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I had the honor and joy of speaking recently at the Write-to-Publish conference in Wheaton, Illinois. In one of my three plenaries, I talked about "writing for the senses." It seemed to go over well enough.

I believe not only in writing for the senses, but in teaching and preaching for them, too. That is, consciously involving the learner's senses whenever possible.

Some of my favorite sensory preaching moments in the past have been:

Taste and Touch 

On Palm Sunday 2010, in the final message in a series called, "Do Something," I talked about how during my latest visit to Jerusalem, as our group was walking through the Old City of Jerusalem, our guide Nader pointed out to us several times a scrap of bread on a window ledge or a few pieces on an electrical box. He explained that, because Jesus revealed himself to the two disciples he met on the road to Emmaus in the breaking of bread, bread is so revered by the Christians of Jerusalem, that they will not throw it in the garbage … and if any bread falls to the ground or is seen on the ground, the residents will pick it up and place it on a ledge so it won’t be trampled underfoot.

So I asked everyone to come to communion, expecting to meet the living Christ in the breaking of bread, like those two disciples, and then I asked them, on their way back to their seats, to leave a piece or two or more of bread on the window ledge to represent the person or persons they had invited or planned to invite to Easter, with a prayer that that person would someday soon be meeting the living Christ in the breaking of bread, as they had just done. It prompted a beautiful response from the people of God that day.

Oh, What a Sight

One summer (2009, the fortieth anniversary of the original "Summer of Love") we did a "Summer of Love" series. As a sort of fun finale, I delivered my message on "The Breadth of Love," from Ephesians 3:18 and Luke 15:1-7, in the hippie threads you see at left. Some people giggled through the whole thing. I don't know why. I thought I was groovy.

Taste of Grace

In a study of Galatians called "Livin' Venti," I preached on the first ten verses of Galatians 2, in a message called "Free to Belong." I wanted to emphasize the futility of adding to the Gospel of Grace. So I produced a fresh Krispy Kreme donut and asked how many would eat that donut if I gave it to them. Of course, many hands were raised.

Then I produced a ketchup bottle, a jar of jam and a bottle of hot sauce, and added those ingredients to the donut, asking if anyone would eat it. ONE young man (in each celebration that morning!) raised a hand, so I gave him a bite. The crowd loved it—and even more when one of the guys had to leave the room shortly after to get a drink, or crackers, or something! It was fun—and, I hope, got the point across.

A Hands-Tied Experience

Also in the "Livin' Venti" series, preaching on the latter half of Galatians 2, I preached the first part of the message in a straitjacket, to illustrate our tendency to return over and over again to the constraints and strictures of the Law instead of enjoying the fact that we are "Free to Enjoy" the new life God gives us. That simple visual seemed to make this message one of the most impactful and memorable I've ever given. Oh, and in case you're curious, the straitjacket was bought from a costume supply place ... I didn't just happen to have it on hand, despite what you may think.

Wedding Banquet, Draft Notice

In an eleven-part study of the book of Revelation (that is easily one of my favorite series, ever), I gave the ninth message, "The Last Word on Salvation," on Revelation 19-20. In it, I depicted salvation as wedding (ch. 19) and war (ch. 20), and we did a number of things to try to drive the point home. We divided the message into two parts, separated by the celebration of communion. For the first part of the message, I came onstage in a tuxedo and issued the invitation, "Come to the Wedding" (from Revelation 19:1-10) after which we celebrated communion together from a beautifully appointed banquet table, to emphasize the wedding supper of the Lamb (right).

After communion, I returned to the stage, this time in Army camo fatigues and issued the call, "Go out to War," from Rev. 19:11-21. We also had, on each seat in the auditorium, a card with a printed invitation to the wedding of the Lamb on one side and a draft notice on the other; as part of the response, I urged participants, if they accepted the wedding invitation, to also sign the signature line on the draft notice, emphasizing that we kid ourselves if we think we can come to the wedding without joining in the battle.

Remote Preaching

My co-pastor at the time, John Johnson, planned and delivered one of the most imaginative messages I think I've ever seen. He actually constructed a silo in the auditorium (on the left in the photo at right; sorry for the quality, but the photographer is not the brightest bulb in the box) and delivered the first ten minutes or so of the message from INSIDE the silo, and had a video feed that showed him, contained and isolated in the silo, speaking to us from the big screen!

He also had a SECOND camera from which he could switch back and forth to show us the cozy confines of his self-imposed cell. It was a memorable way to depict how many of us tend to prefer isolation from each other rather than engagement and vulnerability and community with each other.

Barefoot Sunday

Finally, one Thanksgiving Sunday I surprised the whole church by concluding my message that day by challenging them to donate their shoes—the shoes they wore to worship that day—to people around the world who don't have even one pair of shoes to wear, through the ministry of Soles4Souls. God's people responded magnanimously! It was a day to remember, as worshipers came forward during the closing song, left their shoes on the platform steps and left church BAREFOOT! The following weeks, people donated shoes by the hundreds, and we shipped them as a Christmas gift to the Soles4Souls distribution center!

Over the years, some of my favorite (and, I think, most impactful) preaching experiences have been those in which I remembered to employ multiple senses, especially those beyond sight and sound, and encouraged active participation from the saints. Like when we roped off sections of the crowd to indicate circles of influence. Or when I released a live butterfly as part of the message.

Or when the Scripture reading included dramatic sound effects. Or when each worshiper received a small smooth stone or a coin or a dollar to drive home a point. Or when the front of the Easter Sunday auditorium was transformed into a luxuriant garden that not only looked beautiful but spread the fragrance of flowers throughout the room. Those are the moments I enjoyed best as a preacher, and the ones I think people remember best as participants. I only wish there were more of them.

Bob Hostetler is a writer, editor and speaker from southeastern Ohio. His 30 books, which include Quit Going to Church and the novel The Bone Box, have sold over three million copies. He has coauthored a dozen books with Josh McDowell. Bob is a frequent speaker at churches, conferences and retreats. He has been a disc jockey, pastor, magazine editor, freelance book editor and, with his wife Robin, a foster parent to 10 boys (though not all at once).

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Tim Tallent

commented on Sep 5, 2013

Hard work to keep one-upping yourself in order to keep the masses entertained. Just preach the word, for goodness sake, and trust God the holy spirit to bless and use it. Faith comes not through the wisdom or creativity of man, but from the elect hearing the word and God's call. This entertaining nonsense is killing the flock, dear brothers.

Bill Williams

commented on Sep 5, 2013

Boy, did you miss the point completely. "Preaching the word" is precisely what this article is about! The question considered by the author, specifically, is, How can we proclaim God's word in such a way that it can be experienced in as many senses as possible. The question is valid, even if you may happen to disagree with some of the examples given. "This entertaining nonsense is killing the flock." I'll grant you that there is a lot of entertaining nonsense going on in much preaching today, to the detriment of the Church. But "creativity" and "entertaining nonsense" are not synonymous. (By the way, wisdom and creativity is not mutually exclusive with preaching God's word, and I would argue that if one does not use wisdom and creativity when preaching, one most likely is not preaching God's word. Remember, James exhorts us to ask God for wisdom, who will give it to us generously). And going to the other extreme, by narrowly defining "preaching" as exclusively an auditory, intellectual, left-brained experience, will ALSO kill the flock.

Tim Tallent

commented on Sep 5, 2013

This is a fair response to my comment. I still maintain that many of the examples given in this article were done for the sake of entertaining rather than expounding God's word. I feel certain that many who were a part of these things left them remembering the antic rather than the word. And yes, a failure to expound the word will kill the flock. The current sorry state of the professed church bears witness to this. Read, explain, and apply scripture to your people, then trust in the power of the word, not in stunts. I don't think I missed the point of the article at all. But,again, your response is fair and I receive it as from a brother.

Bill Williams

commented on Sep 5, 2013

I appreciate your willingness to listen to a fellow brother in Christ, many on here won't do as much. And I agree with you that there is a lot of entertainment and a lot of stunts out there trying to pass themselves off as preaching. There is a need for discernment. But here is the problem, and I offer it simply as something for you to consider. When you write things such as "many of the examples given in this article were done for the sake of entertaining rather than expounding God's word. I feel certain that many who were a part of these things left them remembering the antic rather than the word," you don't actually KNOW that that is the case. It is pure speculation based only on the brief descriptions presented in the article. But you weren't there. You don't know the context in which those examples took place. You didn't see the reactions of the people. Maybe they WERE moved. Maybe their eyes were opened to see new insights into the Scriptures BECAUSE of these multi-sensory experiences. It is dangerous to "maintain" an opinion and be "certain" of it when, frankly, you just don't know. In your own reading, the examples came across to you as stunts, and thus you judged them accordingly; when they may not have been stunts at all. I mean, haven't you ever read the book of Ezekiel? There's all sorts of crazy things that he did that could be considered stunts. But they were ways in which he was proclaiming God's word to his people. Or what about Hosea's marriage to Gomer? Was that a stunt? Certainly that is much more "over-the-top" than any of the examples in the article. My point is, there is a difference between creativity in service of the preaching of God's word on the one hand, and entertainment for its own sake or for "shock value" on the other hand. Your warning against entertainment for its own sake is a point well taken, so I appreciate that you offered it. However, let's not in the process simply dismiss creativity altogether, lest (to borrow language from Gamaliel) we be found fighting God himself!

Tim Tallent

commented on Sep 5, 2013

God did what he did with the prophets. We are to expound and proclaim it, not attempt to duplicate it. Thank you for another helpful response, bro.

Bill Williams

commented on Sep 5, 2013

Tim, I'm not talking about duplicating what the prophets did. You seem to be misunderstanding me as you misunderstand the author of this article. What I'm saying is that the very word that you insist we are to expound and proclaim is full of examples of people communicating God's word in visceral, mutli-sensory ways. The article is simply a call for us to apply that principle in our own preaching. Expounding and proclaiming God's word does no one any good if we don't actually LIVE it, if we don't pattern our lives according to the worldview of Scripture. Again quoting James, we need to be DOERS of the word. But I have a question for you, and I really hope that you answer it. How can you speak with such certainty that "many who were a part of these things left them remembering the antic rather than the word," when you were not actually present in any of these examples? I really do appreciate the kindness and civility of your tone, but I'm hoping that you engage with my arguments rather than simply resort to mere speculation. I mean, if you really are "certain" about this, it is not too much to ask on what evidence you base this certainty. I look forward to your response.

Donna Larson

commented on Sep 5, 2013

FABULOUS article and great examples to get our creativity working! It is proven fact that the more of the senses one involves while speaking the greater percentage of the message the hearer will retain. Keep the great ideas coming, please!

Anonymous

commented on Sep 5, 2013

This is so helpful to me and this is something I have practiced.

Anonymous

commented on Sep 5, 2013

The end result is what's pertinent. Is the end result people coming to the altar accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior? Sometimes we get closed minded and get so caught up in the method not seeing the end result. Jesus told stories (parables) some would consider that entertaining. Let's not put God in a box. No one knows all the workings of the Holy Ghost. Let's be careful of what we say is God and what is not God.

Bill Williams

commented on Sep 5, 2013

I get what you're saying and mostly agree. On the other hand, we need to be very careful not to fall into the trap of believing that "the ends justify the means." When Moses drew water out of a rock by striking it twice, rather than by speaking to it as God had commanded him, he achieved the desired result. But he also paid a heavy consequence (not being allowed to enter the Promised Land) for his disobedience. While I strongly agree that we should not put God in a box, that the Holy Spirit often works in ways that we would not expect, and that he can use a wide variety of methods; we must be sure that our methods are in harmony with Biblical principles. In this specific case, I think there is plenty of Biblical evidence to support the author's premise, namely, that in our preaching we should seek to engage all five senses.

Bill Williams

commented on Sep 5, 2013

I appreciate your willingness to listen to a fellow brother in Christ, many on here won't do as much. And I agree with you that there is a lot of entertainment and a lot of stunts out there trying to pass themselves off as preaching. There is a need for discernment. But here is the problem, and I offer it simply as something for you to consider. When you write things such as "many of the examples given in this article were done for the sake of entertaining rather than expounding God's word. I feel certain that many who were a part of these things left them remembering the antic rather than the word," you don't actually KNOW that that is the case. It is pure speculation based only on the brief descriptions presented in the article. But you weren't there. You don't know the context in which those examples took place. You didn't see the reactions of the people. Maybe they WERE moved. Maybe their eyes were opened to see new insights into the Scriptures BECAUSE of these multi-sensory experiences. It is dangerous to "maintain" an opinion and be "certain" of it when, frankly, you just don't know. In your own reading, the examples came across to you as stunts, and thus you judged them accordingly; when they may not have been stunts at all. I mean, haven't you ever read the book of Ezekiel? There's all sorts of crazy things that he did that could be considered stunts. But they were ways in which he was proclaiming God's word to his people. Or what about Hosea's marriage to Gomer? Was that a stunt? Certainly that is much more "over-the-top" than any of the examples in the article. My point is, there is a difference between creativity in service of the preaching of God's word on the one hand, and entertainment for its own sake or for "shock value" on the other hand. Your warning against entertainment for its own sake is a point well taken, so I appreciate that you offered it. However, let's not in the process simply dismiss creativity altogether, lest (to borrow language from Gamaliel) we be found fighting God himself!

Bill Williams

commented on Sep 5, 2013

To the moderators: Why are we no longer able to delete our own comments? That ability is useful whenever one accidentally double posts. Thank you.

Dean Johnson

commented on Sep 6, 2013

Thanks, I found this a good challenge. "Preach" does not mean "verbal lecture only."

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