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preaching article Your Congregation is Fact-Checking Your Preaching (And That's Good News)

Your Congregation is Fact-Checking Your Preaching (And That's Good News)

based on 5 ratings
Feb 13, 2014


Have you noticed that fewer people are bringing their bibles to church, but are using a smartphone bible app instead? That’s not the only thing they’re reading in church.

As it turns out, up to 38 percent of churchgoing Millennials will do an online search to verify what their pastor has said. And many of them are doing it while we’re preaching. Something tells me they’re not the only ones doing that.

Just when too many people were ready to write off the Millennials as apathetic slackers, they prove themselves to be high-tech Bereans.

This week, the well-respected Barna Institute published the results of their latest poll on technology and churchgoing Millennials in a post entitled “How Technology is Changing Millennial Faith.” Among other interesting and helpful facts was this paragraph:

The one-way communication from pulpit to pew is not how Millennials experience faith. By nature of digital connectedness, Millennial life is interactive. For many of them, faith is interactive as well—whether their churches are ready for it or not. It’s an ongoing conversation, and it’s all happening on their computers, tablets and smart phones. What’s more, many of them bring their devices with them to church. Now with the ability to fact-check at their fingertips, Millennials aren’t taking the teaching of faith leaders for granted. In fact, 14 percent of Millennials say they search to verify something a faith leader has said. A striking 38 percent of practicing Christian Millennials say the same.

Millennials prefer two-way faith communication to one-way. This is good news. No, great news! Especially for small churches, since our size allows small church pastors to facilitate conversations with church members and seekers.

But that’s another subject for another day. Today, I want to ask you a question:

Are you ready for your preaching to be fact-checked in real time by the people sitting in front of you? You’d better be, because it’s not coming; it’s here.

Here are four ways you can be ready for this. And it might just make you a better communicator, too.

1. Google (and Cite) Your Sources 

It’s OK to use other people’s research to help you preach better.

Small church pastors, many of whom are bivocational, have an especially hard time squeezing in the hours for sermon preparation that they’d like to do. So, many pastors do a quick Google search for sermon ideas or outlines.

The next time you do that, remember that the people in your church can do it just as easily as you can—and some of them will do it as you’re preaching.

Does that mean we can’t use other people’s work? Of course not. No one is ever completely original in anything we say. But it does mean we should be honest enough (even if no one is Googling us) to cite our sources.

If a particular sermon uses a lot of material from one or two sources, don’t interrupt your message every two minutes with “as so-and-so says.” You’ll sound like a textbook, and you’ll make people wonder why they came to hear you instead of looking up the original sermon from so-and-so in the comfort of their own home.

What I suggest in those cases is to either start the message with “a lot of what I’m using today is taken from the great work of so-and-so” or, better yet, write a short citation at the end of your handout notes, if you use them.

People don’t mind that we use other people’s research source material. They just want us to be honest about it. They’re right.

2. Wikipedia Your Facts

Some “facts” aren’t facts. Especially the ones “everyone says …”

For example, years ago I’d been told that the “body of death” mentioned in Romans 7:24 referred to an ancient Roman practice of strapping the murdered victim’s body to their murderer and setting them to wander in the desert as the death they caused ate them alive. A gruesome, but vivid picture of how our sin eats us alive without the grace of Jesus.

I had the story ready to go in a recent series through Romans, when I remembered my own rule and did a quick online search for a source of the story. At least I thought it would be a quick search.

As it turns out, the famous “fact” of Roman punishment for murder isn’t a fact at all. Instead, a story similar to it is found in Virgil’s Aeneid (BC 19) in which a fictional character, King Mezentius, was so evil he “tied corpses to living bodies, as a means of torture, placing hand on hand and face against face, so killing by a lingering death, in that wretched embrace, that ooze of disease and decomposition.”

So what did I do? I told the story. Then I told them it wasn’t true. I informed them about Virgil’s tale and allowed that it’s possible Paul knew of the story and was referencing it, like a pastor might reference a movie today. By doing that, I demonstrated that facts matter, and I reinforced the trust they share with me.

The result? When congregation members commented on my message that day on Twitter and Facebook (that two-way faith conversation), several of them said they were grateful that their pastor had told them the truth.

In response to one church member’s re-telling of that story on Facebook, a friend of hers commented “A pastor telling the truth. Imagine that.” They need to do more than imagine it. They need to be able to rely on it. Keeping or earning people’s trust is worth the extra research time.

A Wikipedia search is the least we can do (and I do mean, the least!) to be sure our “facts” are facts. But don’t stop there. Stop when you’ve found the truth.

3. Snopes Your Stories

Over the years, I’ve learned never to trust a story that fits my world-view too perfectly. After all, if it seems too good to be true, it usually is.

There are so many stories floating around the internet that people wish were true.

1. An atheist professor declares “If there’s a God, he’ll stop this piece of chalk before it hits the ground,” then amazingly, that happens.

2. Another atheist professor (be aware of atheist professor stories in general, I guess) makes an apparently iron-clad argument that there is no God, only to be schooled by a student who, it turns out is … wait for it  … a young Albert Einstein.

3. Scientists discover a lost day in time, verifying the Joshua 10 narrative.

They’re great stories. There’s just one problem with them. They’re not true!

Before you tell a story that you didn’t see in person, do yourself and your congregation a favor. Take two minutes (literally, two minutes is all it takes!) to check out the story on a site like Snopes.com or TruthorFiction.com.

People in your church will be checking your story, even as you’re telling it. You can save yourself and lot of embarrassment, and preserve your credibility, by checking it first.

And don’t even think of writing “it doesn’t matter if the story actually happened, the principles behind it are true” in the comments below. I have no tolerance for willful ignorance. You will be deleted.

Yes, it’s OK to tell stories that didn’t actually happen. Even Jesus told parables. But label them what they are—fiction. As I did with the “body of death” story above.

4. YouVersion Your Verses

It’s easy to pull verses out of the air when I need them. Easy, but dangerous.

For example, can you cite the passages for the following popular verses?

  • The lion will lie down with the lamb
  • Time shall be no more
  • Neither a borrower nor a lender be
  • God works in mysterious ways

You can’t? Do you know why? Because none of them are in the Bible!

If you quote them while preaching, people can use apps like YouVersion (it’s on over 100 million phones and tablets!) to find that out before your sermon is over.

(In case you’re wondering, #1 is a misquote of Isaiah 11:6. #2 is a common belief, but not a verse. #3 is from Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3. #4 is a quote from William Cowper’s Olney Hymns.)

I had a bible college professor who would never allow us to use a bible verse in a written or oral argument if we didn’t have its reference. His rule felt like a pain in the butt at the time, but it’s served me well over the years.

I make it a rule never to use a verse without telling people the verse reference or having it written in my personal notes. That rule has saved me from using verses that aren’t verses a few times (see above). On many other occasions it has been very helpful when people approach me after church and ask “where was that verse you mentioned? I’d like to study more on that.”

Being able to say “Let me look that up in my notes” is way better than “I can’t remember where that’s found. I’ll get back to you,” only to have to send a humiliating email the next day apologizing that the bible verse I cited in a sermon wasn’t a bible verse at all.

Now more than ever, people don’t come to church for mere facts. They have those at their fingertips—literally. They come to church for trust and truth.

Trust is built on truth.

Truth matters. As pastors, we need to be very careful not to betray people’s trust by not telling them the truth. With the facts to back it up.

Karl Vaters is the author of The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking That Divides Us. He’s been in pastoral ministry for over 30 years and has been the lead pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California for over 20 years. He’s also the founder of NewSmallChurch.com, a blog that encourages, connects and equips innovative Small Church pastors.

Talk about it...

Steve Malson avatar
Steve Malson
0 days ago
I love the fact-checkers in the congregation, and I love those who text me during the sermon with questions. I like knowing they are engaged. A couple thoughts: "TIME SHALL BE NO MORE" is a slight paraphrase of Revelation 10:6 (KJV). Isaiah 45:15 (NLT) says, "YOU WORK IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS." I suppose you expected us to fact check you on this . . . I appreciate the article and the insights within.
Karl Vaters avatar
Karl Vaters
0 days ago
Hi Steve. The fact-checkers really are a blessing if we choose to see them that way, aren't they? I've used texting and live-tweeting during a message as a way of having dialog, too. It especially engages younger generations. As to your comments on the so-called verses (yes, I expected it). "Time shall be no more" isn't really a paraphrase of Rev 10:6, especially when you consider what we mean when we say it. The KJV reads "there should be time no longer", but it has nothing to do with time ceasing, which is evident in the context. Others correctly translate it as "There will be no more delay" (NIV) or "God will wait no longer" (NLT). The concept that time will cease to exist isn't in that passage, or any passage I'm aware of. The Isaiah passage reads "you are a God who hides himself" (NIV) or some version of that in every translation I know other than the NLT, which is very recent. I'm guessing the NLT translators took that phrasing from Cowper's Olney Hymns, certainly not vise versa. Actually, the full quote most people use is "God works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform," which is a slight paraphrase of Cowper, but isn't anywhere similar to what's in Isaiah. Oh well. (That was fun! Thanks for the challenge, Steve).
Joe Mckeever avatar
Joe Mckeever
0 days ago
I suspect that Karl knows this, but he should get prepared for all those comments from readers telling him how unreliable Snopes and Wikipedia and the others are. However, Karl's point is a great one: We should still check! -- One minor thing with which I disagree is that I frequently do not cite the reference for a verse I use in a sermon for the simple reason that it's easy to overload the congregation with those things. But if someone asks, I have it. We have pretty good biblical basis for doing this. The writer of Hebrews, for instance, will say "somewhere it is written," and will quote a verse. Where exactly does it say that? (ahem) Glad you asked. Hebrews 2:6 and 4:4 for starters. (Oh, you don't suppose he didn't give chapter and verse because those didn't exist then? Nah.)
Karl Vaters avatar
Karl Vaters
0 days ago
Hi Joe. I agree with you. Like I wrote in the piece, "A Wikipedia search is the least we can do (and I do mean, the least!) ... But don't stop there." The same goes for Snopes. They're not perfect, but they're better than not checking at all. I also agree about not needing to cite every reference during a sermon. Especially if you have several, it can start feeling like reading a textbook with footnotes - and we all know how fun that is, right?
Lyle P Murphy avatar
Lyle P Murphy
0 days ago
. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his oldie-but-goodie LLife in the Spirit repeats the old story of Peter's interview with Christ in which phileo and agapawo are used to demonstratee the differences in meaning. Andreas Koestenvberger's great book on John says the terms were used in discrimatinately
Brian Lucas avatar
Brian Lucas
0 days ago
Great article, Karl! It's so true that people will Google what you say and check it out for themselves. The sad thing is, many will do this and then quietly walk away disheartened over it and never speak up. So it may be happening and churches are losing people without ever knowing why. We have to be on our game and know that what we are saying is true and accurate. Honestly, even more than the accountability to our church members, we are accountable to God to preach His word accurately and honestly. And, really, does He need our help making the Word relevant and interesting?
Karl Vaters avatar
Karl Vaters
0 days ago
You're dead on, Brian. You'd think wanting to represent the Word honestly and accurately would be enough to inspire us to seek and tell the truth.

So, what did you think?


Thank you.