By Rick Chromey
Everything about church these days is different from what it was less than a generation ago. Everything but the sermon, that is. How can we change our approach to preaching in order to reach people receiving information today as never before?
“No one . . . pour[s] new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Matthew 9:16, 17).
Few things in life are sacred, and fewer still are eternal. Wineskins come and go, but only God’s Word is alive and active.
For the past 50 years the American church witnessed revolutionary change. Nearly every facet of church practice was rearranged in order to remain culturally relevant. Hymnals, pews, and pulpits are mostly history. The organist is a dying breed. Sunday night church, two-week VBS, cantatas, revivals, and other programming staples are largely gone.
Preaching is about the only thing that has survived.
The Sunday sermon remains a staple, though with more visual punch, thanks to PowerPoint and video clips. Nevertheless, sermons also have evolved. Sermons changed to match 60- to 75-minute service formats and shorter attention spans. Preachers routinely use relevant illustrations to build communication bridges. And yet most Bible college-trained preachers are still taught the same homiletical strategies as preachers in the 1970s and ’80s. “Expository preaching never goes out of style,” I heard one preaching professor proclaim.
And he’s probably right.
I think there’ll always be a place for solid hermeneutics and exposition of the Scriptures. But that’s nothing new. The apostle Paul exegeted and “exposed” the word to his audiences, as did great orators throughout the church age, from Tertullian to Origen to John Hus.
But Martin Luther did something different with the homily during the Reformation. Luther reimagined the Protestant worship service around a spiritual lecture rather than using the briefer homily (in Catholic and Orthodox traditions) to point to the Eucharist. As time passed, preaching evolved to reflect the Enlightenment and scientific and industrial ages, incorporating logic, reason, apologetics, hermeneutics, points, principles, time lines, and inductive/deductive methodology. My homiletics professor quipped that a good sermon was “a joke, three points, and a poem.”
And for 500 years these mechanistic models worked marvelously.
The problem is postmodern audiences (born since 1960) suggest this old sermon wineskin no longer holds water. Evidence continues to mount, both statistical and anecdotal, to prove Sunday morning worship services fail to attract younger generations. It’s more than cosmetic and cannot be fixed by changing a song or lighting schemes, adding video screens, or upgrading to a band.
In his book Church Refugees, sociologist Josh Packard reveals how a new religious demographic is emerging known as the “dones.” Largely Gen X-driven, this cohort stayed with the church through all the changes, but is now losing interest in the “church show.” Many of them are former ministry leaders. Packard also shows there’s an inner cohort known as the “almost dones,” ripe for exodus. His study concludes there are millions of American Christians who can be classified as “nones” (largely the millennial generation), “dones,” and “almost dones.”1
Essentially that leaves mostly graying (and dying) boomers to fill our church buildings.
I’ve interacted with dozens of individuals who fit Packard’s demographic. In general, I hear a postmodern generation hungry for God, attracted to the teachings of Christ and biblical theology, and yet, largely disinterested in going to church. Some have been hurt deeply. Others feel judged. Still others are bored. We can debate their spirituality and superficiality, but it changes nothing. These people are voting with their feet.
They simply find church and the overall message irrelevant.
When I ask postmodern Christians to suggest changes for their church, I’m surprised how many suggestions relate to the sermon. The preacher talks too long. It’s one man’s opinion. It’s boring. It’s too academic or too shallow. It’s not practical to me. It doesn’t relate to my world. Ironically, most complaints speak to communication style as much as substance. It’s old wine in a new wineskin world. Even politics and education now recognize lengthy speeches and professorial lectures fail to tickle postmodern ears. The times have changed.
A Starbucks Culture
I live in the great Northwest, where fewer than 10 percent of people regularly attend church. And demographers predict the same sad number will soon come to a community near you. And yet Northwesterners remain wildly interested in spiritual things, including authentic Christianity. Popular Seattle sporting goods store REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) bills itself as a “retail co-op” that inspires, educates, and outfits its “members” for a “lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.”2
Sounds like church, doesn’t it?
Starbucks is another Seattle-based company with a mission “to inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” This coffee shop doesn’t sell just coffee, but conversations, community, and even courage.3 How many churches could say that?4
Perhaps the underlying problem isn’t just how we worship, but also how God’s Word is communicated. Maybe we need to brew a more culturally relevant coffee (Sunday message) that’s divine to the last drop.
Those who argue against cultural relevance miss the point. Cultural relevance isn’t sinful.5 Jesus used parables—a culturally relevant teaching strategy—to communicate. Paul visited Athenian idols and quoted pagan poets. Stained-glass windows, steeples, hymns, pianos, and foyers were all ecclesiastical attempts to be culturally relevant.
In my book Sermons Reimagined, I outline a comprehensive new paradigm for preaching in a fluid, postmodern world. I’ve now been preaching “reimagined” messages for a few years to audiences (of all ages) with great success. I believe tomorrow’s sermon will look vastly different from today’s Sunday lecture. Specifically, it’ll probably be briefer and more interactive, experiential, and image-driven.
In a YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook culture, brevity wins. Only the fervent fan will watch longer than five minutes, read more than 500 words, or consume large chunks of information. Today’s preacher must learn to say more with less or communicate deep and fast. The postmodern’s attention span is under 10 minutes.
If you’re looking for a model, I suggest TED Talks.6 These insightful, idea-packed mini seminars are popular, and few last longer than 10 minutes! Most viral YouTube videos are shorter than 4 minutes. The micro-commercial (5-15 seconds) is common. Sermons need to abbreviate without losing substance.
Conversation is the missing link between modern and postmodern communication. Everybody’s talking in a cyber culture. Nobody’s talking, save a few, in church. A growing element of postmodern communication is intentional interactivity. Postmoderns want to talk about their faith. Can I get a testimony?
We witness interactivity and participation in 1 Corinthians 14:26: “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (author emphasis). Church was for everyone to participate, not just a few on stage.
Interactive sermons are gaining popularity, using small groups to discuss message content. Preachers are guides from the side, not sages from the stage.
A postmodern culture accepts experienced truth.
Faith is often pragmatic, and authentic Christianity is experiential. Ironically, many churches today overlook experiential opportunities out of convenience. The Lord’s Supper is experiential. Offering is experiential. Worship can be experiential. And the sermon can be experiential, as well.
Experiential communication simply attaches sensory strategies to the message. Jesus as the bread of life becomes dynamic with freshly baked bread. The armor of God makes sense with real soldiers. The kingdom is like a motorcycle gang. Sin feels like weights. Does your message smell or taste? That’s experiential!
If a picture communicates a thousand words, then why say a thousand words when one photo suffices? Television technology changed the rules. The world is now small. We live in a screen world. Our phones are portals to everywhere.
Many preachers think image-driven is a PowerPoint stuffed with words and a small picture. Not true! To be image-driven is to broadcast every message through a visual metaphor. Jesus pointed to pearls, soil, and nets. James pointed to rudders, fires, and bits. John pointed to seas, dragons, and horses. That’s POWER point. Metaphors speak loud.
And moving images shout louder.
I don’t use popular movie clips to be hip, but to create interest and retention. A preacher recently employed an old electronic football game to illustrate the difference between the old and new covenants. I remember little else of what he said, but I can still exegete that image and remember his point.
Starbucks understands coffee is cheap, but argues meaningful conversations that change lives (around a cup of joe) are priceless. Postmodern generations thirst for the real thing. They hunger for an authentic Christianity. They long for sermons to speak deep, create friendships, and produce life applications.
Maybe it’s time we preached . . . for a change.
Sermons Reimagined includes dozens of ideas and additional insight into crafting interactive, experiential, and image-driven messages. It’s available for order through Group Publishing, Amazon, or your local Christian bookstore.
1Learn more about “theDones” at www.thedones.com/.
2Learn more about REI’s philosophy at www.rei.com/about-rei/business.html.
3More information about Starbucks’ mission and values are available at www.starbucks.com/about-us/company-information/mission-statement.
4Some churches try to act like Starbucks and fail. Check out the insightful YouTube video “What If Starbucks Marketed Like a Church? A Parable” at www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7_dZTrjw9I.
5Cultural relevance is simply a communications term. What is condemned is cultural idolatry. For example, PowerPoint is merely a communications tool. It’s not an idol. Nobody is worshipping PowerPoint.
6View a TED Talk at www.ted.com.
Rick Chromey is a leadership consultant, author, and 30-year ministry veteran. His website is www.rickchromey.com.