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Pop the Red Pill

By Mark Batterson

A few months ago I was invited to speak at a twenty-something conference. I was driving north on Interstate 95 listening to a CD when I heard something totally deflating for anyone who is a preacher by trade: “Studies indicate that we forget 95 percent of what we hear within 3 days.”

I felt like doing an illegal U-turn and driving home. I remember praying this prayer at 70 mph (with my eyes open): “God, I do not want to invest my time and energy saying things that people are going to forget. Help me say things in unforgettable ways.”

Unforgettable.

Isn’t the holy grail of preaching to speak in such an anointed way that hearers not only remember, but they also cannot forget?

I have a simple conviction: The most important truths ought to be communicated in the most unforgettable ways.

There is a riveting scene in the blockbuster movie The Matrix where Neo meets Morpheus for the first time. Morpheus gives Neo a choice between two pills: “You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake up in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe.”

Unfortunately, that is what happens with most messages in most churches on most Sundays. People pop the blue pill. They may be inspired, convicted, or challenged by a message, but they go to bed Sunday night; and, when they get up Monday morning, they cannot remember a single word you said.

But Morpheus gives Neo another option: “You take the red pill and you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

That is the goal. Get people to pop the red pill and go down the rabbit hole of faith.

Brand Truth

Here is my philosophy of preaching in six words: Say old things in new ways.

Truth is kaleidoscopic. It is multilayered and multidimensional. Sometimes a new angle on an ancient truth can result in metanoia — a paradigm shift.

I recently preached a series entitled The Physics of Faith. Each message revolved around a law of physics familiar to anyone who has taken Physics 101. I used Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Bell’s Theorem, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics to frame spiritual truth. I believe every ology is a branch of theology. The way we add depth perception to our preaching is by cross-pollinating with different disciplines. If all truth is God’s truth, we need to redeem scientific research, leadership theory, and cultural trends and use them to serve God’s purposes.

An old, but real adage is: location, location, location. In the realm of communication, it is: metaphor, metaphor, metaphor.

In De Poetica, Aristotle claimed: “The greatest thing by far is to be the master of metaphor.” Jesus set the standard. He used agrarian metaphors to frame truth because He knew that most of His listeners spent most of their day in the fields. He used familiar metaphors to brand truth. We call them parables.

A Picture Is Worth …

We try to brand every message series with an organizing metaphor. The organizing metaphor for our last series, On Mission, was a customized passport that was so authentic it could probably have gotten you through customs. For our next series, Wired, we will use wireless technology to talk about increasing spiritual bandwidth. We kicked off 2007 with a series called Fuel. We are currently buying gas station relics for staging at our coffeehouse on Capitol Hill.

The key to branding a message series is redeeming metaphors that are on the frontal lobe of cultural consciousness. A few years ago, OnStar launched its marketing campaign in the Washington, D.C., market. It seemed I could not turn on my radio without hearing the tag line: “Always There. Always Ready.” We decided to call our series on the Holy Spirit OnStar Onboard. I even borrowed a Ford Explorer with OnStar onboard and we shot the series trailer driving around Washington, D.C., talking to an OnStar operator.

Who said you have to preach from behind a pulpit? Jesus did most of His preaching at the beach or on the mountain. We are currently experimenting with off-site preaching that is shot on location and preproduced as a short film. Why not? Especially since our church meets in a movie theater. Our theater screens double as postmodern stained glass. They enable us to communicate truth in moving pictures.

The brain is able to process print on a page at a rate of about a hundred bits per second. A picture is processed at about a billion bits per second. That means a picture is not worth a thousand words. A picture is worth 10 million words.

Irrelevance Is Irreverence

The key to unforgettable preaching is packaging truth in ways that are biblically sound and culturally relevant. Let me borrow from the parable of the wineskins. Think of biblical exegesis as the wine. Think of cultural relevance as the wineskin. If you have one without the other, you will not quench anyone’s thirst. You need the substance (biblical exegesis) and the container (cultural relevance).

If we divorce biblical exegesis and cultural exegesis, we end up with dysfunctional truth that does not help anyone. Either we answer questions no one is asking, or we give the wrong answers.

National Community Church has a core value: Irrelevance is irreverence. God is not just omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. He is also omnirelevant. He knows the number of hairs on our head. He knows our every need before we verbalize it, and He speaks more than 6 billion dialects. No one is more relevant than God, so anything less than relevance is irreverence. Relevance equals reverence. Cultural relevance does not mean dumbing down or watering down the truth, but incarnating timeless truth in timely ways.

Two of our hardest hitting series each year are two of the most relevant: God @ the Billboards and God @ the Box Office. The 60 percent of Americans who do not attend church get their theology from movies and music. So we redeem popular songs and popular movies by juxtaposing them with Scripture. We roll out the red carpet during God @ the Box Office and treat every NCCer like an Oscar nominee.

Red carpet treatment does not hurt when your goal is getting people to pop the red pill.

MARK BATTERSON is senior pastor, National Community Church, Washington, D.C., and the author of Lion in a Pit on a Snowy Day, Wild Goose Chase, The Circle Maker, and All In. This article is adapted from The Circle Maker.

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