I preached an experimental sermon this past Sunday. And I got some amazing results. In fact, they were results that I never thought to anticipate.

Inspired by a book I had read (The Art of Curating Worship), a friend of mine who is a gifted leader of creative worship, and by a conversation with the staff member at our church who is responsible for crafting a new kind of worship service, I set out to experiment with a participatory sermon. I had my fair share of time to talk, but I involved the congregation in several ways.

The text was Mark 6:30–34, 53–56, the story of the disciples and Jesus responding to the needs of the crowds swarming around them. Inspired by another friend’s exploration of the Greek, I called attention to the different pronouns that Mark uses in the two halves of the reading. In fact, this was the first bit of participation; I had the congregation break into pairs and trios to compare verse 33 with verses 53-54. I hoped they would find that in the first part of the reading, the crowd notices them, that is, Jesus and the disciples. In the second half, the crowd only notices him, that is, Jesus. Then I had them revisit the text between the two parts of the reading to see what had changed. While the first half reports that the disciples had great results from their being sent out two by two, in the skipped portion of the reading Mark returns to his drumbeat of criticism: the disciples just don’t understand what Jesus is up to. In fact, in verse 52 Mark says that the disciples’ “hearts were hardened.”

Like the disciples, Jesus calls and sends us. Like the disciples, Jesus intends to carry on his work of compassion, care, feeding, justice and peace—through us. And, like the disciples, we too often don’t “get it.” Our hearts, too, are hardened.

“What is it that hardens your hearts?” I asked the congregation. “What is it that keeps you from participating in God’s ongoing work of loving and restoring the world?” I then sent the congregation back to their pairs and trios to talk about those questions. And I told them to boil their principal answer down to one word or a very short phrase and to write that word or phrase on sticky notes that I had supplied in the bulletins. When they were done I had them walk to the front and stick their reason to the cross. (The property board would not be happy had I asked them to nail them to the cross!) You see the result in the pictures. It was a moving and significant moment; as they stuck their notes to the cross several people whispered to me, “This is a great idea.”

This is the point at which I began to see the results that I didn’t think to expect: In the collage that appeared on the cross, I saw some patterns emerging. I decided on the spot to take the sticky notes home and compile the results. The word cloud here is a compilation of the 140 or so responses that the congregation gave.

(For those who are not familiar with word clouds, the point size of the words indicates the relative frequency of responses. The more responses, the bigger the word. In this case, the largest words represent about 20 people using the same word; the smallest words/phrases indicate single responses.)

Do be sure to click on the word cloud (above) to get the full-size version. It is arranged according to the patterns that I saw in the responses. There are two major hubs and a few lesser groups, somewhat connected to the others (or not).

On the left I saw a strong connection between busyness and selfishness. One person’s response crystalized the connection: “Busyness leads to self-absorption.”

On the right there is a significant cluster of responses that centers around doubt. This was most frequently stated as self-doubt, but as you can see, there were a lot of other responses that spin “doubt” out in several directions.

Perhaps I should move greed and laziness more toward selfishness. I not sure that they are the bridge between the two major parts of the cloud. I still wrestle with whether there is a connection between those two realms.

The other less frequently mentioned clusters were family/health issues and politics. (Note: I may have stirred up the political pot. In my introduction to their discussion in pairs/trios I gave my personal example: political cynicism. Had I not given that example, politics may not have come to mind as much as it did.)

One of the most significant implications of this exercise occurred to me while the people were sticking their notes to the cross. As I watched I saw words like mother and family life problems, and I thought, “The very things to which we are called to minister in Christ’s name are being seen as something that keeps us from being ministers in the world!” In a larger sense, this applies to the whole busyness realm. What is it that keeps us busy? I suspect that, in most cases, it is work and life and other things in which God wants to be present and active through us. And, one could argue, the same applies to much of the doubt side of the word cloud. Like the disciples, we just don’t understand that Jesus wants to be active in and through our everyday lives. Like one person said, we wind up doubting that we can make a difference.

I’m still processing this information. What do you see when you look at the word cloud? What did I miss? If you put together a word cloud with these responses, what patterns would you draw out?

[First published in July 2012 on a previous blog.]