Reaching With Our Preaching
If you are going to reach the unchurched, you must have a foundational understanding of your target audience and then make your preaching more effective and practical to them. Here is what you need to know about the unchurched and seven essential elements to reach them with your preaching.
By Douglas K. Kinder
A young man was faithful to his church. He considered his pastor warm, friendly, congenial, and a great spiritual leader. His only drawback was his preaching, which often seemed unfocused and went on endlessly. One Sunday the young man determined that if his pastor preached past noon again, he would slip out the door. Sure enough the pastor was still in high gear as noon struck. The young man proceeded to leave when the pastor observed him as he was halfway down the aisle. The pastor interrupted his sermon to call out to the young man.
“Hey, where are you going?”
“To get a haircut,” replied the young man.
“Couldn’t you have gotten a haircut before you came here?” asked the preacher.
“I didn’t need a haircut when I came in here,” responded the young man.
James Emery White points out in his book, Rethinking the Church, that the primary reasons people do not attend church include the following:
- They find no value in attending (74 percent). Church does not do anything for them, and they do not get anything out of it, so why attend? Church has little to offer them in their spiritual pilgrimage.
- Church services are usually boring (36 percent). There is little within the service that captures or holds their attention. Instead, they find sermons and services to be boring and lifeless.
- Churches hold no relevance for the way they live (34 percent). These people feel the church is simply out of touch with life in the modern world. The topics and language make them feel as if God is buried in the past or removed from the world in which they live.
As a result, other activities — running errands, spending time with family, and pursuing recreational activities — take priority on Sunday.
For a majority of people in the United States, church has simply lost relevance to their lives despite the fact surveys indicate 75 percent of all adults say it would be desirable to have a close relationship with God. Spiritual fulfillment was more important than financial success, and interest in spiritual things has never been higher.
I believe rethinking how we do church, so we might connect with this large unchurched group starts with better preaching. Even the words preaching and sermon have negative connotations to our world. How often have you heard some version of the phrases, “Don’t preach to me,” or “I don’t need a sermon.”
If we are going to reach the unchurched, we must make our preaching more effective and practical, connecting with their daily lives. I devote the remainder of this article to that purpose. I examine preaching for the unchurched in two segments. First, I discuss the target audience. Who are the unchurched and what are their specific needs? Second, I consider practical ways our messages might communicate the Word more effectively to the unchurched.
Who Are the Unchurched
What do we know about secular unchurched people? In his book, How to Reach Secular People, George A. Hunter III profiles this group. He describes them as (1) essentially ignorant of basic Christianity, (2) seeking life before death, (3) are conscious of doubt more than guilt, (4) have a negative image of the church, and (5) have low self-esteem.
Before we can make any impression, we must recognize they are already in a resistant frame of mind. They have been encouraged to think largely in terms of doubt; and, the more authoritatively we claim to speak, the more likely we are to produce an ambivalent, if not a contrary, effect to that which we desire. This is the outstanding characteristic of the hearer.1
We live in a consumer-oriented society, where people even approach religion as consumers. They will buy it if they believe it will meet their needs and wants.
Hunter depicts this group as demonstrating low self-esteem and afflicted with a loss of dignity. We may trace this to their family of origin. He quotes Bruce Larson: “Every family is dysfunctional. … We all come out of dysfunctional families, not really knowing who we are . … (which) affects our self-esteem so that every person graduates from the family with self-esteem that is either too low or too high, and without a clean and accurate identity.”2
A person cannot realize his or her emotional fulfillment apart from a certain level of positive self-esteem. Secular people will often resort to materialism to compensate for the spiritual and emotional involvement in their lives. But people can only finally realize appropriate positive self-esteem in covenantal relationships with God and His people.
In his book, Inside the Mind of he Unchurched Harry and Mary, Lee Strobel provides a revealing delineation of unchurched people. The unchurched do not just ask, “Is Christianity true?” Often they ask, “Does Christianity work?” Strobel furnished some excellent advice for pastors: “We need to help Harry understand the absolute and unchanging truth of Christ, but we should also explain how Christ is available to help him in practical ways to heal his hurts and help him deal with everyday living. We need to communicate that Christianity isn’t just for the tomorrow of his eternity but also for the today of his life.”3
Strobel offers another noteworthy observation about the unchurched that ministers need to take into account as they develop their messages. He writes that the secular person just does not want to know something; he wants to experience it. The unchurched desire to move beyond philosophical discussions of religions to the actual experience of God in their lives. The secular heart has always cried out for a personal experience with God. Thus, when it comes to preaching: “The objective of evangelism should be to bring Unchurched Harry into a personal encounter with God, not just to merely pass on information about God. Harry wants to actually meet this Jesus Christ we are talking about; he wants to sense the comfort and power of the Holy Spirit.”4
He continues: “So if we keep our church services tuned to God, prayerfully encourage the Holy Spirit to be active, and endeavor to connect with God in creative ways, we’re more likely to create a climate conducive to Harry’s quest for a personal experience with Him.”5
If Christ is alive, His church should not be dead. We should be able to go there with the expectation of actually engaging with God.
Thus, instead of conducting services that are boring, lifeless, and predictable, we can design them to reflect excitement and adventure, even changing the style from week to week as opposed to being stuck in the same programming rut. A critical component in the success of this strategy is making our messages practical, application oriented, and relevant to daily living. With this foundation of understanding about our audience, we are now able to discuss how we will effectively communicate the Word to the unchurched.
Reaching With Our Preaching — Seven Essential Elements
Craft intriguing titles
Both Rick Warren and Strobel emphasize spending quality time developing a sermon title that will capture people’s attention and create an interest in the message. As Strobel explains: “A survey showed that 54 percent of unchurched people are ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ interested in knowing the sermon title in advance. The reason, of course, is that time is a precious commodity to Unchurched Harry and Mary, and they don’t want to waste any of it by listening to a message on an irrelevant subject.”6
You may never get a second chance to make a good first impression, and the sermon title becomes your calling card. Those first words about your message ought to communicate, “This is something you’ll want to hear. This is something of value you can use in your life.” Bill Hybels and Warren often spend hours trying to select appropriate titles for their messages.
Strive for high user value
Warren recites Ephesians 4:29: “Speak only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (NIV).
If you want to be an effective communicator, always start with the receivers. What are their needs? Their hurts? Their interests? What are the greatest stresses in their lives? What are the biggest issues in their marriage? What are their most common problems? What are their greatest fears and worries? What conflicts are they dealing with at work? At home? At school?
Strobel elaborates: “Unchurched Harry and Mary want to know if a book that’s centuries old can really give them practical assistance in the trenches of their daily lives. They want to know if it can help them in dealing with their hurts, defusing their anger, resolving their conflicts, easing their fears, overcoming their loneliness, improving their parenting, fixing their relationship, understanding themselves, and generally coping with life. When messages address those issues head-on — and, equally important, when concrete application points are offered — seekers respond.”7
God’s Word is more than just some historical document; it has the power and ability to positively change lives.
Apply God’s Word directly to people’s situations
Warren informs us that application answers two important questions: “So what?” and “What now?” Your audience will connect with the Word only as you demonstrate from the pulpit how the people in the Bible are like us today, how their situations are similar to ours today, and how the biblical truths taught are relevant to our world today.
Directly related to this concept, it is critically important for the preacher to aim for a specific action. Warren believes one of the greatest problems with sermons is a fuzzy focus. Can you imagine an attorney going into the courtroom not knowing what verdict he is going after? By the same token, if you are not clear on the response you are driving for, then you are not going to get a response. In crafting your sermon, the most important question to answer is, “What am I going to ask for?” In other words, what do I want the people to think? To feel? To do? Then give specific examples from the Word. Finally make your applications your point. Warren believes this is the secret weapon for changed lives.
Be creative in presenting the Word
Strobel reminds us we are preaching to the TV generation: “Baby boomers are the first generation to grow up watching television, and it has shaped the way we process the world. We crave visual stimulation. Rock bands don’t just stand up on a stage and perform anymore; today most concerts feature a mixture of video on stacked screens, live-action TV, dramatic staging, and stunning, sweeping lights.
“When I visited church as a seeker, I was attracted by its use of visual images. Back then, this was a mostly multi-medium, where several slide projectors were used to flash images that blended with each other to create a dynamic effect. In fact, the church was spending a disproportionate amount of its income in producing a short multimedia piece for each service because they were so powerful in connecting with Unchurched Harry and Mary.”8
I was absolutely mesmerized by the effective ways Saddleback Church utilized multimedia to communicate the message. Warren firmly believes you should never make a point without a picture. And he flavors his sermons not only with illustrations and humor, but particularly with special features. Warren effectively integrates film clips from recent movies, live or taped interviews and testimonies, and even drama into the framework of his sermons. All of these capture people’s attention and keep them focused on the subject.
A didactic 30-minute linear sermon no longer connects with today’s generations. In this age of information overload people want meaning. And so to touch them you must move beyond the cognitive to experience.
Deliver your message positively and with encouragement
Warren strongly warns in his Preaching for Life Change Conference that a constant diet of negative sermons is dangerous to the health of a church. You do not lift people up by putting them down. For example, nagging does not work in the home with your spouse and children so why would you expect it to work in the pulpit? People already feel guilty; this is why they frequently do not attend church in the first place. When you are abrasive, you are never persuasive. Do not scold people into changing. Criticism is a poor motivator; it only makes people defensive. Besides, negative messages only attract negative people. Positive people do not want to hang out in that environment.
We refer to the gospel as the good news. When you consider Jesus’ ministry, you recognize He never tried to convert anyone through condemnation. He came to save the world, not condemn it.
Warren loves to preach positive messages on negative passages, even if it is a challenge. He believes when you explain the benefit of serving Christ, it will cause people to repent and change. Thus instead of condemning people for being lousy parents, you can use the Word to describe the incredible potential they have with God’s resources to become great parents. That will motivate people. Find the most encouraging way to say something.
Warren believes all people have three fundamental needs: (1) to have their faith reinforced, (2) to have their hope renewed, and (3) to have their love restored. Relating to these needs is the key to encouraging personal change. So do not tell it like it is (preaching to criticize). Instead, tell it like it can be, preaching for faith and encouragement. “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope” (Romans 15:4, italics added).
Do not make your message “holier than thou”
Strobel shares his personal experience about the first time he attended Willow Creek Community Church. His expectations were low: “Boy, I was ready and waiting for the pastor at that first seeker service to take a ‘holier-than-thou’ approach in delivering his sermon. When a speaker exhibits that attitude, he becomes an easy target for a cynic such as I was. Instead of listening to the message, I would have been sitting there mentally poking holes in him. Sure, he comes off as this pious guy who thinks he has all the answers, I’d have been thinking. But I’ll bet he turns the air blue when his hammer slips and smashes his finger! I bet he kicks the dog just like everybody else does. Who’s he trying to fool by trying to come off like Mr. Perfect?
“But this defense mechanism was short-circuited when the speaker poked holes in himself. I was amazed at how Bill Hybels would speak in very vulnerable terms about his own shortcomings and failures, about the areas of life in which he has struggled, and about the doubts he has wrestled with over the years. I couldn’t knock him off his pedestal because he had never climbed on to one in the first place.”9
In a sermon entitled, “Leading Through Weakness,” Warren informs us the best way to communicate the gospel is not by yelling from your pulpit pedestal, but rather by bringing people in close by dropping your mask and talking heart to heart and soul to soul with them.
Unchurched people do not like someone talking down to them. Sooner or later, they see through leaders who are trying to project a phony public image. They respond best when speakers talk to them as friends and peers, sharing with sincerity and honesty. They will trade a polished performance for a straightforward talk any day.
Being transparent will not undermine the pastor’s authority. On the contrary, pastors earn response when they stop pretending they are above the struggles everyone else deals with. We strike a resonant chord with people when we share our struggles and weaknesses. Confessional preaching builds credibility.
Model your message
The minister is the message. What most validates the message today is not the text but the messenger. Credibility is critical. If the messenger is not modeling the message, we call it hypocrisy.
The Word must incarnate the Truth to be effective in the pulpit. People will grow best through modeling and mentoring. As 1 Thessalonians 1:5 states, “When we brought you the Good News, it was not just meaningless chatter to you, no you listened with great interest. What we told you produced a powerful effect upon you … you know how our very lives were further proof to you of the truth of our message” (italics added).
In conclusion, I have described our target audience (the unchurched) and examined a number of characteristics of the type of message that will effectively reach them. Today’s preachers must be intentional in their efforts to reach them, or the chances are they will remain unchurched. We simply cannot do church as usual and expect this generation to flock to our services. There are too many other interests competing for their time.
We must continue to be acutely aware that we have the most powerful message in the world to share, the message of God’s grace to us extended through the giving of His Son, Jesus. While never altering the substance of that message, it is time to rethink the way we communicate it. Far too much is at stake to continue with the status quo.
Chaplain (Col.) Douglas K. Kinder, D. Min., Madison, Alabama
1. George A. Hunter III, How to Reach Secular People (Nashville: Abingdon), 1992, 47.
2. Ibid., 52
3. Lee Strobel, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973)
4. Ibid., 59.
5. Ibid., 60.
6. Ibid., 211.
7. Ibid., 214.
8. Ibid., 182.
9. Ibid., 216.
Ford, Kevin G. 1995. Jesus for a New Generation: Putting the Gospel in the Language of Xers. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
Hunter III, George A. 1992. How to Reach Secular People. Nashville: Abingdon.
_______. 1996. Church for the Unchurched. Nashville: Abingdon.
Slaughter, Michael. 1998. Out on the Edge. Nashville: Abingdon.
Strobel, Lee. Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993.
Warren, Rick. 1995. The Purpose Driven Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
White, James E. 1997. Rethinking the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
Wilson, Len. 1999. The Wired Church. Nashville: Abingdon.