Startling Statistic: By Wednesday afternoon, your congregation remembers 10 percent or less of what you preached. That’s according to an Air Force study some years ago (and I can assure you, our attention spans and memories have not improved since then).
Sad Story: I was having breakfast with a church leader on Monday years and years ago. I was a young pastor, confident I’d knocked my Sunday sermon out of the ball park the day before. As I strawberry jellied my toast I commented, “I think we’ll see an upturn in mission giving after yesterday’s sermon.” My companion’s scrambled egg laden fork stopped midway between plate and mouth. A blank space replaced his face for a moment as he collected his thoughts. “Mission giving? Is that what the sermon was about? I only remember the story you told about the fish in the waders.”
I’ve learned a lot since then. As a professional public speaker busy in kingdom work, I’ve learned a few things about preaching over the past couple of decades. And one thing I’ve learned is that if you really want your message to be memorable and life changing then pay limited attention to what the “experts” write about memorable speeches on the internet. Yes, a humorous speech is memorable. Structuring the sermon with problem – solution – synopsis will help too. But will the sermon be life changing … ?
… Probably not. In fact, this short clip from The Big Bang Theory could be applied to most sermons
Over the years, here are some of the keys I’ve discovered to making a sermon both memorable and life changing.
1. A Topic that’s Inescapably Relevant and Personally Applicable
Relevance is a huge problem in the church today, as in it seems difficult for many pastors to choose topics that have anything to do with present reality. Listen folks, almost no one is laying in bed with eyes wide open worrying about whether they’re going to go to hell. No one’s losing sleep over the trinity, the atonement, the second coming, or even the finer points of liberation theology.
I think the issue is that most pastors have little or no relationships with people in the “real world.” Without that connection, it’s virtually impossible to be relevant to people in the real world consistently. You might get it right once in awhile, but by and large a pastor who isn’t hanging out with the Dones and especially the Nones is going to miss the mark most of the time.
Some pastors think that addressing big news items and world events makes their sermons relevant, but that’s far from reality. It makes the sermon “current,” but relevance is only relevant when it lands our personal real world back yard. Furthermore, if something’s going on and there’s nothing I can personally do about it, then relevance is out the door. Now, that doesn’t mean a sermon that touches on some aspect of terrorism or global climate change can’t be addressed, but you’ll need to connect the event to my personal life and make some sort of personal application.
Unclear about what’s a relevant topic today? Some topics are timeless like making relationships work; ethics in the workplace; dealing with finances; and applying faith practices to all of the above. Some topics are more timely like the Star Wars phenomenon or dealing with the New Year. And some are more local like the unrest on the Mizzou campus in Columbia, Missouri or the closing of the Kraft/Heinz plant in Northfield, Illinois.
But take note. Any of those topics can be rendered completely irrelevant as well. It all depends on what you do with them and how you tie them to your audience. If you want your listeners to hang on to your every word, choose a topic that’s both relevant and personal.
2. A Problem that’s as Perplexing as the Solution is Simple
A pessimist might say that life is one problem followed by another. Perhaps that’s a bit bleak, but let’s be honest – problems are at the core of ministry, and they’re at the core of a memorable, life transforming sermon as well.
But the church has too often neglected dealing with the day-to-day problems people face, choosing instead to address the larger systemic problems of society and culture. The church was never charged with solving society’s shortcomings. It was charged with addressing personal issues; the trials and temptations and failures each of us deal with from time to time.
A memorable, life-changing sermon addresses problems the listeners are confronted with, because let’s be honest: those are the ones closest to our hearts. But the sermon doesn’t just touch on our day-to-day problems. It digs deep and is brutally honest about the root of the problems that perplex us. It takes them as seriously as the listeners do. And then a memorable, life-changing sermon provides a solution that’s biblically based and grounded on the simple principles of faith (note, simple is not synonymous with easy). If you want your audience to remember your sermon, give them working, realistic solutions to the problems they’re facing.
3. A To-Do that’s Imperative and Infinitely Actionable
True story. I was at church where an accomplished pastor was preaching a lively sermon on forgiveness. I’m sure her homiletics professor would have been proud of the structure and the exegesis of the scriptures. She overlaid the premise on a real-world event that was going on in the world, but she brought it home nicely. Her presentation was flawless and I was literally on the edge of my seat waiting for the punchline, the take-home, the truth that would change my life forever. “And so, this week, I want you to be more forgiving. Be more forgiving at home. Be more forgiving at work. And be more forgiving at church.” And with that, she invited us to bow our heads as she offered the benediction.
Really?! All that study, research, exegetical acrobatics, and presentation preparation to tell us that we need to be more forgiving? If I was handing out grades, her sermon went from an A+ to failing the class altogether.
A memorable, life-changing sermon doesn’t just address a relevant topic. It doesn’t just dissect a problem and extricate a solution. A great sermon has a call to action that is imperative and specific. It’s an “I must do this” kind of call. Think about most of Jesus’ sermons. They’re filled with specifics.
- “Follow me.”
- “Sell everything you own and follow me.”
- “Pray this way.”
- “Go and do likewise.”
But most pastors who went to seminary were force fed an outright lie. Most of us were told, “People don’t want to be told what to do.” And so we were taught to create sermons that left the audience “thinking.”
And then we wonder why lives are rarely transformed in our churches.
People most certainly do want to be told what to do – we just don’t want to be told we have to do it (or else!). But if we didn’t want to be told what to do, there would be no market for all those self-help books. Diet books wouldn’t fly off the shelves. How to get rich and work only four hours a week wouldn’t be on our Kindles. And I suppose we’d all be entrepreneurs to boot.
Back to the forgiveness sermon. A fitting conclusion would have told us how to forgive those who have wronged us. It would have given us a specific to-do that would help us make peace with the ex-spouse. How to forgive the abusive parent. How to forgive and continue to work with the new boss who got the promotion because they stole our idea and presented it as their own. And/or it would have told us how to forgive ourselves for the regrets we carry.
A memorable, life-changing sermon always includes a “what’s next.” It gives the audience a concrete “to do” to add to their appointment calendar for this week. But it’s a real “to do.” It’s actionable. It’s something I can do. Pretty much everyone everywhere already knows they need to be “more forgiving.” Even atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and cynics know forgiveness is necessary for healthy relationships. Preaching twenty-five minutes to tell us to be more forgiving is nearly unforgivable. But I can be taught to forgive the unforgivable. I can be inspired to send a note to my ex. To get into therapy to find ways to cope, forgive, and move on from being abused. To make an appointment with the new boss to “come clean” and to find ways to work together productively. To make that phone call to ask forgiveness and to let ourselves off the hook for the regrets of the past.
If you want to change lives with your sermon, the very bottom line is this: you have to get me to do something to change. Preaching a sermon that’s relevant, problem-solving, and actionable will cover a multitude of poor presentation skills. And the good news is that it’s relatively easy to improve poor presentation skills so that every pastor can deliver the word of God in such a way that come Wednesday morning, the whole congregation will still be abuzz with the ways the sermon has transformed their lives.
Question: What would you add to the list? Share your thoughts in the Comment section below.