Mark Batterson is lead pastor at National Community Church in Washington, D.C., a multi-site church plant that is targeting emerging generations. He is author of several books, and his latest is The Circle Maker: Praying Circles Around Your Biggest Dreams and Greatest Fears. He recently visited with Preaching editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: You are pastor of a young church. In fact, I understand that more than 70 percent of your attendees fit the category of 20-somethings living in and around Washington.
Batterson: Yeah, a very young congregation and many of them are Hill staffers; that would be our typical profile. Also a lot of interns who come through D.C. and some college students at our Georgetown location. Then a lot of 20-somethings who are just getting started in life and career, so it’s wonderful to be able to reach people at that age and stage.
Preaching: The last time you and I spoke, you were one church in three locations. I believe you have grown since then.
Batterson: Now one church with seven locations. Let’s just say we don’t get bored on the weekend!
Preaching: You’ve done some wonderful books—such as Wild Goose Chase and In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day—that have sparked some great preaching ideas for many pastors. Your newest book is called The Circle Maker. Where does that title come from?
Batterson: I love metaphors; I think they’re one key to preaching and writing. So I always look for an organizing metaphor at the beginning of a message—and of course, that’s the genius of the parables. Circle maker is a wonderful, true legend I found reading through the Talmud, and preachers are going to love this story.
In the first century B.C., there was a drought in Israel that threatened to destroy that generation. It’s the inter-testamental period; the prophets had died off 400 years prioer, miracles weren’t happening; but there was one man who was famous for praying for rain. His name was Honi the Circle Maker, and let me tell you how he got the name.
When the Israelites asked him to pray for rain, he did something curious. He used his staff and drew a circle in the sand, then he knelt in that circle and he prayed, “Sovereign Lord, I swear before Your great name that I will not leave this circle until You send rain.” And it began to sprinkle.
Now here’s the cool thing, Honi wasn’t satisfied. He said, “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for the rain that will fill pits and caverns and cisterns.” Then it starts raining so hard there is a flash flood and people have to flee up to the temple mount. So he’s still in his circle and again he says, “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for the rain of Your blessing and favor and graciousness.” And it starts to rain in perfect moderation.
Well, that’s prayer! The Sanhedrin threatened to excommunicate him because they thought it was too bold—as if you can’t draw a circle and demand something from God. Finally, some saner minds prevailed and Honi was ultimately honored for a prayer they said saved a generation.
So this is a book about drawing prayer circles, and the basic idea is: God honors bold prayers because bold prayers honor God. He loves it when we ask Him to do things we can’t possibly do ourselves. I believe that’s the way God gets the glory, and that is the story in a nutshell.
Preaching: Prayer is one of the key elements of Christian growth and maturity, yet it seems to be something so many Christians really don’t understand well. What would you hope would happen as a result of this book?
Batterson: When I read that legend, it gave me a new way to pray. Iit’s not a magic bullet; it’s not a magic formula. It’s not as if you can just circle something.
I’m doing this interview at Ebeneezer’s Coffeehouse. I have an office right above it, and prayer is the only reason we had the miracle of buying this property when four people were offering more money for it. We’ve built this coffeehouse, and every penny of profit goes to missions, 600 customers per day.
Just this amazing story and I’ll tell you exactly why it happened: because I prayed circles around this place for years. For five years, we circled this place in prayer, and there’s something powerful about just staking claim to the dreams God’s given us, to the promises God has given us.
So my hope is that it sort of reignites that desire to pray and gives people a little bit more faith to pray—in a sense that it gives them a new posture, a new method. Again, there is nothing magical about it; but there is something powerful about drawing circles. In the book, I talk about lots of ways to do that. It’s not just a physical circle around pieces of property, but I pray circles around my kids. I pray circles around the promises of God. I talk about the different ways I do that in the book.
Preaching: I know some of your other books have come out of preaching series that you’ve done. Did The Circle Maker come out of a sermon series?
Batterson: It did not. This is one where I told this story about two years ago in a sermon; and the second I did, I knew it was a book. So I kind of resisted the temptation. The book released in December; then in January, it’s going to be our New Year’s series. I think for churches, you have to do a series on prayer once a year anyway. So what we’ve decided to do is do it in January.
For what it’s worth, those preaching manuscripts are actually a part of the curriculum Zondervan will release simultaneously with the book. I’m not a big believer in taking other people’s sermons, so I’m very aware of that when I put some manuscripts out there; but I do think once or twice a year, it’s not a bad idea to sometimes take what someone else has done, put your fingerprint on it, and then do it better than they did it.
That curriculum includes a four-part DVD that we shot here in D.C.; I think people are going to really enjoy that. It’s got a participant guide. We’re also creating resources we’ll make available to churches for free—things such as a trailer people could show before each message. We’ll create place mats for our kid’s ministry with that circle on it. We incorporate other ministries within the church. You know: bookmarks, posters, you name it. We’re going to make those resources available at TheCircleMaker.com. We just want to make those free resources available to help churches that want to do this series.
Preaching: This book and the preaching series revolve around the topic of prayer. As a pastor and church planter, how do you see the role of prayer in the life of pastor?
Batterson: I think it’s the lifeblood. You know, there’s a difference between preaching a sermon and praying a sermon. My most effective sermons are when I don’t just preach them, but when I have time to pray through them before I preach, because then it’s as if my sermon becomes a prayer for the congregation and it’s received that way.
So I think one of the first responsibilities of any spiritual leader is you’ve got to get into prayer because that’s where you’re going to get the mind of Christ. That’s where you’re going to cultivate that sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. So now here’s the catch: I’ve never met any pastor who said he or she is praying too much or too effectively. All of us feel as if we fall short in that area. I think we’ve got to admit that up front.
Then we’ve got to cultivate prayer, just as you cultivate different skills. In sports, you learn how to pass a football or shoot a basketball. Those are things you practice. You’ve got to practice and cultivate them. I think prayer is one of those, and so my hope is the book gives a new prayer skill and helps churches cultivate and practice it corporately. I think the byproduct of that is pretty exciting, because you get people praying in one direction; that’s when miracles start to happen.
Preaching: On your blog, you had a recent post about your staff planning retreat—the play and pray retrea—you mention the importance of prayer in the whole planning process. You reference prayer storming. What is prayer storming?
Batterson: I like making up words, so I took that brainstorming idea and…brainstorming happens best in the context of prayer. I kind of like the idea of prayer storming. The basic idea is you’ve got to put a prayer parentheses around all of your plans.
We began our retreat with some great prayer time yesterday. It gets you on God’s wavelength so you’re kind of tuned in; that sixth sense of the Holy Spirit is cultivated, and then your plans aren’t just manufactured human ideas. They’re ideas that are inspired by God. So we actually strategized sermon series for the entire next year.
Now that sounds better than it is because about 70 percent of those end up making the cut. Some of them we say, “What were we thinking last year when we planned this?” So we pull the plug and slot something else in there, but we try to pray and plan those things in advance, which gives us time for creative elements and for small groups to be coordinated with those series. So that planning retreat is a key piece for our strategizing for the year, and prayer is right at the heart of it.
Preaching: That whole area of planning for sermon series is something that interests many pastors. Walk us through from the retreat to where the series actually takes place. What does the process look like as you move from idea to sermon series?
Batterson: It kicks off with this planning retreat where we pitch ideas and throw things at the wall and come up with a tentative game plan for the year. Then the week in and week out of our creative team meeting on Tuesday is where we go over run sheets. We have discussions around sermon series and big ideas and try to figure out what creative elements we’ve put in there. So there’s kind of a week-to-week touch point.
Let me say one thing that I think is going to really help a lot of people: Our media team never has things as far in advance as it would like. It’s just the nature of the beast. Here’s where we’ve kind of agreed to live in the tension between a preaching pastor and a teaching team and those who are providing those creative elements. About 50 percent of our sermons have great lead-time and advance time, weeks and in some cases months. Some of them are just going to be some audibles at the line of scrimmage where we’re not going to have a ton of time, and I’m not going to expect the same level of creativity. I think we’ve got to realize no one has a perfect machine to plan everything out way in advance, but I have to admit some of our best series are like that.
Last year, I felt as if our greatest need as a congregation was to get to know the character of God better. So we did a nine-part series called “The God Anthology.” We talked about character traits such as mercy, jealousy, love, grace, justice…Because we planned that out six months in advance, here’s what we did: Our worship leader came up with original songs for each of those character trait, and at the end of that series we recorded a live album called The God Anthology that released in November. Because we had that lead time, we had the time to pull off what was really cool because we were singing songs as a congregation for the first time, songs that were written by our leaders. So when you have that lead-time you can do some things that are really over the top in terms of creativity.
Preaching: How long is a typical series for you?
Batterson: I think attention span. Usually we try to do three to four weeks. For “The God Anthology”—we sometimes have a marquee series that could get to six or seven, or in that instance nine weeks—but more often than not we do three to four weeks.
Then we also have what we call “PBJ” weekends—peanut butter and jelly—when we don’t pull out all of the stops and go over the top with creativity, because every once and a while, we need a little breather. Every once in a while, our congregation needs a peanut butter and jelly sandwich so it can appreciate the creativity we bring week in and week out to some of our different series.
Preaching: Do you try to put one of those between two series?
Batterson: Yes, we try to buffer a couple of series, which gives us a week to take a deep breath, catch our breath and get ready to go into that next series.
Preaching: You mentioned earlier that you have a very young congregation. What are some of the things you’re learning that are particular challenges or opportunities in preaching to that young adult group?
Batterson: A couple of observations: One is we live in a city where political correctness is kind of the law of the land, and we’re flying in the face of that. We’re realizing this generation wants us to get in their faces with the truth of God’s Word and challenge them, so a lot of our series have been a little hard-hitting—challenging people to fully submit their lives to the lordship of Christ. Talking about tough truths in Scripture and then dealing with the baggage, issues and problems that people are dealing with…I just think you have to keep it real; you have to keep it raw, and that’s what this generation really responds to.
The other thing is that it’s a very cause-oriented generation, and I like that. I think we need to try to figure out what we need to do to mobilize that. That’s why social justice issues are a big deal to 20-somethings. So we try to find series that really mobilize people and activate them to be a part of the mission Christ has called us to.
Preaching: Putting on your church planter hat, you’ve learned a lot of things since you’ve first started. Is there something you wish you could go back and tell yourself as a rookie church planter that you’ve learned through the years?
Batterson: The three mantras of The Circle Maker are dream big, pray hard, and think long. That think long piece…I think the biggest thing church planters struggle with is that they want results now, and in some instances you need them because you have to get to a self-supporting place so you can put food on the table—you know, survival. However, I think we tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in a year or two, and we underestimate what God can accomplish in 10 years. So I think one big thing for me is I continually had to zoom out and think long.
There’s one other thing that ties us right back to where we started. One reason why I like that legend of the circle maker is that in 1996—when we were just starting out as a church of 19 people—I did a prayer circle around Capitol Hill, a 4.7-mile prayer walk.
Now we own Ebenezer’s Coffee House; we own a movie theater that we’re retrofitting as a 1930s movie house—it’s our seventh location; and we own an $8 million piece of property debt-free that we will build an urban campus on in a couple of years. Do you know that every piece of property is within that prayer circle? I walked right by it. I walked under that marquee of that theater.
So I think the longer I do this, the more I believe it’s not about what you can do; it’s about what God can do. To me, prayer is the difference between you fighting for God and God fighting for you. There are a lot of people in ministry who are fighting so hard for God. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but when you start praying, then God starts fighting for you. He goes in advance and starts paving the way for these miracles to happen. So let’s make sure we’re fighting for God, but let’s also make sure God is fighting for us as we cultivate a prayer life, as we pray hard and pray through.