Preaching Articles

Here’s how to be guaranteed that listeners will eagerly anticipate your next series of messages, waiting to hear your words—and God’s—on the selected topic.

First, some background...

A few years ago the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps asked me to research the attitudes of incoming 18-, 19- and 20-year-old recruits toward religion and church. I interviewed young men and women across mainstream America. One of the questions I asked was, “What is your opinion of church?” Two words came back over and over: boring and irrelevant.

“Relevance” is one of the hallmarks of an effective, contagious church. Attendees who find their church speaking clearly and creatively to life issues not only return, but bring friends. “Relevance” is found in the words and rhythm of songs ... in the style and appearance of facilities ... in children’s Sunday School and topics in the adult classes. But perhaps more than any other area, relevance must be found in the sermon.

In his book, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary, veteran pastor James Emery White talks about how to make preaching relevant: “The most important thing has to do with your sermon topics. They should address people’s life issues and questions about the faith ... That means you try to bring as much of the counsel of God as you can to them through the door of their interests.”

How do you learn the interests, concerns and needs of your congregation so that you can connect God’s Word with their world in a relevant way? Rather than guess, why not ask them?

Here's How... 

Insert a 3x5 card in each church bulletin or program for the next several weeks and point it out during the service. Explain that one of your goals as pastor is to help the Word of God to be understood and applied in people’s daily lives so that it is relevant to both those in the church, and those in the community. Describe the purpose of the card—to list key life issues they are facing at the moment.

Give listeners time to think about their responses to three questions and then write them down on the card. At the end of the service, attendees should drop their completed “answer cards” in one of several marked boxes on their way out. The cards should, of course, be anonymous.

The Questions

1. What do you wonder about? What do you just not understand—or wish you did understand—about how life works? Is it “Why bad things happen to good people?” Or maybe “Does prayer really work?” Perhaps you wonder about “What happens when you die?” or “Why do innocent children suffer?” If more than one thing comes to mind, write them all down.

2. What do you worry about? What keeps you up at night, causes your heart to beat faster, your anxiety to rise? Perhaps it’s a financial issue. Maybe a relationship gone bad. Is there realistic hope in your worst-case scenario?

3. What do you wish for? If money were no obstacle, time or other commitments could not stop you, what is your dream? What would you love to see or do? Maybe travel somewhere. Have lots of money. A particular job or a special relationship? Dreams are powerful motivators. What’s yours?

After the service, collect the cards. Repeat the process for the next two weeks so that people can add additional items, and those who did not attend the previous week can contribute.

On your computer create three different documents (one for each question) and transcribe the responses. (Asking a secretary or volunteer to help may be a better use of your time.)

Then review the responses to each question and look for common themes. Identify general response categories for each question and make tic marks (IIII) for similar answers. Finally, identify the most frequent responses to each question. Once you have identified what people wonder about ... worry about ... wish for ... you have tapped into relevance.

Your congregation will be interested in the results. On the Sunday after your last survey, share the list and frequency of the responses. A visual illustration or printed document will add interest.

Explain that you will be taking these responses seriously, doing research and sharing messages in the coming months that speak to these issues. If you are organized enough, print a list of upcoming dates in which the service will address these topics. Encourage members to bring a friend or relative on the day(s) which may be relevant to them.

And Then...

Ask a group of creative people to help you plan the services. Use the entire service to focus on the issue. Consider drama, a panel discussion, personal testimonies, video clips. You have an hour to address the issue. Remember that the sermon is not the message ... the service is the message. Make it a comprehensive and engaging growth experience.

Use the series as an opportunity to invite past visitors, parents of VBS kids, inactive members and other groups with whom you have a connection. And in this context, communicate to all who come that Christ’s “…grace is sufficient for all your needs” (2nd Cor. 12:9). That’s another name for relevance!

Dr. Charles Arn serves as president and CEO of Church Growth, Inc., a pioneering organization in the study of church growth principles. Charles has written numerous articles in the field of church growth and is author or co-author of eight books. He has developed 14 different lay/clergy training seminars and produced 10 "special topic" mediated study kits. Dr. Arn is a widely traveled speaker known for his creative presentations. He is currently serving as president of the American Society of Church Growth, an association of professors, executives, pastors, and consultants dedicated to the study of evangelism and church growth. 

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Talk about it...

Mark Opseth

commented on Jul 24, 2014

Who really wants to hear a message of repentance? Yet, in light of eternity nothing is more relevant for a lost sinner. I am more interested in what God wants me to say than what some 20 somethings want to hear. When will we stop this obsession with drawing the lost into the church with bells and whistles? Christ left the 99 to look for the one.

Dr Dave Richardson

commented on Jul 24, 2014

I couldn't agree more. Which of the OT prophets were popular? Which one of their "audiences" would have chosen to hear that message if they had a choice? Are we here to please the audience or open our spirits to be conduits of the Spirit of the living God? God called us to a specific church at a specific point in their history and ours and He did so intentionally. Is it too far beyond the realm of reality to believe that He has a specific message to be delivered to a specific church family on a specific Sunday and it is our responsibility to ask Him what that message is rather than asking our congregation what message they might like to hear?

Jared D

commented on Jul 26, 2014

Why assume that using an approach like this once in a while means that you aren't preaching repentance? Asking them about areas in life that confuse or hurt them just helps a preacher know how to pray, what help they need from God's Word. Finding out about their hopes and dreams could be a good gauge of their spiritual condition as well. The sermon could be one who points their hearts back to Christ. If the theme of traveling the world comes up, maybe it's time for a missions conference. I just don't understand why so many people look for the negative in these suggestions. And in response to Dr Richardson, those prophets weren't preaching God's word to people who actually wanted to hear it.

Keith Roberts

commented on Jul 24, 2014

One of our elders recently did something along this line during our worship services. He asked his wife to distribute and collect slips of paper on which members were asked to write down topics they would like to see addressed in a sermon. The answers were quite revealing and will be used to develop future messages.

Erick Florez

commented on Jul 24, 2014

I do believe we should take into consideration what people needs are. One of the sources is asking them what they are struggling with. I totally agree on that. On the other hand, that does not mean that we will not receive an specific direction from God about what to preach. I am convinced God can use both ways at the same time.

Tony Russo

commented on Jul 24, 2014

I am concerned that questions like these 3 and then including the congregations thoughts on them is more of a physiological approach than the much needed spiritual application. It may prove to create a greater feeling of self needs than spiritual ones. I can't think of a more solid answer to these questions than, "Christ in you the hope of glory."

Clarence Bolton

commented on Jul 24, 2014

I truly believe God knows the concerns, worries, wishes and wonders of your congregation better than it does. I don't know but this seems awful close to preaching what the people want to hear rather than what God needs them to hear. God will hit every one of those topics in His own time. Let God lead you in what to preach. The prophets - and even Jesus - never showed concern about what the people wanted to hear. They gave them what they needed. Nobody wants to hear that what they do - think - say is wrong but believe me - folk need to hear it. They need to know it so they can repent. Let us all be more interested about God's agenda rather than our own or the congregations.

Pat Damiani

commented on Jul 25, 2014

I don't think there is anything wrong with occasionally surveying the congregation and then addressing whatever questions they might have about the Bible. But to build an entire preaching schedule around that process in order to "guarantee that people will eagerly anticipate my next sermon series" is a dangerous thing. We have to preach the entire counsel of God's Word, including those parts that people need to hear, but may not want to hear or be comfortable with. God knows our congregations and their needs far better than either I or my congregation so ultimately I need to be guided by Him in deciding what I'm going to preach on. God could certainly use a survey as part of that process, but we need to be careful not to use such a tool apart from the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Andrew Overby

commented on Jul 26, 2014

I understand the hesitancy on this approach from the commenters but this is really just systematizing what most pastors already do. We talk to our people in relationship with them and as we notice areas that our people seem to misunderstand in scripture, we seek God for messages that help them. If we see areas of growth in our congregation like gossip or lack of faith we prayerfully address it. If we know that some of our people listen to radio or TV preachers that overemphasize an area we teach messages that gently correct that trend. This is just a more formal way for a shepherd to know his sheep and feed them a balanced diet.

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