Written by Robert R. Hostetler
In a bold and controversial decision, Mel Gibson filmed The Passion of the Christ in Latin, the language of Pilate and the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus, and in Aramaic, the language of Jesus and His disciples. He intended for the film to be shown without subtitles, thereby combining modern media (film) with languages almost no one speaks (or understands) anymore. By the time of the film’s release, however, Gibson changed his mind, adding the subtitles.
That decision is oddly reflective of one of the dilemmas preachers face today. Often, churches tell the old, old story in languages (music, terminology, symbols, etc.) that only the initiated understand, leaving any newcomers or non-Christians in the dark. In contrast, “seeker-friendly” churches target a different crowd: People who are willing to hear the story but don’t necessarily speak the language of the traditional church. Some churches try to build a bridge between the two, providing subtitles, so to speak, to interpret what’s going on for the uninitiated. Interestingly enough, the sermon itself can be that bridge because, in the end, both Christians and non- Christians seek basically the same things from the sermon.
What are those things? In my view there are ten basic elements that both seekers and Christians want from a sermon. Here is the countdown:
10. Grab my attention as soon as you start speaking. The great preachers of the past knew how to connect with an audience very quickly, but many modern preachers, even the good ones, tend to start with riveting phrases such as, “Turn in your Bibles to Obadiah.” Such tactics won’t do. You must grab your listener’s attention any way you can—with a dramatic statement, question, story, film clip, etc.—and give them no choice but to listen from there.
9. Teach me something I didn’t already know. Ask yourself, “If I were listening to this sermon, what part or points would I feel compelled to write down so I won’t forget it?” If the answer is “nothing,” start over. Every listener wants to discover new information, new insights, and new perspectives.
8. Tell me what God says, not what you say. Even seekers are far more interested in what God says on a subject than in what you say. Good sermons—whether targeted primarily to seekers or Christians—rely heavily on the Bible as God’s Word and let it do the talking.
7. Don’t try to make me feel foolish because I don’t know my Bible as well as you do. Often seekers and long-time church members don’t use their Bibles in church. Many are embarrassed at their inability to find Haggai or Ruth in a few seconds. That’s why in my church, when it comes time to turn to the biblical text for the morning, we project on the screen the Bible table of contents with that book highlighted, and say something such as, “Ruth is the eighth book of the Bible, and it begins on page 184 in the Bibles we provide for your use.” 6. Make me like you; help me get to know you a little bit. Every speaker is encouraged to seize opportunities to give listeners an introduction and insight into their own life and personality. It’s so much better if what we reveal is a little vulnerable, self-effacing, and/or winsome.
5. Make me smile. Not everyone can tell a humorous story, but that is not the only way—and far from the best way—to inject humor into a sermon. Candid observations about our own follies are among the most effective ways to use humor.
4. Show me that you understand what I’m going through. One of the most crucial— and earliest—tasks of any preacher is to identify with listeners. In one message on “How to Survive Suffering,” I began my sermon with, “Sometimes a speaker bites off more than he can chew,” and went on to detail why I felt ill-qualified to speak in a room filled with people who had suffered far more than I had: a family losing their business, a couple in which each one was dealing with debilitating illnesses, a mother who’d lost her son, and so on. A sincere admission of our own struggles, or a brief acknowledgment of the real-life issues others are facing, is key to identifying with both seeker and Christian.
3. Touch my emotions. Seekers and Christians alike want to be inspired. They want their heartstrings to be plucked. And, while seekers in particular are alert to manipulation, they’re nonetheless longing for a preacher who will help them not only to think but also to feel. Any sermon that fails to engage both mind and heart is likely to disappoint.
2. Meet a felt need. The first question a writer or speaker must answer is, “So what?” If as a reader or listener I am not promised something that I want when you begin, I will quickly start thinking about the upcoming sport event, or where I should take the family after the service. Even worse, if I was promised something that you never delivered, I’ll be far less likely to return next week.
And, finally, the number one thing both seekers and Christ-followers want in a sermon:
1. Tell me clearly how I can apply this to my life today, this week. When I conclude a message, I assume that all my listeners are interested in following through on what God has said to them. So in addition to giving them opportunity for private prayer and counsel, I try to suggest practical ways they can follow up on what they’ve learned. I’ve encouraged listeners to write their own mission statement, give away one possession in the coming week, or mail a postcard inviting someone to church the following week.
When it comes right down to it, it’s not so different preaching to seekers or to Christians. With Christians, of course, you can assume some knowledge and take some liberties. And with seekers, you might face fewer taboos. But both groups seek essentially the same things from a teacher of God’s Word—none of which are anything new but all of which we need to apply to every message we speak from now until Jesus returns.