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?
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.
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.
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!