Listeners Don't Want to See Your Cards

The best stories, whether from books, movies, or friends, all usually have one thing in common: you do not know the end at the beginning. None of us knew that Bruce Willis was dead. None of us knew if Jack would die, though we knew the Titanic was going down at some point. Did you think Private Ryan would want to stay on the battlefield while having an option to go home? Not knowing the outcome is what draws us in, it is what grips our attention.

Sermons can be delivered in a similar fashion. Our last blog tried to show the advantages to structuring your sermon with explicit "points". The draw back of point-based sermons is they are a predictable structure and can communicate that the sermon is merely about transferring information. Sermons are more than a transfer of information. They are events where listeners hear from God through a flawed Bible-preacher.

Listening to a sermon can be a similar experience to that of listening to a great story. After all, the Bible we preach from is one epic story. Delivering sermons in a similar fashion to delivering stories is a way to structure your sermons in what can be a more attention-grabbing way than a point-based structure.

Much like a great story, sermons should create a reason in the beginning for listeners to pay attention. In the beginning of The Bourne Identity Jason Bourne is plucked out of the ocean, can't remember anything, and has a chip of some kind under his skin. This gives moviegoers all kinds of reasons to watch the movie. Who is this guy? Why is he in the ocean? Why is he so skilled at fighting? This tension hooks moviegoers in for multiple Bourne movies. 

Imagine if in the beginning of your favorite movie you were told everything that would happen, including the surprise ending? It takes all the fun out of it! When preaching, however, we often tell listeners exactly what the sermon will cover in the introduction. We bring listeners to a resolution before even beginning. You do not have to show your cards all at once like this. In fact, listeners probably don't want to see your cards.

This kind of preaching could be called inductive preaching or Problem/Solution-Driven preaching. You have a starting point and the whole sermon builds to make an argument for some truth, often addressing a problem, all from a main biblical text. Steps are taken throughout the sermon that listeners see as movement towards a resolution of some kind. For instance, here is what a sermon of this nature could look like:

Tension: If God demands perfection, is there any hope for imperfect sinners, like you and me?
Step One: God demands perfection.
Step Two: We are imperfect.
Step Three: Probe the tension that God demands perfection but we are imperfect. Is there hope?
Resolution: Jesus' perfect righteousness is given to us through faith, by his life, death, and resurrection.

The example sermon above probes a single tension ("So What?" Moment) with the aim to resolve it by the end, and listeners are longing for the resolve. There are at least two basic ways Problem/Solution-Driven sermons can be preached. Like the one above, a Problem/Solution sermon can be delivered like a rubber band that is being stretched to the max. The preacher may raise a question and spend the entire sermon building tension. The whole sermon feels like a balloon being filled to the popping point. This is how many great stories work.

Another kind of Problem/Solution-Driven sermon is delivered like the slow burn of a match. For instance, let's say a preacher asks, "If God is good, then why is evil so pervasive in the world?" Rather than probing that tension, the preacher could slowly unpack the answer, like releasing the carbon dioxide out of a coke/soda/pop bottle. 

Sermons like these must begin with tension built around a clear theme, drawn from a biblical text. Without a clear focus, listeners will not know where and why a sermon is moving. Listeners need to see what kind of problem the main biblical text is addressing, even if they do not know the solution yet. In the body of the sermon, take logical steps towards the resolution by way of explaining different parts of the main biblical text. This way the sermon is driven and shaped by the Bible. Lastly, do not say, "Amen" without complete resolve. Show exactly how the Bible provides a resolution. 

Simply put, don't tell listeners in the beginning that Bruce Willis is actually dead, that Jack will die, and that Private Ryan is an amazing soldier. Take them on a journey to discover these things. Do what the Bible does. Let your listeners experience the story with all of its ebb and flow. Hold them in the balance sometimes. Just don't let them go without the Bible's ultimate resolution: Christ crucified for them.


Creating a "So What?" Moment

A key question listeners are always asking during every one of your sermons is, "So what?" You could preach a sermon in which you wax eloquent about the triune nature of God like no one in history and still leave listeners wondering, "So what? What does that have to do with me?" The "So What?" question is not a defiant question from listeners. It is a question even you ask when you listen to other preachers' sermons. 

When you are reading the Bible, maybe unknowingly, you are asking, "So what? What does this genealogy have to do with anything pertinent in my life?" You believe the biblical text is true, you just do not yet know its importance for you. Before you know the answer, it can be frustrating. When you find the answer, it is a relief. 

Now imagine preaching a sermon in which every listener agrees with you but they have no idea why anything you say matters. Your sermon is like a huge genealogy that seems removed from real life. Without answering listeners' "So what?" question you leave them thinking, “You’ve shown me something that may be true, but in any case I don’t care. I don’t see how it would actually change how I think, feel, and act" (Tim Keller).

Every sermon must have a "So What?" Moment (SWM). A SWM is the moment in the sermon that makes clear not merely what you are going to say, but why listeners need to hear it. There are at least two ways to communicate a SWM, but first, you need to know the reason a given biblical text was written for its original audience. 

For instance, when it comes to a genealogy, you must figure out why it was written in the first place. How would the original audience have understood it and why would it have mattered to them? Once you know these kinds of things about a biblical text, then you can begin to figure out why it is helpful for listeners today. Once you see a connection, you can begin thinking about how to craft a SWM to reveal how the sermon will help your listeners. 

Here are at least 2 ways to craft a SWM:

Firstly, you can explicitly tell listeners why the biblical text you are preaching is helpful. If creating a SWM is new to you, this is a great first step. Just tell them. It will be a lot better than not telling them. If you are preaching a sermon focused on the 2nd coming of Christ, explain why knowing about His 2nd coming helps us. Why does the Bible want us to know about the 2nd coming? Answer that and then tell your listeners. This is a major step forward in showing your listeners you are preaching in order to help them; you have them in mind.

Secondly, and more compellingly, you can create a subtle, implicit SWM. Story-telling is helpful to examine here. Stories (books, movies, etc.) do not begin by explicitly explaining the plot and revealing why it will be entertaining. They draw us in implicitly. Likewise, sermons do not have to explicitly state everything that will be covered and why the sermon is helpful. This can be done implicitly, in a more subtle way that draws listeners in without them even realizing it.

Imagine you're preaching on the 2nd coming of Jesus. You're studying the 2nd coming and see significant ways in which knowing about it gives listeners hope to face the mundaneness of life (just spitballing here). So, your sermon begins with a story about mundane life; the fact that life seems so uneventful, even pointless sometimes. Most listeners identify with this reality. 

You talk about how, to make matters worse, the Bible can seem aloof to our mundane lives. You bring up the 2nd coming as an example of something that seems so unimportant to the mundaneness of life. At this point, listeners are engaged. Many would not immediately know how the 2nd coming might apply to mundane life. Here is how you could make a surprising turn: "What if I told you truths about the 2nd coming were written precisely to show us how to think and react to mundane life? The 2nd coming actually addresses mundane living in three major ways. Let's look at the first way..."

A SWM like this subtly reveals what the sermon is about and most importantly reveals why listeners should care. Listeners find they want to listen to the sermon because they want to know how to think about and react to mundane living; apparently the sermon and biblical text will address those things. 

Not creating a SWM can mean the difference between everyone paying attention and no one paying attention. "A boring sermon is boring because it fails to bring the truth into the listeners' daily life and world. It does not connect biblical truth to the hopes, narratives, fears, and errors of people in that particular time and place...In other words, the sermon fails at contextualizing the biblical truth for the hearers” (Tim Keller). The SWM connects a sermon to particular people in a particular time.

Start revealing to listeners, explicitly or implicitly, how your sermons are going to help them, how they are going to connect to their personal lives, hurts, sins, pains, and problems. Create SWMs early in your sermons to grip attention. It will make your sermons more clear and compelling, immediately. It will make your listeners feel like you care about them and preach sermons to help them personally.  


"Pastor, I. do. not. care."

There is a great scene in Remember the Titans that models what some sermons are like. The scene is a conversation between two football coaches' daughters, Sheryl and Nicky. Nicky is far more interested in accessorizing dolls than football. Sheryl, on the other hand, is oddly obsessed with football. In the stands before a game Sheryl fires away about some of the Titans' players, like she just kicked back two Red Bulls. Nicky's reaction is priceless.

Sheryl: Julius Campbell's playin' strong side linebacker!
Nicky: Sheryl.  
Sheryl: He's so good he's got...
Nicky: Sheryl.
Sheryl: ...all-american written all over him! And...
Nicky: Sheryl.
Sheryl: ...Gerry Bertier...
Sheryl pauses, having been continually interrupted by Nicky.
Nicky: I. do. not. care.
Sheryl: silence.

Nicky understands English. She might even understand who Sheryl is talking about and what makes a football player good. The problem is that she does not care. It does not matter to her personally. She probably does not know why Sheryl cares. Sheryl does what sermons can do, she assumes Nicky would love to listen. Sheryl first needs to convince Nicky that she should care. She needs to convince Nicky that what she is talking about is important for Nicky to know. 

How many sermons have you heard that assumed you cared about the 23, 47, or 62 minutes of content? You could tell the preacher really cared about what he was saying but you could not figure out why it mattered for your life. You may have agreed with everything that was said, you just did not know what it had to do with you. Is it possible that you have preached sermons during which listeners were thinking, "Pastor, I. do. not. care."?

It is easy to understand a biblical text, be moved by it, yet forget to convince listeners that what you are saying matters for them. This is a crucial error to make in preaching because listeners are always asking, "So what? Why should I care, preacher?" As Bryan Chapell puts it, “People have the right to ask, ‘Why did you tell me that? What am I supposed to do with that information? All right, I understand what you say is true—so what?’”. 

Have you ever read something in the Bible that you understood but could not figure out why it mattered? You're reading Leviticus. You understand English. You even understand what the texts mean. But for the life of you, you do not see why it matters! Until you find the answer, it is frustrating. If a sermon does not show listeners why the sermon matters to them personally, they have the same experience. 

Listeners need to see, early, how a sermon will be helpful to them. One of the best ways to convince listeners that a sermon is designed to help them is to build tension in the beginning of the sermon. The Craft calls this the "So What?" Moment (SWM). The SWM is when listeners' "So what?" question is answered. For instance, let's say the biblical text addresses greed. You could show how we all can be greedy and then ask whether or not there is any way in the world we could fight greed. Listeners are engaged by this: "This sermon matters because I am greedy and I need help. This sermon says it will help." 

Think of the beginning of the first Bourne Identity movie. We are introduced to a guy, floating in the ocean, with a chip buried in his skin and an erased memory. All sorts of tension is built. Movie-goers are asking, who is this? What is he doing in the ocean? Why can't he remember who he is? I have to know the answers.

Listeners will be drawn into sermons that begin with tension, addressing the things the Bible addresses in the personal lives of your listeners. If you want to show listeners your sermon is designed to help them, create a SWM (something we will cover on the blog next week). Explicitly or implicitly reveal how the sermon will engage real life here on the ground with the truths of God's Word. God speaks in His Word to bring grace to the intimate details of life. Your sermons should speak this word of grace to your listeners as well.