Shifting Communication Styles to Connect & Change Lives

Charles Revis, ABC-Northwest Executive Minister

The Sunday morning sermon is THE primary event in the rhythm of church life. But it has always been a mixed bag--sometimes highly effective, other times as boring as Lawrence Welk re-runs. In some eras educated ministers preached oratorial masterpieces. This style reached its apex in the early 1970s. For me the quintessential example was Dr.Henry Parker who delivered elegant words of wisdom each Sunday at FBC Orlando. That era was fading away even as I was experiencing it. Within a decade fewer ministers were using the oratory style.

This shift was due in part to the rise of the practical life-focused message, which came to prominence with Baby Boomer pastors. Sermons, whether topical or expositional, dispensed biblical wisdom for everyday living. Multiple points and fill in the blank messages predominated. This continues to be a popular form of preaching with mixed reviews.

This approach is losing its steam as millennials and their emerging churches are coming into prominence. Millennials preach primarily out of Scripture while confronting real world challenges. Authenticity, transparency, the use of multiple story forms and an elevation of Truth with a capital "T" converge in this style.

My adult children are engaged in a new church where this form dominates. Their young 32-year-old pastor, like many others of his generation, sports hip black frame glasses, Vans and tats. He speaks his generation's lingo with side bar references to their lifestyle and culture. He's funny and entertaining, holding the crowd's attention for 50+ minutes. (Don't attempt this unless you are very captivating, which he is.) Hear me clearly: The cool style is not the main reason this 5-year-old church has rocketed past 800 in a city resistant to the Gospel.

The church does a lot of things right: edgy music, inspiring worship with Eucharist each Sunday, multiple services in two locations (coffee shop and converted warehouse), modern graphics, captivating web site and an experimental approach to ministry programming. All of these contribute to their success. But none of these are the genius behind the growth. It's far deeper and more foundational than strategies and tactics. It's the pervasive conviction that Jesus really matters, and the preaching leads people to encounter Him. This is their vision and their passion. They are driven to see lives changed. They exhibit an unashamed, unapologetic love for Christ. And it is all conveyed first and foremost through the preaching!

So, what makes this form of preaching to post-moderns so effective? Here are my impressions:

Reflects a keen awareness of the culture. Millennials are quick to dismiss anyone who is out of touch with the current world. Combining hip lingo with brief cultural asides the pastor demonstrates an intimate knowledge of the culture fending off the tendency of post-moderns to ignore anyone they deem irrelevant.

Skirts the edge of propriety with humor, quips and craziness. The sermon is much like riding a Six Flags roller coaster. Up, down and sideways, it carries you along to its destination with humor, deep quotes, craziness, zig-zag logic and startling insights. Then the pastor plunges into the depths of the Word and listeners almost lose their breath (or toss their cookies). There are moments of self-confession. It gets edgy at times. He purposively offends traditionalists. This herky-jerky unfolding of the message certainly reflects post-modernity and the audience readily relates. They are on familiar ground with the preacher.

One story line supported with multiple minor stories. Each sermon centers on one story line with a primary theme. Secondary stories weave in and out supporting and illustrating the main story. It's similar to the patterns of popular TV shows like The Office or Big Bang Theory. The pastor peppers quick jokes and funny quips throughout. There are occasional points, even quotes from heavy theologians. This story approach coupled with the humorous asides holds the attention of the iPhone centered crowd and breaks down defenses. Yet, at the sermon's denouement the pastor drives home his big idea by converging all that has come before into one concentrated thrust. He shifts into attack mode going for the jugular of heart transformation.

From the heart to the heart. It is one heart in love with Christ reaching and connecting with the hearts and souls of young pagans. Certainly much of the content challenges one's thinking. But, he's primarily intent on capturing the listeners' hearts. This pastor constantly references how his pre-conversion life sucked. Then, by way of contrast he extols the multiple benefits of living a new life transformed by the grace and love of Jesus Christ. The pastor unashamedly plays on emotions to drive home this essential message. It's common to hear church attenders say, "He makes me cry every Sunday."

Anchored in Truth. The pastor knows that his audience is profoundly influenced by post-modernity, which at its core posits there is no ultimate truth with a capital T. There are no absolutes. There are only multiple individual stories, but no meta-story providing ultimate meaning to human existence. As a proponent of Christian truth this pastor takes on rampant relativism with a determined stare, forcing post-modernity to blink first. This allegiance to ancient truth reflects an unapologetic and aggressive conviction that the Scriptures authoritatively bear witness to the only Truth, Jesus Christ.

Drives to a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. This approach is not satisfied with clear exegesis of the text and keen biblical insight, as important as these are. The point of the message isn't to impart knowledge although there is significant intellectual and biblical content. Eventually the sermon funnels the listener into an encounter with Jesus for the purpose of life transformation. There may be life application. Knowledge may be imparted. But, this pastor knows that without conversion of the heart, these fall short of the real purpose of a Spirit-endued message. Decision is the ultimate destination point of every sermon preached.

Throughout the ages the Holy Spirit has used the imperfect medium of human preaching to draw people into an encounter with Jesus Christ. The methods and styles used in preaching have varied with each culture and age. We are in one of those periods of cultural upheaval with profound implications for communication. We have much to learn from young preaching pioneers who are figuring out how to communicate to post-moderns. Just as we must shift our ministry methods to be effective, we must be willing to experiment, learn from the pioneers and adopt new preaching methods for the purpose of capturing hearts with the Good News of the Gospel. Otherwise we will fail to communicate effectively with an entire generation.