Like most pastors, I learned early on that if my preaching was to be powerful, it had to be memorable. That sounded simple enough—until I had to pull it off week in and week out.
All too often, I’d spend hours putting a sermon together hoping to change lives—only to find out later that the only thing anyone remembered was the funny story about my kids or the illustration about getting lost in Seattle instead of the biblical principle it was supposed to drive home.
So-called communication experts told me I needed to use more props and compelling stories. Other people told me to get rid of the gimmicks and stick to the meat of the Word. Some warned me to shorten my messages in light of shrinking attention spans, while others pointed out that most of the best-known and most listened-to pastors were seldom brief in their remarks.
Over the years, I’ve tried all kinds of things to drive home a point and make it stick—from shorter sermons to lengthy discourses, from narratives to hyper-practical "Five Steps to Whatever," from verse-by-verse to hot-button topics. For a while, we even stopped in the middle of the sermon to allow time for questions and discussion (something the extroverts loved and the introverts absolutely loathed).
I also made use of a cottage industry of illustration services, books, tapes and seminars that were available to help. And nowadays, you can add to that a host of online sermons and Web sites offering outlines and downloads full of fresh ideas and insights.
Some of the stuff was pretty good and helpful. Some was pretty goofy. But frankly, none of it came close to approaching the impact of something I stumbled upon years ago: Home Bible studies built around a discussion of the previous weekend sermon.
Now, I know that small groups are nothing new. And here at North Coast Church, they've been the hub of our ministry since the mid-1980s. But combining the sermon and our midweek small groups into a lecture/lab combo was not only new, it was risky.
We'd always offered choices. Tying everything to the weekend message meant we were bucking our own tradition and the conventional wisdom that said people want more, not fewer, choices. To some of our folks, asking everyone to use the same sermon-based curriculum (and writing it ourselves) felt like we’d suddenly gone high control—especially to those who’d thrived in a free-market of self-selected topics and book studies.
Still, we went for it because we liked the potential upside. We thought it might offer significant educational benefits to study one thing and study it well rather than studying lots of things, none of which we ever covered in depth. We also hoped it would positively impact our shared sense of unity and mission. And finally, it seemed like it would be a lot easier to find people who could facilitate a discussion of the sermon than inductive Bible study leaders who could lead a traditional Bible study.
But one thing I didn’t expect was that it would make me a better preacher; maybe not a better preacher in the eyes of the homiletics connoisseur—but a far better preacher in terms of my messages being memorable and life changing. Here’s why.
The first thing I noticed was that once we started connecting our small group questions to the sermon, people were noticeably more attentive. I wish I could take credit for improved material, delivery or style. But I hadn’t changed. What had changed was the congregation's awareness that they were going to discuss the message later in their small group. As a result, they were much more attentive.
And to my surprise, I discovered that attentiveness is contagious. When everyone else in the room is dialed in, it seems to send a subtle, perhaps subliminal, message that this is important stuff—don’t miss it. So most people work a little harder to hang in even during the slow (should I saying boring?) parts of the message.
The most obvious sign of the congregation’s increased attentiveness was a marked increase in note taking. That alone had a significant impact upon the memorableness of my sermons.
Educational theorists have long pointed out that we forget most of what we hear unless we also interact with the material visually, verbally or physically. In short, taking notes dramatically increases recall. And tying small groups to the sermon dramatically increases note taking.
It’s not just the neurotic note takers who benefit (you know the kind, the folks who get a nervous twitch if a blank is left unfilled or a point skipped). We found that the note-taking bug also bit folks who would have normally sat back and listened. But aware that they would be discussing key points in the message later in the week, they began to take notes as a way to “lay down some crumbs” to find their way home again when their group met.
When I first entered the ministry, I dreamed of communicating God’s Word so powerfully that people would discuss it during the week. I envisioned impassioned discussions of deep truth leading to radically changed lives.
But if truth be known, for most of our congregation the frantic pace of a typical week quickly pushed Sunday's sermon to the background. The thought of sitting down and carefully reviewing what they'd heard on Sunday never entered their mind. They were too busy. Shoot, so was I!
But once we started tying our small group questions to the weekend message, nearly everyone took the time to review their sermon notes because it was an essential part of their preparation for their small group’s meeting. Even if someone rushed through the homework a few hours before the meeting or even on the way to the meeting, I was still far ahead. The stuff we talked about on Sunday was no longer on the back burner of their subconscious. For a few short hours, it was once again front and center. And I’d become a more memorable preacher!
This process has worked so well we’ve never gone back. Twenty years after our first sermon-based small groups, we still have 80% of our weekend attendance meeting to discuss in greater depth the meaning and application of the previous weekend’s sermon. And it’s a concept that has scaled easily with our growth, from 180 to over 6,500 in weekend attendance.
Many of you may have tried something similar if you worked your way through 40 Days of Purpose or any similar study. The good news is that you don’t need to go through the hassle of making video presentations to be shown in the home. It can work just as well to put together a series of questions that review, dig deeper and look at a parallel biblical passage or two. That’s all we do. We put a note sheet and the questions in the weekend bulletin and let people prepare for their group meeting at their own pace.
It’s become the core of our ministry’s health—and the secret to making my preaching more memorable.