Thom Rainer, in his book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, discovered one of the primary reasons unchurched people eventually stay at a church they are invited to is their perceived relationship with the pastor. Where does that connection with the pastor come from? Preaching! I know it feels like your preaching doesn’t always have the impact you desire. You give an inspiring message and compelling application, people write it down and forget about it as they walk into their week.
However, Rainer’s research indicates that our preaching makes a big difference for unchurched people who visit our churches. My hunch is it works both ways. Unchurched people stayed in churches where they feel a connection with the pastor, unchurched people also leave churches where they don’t feel a connection with the pastor. How do we shape messages that communicate clearly and effectively to unchurched people?
- Bust their stereotypes. Research shows that unchurched people think Christians are anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical and too involved in politics. So, chances are, most of the unchurched people who come to your church assume that is who you are. They have their guard up and they’ve got you pegged. Allow God’s grace to flow through you as you share your own brokenness. Nothing destroys hypocrisy like authenticity. Humorously demonstrating your own humanness is a powerful way to break through their walls of resistance. To effectively preach repentance we need to demonstrate our own need for God’s grace.
- Your Assumptions Create Your Crowd. Let that sink in. If you assume the people you are preaching to are all churched people, that is who will gather to hear you. If you say things like, “Jeremiah knew this when he said…” Unchurched people are thinking, “Jeremiah who?” We cannot reference Joseph, David or any other biblical name and assume people know what we are talking about. We must give at least a small bit of context. Even as brief and simple as, “The prophet Jeremiah in the Bible…”. I’m about to launch a series on Jonah and I don’t want to assume people will accept the fact that a man could live inside a fish for three days. I want to assume they will think that is impossible and help them understand the role of the miraculous in the story.
- Creatively Use Their Culture. Using phrases and concepts from current movies, music, apps, and local events all help you build bridges with people. I had the privilege of playing the role of Santa Claus in our city’s Holiday Parade here in Lake Worth, FL. Being able to share my sweaty, sweet experience helped place me firmly in the culture they enjoy. One of my unchurched friends heard me quote a line from the latest Star Wars movie which launched us into a discussion about Star Wars after church. This one might seem the most obvious on the list but creatively incorporating culture as Paul and Jesus did so well takes work. Work we often don’t have the time or energy to do.
- Anticipate Objections. In a recent message from the book of Acts, focused on the spread of the Gospel, I began with the question, “Why would we want to tell people about the story of Jesus Christ?” “Isn’t that what makes Christians so arrogant and exclusive?” I tried to anticipate the objections unchurched people would have to the very idea of telling someone else about Jesus. Once I had established the reasons behind evangelism, I could talk about doing it. Tim Keller is a master of anticipating the objections of unchurched people. Listening to some of his messages can help you challenge some of your assumptions and better understand the perspective of unchurched people.
- Watch Your Tone. One of the most helpful concepts that has grown my heart for unchurched people and the culture I live in is this, “Don’t expect people who don’t know God to act like they do.” I observe too many Christians whose evangelism is really moralism. They are angry at culture for being so immoral and they are passionate to stem the tide of decay in our world. Unfortunately, God did not send us on mission to fix people’s bad behavior. He sent us to preach the Good News! It is only in the power of God’s grace that the Spirit begins the work of making us new. Your unchurched attendees are expecting you to judge and criticize culture. They’ve come to expect that the church is going to try and scare the hell out them because the church produces movies like Left Behind. Surprise them by identifying and loving the best parts of the culture you live in (Jeremiah 29:7). How you feel about the people in your community and the culture you live in, will come through in your tone. If the only emotion you have about the culture you live in is anger, please, stop preaching.
- Tell Stories, Stories, Stories! Matthew 13:34 says Jesus did not say anything to them without using parables! Everybody loves a good story. That’s why millions and millions sit glued to their televisions, fill movie theaters, read novels, and even hang out at bars or back porches to practice the lost art of “visiting” with each other. One of the best investments I made in my preaching was to attend multiple story telling conferences. It was not a workshop on better sermons. It was simply listening to and learning from great story tellers. I learned to incorporate the sights, sounds, smells and touches of a story. I learned the power of getting into the mindset of the character, body movement, and acting to bring a story to life. Every story has a hero. The Gospel tells us that hero is Jesus. Tell great stories that help people see Jesus.
The best preparation for preaching to the unconvinced is to build relationships with the unconvinced. If you don’t know any unchurched people, you won’t preach well to them. Start by building those relationships and listening well to their interests, dreams and struggles. Then you can begin to craft messages that will transform hearts.