For the past 12 years I have preached an average of 45 minutes per week (which means that sometimes I go for quite a bit longer, and not often shorter). I have also preached verse-by-verse through 9 entire books of the Bible during my time at our church. Some of my messages have been more like two messages, often with incredibly long introductions, lots of background information, lots of references to the meaning of words in the original language, and more often than not, my sermons have had three, four, five, or even six key points. In short, I have been “teaching the Bible to people.” Are you proud of me?
After reading Andy Stanley‘s encouraging book, “Communicating For a Change” (2006, Random House, 210 pages) I wish I could go back and change some things about my communication. Lots of things, actually. Not because I want to be more like Andy Stanley, but because I want to be a better communicator and preacher, and this book inspires me to want that.
For all my preacher friends, have you read this book? Whether you have or not, I would be very interested in your feedback about they key ideas and your own approach to preaching in the comment section below.
Stanley strongly and convincingly promotes a value for “One Point Sermons.” I have to admit, at first the idea sounded funny to me. What preacher, wanting to be a faithful teacher of The Word, would disgrace the sacred desk with one point sermons? Well, for at least the past 3 weeks since finishing this book, I do. I’m not great at it yet, but I’m very committed to getting better at it until it’s a natural part of my approach to preaching.
I admit that when I first decided to turn this corner, I wondered if people in the church would accuses me of over-simplifying, dumbing down, or thinning out my messages to the point that they would lose their edge. My hope is that the edge has gotten sharper, and at least in the church I serve, people seem to be getting more out of fewer points and shorter sermons than they were out of my elongated and hyper-saturated “bible teaching.” In fact, my passion for opening the scriptures with the people I serve has only grown!
Andy Stanley’s book is almost exactly like an Andy Stanley sermon. He’s consistent! The first half of the book (about 85 pages) is a story that grabs your attention. That’s typically the way Stanley begins his messages. His is the fictional story of Pastor Ray Martin, and his personal struggle with internal suspicions and external signs that he is relatively ineffective as a preacher, though he is doing everything the way he is supposed to be doing it. He was “teaching the Bible to people” as his heroes and teachers told him he must.
As Pastor Ray begins to dialogue with an old friend about his frustrations with himself, and with the lack of response from his congregation, he is introduced to a truck driver named (wait for it…) “Willy Graham.” Willy is a retired and somewhat crusty, brutally honest, but very friendly over-the-road trucker who also happens to be a preacher of sorts. Pastor Ray and Willy spend many hours together in an intense, humorous, encouraging, challenging, and course-correcting mentoring session where Willy helps Pastor Ray to embrace a new set of values for preaching.
The second half of the book (just like an Andy Stanley sermon) unpacks the ONE BIG IDEA (and the concepts that illustrate it) that the story featuring Pastor Ray and Trucker-Willy conveys. Here are the basics:
Determine Your Goal – In this chapter, Stanley offers three possible goals for preachers (cf. pp. 93-96):
1. Teach the Bible to people. Stanley writes...
“The idea here is to teach the content of the Bible so that interested parties can understand and navigate their way through the Scriptures.”
2. Teach people the Bible. As Stanley explains it…
“This goal differs from the first in that the communicator takes his audience into account as he plans his approach. After all, the goal is to teach people. Communicators who have embraced this goal are constantly looking for effective ways to impart biblical truth into the mind and heart of the hearer.”
3. Teach for change. This, of course, is Stanley’s preferred approach, and the “Big Idea” of the book. He explains the concept this way…
“The way I read it, spiritual maturity is gauged by application not contemplation. James says it best, ‘Faith without deeds is useless. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.’”
And so, he concludes…
“Preaching for life change requires far less information and more application. Less explanation and more inspiration.”
Stanley wants the reader (the preacher) to make up his/her mind before venturing into preaching. “Do you want to teach the Bible to people, to teach people the bible, or teach for change?” Stanley asserts (and you can read the implications of taking the three various approaches in the book) that those are distinctive objectives that will inevitably lead the preacher to preach differently.
Encouraging the reader to stick with him, Stanley then lays out the path (consistently illustrated by the metaphor of taking a journey) that he travels in order to preach for change. The process includes six more elements. They are (1) Pick a point, (2) Create a map, (3) Internalize the message, (4) Engage your audience, (5) Find your voice, and (6) Start all over.
Pick a point is the first step. Here the preacher determines the big idea, central point, and main focus of the message, and builds everything around that. The preacher must look in the mirror and ask him/herself… “What are you trying to say?” It’s the thing that the pastor wants the congregation to remember above all other things when leaving church.
Create a map is the second step. This is where the preacher develops an outline that will get his audience focused on getting to the point. Various approaches to outlining are discussed, but Stanley advocates a process that is built around the communicator’s relationship to the audience. The preacher’s question here is, “What’s the best route to your point?”
Internalize the message is the third step. Here, the preacher asks him/herself, “What’s your story?” A quote from Stanley seems helpful to illustrate this step, since it’s typically going to be the first thing the preacher says when he/she finally begins to speak. Stanley believes that you…
“should be able to sit down at a table and communicate your message to an audience of two in a way that is both conversational and authentic. The message must in some way become a personal story you could tell as if drawing from personal experience.” (p. 135).
In this section, and intermittently throughout the book, Stanley more than pushes for preaching without notes. This is the part of the book I most disagreed with (and, by the way, I don’t use many notes at all when I preach). Stanley’s assertion is that if you’re using notes, you probably don’t own your message (Abraham Lincoln, who gave the Gettysburg Addres!!! What’s wrong with you? You don’t own that message! You have notes).
“I find something very disingenuous about the speaker who says, “This is very, very important,” and then reads something from his notes. Constantly referring to notes communicates, “I have not internalized this message. I want everybody else to internalize it, but I haven’t” (p. 135).
I get what Stanley is saying, but I have a small push-back (then I’ll move on). There have been times when I have felt very strongly that I should write down exactly what I wanted to say using exact terminology, and harnessing my words with precision because I did not want there to be any ambiguity about exactly what I was (and was not) trying to say. In this case, reading from notes does not mean that I have not internalized my message. It means that I love the people I’m talking to, and I want to communicate with precision. Writing a key thought down, then reading it might actually mean that I care about exactly how I say something instead of meaning that I’m disingenuous and haven’t internalized my own message. Just a thought. Anyway… Three more ideas.
Engage your audience is the fourth step. This is where the preacher asks, “What’s your plan to capture and keep their attention?” Explaining this part of preparation and preaching, Stanley writes:
“On the average Sunday morning, or whenever you communicate, your first responsibility is to pose a question your audience wants answered, create a tension they need resolved, or point to a mystery they have been unable to solve. And if you launch into your message before you do one of those three things, chances are, you will leave them standing at the station” (p. 153).
Continuing with train analogies, Stanley writes:
“Your introduction may be the most important part of your message. It is the equivalent to a railroad conductor yelling, “All aboard!” Or in my case, it is the equivalent of standing beside our SUV, yelling, “Load up, we are leaving.” The introduction should provide listeners with a reason to listen. Your introduction should raise the question you are going to answer, create the tension you are going to resolve, or point to the mystery you are going to solve. My impression is that many communicators, especially preachers, are so anxious to get into the body of their message they spend little time preparing their introductions. They leave the station alone” (p. 153).
For my part, it has been very refreshing to add this aspect to my weekly sermon preparation. I have watched the faces of people in our congregation as they tune in to my introduction. In the past, some of my introductions have been (though not always) a bit dry, academic, and uninteresting (hear, “Please open your Bible to 1 Corinthians 11. That’s 1 Corinthians 11 as we study four verses today in our look at head coverings in public church services.” I know. Powerful, huh?!). Thanks to Stanley’s encouragement to engage the people I’m preaching to, I want to change this.
Find your voice is the fifth step. Here is where Stanley wants the preacher to ask, “What works for you?” When I was studying Textual Criticism in seminary, one of the things we talked a lot about was authorship of various texts. People who rake over ancient manuscripts for a living learn to tell the difference between one biblical author and another. But it’s amazing how many preachers want to sound just like their favorite guy, believing that he has mastered preaching so perfectly that not sounding like or preaching just like him would somehow be a failure. While it’s true that emulation is the highest form of flattery (unless you’re making fun of someone), Stanley encourages every preacher to be him/herself while preaching. He writes:
“Authenticity communicates volumes. Authenticity covers a multitude of communication sins. If a communicator is believable and sincere, I can put up with a lot of things. But if I get the feeling that I’m listening to their stage personality, big turnoff. I imagine you are the same way. I want to hear you, not your best rendition of your favorite communicator” (p. 169)
All I can say is, “Amen.”
Start all over is the sixth and final step. Here, the preacher asks, “What’s the next step?” By “next step,” Stanley means that sermon prep is not done until I take my finished product to the Lord once more before preaching, and let Him have the final say. Regarding this final part of the process, Stanley writes…
“I ask God to show me if there is something He wants to say to prepare me for what He wants me to communicate to our congregation. I surrender my ideas, my outline, and my topic. Then I just stay in that quiet place until God quiets my heart. It may be a few minutes. It may be much longer. There are times when absolutely nothing changes other than a decrease in my anxiety level. On some occasions something I need to deal with in my personal life will surface. That’s always a lot of fun. Seems like bad timing. But God certainly has my undivided attention when the pressure’s on. Many times while praying I will have a breakthrough thought or idea that brings clarity to my message” (p. 185).
I strongly recommend Andy Stanley’s “Communicating for a Change” to every preacher. Not so you’ll wholly buy in to every word he says, but so you’ll let him, as a very effective communicator, be a voice of encouragement, input, and shaping in your pursuit of communication that changes the lives of people to whom you’re ministering.
Okay preachers, time for you to chime in. Tell me what you think of this approach, and share your own experiences with developing as a preacher and communicator. Enjoy…