–Daniel S. Ferguson
Arguably, there may be nothing more important to long-term, substantial church participation and growth than high-quality, impactful sermons. Sermons (ideally) aren’t just lectures or Bible-reading sessions or story time; they’re insightful, incisive and inspiring truths spoken in accessible and approachable ways that last in people’s minds for days or weeks to come, or even years in some excellent cases.
Sermons are supposed to be for everybody that’s watching, which means pastors have to start by stating universally acceptable truths (like “we all struggle with grief from time to time”) and then working from there to build up the Biblical truth that applies (like “God’s Holy Spirit grieves with you and will never abandon you).
I did some reading a few weeks ago on relational intimacy, and it, strangely enough, reminded me more of sermons than of anything else. Sermons are, after all, conversations of sorts. Only one person may be speaking, but everyone is talking in their own way. It’s just not out loud. And if they are talking back, then it’s a conversation.
From my point of view, if it’s going to be a conversation, it needs to be an intimate one. Not in an “adult” way, but in a meaningful way that’s going to impact people’s lives and their perceptions of the world, God, and themselves. In the economy of sermons, this kind of intimacy is nothing short of currency. If you don’t have it, you can get the audience to buy in.
And this is what great preachers do so well. They don’t just preach the truth. And they don’t just jump straight to practical application. And they don’t just tell stories or metaphors. Great preachers actually talk to their audiences like real people, like they’re having a conversation.
These preachers don’t skip steps on the route to intimacy. They start with things that seem like cliché (thanks for being here; we’re honored that you decided to join us; good morning; etc.), and that may seem trivial. You may want for the pastor to jump straight into the deep stuff, but it’s crucial. After all, how many conversations in your life, even with intimate friends or spouses, didn’t start with some kind of cliché? How are you doing? How was your day? What are you up to? How’s work?
Great pastors know to start there because that’s how nearly all conversations start, even intimate ones. From there, good preachers try to work from cliché toward fact (something nearly everyone can agree on), to opinion about that fact, to dreams and aspirations the audience may have about the topic, to deep feelings that are fairly universally experienced and need to be addressed, to the failures and faults that we all fear addressing even in our own minds, and finally to the legitimate needs that we all have as humans.
(These seven levels of intimacy are from a book by Matthew Kelly.)
I know that seems hard to follow, but with good transitions and solid structure, truly great preachers do this smoothly and with great impact.
Probably the best examples I’ve seen of this come from North Point, whose primary preacher is Andy Stanley, one of the most famous preachers in the country. (Although their Lead Pastor Clay Scroggins has preached two of the best sermons I’ve ever heard.)
What makes Andy and Clay so good is that they don’t skip steps on the way to intimacy. Think about it, the awkward guy at the party is the one who skips these steps, the one who dives straight down into his opinions, or worse, his faults and failures. You have to be friends with that person and have built up a solid relationship before you can talk on that level of intimacy without it being awkward or even damaging to the friendship.
Andy and Clay know that. They aren’t too quick to hit Scripture before they’ve established some kind of rapport with the audience, usually through some version of cliché. They don’t strike the chords of feeling and legitimate needs before they’ve expressed the key facts that will draw people into those feelings. They don’t just speak the truth; they build the truth up from the bottom so that everyone can hear it.
And in doing this, Andy and Clay (and preachers like them) get substantially more buy in than preachers who don’t. It isn’t magic they’re employing; they’re not big and famous because they’re special. They’re big and famous and special because they focus on communicating through conversation instead of convention.
And it works for them, very very well. Pastors would do well to mimic them.