Solid sermons can pack the house
By Norris Burkes
As I prepared for my first speaking engagements in our new post-pandemic environment, I was ready for an unpleasant question: “Why is church attendance declining?”
Last month in this space, I raised this question myself and shared a Gallup poll tracing the decline of America’s church membership by a whopping 23 percent through the last two decades.
So, what should a church do?
Well, I’m just a chaplain. I’m not a church-growth expert. On Sundays, I’m a listener, sitting across from you. What do we listeners know?
A lot, I dare say.
For instance, we intuitively know the accuracy of a 2016 Pew Research poll that said 83 percent of Americans say good preaching guided their choice of a congregation.
If we choose our places of worship by what we hear from the lectern, then we are qualified to encourage our pastors in the craft of preaching. Or as my seminary preaching professor often said, “Remember, anyone is a better judge of your sermon than you are.”
With that in mind, here are three tips I often give when speaking to local ministers. The three ideas are something you might want to discuss with your pastor. Just remember, he or she may be like me—we carry fragile egos.
First, I encourage ministers to keep their message short, 12 minutes, 15 tops. That means sermons should be one point, not three. I knew a pastor who, after making his single point, challenged people to post on social media what he called “Sermon in a tweet.”
Second, that single point should be coupled with a call to action. This is the “so-what” of the sermon. Congregants should be challenged with a specific action.
For instance, I once watched a pastor take a “reverse offering.” Offering plates were passed throughout the congregation containing sealed envelopes of money. Each family was told to take an envelope and spend the money helping someone. The following Sunday, people were invited to share their stories.
When speaking about forgiveness, the same pastor asked church members to take a gift to places often perceived as condemned by Christians. Church members brought back stories of their visits to strip clubs, abortion clinics and a gay newspaper.
My third tip is one I especially hope you will voice to your minister: Good preaching will be great storytelling. Jesus told story-truths called parables because stories confront people to change.
Tell us a story-truth, pastor. Tell us an amazing story about people, their heartbreak and the consequence of sin.
Tell us a personal story, or even one from pop culture, about overcoming the fear of (fill in blank).
Share the news, historical or current, but never your personal politics. Tell us stories about rockets, racketeering and race. For instance, the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme makes a great sermon on greed.
Give us comedy or tragedy. Like the story of the chaplain who accidentally carried his wife’s pink pillow through airport security. We want to laugh at church, too.
Within the first five minutes, give us 75 percent of the story. Then open the Bible and connect the story with the old, old story of redemption and grace.
As you close the sermon, I promise we will anxiously await the end of your personal story. Tell us how things ended well or how they didn’t—but be sure to relate it to the biblical story.
As you share these thoughts with your pastor, remember that Philippians 2:13 tells us, “It is God who is working in you, (enabling you) both to will and to act for His good purpose.” This means you needn’t be a pastor to tell a story-truth.
If all goes well, don’t be surprised if your pastor invites you to share a story of your own.
Norris Burkes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit thechaplain.net.