A relevant sermon connects our listeners to our message in a way that helps them find God in the midst of their lives.
Lent, this season of remembrance and anticipation, is a prime time to address listeners' challenges and questions directly.
To help our listeners feel as though we're speaking right to them, we need to understand their context, their struggles, and their hopes that they'll be OK.
Understand their Context
Where are they from?
Not only the place and family of their birth, but their native language, familiarity with Christianity, and experience in the denomination.
This knowledge will help us connect the references in our sermon to our listeners so everyone can appreciate the parallels.
Many of the people I preach to are immigrants who don't have the same cultural data bank as those who were born and raised in the U.S. I can't assume they'll recognize movie or song or other pop culture references nor allusions to U.S. history/events.
So when I choose references, I try to make sure they understand their significance. How?
- Offer concrete examples using the fives senses to draw everyone in.
- Define abbreviations, acronyms, and names/places. Just as a writer defines terms when s/he first mentions a term, organization, or concept, so must we.
- Aggies? (Sorry, Aggies, hard as it may be to believe, if you're not a native Texan or a college sports fan, the nickname may be lost on many.)
- St. Martin's Guild? (the parish's adult choir)
- WWJD? (What would Jesus do?)
- ROI? (Return on Investment)
- Cultivate awareness of the majority culture's implicit assumptions.
- We who swim in the ocean of the majority culture may not realize what is specific to our culture—and how those experiences fail to connect with others.
- Once we understand where gaps in understanding exist, we can bridge those divides.
- The challenge is that we don't know what we don't know. But we're not helpless. We can read widely, engage people from a variety of backgrounds, and ask what's needed to help our message connect.
Know Their Individual and Collective Struggles
As appropriate, name the elephant in the room.
- Are parishioners literally or figuratively sitting on different sides of the aisles?
- Is there a general sense of stress, fear, or uncertainty in the air?
- Is there unnamed grief in the congregation because of dwindling size or a staff change or a building budget beyond their means?
- Have people experienced death, job losses, underemployment, or trauma?
Too often, we merely coexist nicely—benignly skirting around the difficult issues facing us collectively or individually. But there is relief in having that struggle acknowledged, in knowing there is nothing too big or messy or awkward or difficult for God or for the church.
We must wade in. Acknowledging the struggle goes a long way to build trust with our listeners. They're wondering where God is. Times of struggle are when we most need to know God is with us.
And if you don't know where God is, welcome to the club.
Connecting the humanity of Scripture's ancient stories to the contemporary challenges of your listeners will help them discover God in the midst of their own story.
Tell them, by faith, We'll keep looking together. And then wait to see how God incarnates among you.
Offer hope through grace.
We're all just wondering if we're okay.
Are we lovable? Forgiveable? Redeemable? Have the foibles and failings of our human nature left us beyond God's reach?
The human condition is the same now as it was in biblical times. The circumstances may be different, but our favorite Bible characters experienced the same range of emotions and desires we do:
Scripture reveals how God's grace sustained the people of the Bible. Not because they lived in a particularly holy time. Nor because they discovered the secret formula to God's favor. But because, through grace, they were loved, forgiven, and brought close to God in the midst of their struggles.
Our sermons must offer assurance that we, too, are loved, forgiven, and brought close.
And really, this is what a relevant sermon is all about.
A relevant sermon
connects with those who listen to us
because we first listen to them.
Then we preach right to them
the surprising yet very ordinary truth
that they matter to God,
and they matter to us.
This post is part of the "Definition of an Effective Sermon" series.
An Effective Sermon offers a clear message of Good News that is authentic to the preacher, relevant to the listener, keeps their attention, and invites transformation.
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