Preaching Articles

If I were only allowed to give one piece of advice to pastors about how to make their Sunday messages more appealing to a younger audience, it would be this.

Stop making your sermon notes rhyme.

For generations, rhymes and alliterations were expected from public speakers. It made them seem credible, authoritative and prepared. And it was a helpful device for memory.

Not any more.

In a recent Q & A session with pastors, I was asked for ideas on how to reach and retain younger people in our churches. While I’m far from an expert on the subject, my church has a higher percentage of teens and 20-somethings than most, so I gave them my best attempt at an answer.

I offered a couple of points off the top of my head while they listened and some took notes. But when I advised them to stop making their sermon notes rhyme, I noticed a subtle shift in the audience.

Some older pastors pulled their heads back in shock as if I’d told them to preach blasphemy next Sunday. But in one section of the room there was a younger group of church leaders who became like bobble-heads nodding up and down. Their response was so immediate and obvious I paused to point it out to the rest of the room.

“Am I right on this one?” I asked the young leaders. Their nodding increased. So I went on, supported by my bobble-head choir of young leaders, to explain why I no longer make my sermon notes rhyme or alliterate.

Why My Sermon Notes Don’t Rhyme

1. People don’t need it as a memory device. If people want to remember what we said, they’ll check the handout notes in the bulletin, listen to the podcast email us, read the notes we uploaded to the church Facebook page, record the message with their phone or … You get the idea. People don’t have their best friend’s phone number memorized. They’re not trying to remember the points of our sermons.

2. People don’t care about what we care about. I hate to break it to you, but all that time pastors spend trying to make our last point start with the same letter as our first three points is wasted. We’re the only ones who care.

3. People prefer one practical idea over five points that rhyme. No one leaves church with the acronym we used ringing in their ears. If we give them one helpful principle, they’ll latch on to it. And if it’s applicable, they may even do it.

4. Rhyming feels phony. This may be the biggest reason of all. It was the one that really got the young bobble-heads going. Real life doesn’t rhyme.

The younger generation has given up on finding easy answers—some have given up on finding any answers at all. But even for those who are open to what the Bible has to say, they know that real answers don’t all start with the same letter, or spell out F.A.I.T.H. Pastors think it’s clever—listeners think it’s fake.

5. It feels old. Sorry, but it does. And not in a retro, cool way. In a musty, tired way.

What I Do Instead

“But if I don’t rhyme or alliterate, how do I organize my points?”

Everyone prepares and speaks in their own style, so the way I do it may not work for you. But here’s what I do.

1. Throw everything I want to say onto the page.

2. Arrange it into the most logical order.

3. Read through those notes and underline the handful of key points.

4. Edit each point into a simple, stand-alone sentence.

5. Keep sub-points to a minimum (they make a message feel like a college lecture).

6. Replace two or three key words in each point with blanks (it engages people as they wait for the fill-ins).

7. Print up handouts with the main points on them.

8. Use the filled-in points as slides on the screen while I speak.

That’s it.

As an example, here’s an outline I used recently for a message on Romans 7.

1. God gave the law to protect us from harm.

2. Our sin nature makes us want to break the law.

3. As non-believers we have one mind and one nature—the sin nature.

4. As believers, we have two natures—sin and the Spirit—at war inside us.

5. Fear has no power when we’re in God’s family.

There’s nothing remarkable about that outline. But if you know Romans 7, you recognize it as a basic, applicable outline of that chapter in simple sentences.

And yes, you can preach a straightforward message on Romans 7 and keep a young audience interested. Just be honest about it. They don’t want easy—they want real.

I could have spent up to an extra hour of study time trying to rhyme or alliterate those points—but why? It would have meant that much less time to create content. And my congregation would have taken home an outline like this instead:

1. God’s Protection

2. Our Rejection

3. Sin’s Deception

4. The Believer’s Selection

5. The Family Connection

I know that feels a lot more like a sermon to some of us. But those five points are less real, less understandable and less applicable to real life than the five full sentences I used. And the third point doesn’t really rhyme anyway!

(Gotta tell you, coming up with a way to rhyme those points for you was almost painful for me. I haven’t exercised those muscles in a long time.)

Real Life Doesn’t Rhyme

Instead of playing linguistic games, here’s an idea. Let’s produce better content.

Then let’s put it in a format that matches the way people really live their lives today.

Real life doesn’t rhyme.

So what do you think? Do you have any other preaching ideas we can use?

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John Sears

commented on Oct 30, 2014

Yes, yes, and yes. Good article. I have tried to rhyme game myself and it did not go well. People remember me trying to rhyme, but not the rhymes themselves.

Don Workman

commented on Oct 30, 2014

Coming from an old guy, "it's a hard habit to break" (as The Eagles once kind of sang about - wow, talk about retro!!) but one that is needed. I've sensed the same, thanks for the helpful list of progression. This is not only culturally accurate, but homileticaly refreshing. Thanks!

Karl Vaters

commented on Oct 30, 2014

Thanks for the kinds words, John. It was a hard habit for me to break too, but it works better "In the Long Run". (Sorry. I couldn't resist my own Eagles reference.)

Karl Vaters

commented on Oct 30, 2014

Oops. Don, not John. Sorry about that.

Clyde Thomas

commented on Oct 30, 2014

Absolutely loved the rhyme outline. Can I use it sometime? Clyde T homas

Karl Vaters

commented on Oct 30, 2014

Thanks for the chuckle, Clyde. :)

Clyde Thomas

commented on Oct 30, 2014

I'm glad you got the joke Karl..good writing...Prayers.

Suresh Manoharan

commented on Oct 30, 2014

An article guaranteed to touch the raw nerve of those "poor preachers" who alliterate (including Yours Truly). Is it not an experience of those of my genre that alliteration leads to greater God-dependence in Sermon preparation, even as they diligently search to find the right words? Do not the Words of the Biblical Preacher himself justify alliteration? He used "Words of delight" to spice-up his message (Eccl 12:10-ESV) without ever compromising on the seriousness of the same. Needless to say, alliteration should be done in a balanced of jam content being never more than that of the bread!!! Finally alliteration or no alliteration, without anointing of the Holy Spirit, the sermon would be as bland as an ice-cream without any flavour. Talk of writing without ink in a pen..

Tim Riordan

commented on Oct 30, 2014

Excellent article. I'm afraid that attention grabbing sermon outlines to not really grab attention at all -other than attention for the speaker. They cause the listener to focus more on the messenger than the message. I always felt like there was certainly one more thing the preacher needed to say, but it just didn't start with the right letter.

Karl Vaters

commented on Oct 30, 2014

Good point, Tim. Related to that is the phenomenon of having to combine two points to fit the acronym, or creating an extra point to fill out the acronym. ("I only have 4 points to make, but I need to create a fifth one in order to spell G.R.A.C.E.")

Steve Sorensen

commented on Oct 30, 2014

We're gettin' there. Keep this train goin' faster. Me? Passage on screen. We all observe carefully with explanation of the intended meaning. Step back for sound interpretation. Practical application. We've learned it. Now we've got it. Let's trust God through it all.

Suresh Manoharan

commented on Oct 31, 2014

Real life doesn't rhyme...true...but there is a beautiful rhythm in the body clock,heart-beat...order and rhythm in God's Creation...the way He led lacs' of Israelis' though the wilderness journey (Numbers 10) without a single case of stampede and in the classification of both OT and NT Scripture...then what about notable cases of acrostic, rhythmic poetry in the Scriptures. So it would not be correct to categorically say that Scripture and rhythmic exposition of it, do not go hand in hand.By the same token, it would be wrong to say that the good Lord endorses only alliterated sermons...

Solomon Shaffer

commented on Oct 31, 2014

I understand the concept and much of what you're saying but I also think that rhyming and classic sermon format can still be completely relevant and meaningful today. I think your rhyming outline would work perfectly with your other outline: "1. God's Protection - God gave us the law to protect us from harm." A healthy congregation is going to have a wide cross section of members, a lot of whom still put value on a "good sermon." Ultimately, it's about the message. Did it or did it not connect with people?

Lawrence Webb

commented on Oct 31, 2014

I agree heartily, Karl. I remember a seminary professor whose course outline was highly alliterative. In that setting, it probably was useful because we would go back to memorize his high points, at least for tests or the exam. But preachers are more optimistic than I am if they think people walk out of the service reviewing sermon outline points, alliterative or no. The main things people are going to remember are stories that resonate with their lives. They also will remember little of our brilliant exegesis or depth interpretation of a Greek or Hebrew word. All those things enrich us as we prepare, but I am more sparing than I used to be in explaining "the original." At times, that seems essential, but I believe a steady diet of that will cause eyes to glaze.

Sylvester Herbert

commented on Nov 1, 2014

I committed the almost always atrocious practice of using alliteration in my sermon three Sundays ago. It was Breast Cancer Awareness Sunday and I addressed the congregation on the theme: ?Beating the Odds with Faith in God.? John 11 was my text. I dared to challenge them to beat the odds in their life (whatever they might be) with these three things: 1. Prayer (you should send a message to Jesus as Mary and Martha did) 2. People (you should be willing to both give and receive help as evidenced by the neighbours and friends who came by to comfort the family) 3. Perspective (you need this especially when God delays or denies the response you are looking for). One of my congregants sent me the following text later that day: ?I think that God and you were talking about me as He helped you craft the sermon. All the points addressed my past struggles and/or present realities. Hmm!? Significantly, we had a longer than usual service that Sunday as both young and old streamed to the altar for special prayer. Here is my take on rhyme (alliteration and other linguistic devices are included) a) There is still a place for it, not as the only way or even the best way to outline a sermon but as one of several. The worst kind of outlining is the one you always use, whichever one that is. Variety is still the spice of life. b) Does it suit your overall style as a communicator? For some people using rhyme or alliteration may be as incongruous as David using Saul?s armour to fight in. c) No amount of cleverly devised alliterations or any other stylistic device for that matter can substitute for prayer, sound exegesis, relevant application etc. d) Know your congregation and tailor your outlining style so what you say is appealing to them. Remember, we want to reach when we preach! e) There are still people who take notes during a message. An alliterated outline or one that rhymes certainly helps. f) When preaching without notes as my context sometimes requires, a simple alliterated outline is a great help to me the speaker and hopefully to the hearers as well. The KISS rule seems to work well with rhyme and alliteration (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) g) To come up with le mot juste is no mean feat and a good outline including a rhythmic or alliterated one demonstrates that thought has been put into the sermon. This is a necessary corrective for the disorganized jumble of ideas and catch phrases which often pass as good preaching these days. I have heard many sermons where the outlining - both alliterated and un-alliterated, rhythmic and otherwise - made me wince. They have been atrocious, to put it mildly. Conversely, there have been some memorable ones where their immediate effectiveness has been indisputably evident. May God grant us the wisdom to know which style to use when we deliver His message. Remember, our preaching should be 'ad majorem Dei gloriam' .

Karl Vaters

commented on Nov 1, 2014

Those are great points, Sylvester. Varying our preaching style to suit the audience, occasion, content and purpose is always a good idea. I don't think alliteration is always bad, either. Trying to shoehorn every sermon into it is problematic, but there are times when a simple, sensible alliteration can be helpful. Especially for a principle that you'll come back to on a regular basis. Thanks for balancing me out.

Suresh Manoharan

commented on Nov 1, 2014

I fully agree with the observations of Bro. Sylvester on this subject...

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