The comment has been made, “Most preachers are like the peace and mercy of God. Like the peace of God, they are completely beyond your understanding and like the mercy of God, you are scared to death they are going to continue forever.”
Ask non-Christians how they feel about preaching and you may receive an answer that conveys something very similar to those sentiments. I’ll never forget the experience of participating with some young people in a community study. The question was asked, “What do you think of when you think of church?” The four biggest responses were, “God, Jesus, buildings, and boring.” To think for a moment that the “boring” was only a reference to the service, and not the sermon, would be the height of delusion.
In light of their already being “turned off” by negative experiences of the past, how do you “turn them on?” One thing we have going for us in American society is that, according to some surveys, 60% of Americans claim membership in some church, and 40% attend on a given Sunday. Although they attend, many do not know the Lord. They have never appropriated the meaning of Christ’s words on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and are therefore depending not on the sufficiency of His sacrifice but on their own good works as a basis for justification. What an opportunity to speak to those who have a reverence for God, but not a relationship with Him! How do you reach them when inherent in their mind is the idea that listening doesn’t do any good? How do you capture the attention of non-Christians?
Many things could be said but at least five things are worth accenting.
– Give yourself thirty seconds to get their attention, thirty minutes to keep it.
Non-Christians are not noted for their patience. They decide quickly whether or not you are worth listening to. Unless you capture their attention in the first thirty seconds of a message, they may begin to reminisce about the past week or plan for the next week instead of listening to you.
How does one capture their attention in thirty seconds? My friend and mentor, Haddon Robinson, has said it well. “Communication is saying the same thing in different words.” Suppose one is speaking on the subject of worry. It is dull to get up before non-Christians and say, “I’d like to talk about worry. We all have a problem with that, don’t we?” There is no doubt that statement is true but it’s not very attention-getting.
Suppose, though, you got up and said, “All of us have them. Some have more than others, but all of us have them. They have a way of plaguing us wherever we go and affecting just about everything we do. At times they make us move faster and other times they so grip us, they slow us down. Now that simple thing I’m referring to is that very serious thing called anxiety.” I assure you, as a non-Christian, you have captured my attention. I started wondering what in the world you were referring to and by the time you told me I was hooked.
Are you speaking on the issue of hardships and trials? One could start by saying something such as “The topic I want to speak to are those unpleasant experiences of life — the times when life seems so unfair and everything could not be going more wrong.”
That is not nearly as attention-getting as if one were to start with a true to life illustration such as, “If you read the article in your newspaper, you undoubtedly found it hard to forget because you are so keenly aware that what happened to her could happen to you. It told of a 39-year-old woman, the mother of three children, who was critically injured in an automobile accident. She was hospitalized in one city but had to be transferred to a more major hospital nearby when her kidneys failed to function. Tonight, that family stands in need of financial help. The individual who wrote the article made a most relevant and distressing statement when he said, ‘Here is a genuinely deserving family who, through no fault of their own, is under-going severe trial and stress that could come upon any of us.'”
Immediately your human interest story has captured me. In a period of less than thirty seconds, as a non-Christian, I’ve decided, “This is someone I want to listen to. I’m interested in what he has to say.”
Unless you put the “thirty second pressure” on yourself, you will take too long to get into the urgency of your topic. That delay becomes a distraction to the non-Christian.
At the same time, you have thirty minutes to keep it. That is for two reasons. One, non-Christians are not accustomed to sitting and listening to a sermon. Their attention span is relatively short. Two, it enhances directness. You strike them as someone who has something to say, you say it, and you sit down. Mark Twain is reported to have said, “Few sinners get saved after the first thirty minutes of a message.” Whether or not that can be proven, may be debated. One thing that cannot be argued, though, is the benefit of keeping a message for non-Christians within thirty minutes.
– Talk, don’t ramble.
As preachers, we don’t spend most of our time speaking to non-Christians. We spend it speaking to believers. At times that can haunt us instead of help us. Since we have such a relationship with them, as we step before them, we take comfort in the warmth of that relationship and talk about everything from the weather of the day to the forecast for tomorrow, the flu bug that hit our family to our visit with a lay person in the audience.
However, the non-Christian isn’t there, either mentally nor emotionally. He feels he could stay at home to get a weather forecast, the flu bug is something that concerns your family, not his, and he finds himself a bit “out of it” as you were talking about the lay person in the audience. To him, that person is only a name, and furthermore, he finds such a comment along with a request for prayer irrelevant to him. He’s probably tried prayer before only to discover that — in his opinion — it doesn’t work.
Proper directness in words, attitude, and opening remarks plays a huge part in capturing the attention of non-Christians. Being from a dairy farm background, I’ve often spoken to non-Christians from similar backgrounds with the opening remarks, “I’m delighted to be with you. Having been raised on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, I’ve always loved the wide-open spaces and it’s a delight to be with you here in this state of Illinois.” Then I immediately go into what I’m going to say. That way of talking, not rambling, gives them the perception that you have something to say and you’re about to say it to them.
– Use Illustrations.
Non-Christians don’t understand the Bible. The fact is, they feel it is boring. They do understand life. Therefore, to capture their attention, the use of illustrations is critical. What an illustration does is rather simple — it shows them how the Bible fits life. Jesus Christ was known as a master communicator. Isn’t it interesting how many times the Bible says about Him, “And He spoke a parable unto them?” Jesus Christ understood something very simple — people love stories.
That’s why early in my introduction I use a quote, a statistic, an incident from the daily newspaper or refer to a story in Time. I’m committed to being an expositor who explains the Scriptures, but I want them to know that I am not simply going to explain it in the context of that day, I’m also going to explain it in the context of ours.
If I want them to identify with the feeling of being overwhelmed by problems, early in my introduction I may refer to the story in Reader’s Digest of the man whose wife would hit him with the calamities of the day as he came home from work. One night he said to her, “Honey, before you hit me with everything that’s going wrong, could you at least let me sit down and enjoy a good night’s meal?” The next night, as soon as he walked in the door, his wife said, “Honey, hurry up and eat I have something terrible to tell you.”
Does that receive a laugh from them? Of course, but more important, it’s a story that captures their attention. As I begin, they think to themselves, “What story in Reader’s Digest!” (After all, they read that, too). “What’s it going to be about?” The bottom line is, I’ve captured their attention and gotten their interest.
– Speak from their side of the tracks.
Being an evangelistic speaker who captures the attention of non-Christians necessitates being an evangelistic person. Why? Because to capture their attention you must speak from their side of the tracks. You must demonstrate to them that you understand life not simply from your perspective but from theirs.
When we think of church, we think of a place of Christian fellowship, a place to see friends who are near and dear to us. They see it is a place that interrupts their sleep on Sunday morning, the one morning all week when it is hard to put mind over mattress. When we speak of prayer we see it as a chance to voice our concerns to God. They see it as that experience where they spoke to a brick wall or, at best, to an uncaring person who never answered. When we speak of home, we speak of a refuge from the pressures and problems at work. They identify with a sign at the restaurant that said, “I leave my problems at work. I have another complete set at home.”
You have no need to demonstrate that you are living on their side of the tracks. After all, you’re not. Even to come across in such a way would be the depth of deception. But you must communicate that you understand where they are, how they are thinking, and what they are saying. In short, they must feel like you’ve read their diary, talked to their friends, and lived in their home. Once they say to themselves, “You understand where I am,” they will listen to whatever you have to say.
– Use terminology they use.
To capture and keep the attention of non-Christians, you must use the language they use, not the language you use. For that reason, I don’t say, “The Word of God says …” I say, “The Bible says.” I don’t refer to a hymn. I refer to a song. I don’t mention the pew they are in, I mention the seat they are in. Instead of saying vestibule, I say entrance, and I refer to the auditorium, not the sanctuary. If I am addressing something from the book of Philippians, I don’t say “Paul’s book to the Philippians.” Instead, I refer to Paul’s letter to the people living in Philippi.
When I ask non-Christians, “Do you think you are going to heaven?” they often respond, “I think I stand a better chance than most people I know.” If I address the subject of the mistakes and failures in their past, if there is any brokenness about them, they say “I feel so dirty and rotten on the inside.”
Using language they use causes them to relate to you as a speaker because you are using the same terms they do. Along with speaking from their side of the tracks, saying it the way non-Christians say it is a significant help in communication.
Speaking to non-Christians is a challenge with eternal rewards. Through the awesome power of the tongue, God can use you to change a person’s eternal destiny. But unless one captures their attention, it’s unlikely He will capture their hearts.
Reaching and transforming them is something that only the Spirit of God can do. Jesus made it very clear, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). At the same time, He uses you as a human instrument to do it. Learning the value of these four simple principles may cause a non-Christian to say, “I didn’t think I’d enjoy this but I’m glad I came. I enjoyed what you had to say.” Before long, the one whose at-tention you’ve captured may be your brother or sister in the family of God.

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