By Ed Stetzer on Feb 23, 2022
This article is the last of six in a series on preaching in light of cultural shifts and biblical illiteracy.
According to a Gallup poll, 71% of U.S. adults see the Bible as a holy document, and 40% of Americans consider the Bible to be the inspired word of God. This provides fertile ground to plant the gospel as we preach. We can begin on this common ground—viewing the Bible as a holy document—and in our preaching, show how the Bible is God-breathed and good for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).
How do we do this given the trends noted in the previous articles in this series? We can assume many of our hearers don't have a high level of biblical literacy, most don't attend every week, and need help applying the Bible to everyday life. Pastors can help hearers by offering onramps to help people stay engaged over time, helping them to see sermons not as a stand-alone event but part of an ongoing process to help them grow.
Imagine interstate highways without onramps for drivers to merge into moving traffic. These onramps allow drivers to accelerate as they enter to keep traffic moving forward. Effective onramps in our preaching keep people engaged with series even when they miss a service, helps them to be more connected to Scripture away from the service, and ultimately contributes to their growth in Christ. Here are some onramps to consider incorporating into our sermons.
Onramps for Connecting Listeners to Sermons
Consistently tying our past messages to the current and future sermons. When our sermons build on sermons from previous weeks, we should offer our congregations a way to stay on board. Rather than judging people for missing a previous service, we should say, “If you missed, here's a way to catch up.” We can put our sermons online so people can follow along if they must miss church or so they can watch sermons from previous weeks. We may also offer notes from previous sermons; this is a good way for regular attendees to review the sermon and irregular attendees to catch up. We want to challenge people to make church a priority in their lives, so we must give them the means to access us.
We can provide a brief overview of relevant material that contributes to understanding the sermon. For example, I preached at a church where someone else preached the week before. We both preached about Joseph. I made sure to look at his notes and restate a couple of things he said to tie his message into mine. This helps our sermon series remain cohesive as well.
Summarizing big themes already covered in a series. At the church where I serve as teaching pastor, Highpoint, we preached a series called “Untangled.” At the beginning of my sermons in the series, I would say, “Just a reminder, we're in our series called Untangled” and then summarize the point of the series. This helps people understand how that message contributes to the overall theme of series. This tactic is also helpful in story-oriented series, like studying a biblical character such as David.
Not assuming people are where we are in our sermon or series. If we preach verse-by-verse through the gospel of Matthew, some things in Matthew won't make sense without helping those who missed previous weeks. So we need to encourage, not berate. Always encourage. Remind them: “We talked about this three weeks ago, and this is key.” I might add, “If you weren't able to be here, you’ll want to listen online because we discuss this more there.” I often get feedback about how that helps. Having a “you are still part of us” approach to those who are infrequent attendees will reach them more than an “if you regularly miss, you aren’t a part of us” attitude will.
Onramps to encourage Bible reading
We also want to provide onramps to help listeners to keep engaging the Scriptures throughout the week. Here are two ways to do this.
Regularly encouraging Bible reading to our listeners. We want to encourage our hearers to read the Bible more, not less. How do we best do that? Scott McConnell observed, “We need more than a plan.” Bible reading plans are widely available; the lack of personal Bible reading is not for lack of plans. McConnell adds, "All Americans treat reading the Bible a little bit like exercise. They know it's important and helpful, but they don't do it. The key for churches, is to find ways for people to experience how Bible reading can change their lives.” The most obvious place to start is in our sermons; our preaching can pique the interest of our congregants and encourage them to reflect on Scripture themselves.
Consistently showing in our application that the Bible is not only true, but that it ultimately catalyzes life change. We must demonstrate how and why the gospel changes everything from our thoughts, words, and interactions to our goals, motivations, and contributions. This can help our congregation continue meditating on the passage we preach throughout the week and encourage them to explore the Bible more as they begin to consider how the Bible affects our daily life.
As I conclude this series, I want to remind pastors of the importance of being someone who is clearly growing, learning, and deeply passionate for the Lord and our congregations. As a student at Edinburgh in the 1830’s, Robert Murray M'Cheyne spent time in ministering in overlooked parts of the city. By caring for the poor and broken in his community, M’Cheyne’s life changed drastically. In fact, this experience changed the trajectory of his ministry. Additionally, this established long-neglected trust between himself and the poorer members of his community.
M’Cheyne could have continued ministering the way he’d always done it. But instead, he decided to step out of his comfort zone by ministering to the poor. He took the opportunity to love one another and grow in his faith. Like M’Cheyne, we should spend time in the Word and with broken people; the Holy Spirit will continue to sanctify and form us. Finally, the more we help people connect the unchanging Scriptures with their own need, the more we will see the Bible come alive in them.
(Auburn Powell contributed to this article and throughout this series.)
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