Whether your church is 50 or 5,000, your congregation has far more diversity than you might think. Now before you say, “Wait a minute, Larry, our congregation is homogeneous, too homogeneous as a matter of fact,” let me remind you that diversity isn’t only about ethnicity. It’s also about age, length of time as a believer, socioeconomic status, special interests, learning styles and a wide array of cultural subsets.
And as if diversity is not enough, everything keeps changing at the speed of the Internet. If you feel like you’re preaching to multiple moving targets each weekend, you probably are! No wonder some of us feel stressed. It’s hard to preach sticky messages or tightly velcro people to a ministry when everything and everyone keeps moving all the time.
For the past 25 years, I’ve pastored the same church. But it’s hardly been the same church. We’ve grown from an overgrown Bible study, to a small church struggling to break the 200 barrier, to a multi-site megachurch. We hit our stride as a Boomer-focused, seeker-friendly ministry only to wake up in a culture bored with Boomers and enamored with hip-hop, subwoofers and missional focus. By my count, we’ve gone through at least five distinct seasons and iterations of ministry. We’ve been in the latest one for the past four years or so.
In a hyper-change world, sermons that hit it out of the park just ten years ago—okay, five years ago—no longer cut it. It’s not that God’s word no longer has power; it’s that the cultural language of my congregation and yours keeps changing. And when the target audience keeps moving, it can be hard to hit the mark, much less make anything stick.
So what can we do?
Over the years, I’ve discovered some things that have helped me (and my church) navigate the mounting complexity and ever-increasing rate of change in our culture. They’ve enabled me to grow and change as a preacher—and they’ve allowed our church to become larger, more diverse and demographically younger without losing the Boomers and Builders who got us started.
From a distance, many people think the key has been our pioneering work in offering multiple venues and styles of worship. No doubt, that’s helped. But just as important (perhaps more so) are a series of things we’ve consistently done from the pulpit to help make sure our messages remain applicable to an ever-widening and fast-changing demographic. Here are a few of the most important ones we try to bring into the planning and delivery of every sermon.
1. Set Aside the Commentaries
Don’t worry. I’m not suggesting that we set aside the hard work of study, faithfulness to the text and theological precision. I am suggesting that commentaries and the podcasts of our favorite preachers are not the best place to start.
The one thing that plays well in every age group and cultural subset is authenticity. It’s a key to unlocking the hearts of the widest audience possible. The more diverse our communities become, the more important this trait will be. It’s the one thing no one can argue with. It’s hard to write off.
Yet, the only way to preach authentically is to start with what God told you, not what God told someone else at some other time. That means the starting point in sermon prep needs to be: “What does this passage say to me ... today?”
At North Coast, we have a preaching team, a real preaching team. No one in our congregation knows who they are going to hear on any given weekend. Whether it’s me or our other teaching pastor, Chris Brown, we both start our study of the text by asking, What does it say to me today, and how does it fit with what I’m observing in the lives of others and our congregation?
Only after we’ve finished with that process do we begin to check out what others have said and done with the passage. We check commentaries to see if we’re on-target or off-base theologically. We might listen or read the sermons of others to pick up some helpful insights and applications. But it’s always second, never first.
Here’s the reason why: If we start with our favorite commentary or teacher, it’s hard not to be overly swayed by their observations, insights and illustrations. Everything is seen through their lens. It’s hard to remain authentically and personally engaged with the text or a topic.
You can see this principle at work in any small group discussion. No matter what the question, the first person who speaks usually frames the answers for the entire group. Even if my initial response was to take the question in an entirely different direction, I’ll almost always segue into the flow of their initial answer.
Preparing my messages in this order not only raises their authenticity quotient, it also helps me keep up with the fast-paced changes in our culture. Commentaries, my favorite preachers, and even my old notes can quickly lock me in the past. Frankly, the burning questions of 10-15 years ago are often not very relevant today. This also goes for the burning theological debates and the cultural hot buttons of yesteryear. And I’m not the same person either, so all things considered, the same passage can garner radically different insights if I give it the opportunity.
As an aside, this also helps with longevity. If I were to preach the same applications to the same text every time, after 28 years I’d have some rather bored parishioners. It’s hard to be sticky when you’re boring.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t great value in commentaries, my favorite preachers or even my old preaching notes. But the value is in balancing, correcting and nuancing what God is teaching me today, not regurgitating what he taught me in the past.
2. Think Buffet, Not Banquet
I was taught that every sermon should be tied together by a golden thread. It should have one primary point, and everything should help drive that point home. A great sermon is memorable when people can easily recall all the main points. Done right, it is akin to a spiritually themed banquet, a feast to be savored and easily recalled.
This strategy may have worked in a one-size-fits-all culture. But today, it will limit the breadth of your ministry. Here’s why.
A tightly knit, single-point sermon plays well on the speaking circuit. It wins awards from homileticians. But by its very nature, it best fits a narrowly focused group of people. It’s like a great Thanksgiving dinner: well-themed and delicious to Americans who like turkey and dressing. But it’s rather unappetizing to a Vietnamese immigrant—or a Seattle vegan.
In the same way, the more diverse our communities and churches become (again, not just ethnically, but socially, generationally and in special interests), the more a narrowly focused banquet risks missing large segments of your congregation altogether.
Because of this, I switched years ago to a buffet model. Unlike a banquet, a buffet offers lots of entrées. In most cases, none of the entrées are as elegantly prepared or presented as they would be for a grand banquet. But unlike the banquet, the goal is not to create a great meal and a lifetime memory. Instead, the goal of a buffet is simply to offer a good meal with lots of options. It does its best to have something for everyone, in contrast to the banquet that offers one thing for those who like it—and nothing for everyone else.
As a pastor with a diverse flock to feed each week, I try to prepare a buffet of wisdom and insight from God’s word, knowing that not everyone will eat or need the same thing. I intentionally ask myself, What’s in here for the long-time Christians who have heard it all? What’s in here for the window-shopper who doesn’t know Job from job?
I no longer worry if every transition is picture-perfect. I no longer approach preaching as if it’s an art form. It’s a meal. And it has to feed a diverse group of picky eaters who don’t always want what’s good for them. So I spend most of my time finding ways to get as many nutritional dishes on the table as possible. The more I can offer a wide variety of insights and Scriptures, the greater the likelihood that they will find something they want and need.
3. Never Underestimate the Power of the Sound Bite
Sound bites are important, not for memory but for clarity. That’s because the more diverse our audience is, the greater the likelihood for a large gap between what we mean to say and what they hear.
Good sound bites transcend different demographic distinctions. They increase the odds that what I say will be understood and remembered accurately.
While proper exegesis, faithfulness to the text, solid Biblical concepts and transitions are all crucial, without a sound bite most of what we say will be lost. There’s just too much information flying at people today. The battle for mental shelf space is intense. By Sunday afternoon, even the “ah-has” can be lost.
So I work really hard at boiling my main points and principles down to a few sound bites. These sound bites capture the essence of what I’m teaching in a memorable way that people can take home. They help make the message stickier to more people.
Good sound bites are principle-driven. As such, they are much more likely to transcend age, spiritual background and educational differences than simple prose or even a narrative.
Here are some examples:
a. Instead of simply saying, “During times of discouragement, don’t assume you are outside of God’s will,” the sound bite might be: A valley doesn’t mean a wrong turn.
b. When stressing the need to flee sexual temptation rather than trying to stand up to it, I might sum up the principle this way: We can’t resist what we’re supposed to flee.
c. Rather than merely warning people to guard themselves against the little compromises that can eventually lead to a larger spiritual failure, the sound bite might be: Spiritual failure is seldom an explosion; it’s usually an erosion.
4. Like Your Congregations
Yes, I mean like, not love—and congregations, not congregation. Sometimes, we can love people in the Lord but not like them in the flesh. And all of us have more “congregations” than we realize.
I’ve found that it’s critical for me to cultivate a genuine appreciation of the various mindsets and subcultures in our church. That’s not always easy to do. It’s one thing to preach about the body of Christ; it’s another to genuinely embrace the differences and idiosyncrasies of the real people who populate all the tribes within our church.
Relating well to a wide cross-section doesn’t mean I have to BE LIKE them. But I do have to LIKE them. Truth is, there will be times when people move to a place we don’t understand or like. It might be the younger generation’s body art, piercings and music, or the older generation’s struggle with change and new wineskins. It doesn’t matter. When people know we don’t like them, they can smell it. And they stop listening.
Both Chris and I have our natural comfort zones. But we each work hard to get into the world of those we understand least and would most naturally avoid. I find that as I begin to understand any group of people, I almost always begin to like that group of people. And once I like them, it’s easy to communicate and reach them.
It’s when I fear, ridicule or write off a group of people within the body that I lose my ability to bring God’s word to them. Then, instead of being sticky, my messages and our church become more like Teflon than Velcro.
One way that I know I’ve broadened my ability to understand and appreciate the diversity within our congregation is when I can hear their “yeah, buts” in my head as I prepare a sermon. Every sermon and every point raises a “yeah, but” with somebody somewhere. The more I’m aware of those “yeah, buts” and address them, the more likely it is that my sermon will hit the mark with more than only those who are “just like me.”
This has become such an important part of our message preparation process that every Tuesday, Chris and I meet with a group of other staff members for what we call a sermon prep meeting. In reality, it’s a “yeah, but” meeting.
In it, we go over the basic points of the message (at least as far as it has come together at that point, which sometimes isn’t much). We find out what resonates and what doesn’t. In particular, we decide what points, verses, or statements might raise potential questions for those who are new Christians, not-yet Christians, biblically illiterate or well taught, young or old. It’s a powerful exercise that helps make our messages stickier with a broader audience. It also helps us address the “yeah, buts” in our sermons rather than in the foyer.
5. Create a Common Anchor
Finally, the most powerful tool for pulling a diverse and moving target together is to tether everyone to a common anchor. Spiritually, that’s Jesus Christ, but organizationally, it’s needed as well. Without it, ministries and programs tend to become silos. And over time, diversity becomes disunity.
Our organizational anchor is something we call Sermon-Based Small Groups. We launched them when we were less than 200 in attendance because we could already see that our individual programs and ministries were pulling people in different directions.
For over 25 years now, we’ve maintained an average of 80% of our adult weekend attendance in one of these groups. They are simple and organic, basically a lecture/lab approach to the weekend message. But they make the message and our church sticky. They keep the ever-widening diversity of our congregation from splintering into a cluster of factions, each with its own view of what our church should be and do. Whether a small group is made up of tattooed and pierced twenty-somethings or blue-haired senior citizens, the experience of discussing the sermon and trying to apply it is remarkably similar, and it bonds our congregation together at a cellular level.
These five principles have helped make North Coast a much stickier place. I encourage you to consider filtering some of your next sermons through these lenses. They aren’t a magical fix-all formula, but they have been powerful tools in my own preaching and ministry. By adhering to them, my messages have been able to stay fresh and sticky, despite the fact that I’m often preaching to a target that not only seems to be moving, but moving in every direction all at once.