I had an opportunity to visit a local mega church (about 2,500 AWA*) recently on one of their “special event” Sundays. The service was touted as an “Arts” event and they had four worship services at one campus and one more at their satellite service. The service was one of excellence, as one would expect of a mega church. The music was loud and I was glad that I was able to stand in the back in one of the entrance “tunnels” where I didn’t have the full wrap around sound. The songs spoke to this generation as ten band members, plus multiple lead singers who rotated in and out, presented a musical message with power. The video presentation was all eye-candy. There were seven stage/overhead screens that projected up to three different videos running simultaneously. And of course there were the eight robo-lights, multiple banks of stage lights, a well-timed smoke machine, and well conceived stage décor. At the end of the service, I suspect many of my contemporary colleagues would have left shaking their heads insisting that what they’d witnessed was just another “show.” There was no preaching, at least not as most would define. No one stood up and read scripture, explicated it, expounded upon it, or applied it. In fact, once the presentation began, 100 percent of the words coming from the live up-fronters were accompanied with electronic drums, multiple guitars, a thumping bass, and a variety of other percussion instruments as needed. Until the closing moments when the lead pastor invited those who heard the Gospel message to respond to God’s call in prayer (which he led).
I wanted to get all this technical stuff out of the way up front because the fact is, the heart of what Woodcrest Chapel did in Columbia, Missouri that Sunday, can be duplicated by a church with a dozen average worship attenders who are absolutely committed to reach today’s culture. And they can do it without a band, without video, and even without the smoke machine. Any church with a commitment to today’s culture can do what Woodcrest did because at the heart of it all was parabolic preaching.
Let me define parabolic preaching for you. To begin with, a parabola is all about mathematical formulas that I’m not about to try to either understand or explain. However, most of us know what a “parabolic dish” does. You see these dishes on roofs pointing south-upwards at various angles all over the nation with a coaxial cable attached at one end and ending at someone’s television. The point of a satellite dish (a parabolic dish) is to gather the very faint satellite signals that are wending their way across the space and to bounce them to a focal point where they’re combined and become strong enough to extract CNN, HBO, ESPN, and a couple hundred other programming options. The key of all this is that no matter where the wave comes into the parabolic dish, it’s carefully projected directly to the feed antenna (the focal point) – see the illustration. I’m hoping the parallel is obvious. Parabolic preaching has a single focused point to make and no matter how you come at the presentation, you’re going to end up focusing on the point.
But there’s a second part to parabolic preaching that has less to do with the mathematics and the science involved, and a lot more to do with the ear. I hear parabolic and I think parable. Sure, they have nothing in common with each other (besides the whole “para” means along side in some ancient language), except that they sound a bit alike. But parabolic preaching is pretty much what Jesus did when he told a parable out in public. He had a focused point to make and he did so using one of the art forms of his day: storytelling. In parabolic preaching, and when designing a medium to carry the Gospel message, the “storytelling” may be less about “story,” that is a literary device with a plot, and a lot more like a snapshot, a thought, or a central point or image.
Let’s go back to the described service. The central theme of the service was “God is knowable.” There were repeated video clips of many individuals who began with the one line “You don’t know me.” As the clip progressed, each person said one line, generally repeated by others, that echoed that theme. “You might know how old I am”; “You might know how much money I have”; “You might know what car I drive”; “But you don’t know me.” Then a song that related. Then another similar set of single line dialogs about how they don’t know me. Song. Then “You could get to know me.” And so it progressed until the conversation progressed to the point that we may not really know God. We know about God. We know what we’ve heard about God. But we may not know God. And finally, the coup de grace, God is knowable. Everything, every word, every note, every song, every drumbeat, every flickering light enhanced that message. Nothing distracted from it. No announcements. No silences more than two or three seconds (just enough for an effective transition). Nothing distracted those hearing the Gospel message from the one, single, parabolic focus. The whole service was a parable without a plot … but you can be certain, there was a point to make.
So, how does First Church in RuralTown, Iowa pull off a parabolic message? It’s not easy. But the results of the message were well worth it. Here are some guidelines for your church.
Learn the Language. If you want to reach someone, you have to speak their language. The language of my generation (Boomer) was music. But no matter who you’re trying to reach, you have to be able to answer that question … and then you have to learn the language so you can speak it. As church leaders and members, we have to recognize that the mission field is outside our church doors, and for most of us, that mission field is every bit as foreign to us as Middle-Asia would be. If we were going to relocate to Middle-Asia, we would study the culture, learn their customs, learn their beliefs, and learn to communicate. If we were serious about sharing the Gospel, we’d figure out how to adapt their metaphors, their symbols, and their analogies so that we could share Jesus so they could grasp the message. And once we learned that, although we might choose not to adopt many of their customs, we would relax our own as much as possible so as to not offend them and we’d start spending time with them to listen, to learn, and to relate. Only when we have accomplished all that would we make an attempt at sharing the Gospel—that is, if we expected to be successful.
The same would be true with reaching out to those in our own ministry area. Whatever we do, we have to be able to communicate the Gospel without offending those we’re trying to reach. That doesn’t mean “dumbing down” the Gospel. It doesn’t mean watering it down. It does mean not only not looking down at tattoos, piercings, twenty-seven year-olds living at home, debt that seems over-and-above possibility, and so on; it means seeing these (and whomever is in your mission field) like God sees these – something about scattered sheep that are terrified (sometimes of us).
Create a Parabolic Space. Once you’ve got a language down, then it’s time to design a parabolic space. Parabolic space is the canvas that you’ll paint your parabolic message onto. You want to create a canvas that’s totally blank without any stray “marks.” One of the key takeaways I hope you get from my description of the Woodcrest event is that there were exactly zero distractions to the message. One hundred percent of the service communicated the message, that one single focal point. They did it with a multi-media extravaganza, but you can do it with a piano, a soloist, and a “sermon” if that’s what you have. What’s most important is that there be NO distractions and you have to SPEAK their language. That means no waiting for the choir to get into place (which produces forty-five seconds of awkward silence and pointless movement). That means no announcements that compete with the message. It may even mean no pastoral prayer, no doxology, no introit, no all-sorts-of-things that are sacred cows. When you’re finished you want to look back at a masterpiece, not a piecemeal project.
Create a Parabolic Message. The parabolic preaching itself, whether you do a sermon, a drama, a video, a musical, or a combination of all these, must have a single point. There is no room for three points and a poem here. In the words of Curly in the old classic City Slickers “There’s just one thing.” Every word, every image, every verse of every song (you don’t have to sing all four verses … the sky really won’t fall in), every movement, and every momentous pause must help carry the message along. It only takes one distraction to, well, distract—and someone who’s distracted may miss the message.
Putting together a parabolic message probably won’t come natural for some. It pretty much violates every homiletic rule that’s been created over the years. There’s no explaining and there’s no application. The message isn’t just what’s delivered, it is contained even in the how it’s delivered. Space doesn’t permit an introduction to the new homiletics, but let me offer five steps for creating a parabolic service.
- Define a one line message. This is the focal point to which everything points. The best parabolic points probably fit onto a bumper sticker that can be read without tailgating. God is knowable. Life makes sense. Jesus said Go.
- Explore the message. Once you have a one liner, then take time to explore it fully. You’ll probably need a team to be thorough, since one mind does not a brainstorm make. What goes into Life makes sense? How does life make sense? Why doesn’t life seem to make sense? (But remember, you’re not going to be explaining anything—you’ll be communicating instead.)
- Decide the outcome. Where do you want to go with your message? How do you want the audience to respond? When Jesus told his parables, he often ended with a pointed question, the answer to which may (or may not) have called for a response. I’m of the school that if you preach for no response, don’t be surprised if you don’t get one, so I recommend expecting one. By knowing where you want to take the audience, you can better create an experience that will get them there.
- Design the experience. Here is the crux of parabolic preaching. It’s not about a sermon. It’s not about music. It’s not even about video. Parabolic preaching is about creating an experience that captures the heart, mind, and imagination. At this point, you know the message well and you know where you want to take the audience, so begin spending time in front of your blank canvas. This is the time for creative people to be a part of the discussion. Keep in mind the experience must be in the language of the mission field and it must not offend to the point that they can no longer hear (remember that although Paul was deeply troubled by the idols in Athens, he didn’t come out and tell the Athenians they needed to be rid of them … at least not before he’d presented the Gospel in a language they could hear). During this creative time leave no sacred cow untipped. The attitude “whatever it takes” must prevail.Explore all the resources you have available, from piano to crayons, videos to overheads, electronic white boards to flannel boards. Allow your team the freedom to play and design an experience that will communicate the message and take the audience from where they are to where you want to take them. As the design process progresses, keep the earlier points in mind: speak the language and create the space.
- Practice. Finally, once you’ve created an experience, it’s vital that you practice, rehearse, prepare, tweak, and perfect it. Remember, distractions distract. The Gospel message demands to be well communicated, so do what you can to minimize bumps in the road. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make the valleys high, the mountains low, and the paths straight. Let nothing get in the way.
A final thought. If you haven’t read Jim and Casper Go To Church, you probably ought to. Although the book sometimes feels redundant, it’s an eye-opener to some of the questions that are being asked by our guests. For me, the key issue is raised when Casper (who is an atheist) and Jim Henderson (who is a Christian) attend a mega church together. As Casper reflects on the service, he asks, “Is that really what Jesus told you guys to do?” It’s a good question; one we have to take seriously. For me, there is no question whether parabolic preaching is what Jesus told us to do. Going to the nations literally means going to other people groups, that is, to the hundreds of micro-groups** living in our communities. To reach other people groups, we must be like the missionaries of old and prepare ourselves before we attempt to make connections, lest our attempts do more harm than good. But Casper’s question should continue to haunt us as we create these experiences. Authenticity, indigenousness, excellence, and effectiveness must always be our closest companions as we create parabolic preaching.
* Average Worship Attendance
** Micro-Groups: It seems the easiest examples to grasp are high school micro-groups: Jocks, Geeks, Goths, Preps, Skaters, etc. In addition, there are literally hundreds of adult micro-groups, even in rural counties. Don’t think Senior Adults, think: low income widows, seniors with local roots, seniors who have to work, seniors without children, seniors with mobility issues, seniors living in community, and the list could go on. Young adults are a macro group; double-income with no children and financially strapped would be a micro-group.
Edgar Allan Poe revolutionized storytelling during the Victorian era with a concept he called, “Single Effect.” Before that time, writers would pack their stories with lots of rabbit trails and superfluous details. But every stroke of Poe’s pen was designed to lead the reader to the climax of the tale. Today, nearly every novel and film is based on single effect. Even rabbit trails and misdirections eventually fold into the main plot. If only our churches could grasp this concept.
Did not know that about Poe. Thanks for the history lesson. When we (the church) can figure out how to create that “single effect” perhaps we’ll be able to communicate the gospel effectively!