The young man was puzzled. He heard me and other panel members cite the inherent limitations of regular lectures and sermons. After we encouraged the audience to insert some experiential elements into their teaching, he raised his hand.
“But what about the biblical mandate to preach?” he asked.
Now I was puzzled. First, I wondered how his concept of preaching confined itself to mere lecture. In order for preaching to be preaching, must it exclude everything that’s not one guy lecturing at a microphone?
Then I wondered about his assertion of “the mandate.” I told the audience that I didn’t conclude that “the mandate” of scripture was to preach. Yes, Jesus instructed his disciples to go out and preach. But when I think of a “mandate,” I think a little bigger. I’d consider scripture’s mandate to be something big, such as “make disciples,” or “help bring people into a growing relationship with Jesus,” or "accomplish Jesus’ Great Commandments: love God, love people."
Those are mandates with significant outcomes. And as faithful followers of Christ, we need to find effective ways to pursue those mandates. That may include some preaching. But ultimately, we’re not called to preach. We’re called to reach.
If we want to be effective at following the real mandates, and to be more successful at reaching people, at communicating, we would do well to look at the methods of the master communicator, Jesus.
Complete the Communication
First, Jesus modeled a true understanding of communication. He knew that communication is not merely sending information. In order for communication to happen, people need to receive and be transformed by the message. It’s Jesus’ Parable of the Sower.
I often hear preachers defend the flat lecture method as pure in its own right, armored with theological education, marinated in exhaustive sermon prep and festooned with biblical truth. All of that is good, but if it doesn’t complete the communication process, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. It’s akin to asking your child to join you for a game of catch, and you hurl beautifully thrown balls in every direction but your child’s. You may feel like a wonderfully athletic pitcher, but you’re not playing catch. You’re playing with yourself. And your kid gets nothing out of your performance.
Jesus used lots of methods to communicate and transform lives. He didn’t confine his messages to flat lecture. He engaged his people with memorable experiences and interaction. He involved people in colorful feats. He used fish and dirt and rocks and water to engage his people. He encouraged questions. He didn’t fear give-and-take interaction.
When he set out to teach about humble servanthood, he could have given a plain lecture. He could have handed out a fill-in-the-blank worksheet. But he didn’t do that. He dropped to his knees and washed his people’s feet. He engaged them in a way that connected, in a way they would never forget.
Follow the Leader
If we desire to effectively pursue the big mandates, we need to act a lot more like Jesus. How? Include captivating, meaningful experiences. Allow questions. Give opportunities for everyone to talk and engage with those around them.
One Sunday in my church we decided to re-enact one of Jesus’ lessons on forgiveness. The youth group rigged up a wooden pallet with a pulley at the ceiling. On cue, the kids lowered the pallet into the sanctuary. A form on the pallet was covered with a sheet. The pastor told the story of a similar experience that Jesus used, as recorded in Mark 5. “This is an account not only of healing, but of faith and forgiveness,” he said. He then walked over, slowly removed the sheet, and revealed a loaf of bread and cups of wine. The congregation gathered around for a most memorable communion.
Another pastor friend wanted to engage his congregation in an experience of running from God. Before people arrived he placed an overly ripe dead fish in front of a fan in the sanctuary. For the message time, he asked everyone to move to the center aisle and stand in darkness as he related the story of Jonah. He asked the people to share with one another a time they felt like running from God. Then he asked them to share how they were feeling about this dark, confined, smelly experience.
They connected — with the message, with one another and with God. Weeks later, one man told the pastor that this fishy experience came flooding back to him just as he was tempted to enter into a shady business deal. He turned it down because he didn’t want to run from God and find himself in a “dark, smelly mess.”
That’s transformational teaching. It’s an experience. It’s Jesus-style teaching.