Ed Stetzer is President of LifeWay Research and a popular author and speaker dealing with issues relating to the church today. In a recent interview with Preaching Editor Michael Duduit, Ed talked about his latest book, Lost and Found (B&H), as well as about the research he conducted for an article that appeared in the November-December issue of Preaching.
Preaching: Your book Lost and Found is about reaching the younger un-churched. That’s a challenge with which many churches are struggling as more and more young folks are walking out the doors instead of coming in the doors. In your research, what did you find as reasons why young adults are un-churched?
Stetzer: A lot of it has to do with their perception of the church. One of the things we found frequently was that they actually had agreements with beliefs that we would think would matter. For example, the younger un-churched—those who are 20-29 years old who haven’t gone to church, synagogue or a mosque for anything other than a holiday or a funeral in six months—81 percent of them say they believe in God, a higher or that a supreme being actually exists. That’s actually higher than the older un-churched, the 30-plus. So they believe in God at a higher level than the older un-churched—81 percent, I mean, that’s overwhelming.
Among the younger un-churched, 57 percent agreed somewhat or strongly with the statement: “There exists only one God, the God described in the Bible.” So, there’s a high level of spiritual openness, interest, even beliefs; but they tend to see the church as, well, full of hypocrites. They tend to see the church as not helpful to their own spiritual growth and development. So, I think they’re open [but] it’s the church they’re not as open to.
Preaching: As you explore all of this, what are some of the things that you’ve counseled church leaders to do to try to reach out to that group of younger un-churched?
Stetzer: One thing is they don’t necessarily need to get a goatee or a soul patch, sort of get themselves some thick-rimmed glasses and start using hip terms that are probably 10 years behind the culture.
Preaching: One of those T-shirts with lots of curly-cues.
Stetzer: Exactly. Everyone’s got the T-shirts now. You know, I’ve just kind of given up on being cool. I gave up on being cool in high school, though; so that probably would be a long time.
Some automatically assume the way to do this is to adopt the newest trends. I’m not sure trends are what we need. I think ultimately what we need to do as we show the love of Christ is to understand and engage culture, not necessarily ape everything in that culture.
We actually looked at churches with vibrant ministries to young adults, and one of the things they had was cross-generational connection. I was talking to a pastor recently—Troy Gramling from Flamingo Road Church in Florida—and he asked me, “What are you doing to invest in the next generation?” This was last year, and I was 42 at the time. I thought, “What do you mean? I AM the next generation.”
There comes a point—I mean I’m 42—I should be investing in 20-year-olds. I think people our age need to be asking the question, “How can I build those cross-generational relationships? Those are more important than getting yourself a soul patch and one of those cool T-shirts.
Preaching: Specifically from the preaching side, what are some things that pastors and church leaders should be aware of as they seek to preach to and reach younger adults?
Stetzer: One of the things we found is the desire for depth—many pastors are finding this.
Of course, there’s always the desire for depth. There’s sometimes this passion for minutiae in many Christians, and I often think that’s a healthy and an unhealthy thing. They love knowledge but not transformation, and we see those kinds of knowledge junkies in the church. I’m not talking about that kind of thing. Because you can fill up their minds with everything—every obscure reference of Scripture—and they won’t be changed by the gospel.
I think for young, un-churched and younger churched, they want something more than the sitcom-like approach to preaching and Christianity. It’s all this, “Five Ways to Have a Happy Life” and “Three Ways to Raise Obedient Pets” —there’s no mystery, there’s no depth to it. One of the things we found, among the younger un-churched and churched, is a desire for something deeper. That’s a good thing from my perspective.
I was talking to Craig Groeschel (pastor of LifeChurch.tv) about this for a podcast I did with him. I said, “What do you see? What’s the shift?” A lot of people would say that’s a church reaching a lot of seekers, a term a lot of churches have used; they probably don’t define themselves as seeker-this or seeker-that. One of the things he said is that in reaching the younger un-churched—and their church does a great job with it—that they’ve gone deeper, so we see that theme.
There are two movements that have kind of captured the attention of a lot of younger adults in the church: the new reformed movement and the emerging church. Regardless of what you thing about either, both are movements that have a desire to go deeper into theological principals. Some of us might say some of the paths that one of those groups has gone—or maybe you think both those groups have gone—are problematic for some people theologically. I get that, and I share those concerns; but what I would say is that it shows the yearning for more than the light teaching of the modern evangelical machine.
Now there are some exceptions. We all can think of the exceptions—we see them on TV all the time—but for churched and un-churched, they want to know something more, that God is about more than we can understand in that one simple message, “Five Ways to Have a Happy Life.”
Preaching: That’s the caricature that some older, traditional evangelical pastors have of the young pastors: that what they’re doing is Christianity-lite, topical preaching and so on. Yet what I’m finding as I talk to many of these younger pastors is the opposite. They are intensely biblical; whereas many traditional churches are doing a 20- or 25-minute expository sermon, these guys are doing 40, 45 minutes and more in intensive exposition of Scripture. So, it seems to me the trend seems to be moving not toward exposition in the traditional, classic sense that we have thought about it in recent years, but very much in terms of taking the Word of God, opening it up and applying it to people’s lives.
Stetzer: Robert Webber, who died recently, offered some helpful categories. You used one of them: traditional evangelicals. In my denomination, that’s probably the leadership right now and in many seminaries. For them, as far as preaching goes, that’s going to be much more of a working through the text, verse-by-verse, bring in a lot of linguistic tools. That sort of thing.
Following that, Webber talks about the pragmatic evangelicals. Think in terms of the WillowBack world, my own little made-up word. The idea is that it’s much more practical; some might use the word felt-need preaching; but what we’ve seen is that even many of the churches that became known for that don’t do that anymore or do that to a lesser degree.
Webber talks about this emerging generation that he calls the younger evangelicals. Well, I don’t know if we can use that term forever because they’re not always going to be that young; but there’s a desire to do preaching that is more text-engaging. I preached in November for a pastor friend of mine, Mark Driscoll; and I’m thinking, “I’ve got to bring an hour of in-depth biblical text.” I don’t preach an hour. When I preach, I’m a 40-minute preacher; but this church, one of the fastest growing churches in America, is led by a pastor who preaches every week for an hour, working through the text.
So I think it’s a misnomer to say that emerging generations are not seriously wanting to engage in the Scripture. I find the opposite. My friends—these young pastors with whom I work with—they’re very much engaged in it, and to the point where I’m looking at it and saying, “Man, I’ve got to step up for an hour to bring that.”
Preaching: You wrote an article for the last issue of Preaching called “Sermons that Stick.” Of course, that title relates to a book I think both of us really like, called Made to Stick.
Stetzer: Great book.
Preaching: What do you see as things that will help sermons stick?
Stetzer: Well, we did a research project, of course in partnership with Preaching magazine, and what we did was actually two projects. First, we surveyed a thousand Protestant pastors to ask about their preaching practices. How do you open a sermon? How long do you preach? What do you do with the text? Do you start with the context or the text? So, we wanted to find a way to report that.
In the second part, we actually downloaded 450 sermons from the two leading, audio sermon resources on a two-week period; so we’d get a random sampling from that set. We listened to them. We actually had a team listen to the sermons to report on what they did. Then we asked pastors what they thought they did.
What we wanted to do was report fairly the data but do so through an article that brought some advocacy for engaging preaching. So, I wrote about the four things preachers need to do. They need to enter their [congregation’s] world, open the book, pull back the curtain and call [listeners] to respond. Then for three of those four, we brought data about how pastors did that in their preaching. For example, we asked: “Do you start with the text or the context?” About 37 percent said they prefer to start their sermons with their listener’s context by addressing issues such as the current question or a decision their listeners are facing. We found preachers in their 40s and 50s more likely to do that. Younger preachers actually were less likely to do that.
Preaching: I sometimes get the sense that many preachers think they have one preaching style, and in reality they don’t. They really are doing some different things than they think they’re doing. Did you find that to be the case in your own research?
Stetzer: It’s interesting—in this specific study I was referencing, 37 percent said they prefer to start their sermons with the listener’s context. So the rest are going to not have said that. The reality is that as we listen to them, more than half (52 percent) of the preachers actually started their sermon with the context.
Now, I’m one who believes we want to bring people to the text; but I’m not one who believes we need to get up and say, “No donuts. No coffee. Just the Bible. Come and get it.” I want to start with the text, but I want to introduce it with the context. So I think many people who start with the text like I do, I’m going to preach the Bible, not my own ideas with the Bible used as spiritual footnotes, but I still start with: “Here’s why this matters.” I don’t have to make the Bible relevant, it already is; but I need to help people understand why this is relevant to them today.
I think for some, they say they start with the text; but really they’re starting with the context and then immediately bringing people to the text of Scripture. So they report that differently.
I think a lot of preachers also probably think they preach shorter than they actually preach!
Preaching: As you’ve done research on preaching and preachers, is there anything that surprised you—something that was other than what you really expected?
Stetzer: One of the things on this one that surprised me was when we studied the 450 audio sermons. I think there’s a perception that everybody is projecting their messages on screens now, so in that study we listened for that. Preachers asked listeners to turn in their Bibles to the primary text they were preaching from in 37 percent of the 450 sermons. For the other verses, they asked them to turn in the Bible about 15 percent of the time.
Actually, only 6 percent refer to biblical passages displayed on the screen for the audience to read. I expected that to be higher, but I think actually more than a third, almost four in 10, actually are asking people to turn in their Bibles to such and such a text. PowerPoint’s wonderful, and those projection systems are wonderful to a point; but I still think it’s interesting that many of us have projection screens [while many pastors] have people open their Bibles and say, “Let’s work through it.”
Preaching: Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, said technology never ignites a revolution. Sometimes it contributes and helps move things along, but it’s never the igniting factor. I think some churches are putting overly high expectations on technology as a resource.
Stetzer: I’ve found as I speak at conferences and preach at churches, I actually find myself using PowerPoint less. I think there’s sort of an expectation that I would because you’ve got to send your PowerPoint ahead of time. No, I joke, I’m just going to read the Bible and yell. I think sometimes those tools are helpful; but in our churches, we often turn tools into rules. Then you must do something; it becomes expected and mundane and loses part of its purpose and use.
Preaching: One of the things the Heath’s talk about in Made to Stick—one principle that makes ideas sticky—is the use of story. As you look at preaching, what do you think about the importance of the use of story in today’s environment?
Stetzer: I think it’s a big deal. I think a lot of preachers who were trained in more traditional exegetical approaches are missing that frequently. As a matter of fact, in the first book I wrote I talked about the need for narrative exposition, for us to be able to preach narrative but also through a stack narrative.
When you think of a stack narrative, you watch a TV show, such as “Lost,” and there are four or five narratives kind of woven throughout that stretch. That’s called a stack narrative. I think ultimately we need a stackpole, and that’s the Scriptural narrative; 70 percent of Scripture is narrative, depending on how you count. We need to preach that, but I think we can weave in other stories in a way that enables people to engage.
I think a lot of people, when they hear preaching stories, they think of getting up and telling “once upon a time” and then throwing in a few Bible verses; but I think people can preach in narrative ways that engage the narrative of Scripture and do so with stack narratives that help people make that application. I think it’s a very effective way in an emerging, postmodern context. I think more and more churches are finding that and seeking to do that.
I know of one church that right now is going to take two years going through the Book of Luke just telling the story. A church where I’ll be preaching locally is going through the Gospel of John and finding creative ways to tell the story. So, we’re seeing a shift in some ways from the epistles to the gospels. Maybe we were preaching too much epistles. I want to make sure we’re preaching the full counsel of the Word of God, and not through only the Old Testament, because there’s so much in all of that. We evangelicals; we like the didactic nature of Romans.
I just did a series at my church called Zag. When the world zigs, in the kingdom of God we zag. I just walked through the kingdom parables of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. That is harder for me to preach than “What then is the use of the law in
Preaching: I have a friend who, though he has long since passed retirement age, is pastoring a church with lots of young adults. What he’s finding out is the thing they respond to the most is telling the Bible stories, because they don’t know them.
Stetzer: There’s truth to that. I grew up un-churched, so for me coming to Christ…I went to a few classes to go through basic rituals in the church I grew up with. I knew nothing. For people like me—an increasing number of people, particularly among the younger un-churched—telling the story of the Scripture is key.
I would say one of the dangers is using the term “stories” because how is “story” different than Aesop’s Fables or something of that sort? But I like the idea of telling the narrative, telling the narrative of Scripture and asking people to join in the narrative of Scripture. If we want them to create a new worldview, worldviews are shaped by stories. All worldviews have stories that undergird them, and we need to tell them the narrative of Scripture so they might build a biblical worldview that includes propositional truth and the truth expressed in the narrative of Scripture.
Preaching: Ed, you’re involved in so many different projects, including research, writing and speaking. Out of all the things you’re learning, if you had to give preachers one word of counsel, what would it be?
Stetzer: That’s a great question, and I will tell you I have a bad answer. The answer is when I’m with different groups of people I bring a different message. There are churches, and they love the Lord, and they’re preaching the Gospel, and they understand the Gospel; but what they’ve not done is engage culture. Some of those are in my own denomination. So, when I’m speaking to my own denomination, often I’m telling them to engage the culture in context.
Then I go to other settings, and I’m speaking where they get the cultural engagement. They’re excited and passionate about it, but I don’t hear them talking about the gospel. I talk about a rediscovery of the gospel. So, if you come with me when I’m preaching at a denominational meeting compared to when I’m preaching at a young gathering of urban, hip whatever, I have a very different message because I think they need a very different nudging.
I straddle these worlds in a weird way. I’ll talk to probably 10 different denominations in the next year. and I’ll just be different depending on where I am. When I’m with the contemporary church crowd, I’ll tell them, “Don’t forget the gospel, and stay true to the Scriptures,” but when I’m with the traditional church crowd, I’ll tell them, “Don’t forget the culture and engage the context.”