Patterns are good. Ruts are bad.
Patterns give us structure. Ruts keep us stuck.
Everyone who speaks in public develops speaking patterns. The danger is to not let those patterns become ruts.
That’s why I purposely change the way I preach every few years.
People Hear Differently Now
If you can find a tape of me preaching 30 years ago, it would sound very different from the way I preach today. (First of all, it’s on tape). Or 20. Even 10.
That is intentional.
People don’t communicate today like they did just a few years ago. I speak differently now because people listen differently now.
And with the advent of computers, smart phones, tablets, Netflix and the like, the pace of change is getting even faster.
The message of the gospel matters so much that we need to communicate it in the best possible way for those listening.
What about Preachers?
Most of us haven’t changed our preaching method since we started.
The message hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. And it shouldn’t. In fact, the more my methods have changed, the more firmly I’ve hung on to the core truths in God’s Word. But the manner in which we communicate it must change.
Here are five major adjustments I’ve made to the way I preach in the 23 years I’ve served my current church:
1. I Dropped Alliterations and Rhymes (circa 1996)
In a recent post, I listed 5 Reasons to Stop Making Your Sermon Notes Rhyme. So I won’t go over that ground again.
Since writing it, I’ve been asked, ‘If not alliterations and rhymes, how do you organize your main points?’
Here’s an example. On a recent Sunday I spoke on The Power of the First Follower, from 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. Here are my six key points:
- The First Follower shows others who to follow (“…Jesus Christ and him crucified.”)
- The First Follower shows others how to follow (“I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Christ...”)
- First Followers do not need special skills (“I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom.”)
- First Followers need courage and obedience (“I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.”)
- The First Follower must be willing to look foolish (“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words...”)
- Even Jesus was a follower, first (“I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.” – John 8:28)
Before I made this change in my preaching style, I’d have noticed that I had six points and that “follow” has six letters, and voila! I’d have spent an extra hour or so on my message, making the points alliterate the word F.O.L.L.O.W.
That would have been a good way to outline the sermon in an era when people had to go home remembering the sermon in their heads. But, in an era when they have handouts and can listen to the podcast later, the first outline works much better.
How do I know that? Ask yourself how much more you got from the first outline than from the second one. You could preach the first one as is, couldn’t you?
2. I Always Preach in Series (circa 2002)
Obviously, this isn’t original with me. None of these ideas are.
Preaching in series has several advantages. For the preacher and the congregation.
For the preacher, it means we only have to come up with one big idea every several weeks, instead of a brand-new one every Sunday. Plus, it allows us to plan further in advance and build truth upon truth.
For the congregation, a series gives them something to follow. It builds anticipation and consistency. And, in an age where even regular attenders are at church only three out of four Sundays, it gives them a chance to catch up on what they missed without it feeling repetitive for those who missed nothing.
3. I Became More Exegetical (circa 2007)
For several years I took my cue from many of the preachers I admired and spoke topically, using a verse or two from various places in scripture to drive each point home.
I still do this when warranted. But it’s not my go-to any more.
Despite what you may have been told, this generation will listen to a sermon that sticks closely to the scripture. And they love hearing the historical context if we don’t make it sound like a classroom lecture.
For instance, in last Sunday’s sermon on the woman at the well, I spent several minutes outlining the history of the Samaritans, including putting a map of Samaria on the screen. People loved the context and richness it added to their understanding of the passage – and how it relates to them today. (Click here if you’d like to hear my podcast of Be the Example: What Is Worship?)
4. I Use a Theme Verse for Multiple Series (circa 2013)
Currently, I’m using 1 Corinthians 1:11 (“Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ”) for my current series, Be the Example. This verse will also guide the next couple of series – all on the theme of discipleship.
This allows for people to see how we’re building our teaching, not just within a series, but from series to series.
5. I Preach Into Worship, not From It (circa 2015)
This is my most recent transition. It happened just a few months ago. Our staff decided to give people more time to respond to the Word instead of having one closing song at the end of the sermon.
People don’t need to warm up to hear God’s Word like they used to (or we thought they did).
Now, we start our services with a short opening song or two, and I’m preaching by about 10 minutes into the service, instead of 30 minutes or more.
This has affected my message more than I expected.
Instead of just preaching to give them something to take home, I give them something to hang on to right now as we go into worship together.
6. What’s Next?
Even though my most recent change was just a few months ago, I’m already thinking about my next (actually current) adjustment.
Building a series from the outside in.
I’m starting to think of every sermon series using a more multi-dimensional model than a linear one. More like playing with Legos or assembling a jigsaw puzzle than running a race from point A to B.
I’ll write on this subject soon. Stay tuned.
It’s Your Turn
I’m not proposing that any of these ideas are what you should do. They’re my story for my context. You have to make changes according to your context.
But I’ve listed mine here in the hopes that they’ll encourage you that change is possible, even necessary, without compromising the message. Use what works for you. Toss what doesn’t.
But don’t dismiss change as unnecessary just because it’s hard. And it is hard.
The unchanging message of the gospel deserves our best. And that can’t happen when we’re stuck in a rut.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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