow. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America therefore defines preaching as “the living and contemporary voice of one who interprets in all the Scriptures the things concerning Jesus Christ.” Both preachers and witnesses must be taught and reminded to proclaim Christ from the Scriptures rather than explain the Bible. They must be given tools to help them do this.
Proclaiming and witnessing to Christ is distinct from preaching to maintain or grow the church. Today, the only reason new and younger people will become part of the church is that they have received the story of Jesus and want to learn more about and perhaps follow him. Preaching that is appropriate and effective for reaching new and younger people clearly but humbly testifies to Jesus as Savior in meaningful ways and concretely names Jesus’s work in the world, specifically Jesus’s pursuit of justice and peace. If the church is included at all, preachers and witnesses identify how the church participates in and extends the ministry of Jesus in the world. Aspiring and current preachers must be taught to and supported in emphasizing Christ over church in preaching. They also need to be supported in leading the church to be a means of extending Jesus’s ministry and not an end in itself.
Experiencing the God made known in Jesus Christ, we are drawn to love God in our hearts, and express our love for God in the way we live in the world. In Lutheran parlance, through preaching God gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when the Holy Spirit wills, in those who receive the gospel.The faith the Holy Spirit produces is more than belief in the claim of the gospel or trust in the promise of the gospel. The faith the Holy Spirit produces is a relationship with God, the hope of salvation, and the font of our obedience. Thus, faith finds expression in love of God and neighbor. Through preaching and witnessing to Christ crucified and risen, the Holy Spirit produces faith and draws people to live out their Christian faith more fully. To facilitate the Spirit’s work, aspiring preachers must be taught and current preachers reminded to concretely name Christ’s life-giving activity in our world and invite their congregations to participate in it, rather than telling their congregations what they should, ought, or must do.
Preaching Christ crucified and risen can deliver us from division and more effectively reach and benefit increasingly diverse audiences both within and beyond congregations by proclaiming that Jesus makes us one by giving us a new identity we can embrace, a shared future we can live into, and power to do these things. Jesus unites us as God’s children: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Christ empowers us to strive to overcome division and celebrate diversity by claiming this identity for ourselves and regarding others, first and foremost, as God’s beloved children, redeemed by Jesus, and one with us in Christ. We regard no one from a human point of view. For “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” Aspiring preachers must be taught and current preachers reminded to address diversity by building on our unity and identity in Christ.
Preachers can then build appreciation of diversity as God’s gift on the foundation of our shared identity and unity in Jesus Christ and lead the faith community to wrestle with the challenges of becoming a more authentically diverse church and an agent of change in society. Preaching that names our identity in Christ can also effectively call attention to racial inequities and social disparities in communities and encourage hearers to engage in acts of love, healing, and justice in fractured times. Proclaiming Christ to all people coupled with seeking and serving Christ in every person leads to approaching, apprehending, and appreciating diversity as a gift from God. Preaching that includes diversity in form, style, and delivery both addresses more people and models diversity for the faith community. Aspirational preachers must be taught and current preachers reminded that their perspective, questions, convictions, and preferred form and style of preaching are not universal. Preachers must also be taught ways of making their preaching more inclusive and reflective of ethnic, cultural, gender, processing, ability, and other expressions of diversity.
“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I might become a partner in it.” As it always has, proclaiming Christ today requires multiple occasions, forms, styles, and venues. For churchgoers, the Sunday sermon is most important. For people who do not attend church, especially those for whom the story of Jesus is new, a one-to-one interaction and conversation is more effective. These historic forms are rightly supplemented by “epistles,” social media posts, videos, and podcasts. Both aspiring and current preachers need to develop proficiency in all these ways of proclaiming Christ and helped to use them consistently, strategically, and collaboratively. Preachers must also understand their responsibility to equip the saints to witness to Christ by modeling testimony in their sermons and empowering the congregation to witness by providing training and opportunity. In so doing, preaching inspires, models, and empowers hearers to become “proclaimers” themselves and to share the good news of Jesus with others.
Whatever forms, styles, occasions, and venues they employ to proclaim Christ, both preachers and Christians should be taught that their authority comes from their experience of Jesus and their role is to witness to Christ. Witnesses relate an experience of Jesus, connected to scripture, and share the good news that compels their testimony. Witnesses consider the particular people to whom they testify and what form, style, occasion, and venue will be most effective. They ask nothing more than that people receive what they share. While responding to the gospel, growing in faith, and living a Christian life may result, obtaining a particular response is not the goal. The goal is to share the story of Jesus because it is such life-changing, world-shaping, good news.
Both aspiring and current preachers, as well as Christians learning to witness to Jesus, must be taught and reminded to pursue, discover, and proclaim good news “like treasure hidden in a field.” When we find God’s good news, Jesus is never far away. Preparing sermons and testimonies is nothing less than “a pilgrimage, a journey of spiritual significance into the very presence of Jesus as Savior.” Once we determine the good news and can testify to an experience of Jesus, as well as the particular people with whom we desire to share it, we can determine the best or most effective form for getting the sermon heard or the testimony received. Preachers, but also those committed to witnessing to Jesus, should be helped to develop a quiver of forms from which they can select so that a particular message has the best chance of hitting its mark.
Compelling preaching, whether sermons by pastors or testimonies by laypeople, is best cultivated in a safe space where preachers and witnesses can dare to risk. Both preachers and witnesses are more interested in input before they preach or testify than in feedback afterward. It is also much easier to learn good habits than to unlearn bad habits. In preaching and witnessing, it is more fruitful to emphasize preparation than evaluation.
Compelling preaching is also best cultivated in collaboration. While sermons and testimonies might be presented by an individual, they are both best prepared as an ensemble rather than a solo act. One sphere of collaboration is between those who will present good news, preachers and witnesses. A second sphere is between those who present and those who receive the good news, pastors and congregations, or witnesses and people for whom the story of Jesus is new. A third sphere of collaboration is between those who preach and witness and those with expertise in this work – coaches, teachers, and scholars. Ideally, these experts are in conversation with and learning from those who receive sermons and testimonies.
Inasmuch as the most important ingredient in preaching and testifying is the preacher’s or witness’s relationship with Jesus Christ, compelling preaching is best cultivated by a bishop, teacher, coach, or peer who, in a non-judgmental manner, is genuinely concerned for preachers’ relationship with Jesus, provides resources and avenues for deepening this relationship, and supports preachers attending to this relationship as part of their vocation. It is especially important to enlist congregations to assist and support pastors in attending to the relationship of Jesus and providing them with concrete ways to do so.
“It’s about Jesus!” consists of (1) annual preaching retreats focused on pastors and deacons and witnessing retreats focused on laypeople. The retreats are supplemented by (2) goalsetting for both the pastor’s preaching and the congregation’s sharing the good news, (3) coaching, (4) bishop’s visits to congregations to discuss their experience of preaching and witnessing, and (5) a designated colleague/partner with whom to collaborate. The program design is drawn from Bishop Craig Alan Satterlee’s experience as a professor of homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and the University of Notre Dame, and as dean of the Doctor of Ministry in Preaching Program of the Association of Chicago Theological Schools. The program is designed to integrate this work with existing ministry to enhance what we are already doing as opposed to adding something new that may prove difficult to sustain.
We are aiming to have 40 congregations (one pastor or deacon and two laypeople per congregation) participate in the program. This goal is based on Bishop Satterlee’s experience recruiting participants in the Doctor of Ministry in Preaching Program of the Association of Chicago Theological Schools and would allow us to reach 40% of the congregations in our Synod. While we are first focusing on congregations in our Synod, there is the possibility of expanding the program to other Synods across the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in the future.
Retreats: The annual retreats are based on Bishop Craig Alan Satterlee’s books, My Burden is Light: Making Room for Jesus in Preaching and, coauthored with Chelsey Satterlee, You Are Witnesses of These Things: Sharing the Story of Jesus. The first book is a primer on preaching intended to give Jesus greater place in the sermon by giving Jesus greater place in the preacher. The second book is intended to make Christians comfortable, competent, and excited to share the story of Jesus for no reason other than it is such life-changing, world-shaping, good news.
From 2023-2028, the annual preaching retreats will address six topics. Each retreat will include a presenter with expertise on the topic and a chaplain who will lead worship, pray for and with participants, and provide spiritual care. As our “dress rehearsal,” the 2023 retreat is an overview of the book My Burden is Light. The questions, conversation, and feedback from this retreat will help to shape subsequent retreats. The 2024 retreat focuses on strengthening the preacher’s relationship with Jesus, choosing proclaiming Christ as the goal of every sermon, and expanding our understanding of how Jesus saves. The 2025 retreat emphasizes preaching Christ from the Scriptures and methods of exegesis. The 2026 retreat addresses forms, styles, and venues of proclamation. The 2027 retreat is concerned with the social (justice) dimensions of the gospel. In 2028, the retreat will undertake preaching Christ that leads the congregation to engage their neighborhood to meet Jesus in new ways.
The witnessing retreat will be repeated annually for six years in different regions of our territory. This retreat provides participants a method for developing their testimony, collaboration in preparing and crafting it, and a safe environment to share it aloud with others. More important, the retreat provides participants an opportunity to reflect on and name their experience of Jesus and to embrace sharing the story of Jesus as a gift of good news and not to secure a response. To accomplish this, participants will be helped to distinguish between sharing the gospel and recruiting for the church and given permission to share the gospel. The retreat is also a training event intended to help participants lead groups in their congregations. Each retreat will include a chaplain who will lead worship, pray for and with participants, and provide spiritual care.
Goalsetting: At the conclusion of each retreat, participants will be asked to set two SMART goals for the ensuing six months, one to strengthen their relationship with Jesus and the other to strengthen their proclamation of Jesus. Goals will be broadly aligned with the retreat theme or emphasis and will be supported using the resources from the retreat and coaching after the retreat. Preachers might undertake a spiritual practice to strengthen their relationship with Jesus. In preaching, they might intentionally increase the number of times Jesus is named in their sermons, undertake a new way of studying Scripture, use a new sermon form, or add a venue such as videos on YouTube to their preaching ministry. Witnesses might likewise take up a spiritual practice to enhance their relationship with Jesus. They might also intentionally record their experiences of Jesus or commit to testifying to Jesus a certain number of times. The goals must be things the participants can control and accomplish as opposed to desired results.
Coaching: Retreat participants will receive six monthly coaching sessions to help them accomplish their goals. Coaching sessions provide both assistance and accountability. Their purpose is to offer input and to provide feedback, both of which are distinct from overt evaluation. A consistent companion/guide is essential to a preacher’s growth and laypeople embracing their calling as witnesses to Jesus. Ideally, preaching coaches bring a level of expertise in preaching and witnessing coaches are familiar with the context. Bishop Satterlee expects to be able to draw on his network of teachers of preaching and pastors with advanced degrees for preaching coaches. Monthly coaching sessions will take place in cohorts using Zoom.
Congregation Visits: Bishop Satterlee will schedule a Sunday visit to congregations whose pastor participates in the annual preaching retreat. The purpose of this visit is for Bishop Satterlee to experience the preaching and to engage a group from the congregation to discuss preaching using methods that engage the sermon rather than critique the preacher. Pastor David Sprang, Director of Evangelical Mission, will hold Zoom gatherings with participants in the witnessing retreats for reflection on their experience and refinement of their testimonies.
Colleague/Partner: Retreat participants will be encouraged to identify a partner/colleague for prayer, to review sermons/testimonies as part of preparation, and to unpack and reflect on experiences. We know of instances in which partnerships that began in preaching class have sustained and enriched preaching for decades. We also appreciate the Jesus sent disciples to witness in pairs.
Stipends: We are asking pastors and deacons to participate in retreats, set and achieve goals, work with a partner, receive coaching, and review and report on their sermons. We are also hoping that pastors and deacons will support people from their congregations who participate in the witnessing retreat. To honor their work and provide incentive, we will award pastors and deacons who complete each year’s program a $500 stipend. The idea of providing a stipend for pastors and deacons is inspired by Bishop Satterlee’s experience as a seminary professor with the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning.
The North/West Lower Michigan Synod ELCA met in assembly (annual convention) under the theme, “It’s about Jesus!” May 7-9, 2023. Bishop Satterlee’s preaching was deliberately Christ centered and four laypeople shared their testimonies about Jesus. Attendees participated in table conversations about their favorite gospel story about Jesus, an experience of Jesus in their lives, and good news they would like others to know about Jesus. The overwhelmingly positive response to what was initially an uncomfortable idea convinces us that preaching and witnessing to Christ crucified and risen as life-changing, world-shaping, good news is the power and wisdom of God and the Spirit-led direction our Synod will take and the Church should take. We thank the Compelling Preaching Initiative for the call to prioritize, examine, and renew preaching for the sake of society and the world. We believe our program will produce compelling preaching in our Synod and provide a model for compelling preaching throughout the Church.
 See 1 Corinthians 1: 22-24.
 1 Corinthians 1: 22-24.
 Craig Alan Satterlee, My Burden is Light: Making Room for Jesus in Preaching (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2023), 51–52.
 Committee on Priestly Formation, Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly (Washington
DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1982), 10.
 John 14:8–9.
 Satterlee, My Burden is Light, 69.
 Colossians 1:15.
 John 1:18.
 Luke 24:45–47.
 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 9A.
 “The Augsburg Confession,” IV, The Book of Concord, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 40.
 Killian McDonnell, OSB, “A Trinitarian Theology of the Holy Spirit?” Theological Studies 46 (1985): 220.
 Satterlee, My Burden is Light, 111.
 Colossians 1:15.
 Galatians 3:28.
 2 Corinthians 5:16–19.
 1 Corinthians 9:22-23.
 Craig Alan Satterlee and Chelsey Satterlee, You Are Witnesses of These Things: Sharing the Story of Jesus (Dewitt, MI: Arborvitae Books, 2022).
 Matthew 13:44.
 Satterlee, My Burden is Light, 145.
 Satterlee, My Burden is Light, 146.
 Satterlee, My Burden is Light, 145.
 Luke 10:11.