“If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.” (Woodrow Wilson)
“He did not say anything to them without using a parable.” (Mark 4:34)
“God, please use my voice box to communicate the words You want me to say today. Use me to creatively connect the life-changing message of Jesus Christ to every heart and every life here. And it’s in His name that I pray, amen.”
I pray a prayer like that every weekend. Whether I whisper it privately in the green room before I speak or publicly in corporate prayer, I never, ever forget that I am speaking for God.
What an awesome privilege it is to speak on behalf of God! Take a moment to reflect upon that amazing responsibility. Teachers and preachers in the local church are called to pass on the timeless truths of Scripture to the people God has entrusted to our care. It doesn’t matter if you are a children’s pastor, a youth pastor, or a senior pastor, we all share in this high honor. I told a group of senior pastors recently that 75 percent of their weekly schedule should revolve around the preparation and delivery of their weekend message. The other stuff is important, but nothing is as important as preaching and teaching God’s truth to the hundreds and thousands who sit at our feet week in and week out.
Because preaching is such a high honor and responsibility, I have committed most of my ministry to improving in this art and science and would like to share some methods from my own teaching ministry that hopefully can help you in yours. Some of the best insights I’ve gleaned have come from other creative speakers, whether through interacting with them at our annual creative church conference or through learning from some close friends in the ministry. You can learn what to do and what not to do by studying others.
Notice I said to study others, not copy them. The most important principle for effective communication is to let you be you. Don’t imitate another speaker. You can learn some tips and techniques from others but be the unique person God has made you to be. Just be yourself and improve on the personality and skills that God has given you.
Ineffective speakers are counterfeit communicators who seem to transform from their usual demeanor into a foreign, phony version of themselves when they hit the stage. Remember that we are called to preach with our words and also with the lifestyle we lead. There has to be a connection between who we are every day and who we are on stage – a theme that runs throughout this discussion on principles to add creativity and vitality to your teaching ministry.
Whenever you speak, especially as a Christian communicator, you must address two fundamental questions: (1) What does the listener need to know and (2) what does the listener need to do? In other words, before you speak, ask: What am I going to say and how should the listener apply it? It’s the old “so what?” principle. That’s thinking big.
The “so what?” principle is all about application. 72 percent of Christ’s words were words of application. If our preaching is not patterned on the greatest and most creative Communicator, something is wrong. Most of us struggle to communicate; we include too much content and too little application. When people leave the auditorium or sanctuary, they should not be saying, “So what?” or “Big deal!” They should be saying, “Wow, I get it! I need to make some changes in my life.”
You are not teaching a seminary class with a focus on imparting information from a syllabus. The goal of preaching is life change. Preaching is an incredible challenge that requires sensitivity to the Bible and sensitivity to our culture. The Bible is already relevant. But you have to ensure that your message highlights and underscores that relevancy. Fill your message with points of application that are organized and communicated with the greatest potential impact possible, so that your congregation will be compelled to conform to the powerful truths found in Scripture.
To help prepare such messages, I use something called a mind or message map. If you are visually oriented like I am, I would encourage you to try it. I first learned about mind mapping from author Michael Gelb’s Mind Mapping: How to Liberate Your Natural Genius. I have modified Gelb’s method over the years, but I still develop what I call a mind map, which is the entire sermon on one legal size sheet of paper, front and back, in clockwise order starting at the top.
I used to painstakingly handwrite, color-code, and illustrate my mind maps. But now we use a computer to develop them. I still do quite a bit of color-coding and add handwritten notes to aid in memorization; however, the format has changed quite a bit from my earlier versions. About four years ago, someone on my staff developed a template in Microsoft Word to create this document electronically. I have heard that there is also mind-mapping software out there if you’re interested in that. We have also made my mind maps for various message series available on CreativePastors.com when a “pastor’s kit” is purchased.
The idea behind the mind map is that organizing your outline or word-for-word manuscript in a clockwise rotation aids in memory retention. Because of the way the mind stores and associates words and images, the map helps you quickly identify the big idea and major transitional phrases, illustrations, and sub points that flow from that big idea. The mind map has served as a very helpful visual cue to remind me of what the talk is all about, to aid in memorization (though I memorize only major elements and key phrases that I need to remember word for word), and to keep everything connected to that one big idea.
Sweat the Small Stuff
Often, the most important and powerful ingredients of an effective talk are tacked on at the very end of your preparation time, and the overall message suffers as a result. Those ingredients – titles, terms, intros and conclusions, transitions, and illustrations – deserve more time and energy.
Sweat Your Titles. Titles should be tantalizing and build interest for your message before you speak one word. It’s just like fishing: if you want to catch a big bass, you have got to have a lure that turns the bass’s head.
It’s easy to come up with seminary-friendly titles like, “Sanctification and Social Ethics,” or “Unrealized Eschatology in a Postmodern World.” You may love these titles, but they are not very audience-friendly. To most people in your church, it sounds like you are from another planet. It is vitally important that everyone in your audience can connect with your title.
What does an effective title look like? You’ll have to make that determination based on your communication style and your particular audience. Here are a few series titles that have worked well at Fellowship Church. I believe these titles have helped to bridge the gap between the ancient complexities of the Bible and the contemporary world of our audience.
• God Online (worship)
• Know Fear (fear)
• The Ulti-Mate (dating/spouse selection)
• Sinetics (sin/temptation)
• Parent Map (parenting)
• Got Stress? (stress/anxiety)
• Tri-God (the Trinity)
• You Got Game? (church vision/ministry involvement)
• The Perfect Storm (navigating the crises of life)
• Everything You Need to Know about Life Is in Your Fishbowl (relationships)
• Just Lust (lust/sexual temptation and addiction)
I’m not saying these titles are the best out there or that you need to compare your titles to ours. I’ve seen many churches and pastors come up with better stuff than this. And you can too, if you take time to sweat the titles.
The speakers at our church exhaust themselves trying to come up with titles that both creatively and accurately describe the main point of the message. It takes a lot of work to take a complex subject and make it concise as well as compelling. Anyone can spout theological jargon, but the road from a complex subject to a simple title is filled with obstacles. And those obstacles must be navigated successfully if you are going to improve as a communicator. The greatest communicators know how to take the complexities of the Bible and make them simple.
Define Complex Terms. Making the complex simple goes way beyond the creation of the title. If you are going to really connect with today’s audience, you must take time to define complex terms in your message in easy-to-grasp language. Not simplistic, but simple; there is a difference. Being simplistic is condescending to your audience and communicating in a way that is naive and disconnected from real life. Simple is respecting your audience enough to explain in easy- to-understand terms exactly what it is they need to know and need to do. It is loving them enough to make sure they get it.
You don’t need to talk to them like children, but you do need to think long and hard about how your language and terminology is connecting with the real world of the listener. That may mean finding other, more contemporary, ways to communicate heavy theological terms. And if you need to use those theological terms, explain and define them. Many seminarians don’t fully understand what sanctification or salvation means, so how can the average church audience (especially those from an unchurched background) be expected to grasp terms like that?
Remember: if you cannot explain something in a simple way, you don’t really understand it. It’s easy for us to talk over people’s heads by using theological jargon or by speaking “Christianese,” but then we’re not explaining ideas in simple terms that meet people where they are. On the other hand, when we communicate biblical principles in clear, relevant language, powerful communication occurs.
Concentrate on Bookends. The bookends are the introduction and conclusion. The introduction, in my opinion, is the most important aspect of the message. In the first ninety seconds of your talk, people are attentive and curious, but you must give them a compelling reason to continue the journey with you for the next 25 to 30 minutes.
One Sunday after the service, my wife and I flew to Tulsa and then drove about three hours to a place in Missouri. As we drove to Missouri, we paid close attention to the road signs. We need road signs in strange cities because they tell us how to get where we are going. I have heard too many messages that feature an attractive speaking voice, funny stories, and dramatic illustrations but lack clear direction. The listener is stranded out the middle of unknown territory without any road signs.
The introduction is the first crucial step in providing that much-needed direction to your listeners, who are wondering: Where is this speaker going to take me? You have just a few minutes to impart that the destination is worth the ride. If they find the first leg of the journey unappealing or irrelevant, you have lost them for the duration.
That doesn’t mean that you have to give your entire outline during the introduction. It’s OK to keep them wondering what’s coming next or to build tension in the sermon. In fact, I recommend a lot of tension. You just need to give them enough direction to get them to the next sign. Every road sign leads to the next and gives hints as to the final destination. Effective communicators reveal the final destination at the end, building a case from the beginning as to why listeners should pay attention. You’ve got to give them a reason to listen, even if it is just to relieve the tension that you’ve built along the way. A good introduction can hook the audience and allow you to reel them in little by little until you have reached the final conclusion.
Everything you say in the introduction must be purposeful and related to your big idea. Don’t walk behind your Plexiglas pulpit or lectern, turn, and say, “Thank you, choir. That reminds me of a joke. You know Roy Clark one time said . . .” if Roy Clark doesn’t have anything to do with your big idea. Everything you communicate from the moment you stand up must contribute to the big idea.
With that in mind, I submit that pastors should never speak until it is time for the message. You might say, “Well, Ed, my church has fifty people.” Others might respond, “You don’t understand, Ed, I am the best guy to do it.” I still believe the speaker should not utter a word until the message is at hand. Instead of stretching yourself too thin and taking away from the impact of your message, try an alternative. Train others for those roles that require leadership from the stage – for pastoral prayers, for Scripture reading, for the welcome, for announcements, for leading music, and for anything else that takes place during the weekend service.
If you are trying to do all of that and still give a powerful, relevant, creative message, you are not only setting yourself up for burnout but also taking away from the impact of the message. Give the ball of ministry to others and you’ll develop competent stage leaders and ensure that the impact of those first few crucial words of your introduction will not be muted.
Let me also suggest that you use a variety of approaches in your introductions. I know how easy and safe it is to come out week after week and use the same format for your messages. You tell a funny story, introduce the big idea, transition to your three main points and conclude with a summary and restatement of the big idea. That’s not a bad approach, but it’s also very predictable. If you’re going to keep your audience guessing, if you’re going to keep the connectivity high, you must keep the predictability low.
I’d like to offer a play-by-play description of a recent series I did, not to say that my ideas are the benchmark but to illustrate the randomness and variety that can be achieved in introductory remarks throughout a series of talks. A recent six-week series on the lordship of Christ was called “Thread: Reconnecting the Disconnected Fabric of Our Lives.” For the first weekend, which was Easter, we introduced the message with a video of a tailor making a special suit coat for me to wear on Easter. I came out wearing that coat (which is a departure from my normally casual attire) and talked about the fact that our culture is into fashion – a reality that is especially true in the Dallas area.
Then, as I was talking about our passion for fashion, I took off my jacket, grabbed a pair of scissors, and began to cut up the suit coat. The audience had no idea why I was doing that. Later, I revealed the reason – our lives are torn and fragmented and we need God’s tailor-made coat, Jesus Christ, to make us whole again.
The next week I came out and asked the question: Where are you? and tied that into God’s question to Adam and Eve when they first sinned. This led to the fact that we all hide from Christ from time to time and hide Him from others.
The third week I talked about our affinity for mirrors in the introduction; we all love to look in the mirror. That reflected the truth that we are to be mirror images of God, because that is why He created us in the first place.
The fourth week in the series was my personal favorite. I began the sermon sitting on the bandstand, singing the classic pop song by Gemini, “Feelings, whoa-oh-oh, feelings . . .” After I sang the song, I didn’t explain why I sang it. People didn’t know whether to laugh or to take me seriously, as if I were really singing a special number. After the song, I just stood up, as if this performance was perfectly normal, and started reading the story about Jesus’ encounter with a prostitute in John 4. I went from singing “Feelings” to Jesus talking to a prostitute about worshiping God in “spirit and in truth.”
What’s that got to do with feelings? Well, I brought the talk around to the misconceptions that many have about worship. We cannot focus on the spirit to the exclusion of the truth (that’s overemotionalism). And, conversely, when we focus only on the truth and ignore the spirit, we step over the line into legalism. Spirit and truth are interconnected and interdependent.
The fifth week, in a message on the names of God, I began by describing a common scenario where you see someone you recognize at a party, but can’t remember their name. And to your horror, they come over to you as you are chatting with a group of friends. “You have two choices during the awkward moment when this person is expecting to be introduced to your friends,” I told the audience. “One, hope they take the initiative and introduce themselves first, or two, tell them the truth – you are an idiot and can’t remember their name.”
This led to the idea that God introduces Himself to us in the Bible with various names that describe His relationship with us. I won’t go into each name here, but the names of God correspond with a way in which He provides for us, protects us, saves us, and leads us. Later in the message I said, “You may be able to introduce God – sure, you know what His name is – but can He introduce you? Does He know you as a friend?”
Finally, in the concluding session of this series, I did something I’ve never done before. I came out on stage totally drenched. I had just been dunked backstage and came out drying my sopping wet hair with a beach towel. Water was dripping on stage as I began to recount several events in the New Testament. I told of John 1:29 where John the Baptist sees Jesus in the distance and shouts, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” I talked about the day of Pentecost when three thousand people became believers. I mentioned Philip’s encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch and how this man came to faith. And then I talked about Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10 and the spreading of the gospel to the Gentiles.
I ran through all of this very quickly in the introduction, and then I said: “What do these things have in common: Starbucks coffee, a jet ski, a catfish, a lily pad, a rose, and a Christian? The answer is, for each of them to realize their full potential, you have to “just add water.”
And then I went back to each of these biblical stories and added the fact that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, 3,000 were baptized at Pentecost, the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized, and the Gentile believers were baptized. That led to a message on the significance and symbolism of baptism in the life of every Christ follower.
Something else we’ve found very effective is to occasionally give something to each person in the audience as an illustration prior to or during the introduction. I did a series several years ago called “Juicy Fruit;” on the fruit of the Spirit, in which we gave a piece of Juicy Fruit gum to every person in the audience. Then I said, “One, two, three, take out the gum and chew. Feel that burst of Juicy Fruit flavor? Doesn’t this taste good? But you know what? I have timed it. In three minutes the flavor will dissipate and begin to taste like Styrofoam.”
Later, I compared food that loses its flavor to the Spirit’s fruit: “The flavor of the food we are talking about from the Bible does not dissipate. It keeps getting juicer and juicer and juicer. Every time you put gum in your mouth, think about producing the fruit, the character qualities, mentioned in Galatians.”
Those are just some of the ways that can create variety in introducing your message each week. Variety is essential to keep your audience guessing and your creative juices going.
The other bookend, of course, is the conclusion. When people leave the auditorium, I want them to have a final thought to take home – a thought that pulls together everything I’ve talked about in the message from the introduction on. In effect, the conclusion is what the entire talk would be if you delivered it in two minutes or fewer (which is what the length of concluding remarks should be). As one of my former seminary professors said, “Land the plane already!” Anything longer and you’ll start preaching the whole thing over again.
Don’t underestimate the importance of your conclusion. I believe one of the reasons why the Beatles songs are still so popular is because every one of them has a definite conclusion. You never have to wonder when the song is over, unlike many songs these days that just kind of fade out. I learned this principle while studying musical theory at Florida State University and have never forgotten it. Too many preachers’ messages just fade out instead of concluding powerfully.
Highlight and Memorize Transitions. A third ingredient that is often overlooked in the preaching process is the effective use of transitions. Consider highlighting and memorizing transitions, because these pivotal segues are critical to retain the interest of your audience and clarity of your message. Not only do they smooth out the flow of your talk, but they also provide important verbal clues in your mind as you move from one major point to another. Be sure you critique yourself rigorously on these transitions. If you are going to memorize anything word for word, transitions are the best way to invest this time.
Transitional statements are some of the most important, yet most neglected elements in speaking. Without them, you are lost in a jumble of disjointed facts, illustrations, and points – and so is your audience. These transitional statements (indicated on my mind map with the initials T.S.) bring unity, cohesion, and integrity to your talk. Especially important are transitions from your introduction to the body of your talk as well as from any major illustration to its corresponding application. If you don’t transition well, your listeners are spending so much time trying to figure out what one part of your talk has to do with another that they miss half of your message. Transitions help your listener stay cued into the organization of your message.
Don’t ever assume the connective fiber of your talk is obvious or understood. It may be understood in your own mind, but transitional statements help the audience understand the direction in which you want them to go.
Personal and Biblical Illustrations Are Best. While most speakers know the importance of timely illustrations, few consistently offer personal and biblical illustrations, which is unfortunate. Why? Because personal and biblical illustrations are always the best way to give an abstract truth a concrete home in everyday life.
I have nothing against illustrations and anecdotes from books, but I have not found those as effective as using stories from my own life or those of biblical characters. I love to hear speakers talk about their lives, so why would I expect my audience to be any different?
When we allow the audience into our lives to discover that we aren’t perfect, we connect more deeply and identify more significantly with them. An important warning here is to emphasize our weaknesses more than our strengths when we use personal illustrations. In other words, don’t make yourself the hero of all your stories. Talk about your bad days as well as your good, showing how you have submitted to God in circumstances and have been blessed because of it. In other words, whether you’re talking about good times or bad, God is always the hero of the story. His strength, not ours, is the catalyst for change.
As far as biblical illustrations go, you know as well as I do that the Bible is rich with stories that perfectly communicate the love, mercy, and grace of God. God could have had the biblical authors pen a heavy doctrinal dissertation on His historical interaction with humankind, but He didn’t. He had them write the stories of their lives and God’s faithfulness in spite of their failures. God knew that we would connect in a deeper way with stories, so He used them to communicate His great love for us. We should follow His lead when we teach and preach.
One of my favorite biblical illustrations to contemporize is the David and Goliath story. In one message I said that if a modern-day sports announcer from ESPN had been on the scene when David fought Goliath, it might have sounded like this: “Welcome to the Valley of Elah arena for this afternoon’s World Heavyweight Biblical Championship. In this corner, fighting out of the Hebrew camp, standing five feet three and weighing 138 pounds, he is a shepherd, a poet, a musician . . . the Hebrew hillbilly, David! His opponent from Gath stands over nine feet tall, weighs 438 pounds, and has an undefeated record of seventy-two victories – all by decapitation. He is the heavyweight champion of the world: Goliath! Let’s get ready to rumble! Sports fans, it is going to be a short bout because Goliath has a four-foot advantage.”
I do this to entertain the audience for a few minutes but also to, as Tony Evans says, take the listener and put him in the sandals of the biblical characters.
In another message, I talked about the time when Samson torched the foxes’ tails and they burned up the grain fields of a Philistine homemaker. I told people to put themselves in the sandals of the Philistine homemaker. Let’s say she is doing her dishes when she looks out her window and sees 300 foxes with their tails on fire, burning up her field. Suddenly, they can relate to that.
Use the creativity God has given you to bring those legendary stories of the Bible to your contemporary audience. And then stand back and watch God work in the hearts and lives of your people as they identify in personal ways with great men and women of faith.
So sweat the small stuff. Obviously, your main points are important and you’ve got to have the meat of your message down pat. But don’t neglect these crucial ingredients that bring the whole meal together in the best presentation possible: the titles, terms, introduction and conclusion, transitions, and personal and biblical illustrations.
Know Your Audience. Other pastors often ask me if Fellowship is “one of those seeker-sensitive churches.” The short answer is yes and no. Here’s the long answer. I do not buy into a seeker-targeted approach in the popular meaning of that term. Our weekend services are not designed for the unchurched seeker or the veteran saint. They are designed with everyone in mind.
I am seeker-sensitive or seeker-targeted in that I believe everyone is a seeker. We all want answers to the complexities of life. And when you proclaim the Word of God in comprehensible language with contemporary illustrations and applications, the truth will feed everyone. You can plan services each and every week that simultaneously serve the seeker and build the believer. Any given service may be weighted in one direction or another, but they should all have meaning for everyone in your church.
From Creative Leadership by Ed Young, Jr., published by Broadman & Holman. Copyright © 2006 by Ed Young, Jr. Used by permission.
Ed Young, Jr., is Senior Pastor of Fellowship Church in Grapevine, TX.