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Equip #36 – Behind the Scenes: The Sermon Application Team

Written by College Park Church on


In this episode of Equip, Pastor of Leadership Development Brad Merchant talks with Lead Pastor Mark Vroegop about the team of people that helps develop sermon content on a weekly basis.

Brad Merchant:             All right, I’m Brad Merchant, one of the hosts of Equip podcast, podcast of College Park Church, here with Mark Vroegop.

Mark Vroegop:              Good to be with you, man.

Brad Merchant:             Lead pastor of College Park. How do people say your last name?

Mark Vroegop:              Oh, they butcher it. All the time. Yeah.

Brad Merchant:             Okay, what are some are renditions you’ve heard.

Mark Vroegop:              Broeygop. Bro-

Brad Merchant:             Broeygop?

Mark Vroegop:              Oh, yeah, because they think the V is a B when I say it at first, or so I’ve showed up, ordering pizza, we don’t even use our real name, we use alias. So I’m Bob. Early. Early is what I use. “Hi, Mr. Early.”

Brad Merchant:             That’s hilarious. Well, we’re here with Bob Early.

Mark Vroegop:              Bob Early.

Brad Merchant:             We’re talking about sermon application team. Okay, so Mark, what’s a sermon application team?

Mark Vroegop:              Sermon application team is really a neat convergence of both discipleship and sermon prep. It’s a gathering of people on Tuesday afternoons, about six or seven. Some staff, some lay. And we study the text together, talk about the previous week’s sermon, critiques and what went well, and then also study the next week’s text to try and figure out particular application points. And it’s just a great feedback loop that creates some really important conversations and helps me to know how to apply better in the life of the church. Yeah.

Brad Merchant:             So when did you start doing that?

Mark Vroegop:              I think it was 2015. So, I was on sabbatical in 2014, was at Capitol Hill Baptist Church for a pastor’s conference of sort, and I got to sit in on something that Mark Dever does, similar, where it was a sermon application team on a Saturday and then they do a sermon review on Sunday night. So I kind of converged those two things, combine them, so that we’re both reviewing the sermon and studying the text and coming up with application points. When I was in the meeting on that Saturday, I was like, “This is amazing. People are giving feedback.” And he’s also helping people know how to study the Bible, and to listen to sermons better. It was just a huge win.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah. So when you’re not copying my sermons on Sundays…

Mark Vroegop:              Once or twice.

Brad Merchant:             Is it hard to write sermons?

Mark Vroegop:              Is it hard to write sermons? Well, yeah. It is. It’s hard to write good sermons, I’ll say that.

Brad Merchant:             That’s a good point.

Mark Vroegop:              Yeah. There is, you know John MacArthur calls it the blessed bondage, which is something that you love at yet at the same time Sunday just comes no matter what else is going on in the course of the week. And sometimes a text unlocks fairly easily, or you’ve studied it before, and the other times it’s just like, just a full on wrestling match to try and figure out not only what it says, and then how to say it in a simplistic way so that it doesn’t fly over people’s heads, but has enough depth that it honors the significance of what’s there in the Scriptures.

Brad Merchant:             Now do you think most people, Sunday to Sunday, think that about sermons?

Mark Vroegop:              I don’t know. I don’t know what they think. I really don’t. I think some people, we live in such a podcast, internet age that it’s hard to be a B-rate preacher, because people can hear so many really good sermons. We’ve never, ever in the history of the church, have people had access to that level of content. So I think some people come in, they’re just like, “Yeah, I heard a lot better sermon last week from Tim Keller or John Piper, or Dever.”, you know, you name it. Then there’s other folks who, they’re coming at it from kind of a just a congregational perspective. They’re there just to really get some level of encouragement because of their really hard week that they had the previous week and then you got other folks who are coming because they just really love the study of the Word, they want to know who Jesus is.

Mark Vroegop:              So I think it’s, comes from a lot of different angles in terms of what people think about what’s a good sermon. I think if you asked people, like, “What makes a good sermon?”, man, it’d be really interesting to hear the variety of opinions that people have.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah. Now I’ve been on Sermon Application Team a couple of times. And what’s been interesting is how people come into that room, every week, and especially in the first couple of weeks, they’re not really sure what to expect.

Mark Vroegop:              Right.

Brad Merchant:             And they all have these ideologies about sermon writing. Even if they don’t know it. And then by the end, what they think.

Mark Vroegop:              Oh, yeah.

Brad Merchant:             It’s vastly different. Can you speak you to that a little bit? How have you seen people’s, their minds changing as they’ve been a part of this Sermon Application Team, about sermon writing and just the delivery of sermons and how hard it is.

Mark Vroegop:              Yeah, I think that people come in seeing the end product. And so in some cases, they may not know all that goes in to get to Sunday in terms of the thoughtfulness, the intentionality, and they assume that it’s there, but they may not know sometimes how hard it is because there’s sometimes they walk away from a Sermon Application Team meeting with a little bit of like, “Oh, man.” They show up on Sunday, like “I’m kind of nervous about how this is going to go.”

Brad Merchant:             Sure.

Mark Vroegop:              “Because the sermon application team discussion was kind of all over the place, there wasn’t a real clear outline, it was a good discussion, but not very clear.” I think if you were to ask folks who’ve been involved in the Sermon Application Team experience that they are, they understand in a deeper way, the level of intensity and pressure that begins on Tuesday. So like today, although I’m not having Sermon Application Team meeting right now, this month, but I’m starting to think about the text, and I’ve got nothing and by Sunday at 8 a.m., I’ve got to have something.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah.

Mark Vroegop:              And the level of intensity and pressure, and then also the importance of understanding what the text is saying, because sometimes people come and maybe they have this little bit of a perspective, it doesn’t really matter what the text says, you can just say anything and on Sermon Application Team, we help them ground their ideas in what does the passage actually say. And so getting to that level of specificity on what the text is actually saying is, I think it more challenging than what people realize. Because there’s different opinions, different nuances, how does biblical theology and systematic theology fit into all this? It’s a lot more complicated than what I think people realize.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah, that’s right. And then how do you apply that to so many different people,

Mark Vroegop:              Right.

Brad Merchant:             Can be the challenge to.

Mark Vroegop:              Especially as the church has grown, and in terms of diversity and varying backgrounds. I mean we are so not a mono-culture, mono-ethnic, mono-socioeconomic place at all.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah.

Mark Vroegop:              And that’s beautiful. But woo, that makes sermon applications, you have to really think that through.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah, that’s right. So, take our listeners into the room. What is it like to sit in on the Sermon Application Team from start to finish?

Mark Vroegop:              Yeah.

Brad Merchant:             What are some things that when you jump in, you sit down, what happens?

Mark Vroegop:              Yeah. Well, we generally meet at a place like a Panera, or someplace like that, just kind of a nice environment, plus we’ve found people hear our conversations, and it’s pretty cool, we’ve had some neat gospel witness opportunities, even had had people join the table. So that’s the venue, in a public space. We begin by critiquing last Sunday’s sermon. So we sit around a large table, and just say, “Okay, what did you think went well?”

Brad Merchant:             So they critique the preacher? And these are people, that are just going to church.

Mark Vroegop:              Going-to-church-folks who believe in the inerrancy of the Word of God, not the inerrancy of a sermon. And that’s a really important point to make. And that’s what I tell them at the beginning is like, “Look, first of all, you can’t offend me. I’ve had enough critiques in my lifetime, especially with this, that I’ve heard it all. Secondly, I know it wasn’t that good of a sermon. And third, I’m pretty self-aware of weaknesses and I thrive on feedback.” And so I try and set them at ease, so they start with what they, what they feel like went well and then go around again and just, “What do you feel like could have been better?”

Mark Vroegop:              And I tell them every time, “Every sermon could have always been better in some way.” And they get one pass, like one week to say, “I don’t have anything.” After that, they don’t get it. Because people are just too nice, and I appreciate the spirit of not wanting to be sinfully critical, but constructive criticism is exceptionally helpful, really growing and an edifying thing, and the problem is I think most Christians are not familiar with how to receive and give godly criticism.

Brad Merchant:             Sure. For sure. So give, I’m sure our listeners are curious, some critiques you’ve gotten, over the years, that come to mind, from Sermon Application Team.

Mark Vroegop:              Yeah. So sometimes a common one would be that I’m maybe too concerned about the actual wording that I’ve written and so I’m too glued to the specificity of what something needs to be said, they’d rather have me just kind of talk in a more conversational way. Another one is just, I’m an intense communicator, so the need to be sure there’s a personalness that’s connected, so the importance of a personal illustration, or just to be sure that I’m smiling, so that people know I’m intense about-

Brad Merchant:             I’m happy.

Mark Vroegop:              -Yeah. I’m intense about the text, I’m enjoying this moment, I’m not angry.

Brad Merchant:             Sure.

Mark Vroegop:              And then also just missed applications, from, I don’t think like a single person. I’ve been married 25 years, there was a very, very short season of singleness, so I don’t think like that. I don’t think like a non-male, white evangelical guy with a Dutch heritage.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah.

Mark Vroegop:              And so with all of that, I got to think how to apply the text in a different way. I don’t think how to apply the text very well to the various needs of our women, and so we often have women who are part of the Sermon Application Team just to give feedback on how to apply the text in those areas. And then too, invariably too, they’ll say, “Look, you’re just, you’re moving so fast. You’ve got so much that you want to say. Slowing down would be a little helpful.” So those would be some. Sometimes folks will tell me something that I’ve said that I thought was funny, or other people thought was funny, they didn’t think was funny.

Brad Merchant:             Well, I think it shows a level of humility that you have to even have a team like this and to, I think so much as a preacher you have to cut off that tie to your identity as the pulpit and I think you just express a lot of humility even having a team like that, receiving critiques, and there’s a lot things that we could say that I’m sure people share every week of good things that have gone in the sermons. So, grateful for that.

Mark Vroegop:              Yeah, they do. And some of it’s a desire just to be sure that you’re honoring what’s being said in the text and the other is to just to realize that sermons aren’t, they’re not perfect. They’re not inspired, and it’s been a rich, rich experience to have people who can speak in to what they felt like went well and what didn’t.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah, that’s wonderful. So you start with critique, what went well, what didn’t.

Mark Vroegop:              Yeah.

Brad Merchant:             And then what?

Mark Vroegop:              So then we move into the next text for the coming up Sunday, and so we just kind of lay out on an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper, pre-printed copy of the actual text and then we give them about five to six minutes just to circle important words, get the flow, the feel of the passage. Looking for general observations. And so we’ll give them five to six minutes to do that. And then we go around the circle just saying, “What do you see in the text?” So someone says, “I see that the word ‘but’ is here, and so that’s a turning point from this sentence.” Or a question that comes up, “Hey, what’s the deal with this thing that’s happening here?”

Mark Vroegop:              So a couple weeks ago, the text ended when it said, “Jesus was teaching this in the synagogue.” So, why does John put that in at the end? Why is that there? Those are all really important questions, just to kind of get our heads around what’s going in the text and what do we see.

Brad Merchant:             Yep. So, and here’s what’s amazing about that. Anyone could do that.

Mark Vroegop:              Oh, absolutely.

Brad Merchant:             Right? Anyone could do that.

Mark Vroegop:              Right.

Brad Merchant:             And actually what I’ve heard, again and again, is someone who goes to the Sermon Application Team, comes out and says, “I actually read my Bible better now.”

Mark Vroegop:              That’s absolutely right, yeah. And frankly, they’re more aware of why those of us who give our lives to study the text, why we love it so much, because we get to see things.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah.

Mark Vroegop:              And then also the value of community, because you’re hearing things from people around that table, you’re just like, “I would have never thought of that.”

Brad Merchant:             Yeah. Yeah.

Mark Vroegop:              And there’s also an opportunity for someone to say something, and you’re like, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure, brother, that’s not what the text is saying.” And so that’s where it’s an opportunity to have received critique to kind of gently help people know that our opinions of what the Bible says aren’t ultimate, that it has to be beholden to what the text is actually trying to say.

Brad Merchant:             Sure. So we have observation time, then what?

Mark Vroegop:              Then we move to outline. And this, I think would be one of the most difficult moments, but also the one we see the most growth in. The other piece would just giving criticism is hard for people to feel like they can do that.

Mark Vroegop:              So the developing of the outline, and by that we mean a homiletically outline or a teaching outline, to take the data that we’ve just talked through, and what kind of pegs can we give to hang the sermon on, and it’s just remarkable the first couple of weeks, people, I mean, they’ll generally give really bad outlines. They’re either really long, really complicated, and by the end, like I think just a couple weeks ago, I used somebody else’s outline that they came up with in the-

Brad Merchant:             So hold on. In your sermon, on a Sunday, at the church, you used-

Mark Vroegop:              100%.

Brad Merchant:             -someone else’s outline.

Mark Vroegop:              100%. Yeah.

Brad Merchant:             That’s amazing.

Mark Vroegop:              Yeah. And it’s fun for them, they’re like sitting next to their spouse, and they’re like-

Brad Merchant:             “I did that!”

Mark Vroegop:              “That’s actually my outline.” You know? And so it’s a cool thing. Or someone shares their outline and it helps to make the outline that I thought I was going to come with, I was going to use, makes it even better.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah.

Mark Vroegop:              So we do the outline, and then we go to application, where we’re taking that outline or the thoughts that we’ve come up with and we just kind of either have a general discussion about how would this be applied? Think about maybe in a couple of different groups, how’s this applied to a believer? How would this be applied to a non-believer. How would this be applied to a maybe, a back-slidden, or a disobedient believer? Or how about someone who’s a skeptic?

Mark Vroegop:              Or maybe we’ll take people of varying positions of life, be they marital status or somebody who’s grieving, how do we apply that to them? Someone who got a promotion this week, how would we apply the text? Just to think through maybe seven, eight, nine different angles that we could apply the text in their lives.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah. Well, this team’s amazing.

Mark Vroegop:              It is.

Brad Merchant:             And I’ve, like I’ve said, been able to be a part of it, and every time it’s just been so impactful. Maybe as we close our conversation, advice to listeners on listening to sermons. Because that’s a art, and I would wonder what advice would you have as a preacher to lay people, how they could listen to sermon’s better?

Mark Vroegop:              Number one is to be present. To be present physically, you can’t listen to the sermon if you’re not in the room. And I don’t think you could listen to a sermon the same way if you’re not in the room when the sermon’s actually being delivered, so with the beautiful thing of technology and podcasts and live stream, like all that’s a blessing at one level, but nothing like being in the room. So present physically, present emotionally and mentally, just of all the distractions. Like whatever way that you can listen well, be sure that you’re doing that. So folks, it’s taking active notes. Be sure that understand a third, kind of the flow, kind of follow the logic of the preacher. And for some communicators that easier than others.

Brad Merchant:             Sure.

Mark Vroegop:              You can kind of see their outline. And then additionally to be receiving the applications, even if those applications maybe are, would be tangentially applied to you. So if you’re speaking to singles, and you’re a married person, well, there’s still things that could apply to your life, and so not distancing yourself from the applications. Then also I think just having a charitable spirit. One person said, “The mature are easily edified.” And I’ve found that the most godly people can be blessed and helped by pretty much any kind of sermon, even if they’re not great sermons. And by that I mean rhetorically great.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah.

Mark Vroegop:              As long as they’re textually accurate, you can be blessed and helped. And so just have a posture of, it’s going to be easier to bless me than not. As opposed to a person who’s got a red button in front of them, they’re just waiting to hit the X.

Brad Merchant:             Sure.

Mark Vroegop:              Like, no, you’re not moving on to the next round. Have a posture of, “I’m here to receive because I’m in need.”

Brad Merchant:             Yeah, that’s wonderful. Thanks for the conversation.

Mark Vroegop:              Man, thank you. It was great to talk about sermons. Sermons, beautiful.

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