Creating Messages That Connect: An Interview With Alan Nelson May 1, 2005 Nine years ago, Alan Nelson became the lead and founding pastor of Scottsdale Family Church, a congregation he planted nine years ago in the northeast valley area of Phoenix. Since then, the church has grown to an average attendance of about 1,000, and Alan has written ten books about ministry and leadership. (In fact, he’s preparing to embark on a new area of ministry as a writer and consult with church leaders.) One of his most recent books is Creating Messages That Connect (Group Publishing), in which he discusses tips for effective communication in today’s culture. Preaching: In your book Creating Messages that Connect, you talk about baiting the hook – about the beginning, the first three minutes of the message. Why is that so important? Nelson: The very first thing you have to do today to communicate is answer the question: “Why should I listen to you?” and baiting the hook is related to that. You’ve got to bait the hook to day for a variety of reasons. Today’s audience is a very demanding audience, partly because they’re not as interested – or we can’t assume that they’re as interested – in biblical themes as perhaps the former church crowd. That is especially true if we are interested in reaching the un-churched as our church is. They don’t buy into the fundamentals that many of us have over the years. Another reason is because they have such a short attention span – because of media, because of the internet, because of the business of our life and information overload. They’re sort of saying, “Why should I listen to you? If you don’t get my attention in the first 90 seconds, I’m probably not going to listen to you the next 30 minutes.” So baiting the hook is not necessarily an issue of relevance. Baiting the hook really happens as a matter of getting attention. Its almost like talking to a group of preschoolers. You know you have to click your fingers and say, “Hey, hey, hey everyone’s attention up here!” because they’re thinking about their schedules and everything else. One of the biggest sins I think preachers have today is assuming that because they’re there physically, they’re there emotionally. And we can not (assume that). We can almost assume the opposite today – that even if they are there physically they are not there emotionally – so we have to sort of get their attention. Preaching: What are some creative ways to bait the hook? Nelson: In the book I talk about a variety of ways. I think anything from a story – an engaging story not just a story. Look at Jay Leno’s Tonight Show – it’s really a talk show but they do the stand up comedy to get peoples’ attention initially. So a well-placed joke. Obviously a media clip or a drama that establishes a reason to listen as opposed to a solution. Some traditional church dramas give you the solution in the drama and then there’s really no reason to listen to the message after that. You really want to say here’s the dilemma – here’s the problem. That’s why sometimes even secular songs are far better for stating a problem. Christian songs are much better at stating a solution. So we commonly use the secular song. And of course dramatic entrances. Whether it’s riding in on a motorcycle or pushing a cart like a homeless person or walking in on crutches or whatever. So it always has to be different because I think that’s the key with creativity. One of the most important things I think in a creative church is that on any given Sunday you can’t say, “Oh yeah, it’s always like this.” It’s always something a little different. And that’s what we want to do. We want to pique people’s curiosity so when they come in there is this sort of subliminal “I wonder what’s going to happen today?” There’s always something different. And it doesn’t always have to be sensational and certainly not superficial but always something a little bit different out of the shoot that gets their attention. Preaching: What are some of the more interesting or effective beginnings that you’ve used in messages? Nelson: One of my favorites I talk about in the book. We were doing a two-week series on John the Baptist. John the Baptist was one of these guys who a lot of our people could relate to, because we try to target the hardnosed 38-year-old business guy. We figure if we can get him we can get anybody. We have a lot of CEO, entrepreneur-types and a lot of people who kind of relate to the out-of-the-box thinking of a John the Baptist. So we did a two-part series on his life – called “Born to Be Wild” – and kind of related to the people who didn’t buy into Christianity because they thought it was for pacifists or whatever. So the first week we did a clip from Born to Be Wild, the old movie, and showed the guys on the Harleys. Had the music blaring loud. So the next week we sort of did it on steroids. We had some Harleys parked in the lobby as people walked in and we interviewed a guy from our church who’d just come back from Sturgis – the big biker rally. Then we showed the same clip and the same music as before but then the doors opened on the side of our auditorium and I rode in on a Harley-Davidson. I had leathers and everything. It was just one of those things you wished you could do every Sunday just because of the thunderous applause and laughter – like an “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe he’s doing this” sort of thing. I had to practice because I didn’t want to lay it over on Sunday morning and embarrass myself! So that’s certainly one of the most memorable but we’ve done all sorts of different things. I was talking about “Live Life in the Spirit,” so I came in in a Superman costume and the “S” stood for Spirit. I saw the video of that afterwards and realized that I was far too pudgy to be in that outfit! So you kind of have to think about what you’re going to do. Sometimes we push the envelope – and probably in certain churches it would be offensive – but in our church because we’re a church plant we’ve created a culture where every Sunday is different. Preaching: What are some mistakes people make as they begin a message? Nelson: In Creating Messages that Connect I talk about energy levels of sermons and energy levels of services. I think a big mistake that a lot of people make is they allow the energy to drop – there ought to be sort of an exhale in the service before a message starts but you don’t want to be distracting. I think that having announcements and taking an offering before a sermon are killers, because you’ve basically just unhitched the boat from the dock and let it drift away from shore and then all the sudden you expect to have it there at the dock when you get in it. I think creating a buildup of energy – sort of creating tension right before a message – is important. A lot of churches traditionally do a lot of down time after worship – too much downtime so that you lose people. Sometimes we set up messages with solutions like a drama or video clip that already solves the problem, instead of creating some tension and saying this is a real issue: How am I going to answer this? The cardinal sin is not answering the question: why should I listen to you. We just assume that when people plop down and we break into the book of Isaiah that anyone has any sort of inkling of desire to know what’s in this for me. If it’s not evident out of the shoot as why I should listen and how’s this going to help me . . . That’s one of the issues of adult education. Adult education basically knows that people are only motivated to learn or have a solution for something when they perceive a problem. If they don’t perceive a problem they’re not in the market for a solution. A lot of us in ministry – because we grew up in the Christian culture – we assume people care. Because we’re speaking from the Bible, we assume that they’re interested in listening to us. I think in today’s world we can never assume that. The well-known communicators have done a great job at this, but I think most of us in the pulpit underestimate the gap between our presentation and what (connect with people). We need to break that gap big time. Preaching: Explain more of what you mean by charting the energy level of a message. Nelson: I think the best metaphor for that is deep sea fishing, because deep sea fishing is usually where you get the bigger fish and deep sea fishing is a process. I grew up in the Midwest where we never did it but now being near the coast and living in California for a number of years I took my kid deep-sea fishing and its a different game. Getting the fish on the hook, that’s one thing; but getting him in the boat – that’s a whole different thing. You always want to keep a certain amount of tension in the line. If there’s too much tension it will snap the line; if there’s not enough tension a lot of times it will bind up the reel and the line so it will get snagged and knotted. So really what we want to do in our messages is create tension but not too much. Sometimes you have to let the line go. Every message has ebbs and flows — they’re where energy increases and energy decreases. Usually the things that require more energy – meaning more thinking power and that is more draining – are concepts. And the thing that is kind of a release – but it reengages people – are stories. You can just see them physically – if you’re talking about concepts, after awhile people start to look around because you’ve lost them, and as soon as you then go back to a story or joke or illustration – BOOM – you can see the heads go up, eye contact made, people are listening again. So that’s the process you have to do throughout the message. You want to start with your second best point and you want to conclude with your best point, and in between you’re going to have peaks and valleys. It’s like ocean waves. There are going to be highs and lows, and what you want to do is very intentionally think, “OK, have I gone too low? Is there too much concept here? Do I need to bring them in with an illustration or joke or something to reengage them?” We’ve all listened to terrible professors in college classes who droned on and on and on and they lost their audience. When we preach we tend to be speaking to more of a popular audience than a sophisticated, motivated audience, so usually popular speeches or talks require a little bit more illustration, a few more stories. That’s why you look at the great communicators –they’re usually story tellers. They would tell a story and then they would make a point. I think that if you study where our culture is headed you realize that more and more we’re going toward a visual storyteller mode of communication, which really is going to require most of us to change how we do what we do. It’s kind of hard to describe but I think that once you think about it you say, “Oh, yeah. I understand that.” And again it’s a little subjective in terms of the ebb and flow but if we think that through we can really see how designing a message is really dependent on the audience. There again I think its artificial – in the book I set it up as kind of an artificial difference but in my mind the difference between traditional preaching and 21st century communicating is that traditional preaching starts with a message. Modern communication starts with the audience. And it’s not a slam to the Word or anything – it’s really thinking that the Word is so valuable that we cannot afford to fumble it. We really have to make sure that we make a connection, and that means understanding our people. Preaching: You’ve talked about the need to “Avoid the Bore-Snore Factor,” and one of the things you cite is the use of multi-sensory services. Why is that important and what would be some examples of that? Nelson: The best way to learn something is by experiencing it, and experience focuses on the sensory. We are sensual people, literally. God created us with five senses; unfortunately most sermons are asensual. They really focus on cognition but very little else. And I think what we need to move toward is designing into our messages or our services experiential components – which allow people to touch, smell, hear, and see – so that it has a deeper embedding and it goes beyond pure intellect and cognition. On Palm Sunday we were kind of weaving an arc – with me leaving the church along with the Holy Week focus – and we talked about the triumphful entry. So for us it was “Pom Sunday.” Although we had palm leaves in the lobby outside, once they got inside we handed them a pom – a miniature pom-pom on a stick – and we played sports music which focuses on the ears. It was tactile in the sense they could hold the pom-pom and encouraged them – non-charismatic to boot – so we encouraged them on good points to wave your pom-poms. And we used it as a modern metaphor for celebrating. You know when Jesus came in to Jerusalem they celebrated Him. In the church we need to celebrate more. When we leave sometimes you mourn, but we need to celebrate the good things God has done in the last niine years. At the very end we had stations where people could give an offering, so they could get out of their seats and move. We had stations where they could take communion, which involved their taste and smell. Then we had these white charts around at different stations where they could take a marker and write on these pieces of paper – pages of big post-it note sheets – things they wanted to celebrate or things they were thankful for, things they wanted to praise. In the back room we had a DVD clip with music going on a song that lasted six minutes. So in our service we had six minutes of experiential worship where the people weren’t singing – they were actually taking communion, giving offering, writing, and in between we had the pom-poms there. Those would be some experiential components that allow the people to participate – not just to be spectators but to be participants. Preaching: Do you do much with visual images or video in connection to worship and the message itself? Nelson: I think a growing number of people are using the whole imagery thing, whether it’s a cutout on stage or whether it’s a media clip. A variety of ways – not just media, not just movies but a variety of ways of creating visual or symbols. Maybe you have a single symbol where people are focusing. You go to a GenX conferences or emergent church seminars and they are really into visuals. They have visuals going, in fact, that have nothing to with the message per se but they are just kind of going in the background, I think because it gives them a sense of stimulation while they are being spoken to. I think variety is important, and I think as much as possible we can give people metaphors – maybe for every message have a singular metaphor that says this is what this is about. Preaching: What would be some examples of things you’ve done visually in your own worship? Nelson: We stole this idea from a sister church but it was very effective for us. We did a whole series on “Who’s Almighty?” and the subtitle was, “It’s Not Bruce.” And we did a whole 5, 6 week series off the movie Bruce Almighty and we used some of the clips. And then we had this great big six-foot inflated globe hanging down from the ceiling, and it said, “Who’s Almighty?” So for six weeks people come in and there’s this huge globe over the stage and then we show video clips from that, so it’s kind of a thematic feel. And then in their outline they had artwork that had been redone to make it kind of look like the movie theme. So that would be a thematic approach. This Good Friday, for example, they will come in and they will receive two Popsicle sticks. One that has written on it a label that will say “Holiness and Justice” and then another one that will say “Love and Grace” and we’re going to talk about how intersections are dangerous. A lot of people die in intersections. Jesus died at the intersection of love and grace and holiness and justice. Then at the end of service they’ll hold the two sticks as a cross and show how the cross really was a dynamic intersection for where the two things collided. So I think there is a visual that you put in their hands. Preaching: You just mentioned your message outlines, and in your book you talk about providing written outlines that people are invited to fill out. There’s been some debate among pastors as to whether that is an effective tool to use. Why do you think it’s effective? Nelson: For some people that is a very helpful thing to keep people focused because there is enough of a (sense of) “Oh, I want to get the answers.” There is a curiosity affected that can create tension – that I want to fill in my blank – and it’s enough to keep a certain percentage of people engaged just to make sure they at least get the blanks filled in. I think the other thing is that it gives a sense of flow or direction, because again we’re so time conscious these days that people don’t know when we’re going to stop and start. So if there is a flow, if there’s a sequence and they can see where we’re headed, it says, “I see where we’re going and I can see when we’re going to be almost done.” I think there’s another element there of saying that as a pastor I’ve thought through this week and I’ve got some main concepts and I’m not just shooting from the hip. So there’s almost a sense of value there. It also gives us an excuse to put things on the screen, which again is another visual. I think all of those are positive reasons. Here’s another thing. We had George Barna come in one day and say analyze our services – what do we need to do better? One of the things he noticed, which really helped us, was he said we provide way too many distraction to people in worship. I said, “Well what do you mean?” Well, we would hand out our worship folders that were filled with announcements, and some of the guys that we are trying to engage are 38 year-old business people – they were pretty much reading that during the worship service and they were distracted. So we were doing ourselves a disservice because when we were trying to promote ministries we were actually providing distractions. We now avoid the regular worship folder and we now have a hand out which has one half page for notes and one half page of “here’s what to do this week” to apply it, and then we do some bullet points of announcements so that on their way out they can get a flyer or if they need to sign up for something they don’t lose them. We communicate through e-news and email and handouts after the service but we really tried to minimize what they get inside so that we don’t distract them. Preaching: One of the things that you mentioned in the book is the use of creative teams. Of course, Ed Young, Jr., has helped tio popularize that concept as well. How have you used a planning team in your own congregation? Nelson: We’ve used it the last two years and its fun. It takes awhile to get the right chemistry and the right chemistry means the right people. We do it once a month. I planned a whole sermon series a year in advance last summer. First time I’d done it, and it’s a beautiful thing because I had all my notes and outlines down in a single bound volume and gave it to all my creative team and said, “Hey folks, we’re going to meet monthly and we’re going to think a month in advance of where we are headed metaphor wise, visual aides, dramas, music, etc. But now you’ve got a year to just read this through and think this through.” We had it so that we’re not just thinking a month in advance – we’re thinking nine months in advance. That was helpful for them and it gives them a document. It doesn’t mean we can’t change it but we’re not just shooting from week to week. So we get together after church the second Sunday of the month and we have a couple of hours of lunch together and literally work through the next month’s series – big picture metaphor, how to promote it. We have a template that we go through for every service, and look for elements of visual aids, video clips drama, music – we just kind of knock it out and everybody brainstorms. We’ve found that about six people is a good mix. There will be some people that you don’t want on the team because they’ll distract. You find that they’re very creative but none of their ideas are very practical. You kind of want to un-invite them or don’t invite them the next time. The other people – some people are really good at movies, some people are really good with music, some people won’t add much but they are technical people and they will need to take some of the ideas and turn them into reality or they will push back and say, “You know what, that’s not going to happen.” We don’t have the people or it’s too complicated or they can say, “Oh, that’s beautiful.” So maybe three or four of the people are creative types and two or three of the people are more of the technician/implementers. Preaching: Are these people from your staff or do you draw from laypeople in the congregation? Nelson: They are drawn from the congregation, which is why for us we can’t do it Monday through Friday during the work week because two-thirds or three-quarters are volunteers. And we have a group that we rotate so it’s not always the same group of people. We might have a dozen and then we only invite six. You get too many people and it gets too complicated. The average church can do it. That’s the cool thing. There’s a lot of pastors that say, “Well, I’m not that creative.” They’ve got creative people in their church. Preaching: What are some things you’ve learned about creativity that would be helpful to other pastors? Nelson: I think I am blessed and/or plagued with a creative mind. I’m blessed because creativity comes naturally to me but I’m plagued because I’ve got a hundred ideas and you can’t use them all but you hate to see them wasted. And I love creativity but I sometimes don’t like to follow through – it’s my weakness. I think you can govern or guide creativity so that the creative types in your church are invited to share ideas on message planning and such and it can be a great thing, but obviously there are parameters. For example, my friend pastors a big church, about 5,000. They had this big drama leading up to Easter and he said he had to pull the plug on it the last minute because it just wasn’t quality. So he wasn’t driving the thing but he was the quality control person. Just because you have creative people you can’t let them run wild. I think there is that fine line between allowing it but saying we’re going do it with excellence and we’re going to do it well and not just shoot from the hip. By allowing it sometimes you push the envelope. But you also have some parameters for excellence and quality in communication. I think sometimes in the past people have heard, “Oh, we want to be more creative,” so then they allow a bad drama to happen or something crummy and then it ruins it for everybody. Then they say: well we’re not going to do that again. Preaching: What would you like to say about preaching that I haven’t asked you? Nelson: I think that the stakes are higher today because communication is more confounding today. My theory is one of the reasons we are seeing mega churches and these satellite churches is because a lot of people just can’t stomach mediocre preaching today. And I think because preaching is more challenging today, the people who are good at it are drawing bigger crowds and now we’re trying to franchise it through these satellite ministries. All of us need to continually hone our skill, and many of us need to either decide: are we going to be preachers in the traditional sense or are we going to be communicators in a contemporary sense, then really step up the quality of what we do and why we do it. Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.