Traditionally, churches tell the old, old story in languages (music, terminology, symbols, etc.) that only the initiated understand, leaving any newcomers or non-Christians in the dark. “Seeker-friendly” churches (typified by churches like Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek) target a different crowd with their Sunday morning sermons: people who are willing to hear the story, but don’t necessarily speak the language of the traditional church (what is a narthex, anyway?). Some churches try to build a bridge between the two, providing subtitles, so to speak, to interpret what’s going on for the uninitiated.
But—surprisingly, perhaps—one area where much common ground exists is the sermon, in many churches the central part of the service. Because whether you call it a “homily,” “sermon,” “message,” or “talk,” it so happens that both seekers and Christians want largely the same things from it. So—though there are more—here are the top ten things both seekers and Christians want in a sermon, all of which I’ve encountered in my experience as Pastor of Leadership and Teaching at Cobblestone Community Church (Oxford, Ohio):
10. Grab my attention as soon as you start speaking. The great preachers of the past knew how to connect with an audience very quickly, but many modern preachers—even the good ones—tend to start with riveting phrases like, “Turn in your Bibles to Obadiah.” Such tactics won’t do these days. Think of the first thirty seconds of your message as equivalent to a movie theater preview. You must grab your listeners’ attention any way you can-with a dramatic statement, question, story, film clip, etc.—and give them no choice but to listen from “Word One.”
9. Teach me something I didn’t already know. Ask yourself, “If I were listening to this sermon, what parts or points would I feel compelled to write down so I won’t forget it?” If the answer is, “nothing,” start over. Every listener wants to be helped to—not spoon-fed—a discovery of new information, new insights, new perspectives.
8. Tell me what God says, not what you say. Even seekers are far more interested in what God says on a subject than on what you say . . . or even what Oliver Wendell Holmes said. Good sermons—whether targeted primarily to seekers or Christians — rely heavily on the Bible as God’s Word and let it do the talking.
7. Don’t make me feel stupid because I don’t know my Bible as well as you. Not only seekers, but long-time church-attenders as well, don’t use their Bibles in church—not because the verses are projected up on the screen, but because they’re embarrassed at their inability to find Haggai or Ruth in under three seconds (like seemingly everyone else sitting around them). That’s why in my church, when it comes time to turn to the Biblical text for the morning, we project on the screen the Bible table of contents with that book highlighted, and say something like, “Ruth is the eighth book of the Bible, and it begins on page 184 in the Bibles we provide for your use.”
6. Make me like you, and help me get to know you a little bit. Every speaker at Cobblestone Community Church (even me, perhaps the most visible member of the church) is asked to introduce himself, and is encouraged to seize opportunities to give listeners insight into the speaker’s own life and personality — without revealing anything inappropriate, of course (and so much the better if it’s vulnerable, self-effacing, and/or winsome).
5. Make me laugh. Not everyone can tell a joke, but then, jokes are far from the only way—and far from the best way—to inject humor into a sermon. Candid observations about our own follies—particularly the speakers’ foibles—are among the most effective ways to use humor.
4. Show me you understand what I’m going through. One of the most crucial—and earliest—tasks of any preacher is to identify with listeners. In one message, on “How to Survive Suffering,” I began my sermon with the phrase, “Sometimes a speaker bites off more than he can chew,” and went on to detail why I felt ill-qualified to speak in a room filled with people who had suffered far more than me: a family losing their business, a couple each of whom were dealing with debilitating illnesses, a mother who’d lost her son, and so on. A sincere admission of our own struggles or a brief acknowledgment of the real-life issues others are facing is key to identifying with both seeker and Christian.
3. Touch my emotions. Seekers and Christians alike want to be inspired. They want their heart-strings to be plucked. And, while seekers in particular are alert to manipulation, they’re nonetheless longing for a preacher who will help them not only to think, but also to feel. Any sermon that fails to engage both mind and heart is likely to disappoint.
2. Meet a felt need. I tell both my writing students and the preachers I mentor that the first question a writer or speaker must answer is, “So what?” If as a reader or listener, I am not promised something I want when you begin, I will quickly begin thinking about what time the football game starts or where I should take the family to eat after the service. And, if I was promised something when you started but you never delivered on your promise, I’ll be far less likely to listen — or even return—next week.
And, finally, the number one thing both seekers and Christ-followers want in a sermon:
1. Tell me clearly how I can apply this to my life today, this week. When I conclude a message at Cobblestone, I assume that all my listeners are interested in following through on what God has said to them. So in addition to giving them opportunity for private prayer and counsel, I try to suggest to them practical ways they can follow up on what they’ve learned. I’ve encouraged listeners to write their own mission statement, give away one possession in the coming week, or mail a postcard inviting someone to church the following week.
When it comes right down to it, it’s not so different preaching to seekers or to Christians. With Christians, of course, you can assume some knowledge and take some liberties. And with seekers, you might face fewer taboos. But both groups seek essentially the same things from a teacher of God’s Word-none of which are anything new, of course, but all of which we would do well to apply to every message we speak from now until Jesus returns.