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Mark Labberton on Micah Groups and God’s Broken Heart

Mark Labberton teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary and directs its Ogilvie Institute of Preaching. He wrote The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice and The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor. In this edited conversation, he talks about why preachers are forming and joining Micah Groups.

Mark Labberton teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary and directs its Ogilvie Institute of Preaching. He wrote The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice and The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor. In this edited conversation, he talks about why preachers are forming and joining Micah Groups.

How do preachers find or join a Micah Group?

Preachers often volunteer to be co-facilitators. These two facilitators have to be different from each other in at least two of four ways—gender; denomination; culture or ethnicity; and church type, such as size, location, or socioeconomics. Then they recruit about ten preachers living within an hour of each other. Once they start looking at their networks, preachers often discover that they are siloed by race or denomination.

The goal is to be more mixed, to go across lines to form a Micah Group with people you wouldn’t normally talk with. The reason is that we’re trying to cultivate biblical wisdom. So much of what passes for wisdom is really our sociology. But what if you can’t make so many cultural assumptions?  Micah Groups purposefully attempt to share God’s broken heart for the world, to develop empowered wise congregations, and to stimulate sacrifice.

How do you define biblical wisdom?

Biblical wisdom is God’s character and truth lived in context. When those align, you have wisdom. If one or more is missing, then you have the makings of folly. Job’s friends had a sense of God’s truth and character but were completely disassociated from the context of Job’s crisis. To live God’s character and truth is to believe and act on it with love and justice. Wise pastors lead others to join God’s mission in the world.

And how do you define justice and God’s mission in the world?

Justice is a characteristic of God. It is the reordering of all forms of power, in light of the character of God. Justice enables communion to flourish, while injustice abuses power and undermines that potential. So often we hear the word justice and get intensely fearful. We fear it means abandoning Christ and the Trinity and ‘becoming political.’ You have to back people down from that fear. Justice is about deepening your understanding of how God reorders power—internally, in church life, and in public life. Seeking justice can be dangerous, but it’s because Jesus rules within inverted love. To use power like God means we need to lay down our prerogative of power for those on the margins.

God’s mission in the world is the early evidence of the kingdom reign of God. The Body of Christ finds its mission in the Word of God. Jesus, the living Word, transforms the world through the preaching of the written word. When God’s wisdom, centered on Jesus Christ, is proclaimed and lived in acts of love and justice, the world is changed.

So will joining a Micah Group help someone to preach better sermons?

A Micah Group is more about preacher formation than sermon formation. It’s the convergence of worship, preaching, and justice. Sermons matter, but the preachers who prepare and deliver the sermons matter more.

What in your life prompted that conviction?

Growing up, I wondered how much of Christian faith was just context. I became a Christian after entering college. During seminary, I went to Urbana and heard John Stott preach. I appreciated his preaching but I was much more interested in who he was. It struck me in the New Testament that so much of ministry was who they were, not their gifts. I wanted to know how John Stott was formed. Later, I became his study assistant. John went to an elite boarding school and could so easily have lived the life of an erudite aristocrat. And yet his heart had become fully engaged by the needy, poor, and marginalized of the world. That was so striking to me.

I discovered why John was culturally open, not culturally locked. He genuinely saw himself as being taught by other people. In the end, it was really about his yielding to a Philippians 2 life of self-emptying. I got to know his Christian friends. They were all extremely thoughtful, bright, articulate and involved in evangelical Anglicanism. Yet they had not made the same change of having their hearts broken toward God and the things of God in the world.

How will you know if Micah Groups are working?

We’ll know if the church in the world starts acting more out of the truth and character of God, lived in context. It’s costly to be wise. It leads to, in Paul’s language, the cross. The residue will be new ideas, a fresh sense of preaching from encouraging each other. Something will have happened in the preachers’ hearts, minds, and souls, and that will show up in their preaching. People will come to share in God’s passion for justice.

What have you heard so far from preachers who are already in a group?

We get regular feedback like, “I had never put all these pieces together” or “I’d never been able to hold together spirit and action, Godward orientation and humanward orientation” or “I’ve never had the opportunity to specifically think about my vocation.” The changes are related to developing relationships with people unlike themselves.

Each meeting has a core essay, Bible study, video clips, and prayer. We’re constantly revising the curriculum from feedback of people in the groups. People have been commenting on how it’s affecting preaching and the vision of their congregations. We hope the groups will continue after their two-year curriculum ends.

See sample schedules and curriculum from a Micah Group opening retreat and meeting. Watch Mark Labberton’s 2012 Worship Symposium presentation, “The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice.” And read about a new partnership between the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Calvin Theological Seminary's Center for Excellence in Preaching and the Ogilvie Institute of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary that will work to encourage better preaching in pulpits across a wide variety of denominational settings and locales and is being funded by a three-year, $1 million grant from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment Inc.