“They talked about the sermon all the way home!”
“At a parish committee meeting that week, people were talking about the sermon. I couldn’t believe it!”
“A week later, people wanted to discuss the previous week’s sermon some more!”
Usually sermons are quickly forgotten. One and done.
Before listeners even utter the next words of the liturgy, the sermon message has drifted into oblivion, leaving them with little to say other than the required, “Nice sermon, Pastor.”
So when a preacher finds people pondering, wrestling with, and engaging the message days later, well, a preacher notices!
I hear comments like those above from preachers who work with us at Backstory Preaching. Together we unpack and then practice what changes a sermon from just an obligatory portion of the liturgy to a transformative event.
Why does it matter? Not because it buoys a preacher’s ego (though it’s certainly nice to know our sermon was meaningful) but because ongoing conversation suggests impact.
Chatter after a sermon suggests the Good News connected so deeply, people can’t help but continue thinking about its implications outside the service.
And that ongoing contemplation, nudged by the Holy Spirit, is where change comes from. That’s where fruit is born.
What makes the difference?
In order to better understand the building blocks of what helps a message a stick and then get shared (for a seminar I’ll be offering this week in The Collective+), I’ve been researching more deeply the elements of speeches, articles, memes, etc. that make them go viral.
Based on the science of memorable speeches, the neuroscience of memory, and what makes a social media post go viral, content that keeps people talking has five things in common. Incorporate these essentials in your sermons, and see what kind of conversation follows.
1) Connect with People’s Emotions
In other words, keep it human.
To get people talking about a sermon, they have to care about the message—and they’ll care when it taps into the most fundamental part of our shared humanity: our emotions.
Whether it’s a movie, a new restaurant, or that book “you’ve just gotta read!”, we talk about things that have provided a meaningful experience. If we’re indifferent, we don’t give it another thought.
Consider the difference between a term paper about God’s forgiveness and feeling the arms of someone you wronged embracing you? The term paper’s a theory (yawn). The arms are soul-changing.
So how do we craft sermons that emotionally connect? We get specific.
You can see this principle at work in many contexts:
It’s why the video of a child rushing into her military parent’s arms helps civilians understand sacrifice far more than a general treatise about deployment.
It’s why people are more likely to rescue animals when they see their photos, names, and clever bios than they are to adopt based on the shelter’s full capacity.
It’s why nonprofits tell stories about individuals helped by an organization’s work in addition to sharing the statistics of their broader impact.
And how do we get specific? By writing the sermon for an individual rather than a general audience.
If you were writing a sermon about forgiveness, you’d begin your process by visualizing someone you know personally who needs to experience forgiveness. Imagine her in detail: her needs, fears, regrets, insecurities, wishes, and hopes.
This doesn’t mean divulging her personal life to your congregation. But it does mean putting yourself so thoroughly in her shoes, you understand her doubts, objections, and resistance to experiencing forgiveness. Then look for the places in scripture and in your theology and tradition that represent or connect to or speak to those feelings.
Craft the sermon to help her feel and believe she’s forgiven—and others will experience it, too.
The example of the singular becomes the example for the universal.
We don’t respond to vague ideas and general principles. We respond to details and particulars that make us feel.
2) Keep it Understandable
What choices do we need to make to ensure people find themselves inside God’s story?
The sermon needs to be offered in a language listeners understand:
with common cultural references
devoid of “church” words
without a presumption of biblical literacy
and inclusive of listeners by describing a world of Good News in which they can envision themselves.
Use descriptive, sensory language.
Put your listeners in the dusty streets of the passage, in the moments of tension and relief, in the everyday vision of God’s kingdom you hope to convey.
With God’s guidance, a sermon drafts the blueprints for a whole new world of grace and possibility. Don’t make those blueprints so complex and weighed down by lingo, only another Bible scholar could follow them.
3) Establish Credibility
People give a message more credence when it’s backed up.
While I advocate foremost that the preacher believes the message he or she proclaims (otherwise, why are we talking at all?), our belief isn’t fabricated in isolation.
The message is always derivative, based on scripture and the communion of saints—that is, from church tradition. There are countless others who have studied and prayed over the same biblical texts, and their wisdom helps to form our own. Let people know those saints who back you up.
It will help them believe the Gospel as preached through you.
4) Be Unequivocal
Perhaps this is the scariest and most vulnerable of these five essentials.
If one preaching goal is to get the message “under people’s skin” enough that they’ll wrestle with it in days to come, there’s nothing like clarity.
Leave people in no doubt about what you believe. State clearly what you think the text is saying about how God is working in us and into the future. People will talk!
This is not to imply we preach intractable my-way-or-the-highway positions. Nuance and humility are still in order. But when we are crystal clear about the message, it’ll get people thinking…and talking.
5) Be Practical
You know those assembly directions included in furniture boxes with all the parts? The directions with the outline of the person, the pictures of each tool and piece you’re supposed to find in the box, and then the detailed drawings of step one through step 3,782? Those directions?
They’re supposed to be so simple no one can misunderstand. And yet, most of the time, folks come to the end with extra parts, an upside-down piece, and enough frustration to fuel a boycott.
Some sermons can sound as incomprehensible as those furniture directions. They pontificate about lofty ideals and abstract ideas until no one’s quite sure what it means or how it’s supposed to help them with their in-laws at lunch in an hour.
Discussion of theological ideas and abstract concepts is often necessary to establish understanding. But don’t leave it there.
Show us what those ideas and concepts look like when we walk out the door. If you’re taking us on a journey from here to the Promised Land, provide a map.
During your sermon prep, draw a picture (literally) of “forgiveness” or “justice” or “peace” or “love.” If you can picture it, then you tell us where we’re going. Once you can visualize it, you’ll have a better idea of what we’ll need to get there.
Break it down. Make it tangible. Help your listeners visualize it, too.
Let us know how it goes!
Keep these ideas at the ready by downloading the handy infographic above.
And if you want to go deeper into these ideas, I’ll be offering a talk on “How to Get People Talking about Your Sermons” this Thursday for members of The Backstory Preaching Collective+. I’d love to see you there!
Mentorship Applications Now Open!
Deadline for application: October 31st
Registrations are arriving for The Backstory Preaching Mentorship—don’t wait! Applications will be accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis, and spots are limited.
Get your listeners talking.
Establish a sermon prep process you look forward to.
Discover a community of like-minded preachers supporting each other in the daily ups and downs of preaching.
All while learning how to finish your sermon by Friday so you can reclaim your weekend!
Join the Mentorship for an intensive renewal of your spirituality, craft, and process—all designed to help you preach more effectively so your listeners can be transformed by the Good News.