Want your sermon to be remembered Beyond the end of the service?
Try one of these four strategies to help your next sermon stick.
#1: Tell Stories
Most of us know the potential power of stories.
But what makes one story more memorable than another? What do you need to know to write sermon stories that stick?
Stories that stick do two things:
- They engage our senses.
- They evoke emotion.
Let's look at two versions of the same story to understand what makes the difference between a story that's forgettable and one that lingers in the listener's mind.
"The Samaritan Woman was alone at the well at noon."
Is this story memorable? Not very. Why?
The scene offers nothing for the physical or emotional senses. We can't see, smell, taste, or hear anything, let alone feel the heat or breeze or mood. The story lacks imagery and emotion.
"The woman placed her empty jug next to the well's stone wall. She glanced at the sun straight above her, then around at the empty landscape, using her sleeve to wipe sweat from her eyes. For once she was glad to be alone. The other women would have mocked her for dirtying her dress."
Which version will you remember longer?
Not only does Version 2 paint a picture with sensory details (empty jug, stone wall, sun straight above, empty landscape, sweat in the eyes), but it makes us feel what she's feeling physically (hot, alone) and emotionally (relief from fear of judgement).
This combination of sensory details and the character's internal life makes Version 2 stick better than Version 1.
Layer the senses just as much as necessary to draw in your listener. Too many will belabor the point. But not enough, and we're left with a sterile narrative devoid of texture.
How do you determine which details to include? Close your eyes and put yourself in the scene. What do you notice? What can you see? Hear? Feel? Select just a few points that will bring us into the scene with you. You don't need to include everything—just a few strokes will engage us enough that the mind can fill in the rest.
Other sensory details that could have been used in this scene:
the clank of the ceramic jug against the stone
a small cloud of dust rising as she set the jug in the dirt
the swish of her skirt as she walked
the woman's dry mouth
Pro-Tip: Emphasize verbs over adjectives to avoid unnatural, "flowery" language.
Write sensory details and emotions into your sermon stories
to help your listeners remember longer.
#2: Use Imagery
The Church works with Christ to build the Reign of God, right? But what does the Reign of God look like?
Justice, mercy, and peace, right?
But what does justice look like? How would you recognize it if you saw it? What does mercy look like? How about peace?
Show us the lawyer working on behalf of the juvenile in prison. Help us see the neighbor graciously praising the bicycle skills of the child who too often rides through the flower beds of his yard? Remind us of the hymn writer who who penned "It is Well With My Soul" after losing his family at sea.
Bring the abstract into the realm of the concrete.
The same goes for any of the theological and biblical ideas we mention.
- What would it look like to be in a place where "there will be neither sorrow nor crying anymore?"
- If we were to give God "thanks and praise" outside of Church, what, exactly, would we do?
- If we were to "respect the dignity of every human being," how might we see that in concrete ways?
Tangible examples won't provide a comprehensive definition of what these ideas mean (the possibilities are limitless), but with a few specifics, your listeners can better imagine what these concepts might look like in their own lives. Paradoxically, universal ideas are best understood through the personal and specific.
Spend some time doodling or free writing about some of these words. Get as concrete and incarnational as possible.
Nearly anything we visualize helps us remember because our brains are better attuned to the visual than the auditory.
Were that not the case, radio would reign supreme over television!
Sermon ideas described through imagery
are far more likely to stick....and hold our interest!
#3: Create Parables
Parables combine storytelling with a puzzle.
The combination of visualization, plot, and an "unresolved chord" is powerful. Not only do we resonate with a story line and scene, but our brains hate to leave a question unanswered. We want to solve the puzzle, so our minds "fuss" over a parable to resolve it.
And that additional mental energy makes a parable stick!
Parables don't have to be realistic.
The story of the Good Samaritan, for example, was hardly realistic, but what an impact that story continues to have!
Parables do have an end but not necessarily a conclusion.
Consider how we've been talking about Jesus' parables for two thousand years and we're still not always satisfied we know what they mean.
With this framework in mind, consider how you might write a parable.
- Decide on the point you're trying to make.
- Create a protagonist with a problem to define the issue
- Attempt to resolve the problem but show it isn't easily resolved.
To illustrate, consider this modern day parable:
The stop light was broken at the intersection on the far side of the highway bridge. While the traffic cop directed the long line of backed-up cars, Mandy was forced to wait longer at this spot on her way home than she usually did.
Bored, she glanced at the dependable row of decrepit, overflowing grocery carts on the sidewalk and the shadowed bodies that lay behind them against the concrete highway pillars. With nothing to distract her from her dis-ease, for the first time ever she paid attention. She felt her heart beat a little faster and her hands slip an inch down the steering wheel with their sudden dampness.
Moved by compassion, once home Mandy adjusted her automatic bill pay through her bank. Mandy redirected some of her charitable giving to be given to a local homeless shelter. She knew it was a drop in the bucket, but at least she felt glad to be doing something.
The money Mandy redirected came from the funds she gave regularly to her church. What Mandy never realized was that her congregation used that money for outreach. As the outreach budget declined, the congregation decreased their donation to the local food bank. When the food bank couldn't buy as much food, the hungry received less to eat. To buy more food the hungry didn't pay all their rent. When the hungry didn't pay all their rent, they became the hungry and the homeless.
Put together a story and a dilemma about the human condition with a puzzle,
and you've got a parable that sticks.
#4: Distill your Message into a Proverb
Visual. Pithy. Memorable.
- "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."
- "A stitch in time saves nine."
- "Don't bite the hand that feeds you."
These proverbs have been told for thousands of years, and have been retold in nearly every language and culture. Why?
Because their meaning still rings true. They speak to the human condition, and the meaning is captured in such brief, practical, and poetic imagery, they stick!
Proverbs distill the essence of a message into the briefest possible sentence and are (nearly) always visual.
When you reduce your sermon message to a proverb, not only will you be extremely clear about your message, but you'll have found a way to make the message stick.
For instance, here's a proverb I wrote during this past Lent:
"The best wine is made from grapes watered by tears."
With their economy of words and visual impact, proverbs are the "poetry of parables." Think of distilling your message into a bumper sticker. What would it say?
Make a sermon proverb sticky enough
and maybe yours will preach for the next few thousand years!
What have you found to work to make your messages stick? Let me know.
Be Good News to Preach Good News,
P.S. Sermon Summer Camp for Preachers begins May 22nd!
P.P.S. Headed to the Festival of Homiletics May 15-19 in San Antonio? Say "Hello!" at the Backstory Preaching table in the Exhibit Hall!