Be tactful with those who are not Christians….Talk to them agreeably and with a flavor of wit, and try to fit your answers to the needs of each one.
(Colossians 4:5-6)
Speak only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
(Ephesians 4:29)
When I started Saddleback, I had about ten years of sermons stockpiled from my previous ministry as an evangelist. I could have coasted the first few years, doing little sermon preparation, by using messages I’d already written. But once I surveyed the unchurched in my community I quickly dropped that idea.
When I discovered that the greatest complaint of the unchurched in my area was “boring, irrelevant sermons,” I decided I’d better seriously reexamine my preaching. I reviewed ten years’ worth of sermons asking one question: Would this message make sense to a totally unchurched person?
It didn’t matter if I liked the message or not. Neither was it enough for a sermon to be doctrinally correct and homiletically sound. If I was going to start a church by attracting hard-core pagans, it would have to be a message to which they could relate. I ended up throwing out every sermon I’d written in the previous ten years, except two.
Starting over from scratch, I had to develop a whole new set of preaching skills.
Adapt Your Style to Your Audience
The style of preaching that I use in our seeker service is very different than the style I use to teach believers. The style of communication that most church members are used to is counterproductive in reaching most of the unchurched.
When preaching to believers I like to teach through books of the Bible, verse-by-verse. In fact, at one point in Saddleback’s growth, I took two and a half years teaching verse-by-verse through Romans at our believers’ service. Verse-by-verse, or book, exposition builds up the body of Christ. It works great when you’re speaking to believers who accept the authority of God’s Word and are motivated to learn the Scriptures. But what about unbelievers who are not yet motivated to study Scripture? I don’t believe verse-by-verse teaching through the books of the Bible is the most effective way to evangelize the unchurched. Instead, you must start on common ground, just as Paul did with his pagan audience at the Areopagus in Athens. Instead of beginning with an Old Testament text, he quoted one of their own poets to get their attention and establish common ground.
Our English word communication comes from the Latin word communis, which means “common.” You can’t communicate with people until you find something you have in common with them. With the unchurched, you will not establish common ground by saying, “Let’s open our Bibles to Isaiah, chapter 14, as we continue in our study of this wonderful book.”
The ground we have in common with unbelievers is not the Bible, but our common needs, hurts, and interests as human beings. You cannot start with a text, expecting the unchurched to be fascinated by it. You must first capture their attention, and then move them to the truth of God’s Word. By starting with a topic that interests the unchurched and then showing what the Bible says about it, you can grab their attention, disarm prejudices, and create an interest in the Bible that wasn’t there before.
Each week I begin with a need, hurt, or interest and then move to what God has to say about it in His Word. Rather than concentrating on a single passage, I will use many verses from many passages that speak to the topic. I call this type of preaching “verse-with-verse” exposition, or topical exposition. (In seminary, verse-with-verse topical exposition is called systematic theology!)
I honestly don’t think God cares at all whether you teach the Bible book by book or topic by topic, as long as you teach the Bible. He doesn’t care whether you start with the text and move to applying it to people’s needs, or start with people’s needs and move to the text.
Today, “preaching to felt needs” is scorned and criticized in some circles as a cheapening of the Gospel and a sellout to consumerism. I want to state this in the clearest way possible: Beginning a message with people’s felt needs is more than a marketing tool! It is based on the theological fact that God chooses to reveal Himself to man according to our needs! Both the Old and New Testaments are filled with examples of this.
Even the names of God are revelations of how God meets our felt needs! Throughout history when people asked God, “What is your name?” God’s response has been to reveal himself according to what they needed at that time: To those who needed a miracle, God revealed himself as Jehovah Jireh (I am your provider); to those who needed comfort, God revealed himself as Jehovah Shalom (I am your peace); to those who needed salvation, God revealed himself as Jehovah Tsidkenu (I am your righteousness). The examples go on and on. God meets us where we are, at our point of need. Preaching to felt needs is a theologically sound approach to introducing people to God.
Preaching that changes lives brings the truth of God’s Word and the real needs of people together through application. Which end of the continuum you begin with depends on your audience. But what is even more important is that you eventually bring God’s truth and people’s needs together through application, regardless of where the message begins.
Both verse-by-verse (book) exposition and verse-with-verse (topical) exposition are necessary in order to grow a healthy church. Book exposition works best for edification. Topical exposition works best for evangelism.
Make the Bible Accessible to Unbelievers
Unbelievers usually feel intimidated by the Bible. It is filled with strange names and titles, and sounds like nothing they’ve read before. The King James Version is especially confusing to the unchurched. In addition, the Bible is the only book they’ve seen that puts numbers before each sentence and is bound in leather. This often causes many unbelievers to have a superstitious fear about reading or even holding a Bible.
Since God’s Word is “the Word of life” we must do everything we can to bring the unchurched into contact with it and help them feel comfortable using it. There are several things you can do to relieve anxiety and spark interest in the Bible among the unchurched.
Read Scripture from a newer translation. With all the wonderful translations and paraphrases available today, there is no legitimate reason for complicating the Good News with four-hundred-year-old English. Using the King James Version creates an unnecessary cultural barrier. Remember, when King James authorized the new translation it was because he wanted a contemporary version. I once saw an advertisement that claimed if King James were alive today, he’d be reading the New International Version! That’s probably true. Clarity is more important than poetry.
Use pew Bibles. In the early years of Saddleback, we purchased cheap, hardcover Bibles and placed them in every chair. Since the unchurched don’t know the books of the Bible, you can simply announce the page number of your Scripture reading. This prevents visitors from being embarrassed by how long it takes them to find a text. It’s intimidating to sit next to someone who turns to the text before you can even find the index!
Select your Scripture readings with the unchurched in mind. While all Scripture is equally inspired by God, it is not all equally applicable to unbelievers. Some passages are clearly more appropriate for seeker services than others. For instance, you probably won’t want to read David’s prayer in Psalm 58: “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God…. Like a slug melting away as it moves along, like a stillborn child, may they not see the sun…. The righteous will be glad … when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.” Save this passage for your own personal quiet time or the local pastors’ breakfast!
Certain texts require more explanation than others. With this in mind, at Saddleback we like to use passages that don’t require any previous understanding. We also like to use passages that show the benefits of knowing Christ.
Provide an Outline with Scriptures Written Out.
I provide a printed outline of the message with all the Bible verses to be used written out on it. There are a number of reasons I do this:
– The unchurched don’t own Bibles.
– It relieves embarrassment in finding texts.
– You cover more material in less time. I once counted the number of times a well-known pastor said, “Now turn to this” during his message, and I timed how long he took to find the passages. He spent seven minutes of his message just turning pages.
– Everyone can read a verse aloud together because everyone has the same translation.
– You can use and compare multiple translations.
– The audience can circle and underline words for emphasis and take notes in the margins.
– It helps people remember the message. We forget 90-95 percent of what we hear within 72 hours. That means by Wednesday, if they didn’t take notes, your congregation has forgotten in all but about 5 percent of what you said on Sunday.
– People can review the verses later by taping the notes to their refrigerators.
– It can become the basis for small-group discussion.
– Members can teach the outline to others. We have a number of businessmen at Saddleback who lead office Bible studies using the previous Sunday’s outline.
The long-lasting value of a message outline that has the Scripture written out continues to amaze me. Recently a high school biology teacher told me how God used an outline in his life. He got a call from his teenage daughter, who had been in a car accident. She was fine, but the car was totaled and the accident was her fault. He went to pick up his daughter, and while they were waiting for a tow truck, he sat down on the curb and began to think how irritated he was at his daughter for being reckless.
As he was getting angrier and angrier, he noticed a piece of paper in the gutter. Recognizing it as one of my sermon outlines, he picked it up. The message and Bible verses were on the topic “Defusing Your Anger.” He now keeps that outline folded in his wallet.
There are so many positive benefits to this method that I never speak without using a handout. Several thousand pastors have adopted the outline style we use at Saddleback. If you’d like a sample, just write to me.
Plan Your Titles to Appeal to the Unchurched
If you scan the church page of your Saturday newspaper, you’ll see that most pastors are not attempting to attract the unchurched with their sermon titles. A sample of intriguing sermon topics from the Los Angeles Times includes: “The Gathering Storm,” “On the Road to Jericho,” “Peter Goes Fishing,” “A Mighty Fortress,” “Walking Instructions,” “Becoming a Titus,” “No Such Thing as a Rubber Clock,” “River of Blood,” and “The Ministry of Cracked Pots.”
Do any of these titles make you want to hop out of bed and rush to church? Would any of them appeal to an unchurched person scanning the paper? What are preachers thinking? Why are they wasting money advertising titles like these?
I have been criticized for using sermon titles for our seeker services that sound like Reader’s Digest articles. That is intentional. Reader’s Digest is still one of the most-read magazines in America because its articles appeal to human needs, hurts, and interests.
Jesus said, “Yes, worldly people are smarter with their own kind than spiritual people are” (Luke 16:8, NCV). They understand what captures attention. Jesus expects us to be just as perceptive and strategic in our evangelism: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).
My sermon titles aren’t intended to impress members of other churches. In fact, if you judged Saddleback on the basis of sermon titles only, you might conclude that we’re pretty shallow. But since Christians aren’t our target, we’re not being shallow; we’re being strategic. Beneath those “felt-need” sermon titles is a hardcore biblical message. The misunderstanding of other Christians is a small price to pay for winning thousands to Christ.
Preach in Series
Few pastors understand the power of momentum. Preaching a sermon series is one example of using the power of momentum. Each message builds on the one before, creating a sense of anticipation. A series also takes advantage of word-of-mouth advertising. People know exactly where your series is going and, if you announce your sermon titles in advance, they can plan to bring friends on particular weeks that might best suit their need.
I always announce a new series on days we expect a lot of visitors, like Easter. It creates a hook that brings many first-time visitors back for the next week. The best length for a series is four to eight weeks. Anything longer than eight weeks causes your congregation to lose interest. They begin to wonder if you are knowledgeable about anything else. I once heard of a woman who complained, “My pastor has been in Daniel seventy weeks longer than Daniel was!”
Be Consistent in Your Preaching Style
You cannot switch back and forth between targeting seekers and believers in the same services. For example, don’t follow up a series on “Managing Stress” with “Expository Gems from Leviticus” or follow a series on “What God Thinks About Sex” with “Unmasking the Beast in Revelation.” You’ll create schizophrenic members, and no one will know when it’s safe to bring unchurched friends.
I’m not saying you can’t preach on Christian growth themes in your seeker service. I believe you can, and I do. I love to teach theology and doctrine to the unchurched without telling them what it is and without using religious terminology. But when you do preach a series on some aspect of spiritual maturity, you must communicate it in a way that connects it somehow to the needs of unbelievers.
Choose Guest Speakers Carefully
We don’t use many guest speakers anymore because I’ve put together a preaching team on our pastoral staff to share the load with me. The advantage of using your own staff is that they know your people, love your people, and most importantly, they will use the style of preaching that is consistent with your philosophy of ministry.
All it takes is one offbeat guest speaker to lose people you’ve been cultivating for months. When the unchurched have a bad experience, it’s extremely difficult to get them back. If, just as they are getting comfortable and lowering their defenses, some guest speaker comes along and blows them out of the water, their worst suspicions about the church will be confirmed.
We have canceled speakers after the first service when they didn’t match our beliefs or style. Once when I was away on vacation we had a well-known Christian speaker fill in for me. Unfortunately, his message was that God wanted every Christian to get rich. After the first service, my associate pastors confronted him and said, “Thank you, but we won’t be using you in the next three services!” My youth pastor pulled out an old message and replaced him. Pastors must protect their flocks from heresy.
Preach for Commitment
We should always offer unbelievers an opportunity to respond to Christ in a seeker service. They may choose to not respond, and you must respect that without pressuring them, but the opportunity must always be offered. Too many pastors go fishing without ever reeling in the line or drawing up the net.
There are many different ways to draw up the net. In planning for Saddleback’s first service I had intended to extend a traditional “come forward” altar call at the end of the service. As a Southern Baptist evangelist, that was the way I’d always done it. But as I concluded my first message in the Laguna Hills High School Theater, I suddenly realized I had two problems. First, there was no center aisle in the building. The chairs were welded together, and the building was designed to empty to side doors.
Second, I realized that even if they could get to the front, all that was there was an orchestra pit that dropped off right in front of the stage. I nearly cracked up thinking about saying, “I’m going to ask you to come down and jump in the pit for Jesus!” I honestly didn’t know what to do next. How could I get people to indicate their commitment to Christ if they couldn’t come forward?
Over the next few weeks, we experimented with several different ways of having people indicate their commitment to Christ. We tried setting up a counseling room where people could go after the service. But we found that once people walked out of the service they just kept walking to their car. If you decide to use a separate room, don’t call it a “counseling” room. To the unchurched, it sounds like a psychiatric ward. Instead, use a nonthreatening title like “Visitor’s Center” or “Reception Area.”
After a number of experiments, we came up with our registration/commitment card idea. We turned the back side of our Welcome Card into a decision card. At the beginning of the service, we encourage everyone to fill out the front side. At the end of each service, I ask everyone to bow their heads and I lead in a closing prayer, during which I give an opportunity for unbelievers to make a commitment to Christ. Then, I’ll pray a model prayer as an example and ask them to let me know about their decision on the commitment card. The last thing we do in our service is have a special music number and collect the cards and offering at the same time. The cards are then processed immediately for follow-up. While the next service is happening, the information on the cards collected from the previous hour’s service is entered into computers.
This approach has worked so well for us that we continued to use it even after we moved to facilities that would have allowed an altar call. We have had services where 100,200, 300, and once nearly 400, unbelievers have committed their lives to Christ and indicated it on a card.
Some might ask, “Where do people make their public profession of faith?” That’s what baptism is — a public statement of faith in Christ. In some churches, we have overemphasized the altar call so much that baptism is almost anticlimactic.
Offering a time of commitment is an important element of a seeker service. Here are some suggestions for leading people to make that commitment.
– Clearly explain exactly how to respond to Christ. Too many invitations to salvation are misunderstood. The unchurched often have no idea what’s going on.
– Plan your time of commitment. Deliberately and carefully think through what you want to happen. Extending an opportunity to come to Christ is too important to just tack on to the end of a message without planning it. People’s eternal destinies lie in the balance.
– Be creative in inviting people to receive Christ. If you say the same thing every week the audience will disconnect out of boredom. The best way to avoid getting in a rut is to force yourself to write out your call for commitment with each message.
– Lead unbelievers in a model prayer. The unchurched don’t know what to say to God, so give them an example: “You might pray something like this… “Ask them to repeat a simple prayer, in their hearts, after you. This helps people verbalize their faith.
– Never pressure unbelievers to decide. Trust the Holy Spirit to do His work. If the fruit is ripe, you don’t have to yank it. An overextended invitation is counterproductive. It hardens hearts rather than softening them. We tell people to take the time they need to think through their decision. I believe that if they’re honest with themselves, they will make the right decision.
Keep in mind that you’re asking people to make the most important decision of their lives. Evangelism is usually a process of repeated exposure to the Good News. It’s pretty unrealistic to expect a forty-year-old man to completely change the direction of his life on the basis of one thirty-minute message. Would you keep going to a grocery store if every time you went there to buy milk, the clerks pressured you to buy a steak? Imagine a clerk saving, “Today is the day of steak! Now is the time for steak! You must buy steak today because you might not have steak tomorrow!” People usually aren’t as closed as we think they are. They just need time to think about the decision we’re asking them to make.
– Offer multiple ways to indicate a commitment to Christ. If you are currently offering a traditional altar call, instead of replacing it, try adding the card approach. Put another hook in the water. The card can be an alternative for those who are shy about coming forward. Remember, Jesus never said you have to walk from Point A to Point B in a church to confess your faith.
The altar call is actually a modern invention. Asahael Nettteton began using it in 1817, and Charles Finney popularized it. They didn’t have altar calls in the New Testament churches because there were no church buildings for about the first 300 years, which means there were no aisles to walk down and no altars to come to!
One of the most effective invitation approaches I’ve used is to take a “spiritual survey” at the end of a service. After presenting the plan of salvation and leading in a prayer of commitment, I set it up like this: “You know, there is nothing I’d rather do than to have a personal conversation with each of you about your spiritual journey. I wish I could invite each of you out for some pie and coffee and have you tell me what’s going on in your life. Unfortunately, with the size of our church, that isn’t possible. So I ask you to do me a favor and participate in a personal survey. I’d like you to take the welcome card you filled out earlier in the service and, on the back of it, write either the letter A, B, C, or D, based on what I’m going to explain.
“If you have already committed your life to Christ prior to this service, write down the letter ‘A.’ If today you are believing in Christ for the first time, write down the letter ‘B.’ If you say, ‘Rick, I haven’t made that decision yet but I’m considering it, and I want you to know that I am considering it,’ write down the letter ‘C,’ If you feel you don’t ever intend to commit your life to Christ, I’d appreciate your honesty by your writing down the letter ‘D’ on your card.”
The results are always amazing to me. One Sunday we had nearly 400 “B”s — professions of faith in Christ. We have had as many as 800 “C”s, which gives us a great prayer list. We’ve never had more than seventeen “D”s.
– Expect people to respond. I don’t know exactly how my faith affects the spiritual battle that is waged for the souls of people but I do know this: When I expect unbelievers to respond to Christ, more do so than when I don’t expect people to be saved.
Once a young seminary student complained to Charles Spurgeon, “I don’t understand it — whenever I preach, no one comes to Christ. But whenever you preach, people always come to Christ!” Spurgeon replied, “Do you expect people to come to Christ every time you preach?” The young man said, “Of course not.” “That’s your problem,” said Spurgeon.
I often pray, “Father, you’ve said, ‘According to your faith will be done unto you.’ I know it would be a waste of time to speak and not expect you to use it, so I thank you in advance that lives are going to be changed.”
The Primacy of Preaching
This article was not intended to give a full explanation of my philosophy of preaching. That could be a book in itself. My purpose here was to just highlight some practical suggestions that can make a big difference in preaching to the unchurched, regardless of your preaching style.
Preaching seems to go in and out of fashion in many denominations. In our high-tech world, it is often criticized for being an outdated and uninteresting mode of communication. I agree that many preaching styles that once worked no longer effectively communicate to unbelievers. In terms of seeing radical life changes in individuals, however, nothing else can take the place of Spirit-anointed preaching.
The message is still the most important element of a seeker service. Saddleback’s fifteen years of growth in spite of hot gymnasiums, leaky tents and crowded parking have shown that people will put up with a lot of inconveniences and limitations if the messages are genuinely meeting their needs.
Taken from The Purpose Driven Church by Rick Warren. Copyright (c) 1995 by Rick Warren. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. This book is available by calling 1-800-727-3480.

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