Preaching has changed from the days when the parishioner at the door said, “Thanks, pastor. You really stepped on our toes today, and I loved it.” The church of the twenty-first century is dealing with a generation that is discouraged, depressed, tired, lonely, and feeling guilty. They are more interested in learning what to do about their sins and struggles than being told they are sinners and strugglers.
This has already changed the approach to preaching that is emerging for the twenty-first-century church.
Gospel means “good news,” and that news is what people are listening for. They want someone to tell them that God loves them and will rescue them from their circumstances and destiny.
This approach does not mean that today’s churchgoers won’t listen to sermons against sin, prophetic words from the Bible, or confrontation of what is wrong with their lives. They will listen and agree, but they insist on hope from God at the end. In fact, lack of reality in sermons that are all positive and upbeat turn many of them off. They know from experience that life is not like that.
Some preachers strongly condemn the shortage of sin-naming and condemnation in twenty-first-century churches. They try to balance the distribution by maximizing the negative from their own pulpits. My guess is that they have misunderstood the needs of today’s generation, and they risk alienating the very people God has called them to shepherd.
Mike Bellah, author of Baby Boom Believers and pastor of Evangelical Fellowship in Amarillo, Texas, encourages us to “be generous with hope”:
Baby boomers desperately need hope. The church that reaches this generation will be one where hope is frequently dispensed. However, it is important that the church offer real, not contrived, hope. The kind of hope promised by the success gospel is looked on with a deserved cynicism by most baby boomers. Similarly, the hope offered by sincere but unrealistic Christians, which ignores real pain and suffering, will not help disillusioned baby boomers. This generation will not respond to religious platitudes and cliches that minimize the hurt found in a fallen world. The church that offers hope to baby boomers will proclaim the God of Joseph, Daniel, Elijah, and others like them. It will reveal a God who does not always remove us from the crises, but who supports us in them and brings us through them.”
Pastors who want to check their preaching should ask parishioners whether they are receiving the hope of God. They should listen to tapes of their own sermons to determine whether they have an overall message of condemnation or encouragement, and whether the hope they offer is genuine and comes from Jesus Christ.
Some of the best preaching for the twenty-first-century church comes from pastors who have faced their own sins and struggles and discovered the grace and hope of God through the Bible and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Sermons born out of this reality communicate to hearers: “This preacher has been there and knows what I’m going through, and has personally encountered God the way I want to encounter God.”
G. Campbell Morgan was a famous preacher of an earlier generation who seemed to understand the needs of this generation. He once listened to an articulate young preacher as he delivered his sermon. A bystander later asked him for his evaluation of the preacher and the sermon. Morgan answered, “He is a very good preacher and when he has suffered he will be a great preacher.”
The preachers who will communicate well to the twenty-first-century church will be those who not only speak well, but also who have suffered and found hope in Jesus Christ, whom they delight to share with others who are hurting.
Both Christians and non-Christians listening to twenty-first-century sermons are smart. They often have a lot of education, but even if they haven’t been to all the schools, they are often sophisticated and well informed. Information has bombarded them all of their lives. Through television (if not through actual travels) they have seen the world, witnessed wars, heard the latest ideas, and been exposed to the best communicators. They will not tolerate sermons that lack meaningful content.
In a world with experts there is an expectation that the preacher be an expert as well. Physicians are supposed to know about medicine; pilots are expected to know about flying; lawyers should know the law; and preachers should know the Bible. Rarely do people listen to a sermon expecting expertise on current events, politics, stress management, or psychology — not that sermons shouldn’t relate to other issues. Sermons that are based on biblical revelation and modern relevance will inevitably connect to most disciplines and most life experiences, but the connection needs to be appropriate. Bible first, everything else second.
Consider second things first. Every Sunday when I preach at Wooddale Church, I recognize there are people in the audience who know more about whatever I’m talking about than what I know about it. If I mention cancer, there are people listening who have had cancer, who have cancer, who treat cancer, and whose family members have died of cancer. There is nothing I can say about cancer that they don’t already know. The same goes for truck driving, Shakespearean literature, rock music, the Baltic republics, farming, computer technology, brick laying, home remodeling, finance, management, Spanish, and meteorology. Nor am I the top expert on the Bible and theology. Every Sunday there are parishioners who carry their Greek New Testaments, teach in Bible colleges or seminary, are pastors, theological writers, or otherwise better informed than I am. Needless to say, this can be intimidating!
My responsibility is to relate God’s truth to all of them in an effective and interesting way. But I must also be credible. If I say that the Bolshevik Revolution happened in 1817 instead of 1917, I will lose credibility with those who know world history. If I confuse the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist, I will risk the disdain of both. If credibility is lost in some secular area outside of my expertise, they will doubt my accuracy and credibility when I teach the Bible. Therefore, I must undertake the necessary research, or I must talk to some of the experts in advance so that I have accurate information and adequate documentation.
When I am accurate, my credibility is enhanced. For example, I recently preached on Jesus’ conversation with the leprous man in Matthew 8:1-4. I researched both biblical leprosy and modern Hansen’s Disease. I related the ancient fears and struggles with leprosy to modern fears and struggles with cancer. Afterward several physicians stopped to talk with me, speaking positively about the medical accuracy of my sermon. A young family also stopped to talk — the mother wearing a scarf on her head. The woman explained that she had cancer, was undergoing chemotherapy, had lost her hair, and identified with what was said in the sermon.
The integrity of the content of sermons is vital. If any part doesn’t make sense, is inaccurate, or otherwise doesn’t ring true, listeners may reject the whole sermon as incredible.
Even more important, the primary content of sermons for the twenty-first-century church should be the Word of God. This is theologically necessary because the Bible represents God’s communication to humans and the source of our information on salvation and life. To omit the Bible or merely use the Bible as a “jumping-off spot” for the preacher’s opinion is presumptuous. It assumes that what we have to say is more important than what God has to say.
Indeed, on a practical level people are weary of the bombardment of human opinions. Modern Americans feel so attacked by multiple messages that they are not likely to come to church for one more. They want an authoritative message from God that is distinctively different from all the others. They come to hear what God has to say.
Different churches will take different approaches to teaching the Bible. The lectionary is a systematic overview of the Bible’s major themes and messages designed into an annual calendar. There are Old Testament and New Testament lessons for each Sunday. The major Christian holidays are celebrated so that the Scripture matches with the calendar. It is common practice in liturgical churches to annually follow the lectionary. In other traditions sermons are often preached in series organized by text or topic. They may systematically teach through a book of the Bible, select the Lord’s Prayer for a line-by-line series, or study the Sermon on the Mount. Topical series may focus on prayer, salvation, family life, or prophecy. In topical series the sermons tend to draw from multiple biblical texts, while textual series stick to single texts.
Recognizing that the audience may include growing numbers of biblically illiterate persons, pastors often build their sermon titles and organization on words more familiar to an unchurched audience. Titling a sermon on Luke 18:18-27 “The Guy Who Had Everything and Still Wasn’t Satisfied,” rather than “The Rich Young Ruler,” doesn’t make the sermon any less biblical. It makes it more relevant.
There are two traps to avoid in preparing the content for a twenty-first-century sermon: (1) inadequate understanding of the biblical text and (2) overload of information on the biblical text. The preacher’s preparation needs to include research, questions, answers, and fundamental understanding of the teaching of the text and issues related to the text. However, most of the information learned usually doesn’t appear in the public presentation.
Compare it to a surgeon explaining a procedure to a patient. There was a time when surgeons explained very little. They said, “Show up for the operation on Tuesday,” and that was about it. Most patients demand much more today. Patients ask questions and expect adequate answers. If the answers aren’t adequate, they may look for another doctor. Nevertheless, a surgeon should not explain everything he knows — that would take too long and almost require a medical school course. There is an underlying assumption that the surgeon fully understands the procedure and patient and that an appropriate amount of information is selected to teach the patient all he or she needs to know. The test comes when the patient asks a technical question beyond the explanation. If the answer is easily offered, confidence soars and learning increases. Likewise for a sermon — lots of preparation with adequate but not complete explanation.
In Tex Sample’s book U.S. Lifestyles and Mainline Churches, he argues that too much education can become a barrier to communication. He gives examples of preachers who understood their people and were understood by them until they went off to seminary. Their identification was broken as they became scholars with too much theory and too little practicality. This problem strengthens the argument of those who insist that higher theological education is best when directly tied to ongoing parish ministry or is undertaken over a longer time from parish ministry rather than separately in the cocoon of the seminary. The training of physicians closely connects the clinical experiences with patients to the laboratory and lecture hall.
When I was a seminary student, my wife and I ran children’s churches for 2- to 3-year-olds and for 4- to 5-year-olds. Each week I attempted to give a five-minute explanation to the children of what I had learned the previous week in systematic theology classes. It was a humbling experience that may not have bridged the chasm but regularly reminded me that the “real world” was more like children than professors.
The best tests concerning content are in the results: (1) Did the listeners experience God? (2) Was God’s Word learned and better understood? (3) Is the content clearly connected to the listener’s life?
Because this approach to content is so demanding, it is hard work for the preacher. The inexperienced preparer will devote as many as twenty or more hours of preparation per sermon. The skilled and experienced preparer may need as few as six to ten hours per sermon. Nevertheless, the longer the same preacher talks to the same audience, the greater the need for adequate preparation and credible content. It is easier to sound fresh to strangers than to long-time friends.
Both the church and pastor must be committed to the priority of preparation and preaching in the twenty-first-century church. While it is true that great churches can no longer be built solely on preaching (if in fact they ever could), the great twenty-first-century churches cannot be built without good preaching.
What is the goal of good preaching? Knowing the target is essential to knowing how to shoot.
The primary goal is to change lives to be like Jesus Christ. According to Matthew 28:20, it is to make disciples who obey all that Jesus commanded. In other words, preaching is pointed at transformation.
Transformation is usually a process rather than a point in time. We must take individuals from where they are to where God wants them to be. The starting point may be hostility, apathy, seeking, or commitment. Where the audience is must determine how we communicate.
Because of the spiritual diversity in the population, churches have chosen to specialize. Some target “seekers” and begin at an elementary level that is essentially pre-evangelistic. Others aim to be “seeker sensitive,” but recognize that the majority of the audience is already nominally Christian and needs to be discipled. Some go for “advanced disciple making” and assume that everyone in the audience is a committed and informed believer.
When the sermon and service target a specific level, the rest of the programming of the church tries to service the other levels. Thus, seeker churches have other gatherings targeted for believers, while disciple churches program for the non-Christian through investigative Bible studies or special pre-evangelistic or evangelistic programs.
In every case there should be a mix of theory and practice. Again there is a gamut in American churches. Some have been heavy on theory and offer almost no application — “figure it out for yourself.” Others go to the opposite extreme, telling everyone how to behave and what to do (or what not to do), but they never mention why. Rick Warren, who understands the baby boomer culture very well (especially in Southern California), gives wise advise for preachers when he says, “Tell them why; show them how.” Most modern churchgoers require both explanation and application.
On a very practical level, that means teaching the Bible’s truths and principles and then showing how they can be translated into transformed lives. The ratio could be 50/50, maybe 60/40, but it rarely ought go beyond a 70/30 distribution. In other words, half of the sermon content and time goes to theory and half to practice, but not more than 70% to either theory or practice.
When walking out of a church service and reflecting on the sermon, most want to have a clear idea of what they are supposed to do. They want to decide for themselves whether they will do it or not, but they still want a clear picture of what is expected of them.
Henry Ford said that Model-T customers could buy “any color they want as long as it is black.” Those days are long gone. Today’s customers don’t buy many black cars and resent a lack of choice.
A friend bought a beautiful green Cadillac as a gift for his wife. He drove it home, parked it in the driveway, and called her out to see it. She wouldn’t even get in it. She said she wouldn’t be seen in a pink Mary Kay car. Her husband is color blind; he had to sell the car.
Sermon styles are like car colors. Different people have different preferences. When someone told me, “He is the best preacher in the English language today,” I thought to myself, “Sure, and pink is the best car color in the world today!” It all depends on what you like. There is no such thing as “the best preacher” or “the best style.” It is a matter of preference. But just as some colors are much more popular than others, so are some preaching styles. Just as the color needs to be matched to the preference of the customer, the sermon style needs to be matched to the church and community. What is wonderful in one context can be a constant irritant in another context.
Yesterday’s style was oratorical, formal, loud, polished, intense, used significant historical illustrations, and told people what to do. Some churches and listeners still like this style very much. Most, however, associate it with wind-up alarm clocks, black-and-white TVs, and rotary-dial telephones.
Today’s style is much more conversational, much like the monologue of Johnny Carson or Jay Leno on the Tonight Show. Management author and popular speaker Tom Peters says, “The whole issue with public speaking at any level is loosening up and getting comfortable.” Today’s speaker is more of a “communicator” than a “preacher.” Today’s style is more of a “conversation” than a “lecture.”
Words like “ought.” “should,” and “must” punctuated the older style in which the preacher told the audience what to do. The new style explains the issues, presents the alternatives, and then seeks to persuade — but clearly leaves the decision up to the listener. Modern Americans don’t want their politicians, doctors, or pastors telling them what to do. They want to be well informed and decide for themselves. Persuasion takes place when the speaker describes the way things “could be” if right decisions and responses follow. It is the difference between saying, “Quit smoking today, or you will be dead tomorrow!” and saying, “You’re going to feel great and live a long healthy life if you’ll stop smoking right away.”
One of the reasons the old style doesn’t relate as well to the twenty-first-century church is because of the heightened issues of authenticity and hypocrisy. Leader credibility has nose-dived in the second half of the twentieth century. Public officials, business people, professionals, and pastors have fallen from heights of prominence to the depths of discredit. They appeared to be something up front that they were not in real life. Today’s people listen to and believe public persons who model honesty and integrity both in their public and private life.
I suppose that someone who shouts in the pulpit and also shouts in restaurants and restrooms might be considered consistent. Most people don’t shout, tell complicated historical stories, have alliterated outlines, or perfectly polished gestures and phrases in everyday conversation. The preacher who talks with a style few use in everyday conversation is suspected of hypocrisy — and hypocrites aren’t very popular or respected.
Ronald Reagan has been called “The Great Communicator” of late twentieth-century politics. The reason is because he talked to the nation in the same way he talked to individuals. Watching him on television was like listening to someone sitting beside you in the family room. He told a lot of stories, and much of his humor was aimed at himself. He seldom laughed at others or asked you to laugh at others.
Yesterday’s style was deductive; today’s style is inductive. Deductive reasoning starts with a premise and then states the conclusion. Deductive approaches work best with those who are already convinced. Inductive approaches are better for the undecided and the hostile. A deductive sermon states its thesis in the first few minutes (“God loves you!”), and then defends it (“#1 = God is love; #2 = The Bible says God loves you; #3 = God demonstrated His love by sending His Son; #4 = God still demonstrates His love with grace today.”) An inductive sermon may start talking about our need for love, give stories and examples of God’s love in people’s lives, explain the greatest demonstration of love when God sent Jesus, and reach the conclusion — “God is love!” One style is not right and the other wrong — they are different. However, one style may be right for a specific audience and wrong for another.
Stories are especially important to the twenty-first-century preaching style. We increasingly deal with a generation that thinks more in images than in points. Stories stick. They are memorable. They are easy to identify with. Ask any generation of churchgoers to repeat the points of a six-weeks-ago sermon and few can do it. But ask for a rerun of the stories and illustrations, and a high percentage remember in detail.
There is a strong theological precedent in the preaching of Jesus. His communications were full of stories — related to everyday happenings and practices. The parables were not only strong for the first century and the Bible, but they also have become a part of modern conversation and culture. Even people who don’t know from where the phrase originated speak Jesus’ metaphor of a “prodigal son.”
Simplicity is another element of style. In an increasingly complex world listeners are drawn to simplicity. In an increasingly complex world, however, simplicity is harder for a preacher to produce. In an introductory journalism class at Northwestern University in Illinois, my professor started his first lecture quoting Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Although most of his vocabulary and illustrations indicated he was not a religious man, he said he chose this example of excellent writing because “you can’t say anything more profound, and you can’t say it more simply.” Today’s communicators need to be both profound and simple, which requires a lot of work.
How can all of this be done for an audience that ranges from the young to the old, the high school dropout to the Ph.D., the rich to the poor, and many of the other diversities in today’s urban congregations? One way is through M*A*S*H preaching. M*A*S*H refers to “Mobile Army Surgical Hospital” and is the name of one of the most popular television series ever to run. Reruns continue in most broadcast Markets today. In a typical half-hour episode there are multiple story lines that are parallel and simultaneous. “Hawkeye” the surgeon and Radar O’Riley” the private have a string of one-line jokes woven through every show. Head Nurse “Hotlips” and her doctor lover Frank carry on a banter of passion and sexual innuendoes. There is usually a medical theme that deals with surgical procedures, patient problems, and other medical matters. Finally there is some type of social commentary — like the triage officer who has to decide which of the incoming casualties will be treated first: a white American Second Lieutenant who was commissioned out of an Ivy League college ROTC program, a veteran black American sergeant from the Deep South, a teenage draftee in the North Korean army, or a Communist Chinese regular army officer sent to train and lead the North Korean troops. At least four different stories in the same script: comedy, passion, medicine, and social dilemma.
Different viewers relate to different themes. Some laugh from one-line joke to one-line joke and miss the serious messages. Others are caught up in the medical matters and don’t pay attention to the rest of the story. Some are attractd to the passion, and others are deeply involved in the struggles of race, class, and rank. The same show speaks on various levels to different audiences.
Sermons in the twenty-first-century church will have to seek to do the same. In thirty minutes or less the fabric of the presentation must simultaneously draw contrasting audiences into the same experience. It is not easy to do and cannot always be done, but the challenge must not be ignored.
As an example, suppose that the sermon text is 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Since the topic is confession, the preacher might say:
The Bible was written in Greek in which the word for “confess” is homologeo.
Homo means “the same as — like in homogenized milk or homosexual. Homogenized milk is all the same. Homosexuals are attracted to persons of the same gender.
Logeo means “to say” something.
Put it together, and “confess” is “to say the same thing.”
When we confess our sins to God, we are saying the same thing about whatwe did as God says.
Now, pick something you’ve done. Anything — good or bad: from praying to robbing a bank. What does God say about what you did? If you tell God you agree with Him, you’ve confessed. And if it’s a sin, God promises to forgive.
In this example, although it is not a story, it is multiple level. The person who has studied Greek hears and understands the Greek word. Learning and credibility take place. The person who doesn’t know Greek probably tuned homologeo out and won’t remember that the word was spoken. Older listeners who remember when milk bottles came with the cream at the top quickly identify with the sameness of homogenized milk. Adult listeners, especially younger ones, are drawn into the explanation with reference to homosexuals since homosexuality is a frequent current topic, and they immediately understand the idea of two persons together who are the same gender. They will also follow a thought pattern that asks what God thinks about homosexual behavior and whether or not they agree and say the same as God.
The open-ended opportunity to select any activity from praying to bank robbing allows participation by every level and variety of person in the audience. Each chooses one’s own (rather than the preacher doing the choosing for you). It communicates that not everything is a sin, but that it is important to decide what God thinks of our actions. If it is a sin, do we agree with God or not? If we agree, God promises to forgive. It is an example of M*A*S*H preaching, an effective style for the twenty-first-century church.
Every audience is unique. That is one of the reasons a sermon may be good one time and poor another time. Thomas Long, Frances Landey Parlon professor of preaching and worship at Princeton Theological Seminary, gets it right when he says:
… the best preachers may never become known beyond their congregations.
If you were on a baccalaureate or church conference committee responsible for selecting a speaker a generation ago, you could come up with lots of names of nationally known preachers.
You can’t do that anymore. You’d be hard pressed to come up with more than a handful of nationally known preachers today.
Some people think that’s evidence of preaching’s decline. I think it’s evidence that good preaching is now much more local.
It’s being done by this preacher, standing in front of these people, whom he or she loves, speaking this text to their mission in this place on this day. That doesn’t travel; it doesn’t print. That’s local and specific. And that’s good preaching.
The communicator must know the audience, and the sermon must be customized to fit that audience. Harry Emerson Fosdick was one of America’s most famous preachers during the first half of the twentieth century, and perhaps the most controversial. His sermons were preached at Riverside Church in New York City and broadcast over the National Radio Pulpit. His office was literally in a tower, and there was the risk that he could become far removed from the everyday lives of his congregation. He chose to spend a limited number of hours each week in pastoral counseling — not because it was a requirement of his job or because he thought he would make a major difference to his counselees, but because he needed to know people’s needs for sermon preparation and delivery. He saw “preaching as counseling” and thought of his large congregation as a group of individuals whom he was counseling on a one-to-one basis. Fosdick’s intentionally understood his audience.
Pollster George Gallup, Jr., says that every pastor should know at least seven needs of the average American:
1. The need for shelter and food.
2. The need to believe life is meaningful and has a purpose (a need cited by 70% of the respondents, with two-thirds believing most churches and synagogues are not effective in meeting it).
3. The need for a sense of community and deeper relationships (nearly one-third of Americans say they have been lonely for a long period of time in their lives).
4. The need to be appreciated and respected (“the closer people feel to God, the better they feel about themselves”).
5. The need to be listened to and be heard (“Americans overwhelmingly think the future of the church will be shaped by the laity more than by the clergy…. they believe it will happen, [and] they believe it should happen”).
6. The need to feel one is growing in faith.
7. The need for practical help in developing a mature faith.
We all start with where we are and what our needs are. The sermon that informs and persuades links up with listeners’ present circumstances and current needs. There is a sense in which those needs are basic and permanent. That’s one of the reasons why Jesus’ words are so timeless; He masterfully touched the central core of human experience. In another sense, the circumstances and needs are highly specific — changing with the economy, politics, weather, age, health, and expectations. Effective sermons connect with both — much like a battery in a car. The battery has two posts, positive and negative. Connecting to only one will never start the car or get it moving. The positive post of preaching should connect with the truths of the Bible, and the negative post of preaching should connect with the present needs of the audience. When both are connected the sparks fly, the electricity flows, and the car starts.
Today’s audiences are more connected to speakers through the heart than the head. That is to say, preaching to connect emotionally is usually more important than preaching to connect intellectually. Nevertheless, absence of either is a disaster. Both are necessary.
Connecting to hearts begins with the preacher’s heart. In the prayer and preparation for the sermon, is there a stirring of emotions? Is there a personal laugh, a private fear, an individual tear? Once experienced, it is important that those emotions naturally flow through the communication.
Just before Christmas I was preaching an Advent sermon from Hebrews 10:5-10. The text was used as a picture of the dialogue between God the Father and God the Son prior to the Incarnation. The Father who loves the world commissioned His Son to leave heaven, become human, suffer, and die on the cross for human salvation. The Son, who had always existed as God in heaven, replied, “I have come to do your will, O God” (Heb. 10:7).
I tried to imagine the emotions in heaven at the moment of departure — those last minutes before the eternal Son of God was gone from heaven and in the womb of Mary. I thought about how hard it must have been for even God to say goodbye. It made me think of the last time I saw my father face-to-face before he died. He had been ill for about six months, and I had traveled to Florida several times to be with him. That last stay was near his end. The last minutes were precious. We both knew time was running out.
I helped him to his feet, and he walked me to the door, where he said, “I wish you didn’t have to go. Please don’t go.” I explained to him that I had people to serve and a job to do. After his own sixty years in ministry, he understood what I had said, but he said it again, “I don’t want you to go. Please stay longer. Please don’t go.” But then I left. Those were his last words to me the last time I saw him alive.
As I read Hebrews 10 and thought about the Father and the Son in heaven, all my own emotions of that last time with my dad flooded back to me. It was not an intellectual experience. It was pure emotion. The tears flowed.
I wondered whether I dared tell that story in the next Sunday’s sermon — not because it might be inappropriate but because I didn’t know whether I could tell it without breaking down. I decided to do it. I practiced it many times, to control my emotions as best I could.
In a church with baby boomers, there are many whose own parents are aging and dying. They have spoken their final words between parents and children. They felt my emotions. They got the point — the incarnation was a costly experience for the Father and Son, and for us.
Or I think of the sermon about following Jesus, not out of duty, but out of devotion. The speaker told a story about Abraham Lincoln, who went to visit a slave auction one day and was appalled at the sights and sounds of buying and selling human beings. His heart was especially drawn to a young woman on the block whose story seemed to be told in her eyes. She looked with hatred and contempt on everyone around her. She had been used and abused all her life, and this time was but one more cruel humiliation.
The bidding began, and Lincoln offered a bid. As other amounts were bid, he counter-bid with larger amounts until he won. When he paid the auctioneer the money and took title to the young woman, she stared at him with vicious contempt. She asked him what he was going to do next with her, and he said, “I’m going to set you free.”
“Free?” she asked. “Free for what?”
“Just free,” Lincoln answered. “Completely free.”
“Free to do whatever I want to do?”
“Yes,” he said. “Free to do whatever you want to do.”
“Free to say whatever I want to say?”
“Yes, free to say whatever you want to say.”
“Free to go wherever I want to go?” she added with skepticism. Lincoln answered, “You are free to go anywhere you want to go.”
“Then I’m going with you!” she said with a smile.
I’ve forgotten the text. I don’t even remember who the preacher was. But I can still feel the emotions of the story. It touched my heart and made me want to go wherever Jesus Christ went because He is the one who set me free.
Sermons in the twenty-first-century church will know their audiences well and connect to their hearts as well as their minds.
Preaching does not take place in a sterile vacuum. It is and always has been a total experience. The record of Jesus’ sermons often mentions the surroundings in which He preached them. Modern Americans are especially attuned to total experiences: Classrooms are designed for learning; restaurants succeed because of ambiance as much as food; airplane seats and food are important parts of the passenger’s choice.
A certain atmosphere is more comfortable and conducive to effective communication. Johnny Carson insisted his audience have 66-degree temperatures because that’s the balance between keeping people comfortable and alert. Church services in very old or uncomfortably warm rooms make preaching difficult and distractions many.
Buildings are easily dated. Any facility that hasn’t been updated, refurbished, or redecorated in more than twenty years probably feels old to most people today. Real estate experts have a name for commercial properties in this condition: They look “tired.” The styles have changed from pastels to earth tones to current colors. Microphones more than twenty years old appear to come out of a black-and-white TV comedy show. Platforms used to have a living room appearance with everything carpeted (shag?), but they currently are more like a stage with hard surfaces. Lighting once was dim but now is bright. Buildings without windows were built in the 1960s and 1970s, but outside light is more highly valued today. A smaller room that is fuller enhances communication compared to a larger room that is emptier. Volume that is louder works better than volume that is softer (older listeners may have diminished hearing and younger listeners are used to loud music).
The length of services and sermons is a significant part of atmosphere. Unless there is a strong tradition for lengthy services, most Americans expect the program to be over in an hour. Some African-American churches have traditions of services lasting several hours, although there are indications that some of the fastest-growing African-American churches are now holding services of sixty to seventy-five minutes in length. It has to do with television and school. The majority of TV shows have a maximum length of sixty minutes. A top-rated television program is even named “60 Minutes.” School classes last fifty to fifty-five minutes and are called “hours” (“What class do you have during third-hour?”).
Some pastors object. They say that the Holy Spirit should not be bound to our clocks, which is true. Actually, TV shows aren’t bound by the clock either. When a President is shot or the country goes to war or some other exceptional event occurs, length of coverage has no limit. But that is the exception, not the norm. It seems strange to parishioners when the Holy Spirit regularly takes a set amount of time that seems long to them.
Another objection is that it is hard to get everything done within an hour. That doesn’t ring true to those who see so much packed into an hour on TV. It doesn’t take long to figure out that greater preparation usually reduces time and lesser preparation often increases time.
How much of the hour goes to preaching? Churches with great emphasis on liturgy and sacraments often have sermons of fifteen minutes or less. Churches heavy on teaching may have sermons lasting forty-five minutes or more. Ask the average listener and the answer is “twenty to twenty-five minutes maximum.” Thus, the answer is within a range, but few preachers or churches can handle much more than twenty-five to thirty minutes. If the speaker is an extraordinary communicator with outstanding gifts, longer may work. Less than 1% of pastors fit into that classification, however, while the rest of us need to stay under half an hour. When the sermon becomes too long, it begins to defeat its own purposes by alienating listeners. They may still be physically present, but they have mentally departed.
An old church joke had the preacher saying, “This sermon will be over when I’m finished or you leave — whichever comes first.” Everyone laughed, but today some will leave. It’s still not socially acceptable to get up and go when you are bored, but it increasingly happens.
There is no end to the list of items that create the atmosphere. It is the ushers and architecture, the weather outside, and the kind of people inside. Few of them are all-important, but all of them make a difference in the effectiveness of communication. All need to be viewed and evaluated. The ideal is when all aspects of atmosphere converge to make the sermon succeed.
How does any preacher pull off all these elements? The obvious pre-requisites are godliness, Bible knowledge, cultural sensitivity, and a lot of hard work.
Less obvious is how to be interesting. Some boring people try to be interesting by looking for interesting things to say. It seldom works.
The twenty-first century is an exciting and interesting time. No one wants to be bored because there seem to be no good reasons to be bored. Therefore, boring sermons are definitely out.
The way to preach interesting sermons is to be an interesting person. That requires getting out and doing something — having fun, meeting people, reading books, watching television, playing sports, visiting homes, hosting parties, traveling, pursuing hobbies, asking questions, and listening. Phillips Brooks defined preaching as “truth through personality.” The truth is God’s responsibility, and He has given us the Bible. The personality is our responsibility, and we need to be interesting.
Abraham Lincoln stands as a good example of the kind of communicator twenty-first-century preachers can be. In Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times, Donald T. Phillips points out that Abraham Lincoln was the first president of the United States elected by a minority popular vote. Not even the majority wanted him, but he did a very good job:
He excelled in communications on several fronts: He had a wealth of stories at the ready for any occasion, he could speak extemporaneously quite well, although he prepared most of his major speeches, and his ability to persuade was so effective that he rarely had to give orders outright.
His ambition triumphed over continual adversity, from being ridiculed as a gawky youth to achieving the preservation of the Union at great expense.
Some would add that his greatest speech, “The Gettysburg Address,” was very short — two minutes!
From A Church for the 21st Century by Leith Anderson, published by Bethany House Publishers. Copyright (c) 1992 by Leith Anderson. Used by permission.

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