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How "Not" to Preach to Millennials: Part Two

Church needs to be re-imagined. My study of millennials has ruined church for me. In the words of former Parkland anti-gun activist Emma González, I’m prone to want to “call BS” on much that I hear week to week in church sermons. I'm always thinking how my millennial children might react to the sermon. If I'm yawning, they would have yawned first.

Faced with public mistrust of banks after the financial crisis, Capital One is seeking to become the bank of choice for millennials by transforming branches into cafes where you can have a cappuccino while negotiating a loan. Here is a bank that breaks expectations, is convenient, inviting, personalized, relational, efficient, and maximizes the use of technology. “This is banking re-imagined.”

Churches are mistrusted by millennials even more than banks. Many are voting with their feet and leaving it for good. Exevangelicals is a growing phenomenon and the religiously unaffiliated are the biggest shift in religious demographics. Sadly, most are coming from our pews and youth groups. Certainly since the Trump presidency, evangelicals are facing a significant public relations problem among young people. More than ever, church needs to be re-imagined.

For churches to become an inviting place for millennials will take some significant re-imagining. What might this look like? One might well start with reframing the sermon, as the sermon is often considered the centerpiece of the evangelical church service. Here we will consider twelve ways sermons need to be reframed or re-imagined to reach millennial audiences. To rethink the sermon, one must first reframe the mission of the church.

1. Onramp to pilgrimage not boundary maintenance

What if the church’s mission is more about enhancing people’s varied spiritual pilgrimages rather than reinforcing and policing the church’s belief system? Faith is primarily an ongoing relationship and a life-long spiritual journey. It is not like a light switch, where at the flip of the switch one has everything figured out. As the curator of an adventurous open-ended faith based on Jesus’ call to “follow me,” the church can be re-imagined as providing a compelling and authentic spiritual well that attracts people and provides an onramp for collaborative pilgrimage.

2. Compelling spiritual wells not doctrinal fences

In this light, sermons should be an invitation for collaboration—“Let’s explore this together”—rather than a forced imposition of defined answers. This attitude should be evident in the tone of the sermon. The sermon is less about doctrinal information transfer by an expert as it is a human invitation to a spiritual adventure that highlights proximity to Jesus and kingdom life with the Spirit. Sermons should be framed as spiritual wells, rather than positioned as building doctrinal fences.

3. Immediate relevance and practicality

Moreover, this spiritual kingdom resource is an immediate reality, not a distant promise. It is, in fact, something that can be demonstrated in life immediately in the here and now. The central message of Jesus, what he went about proclaiming, was not the cross, but the immediate availability of the kingdom of God. The “good news of God” was not entering heaven after one dies, but experiencing heaven in the here and now: the “on earth as it is in heaven.” “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). This is not to say that the cross is not important to the gospel message, only that Jesus did not focus on the means, but the end of the gospel—resurrection life now. It is as if Jesus were saying, “Wifi is now available to everyone, connect.” His focus is not on the router but the Internet. This is what got him excited and what made his gospel offer so compelling to others. Our sermons must be immediately relevant to our audiences' daily lives.

4. Decenter the sermon

Within this frame, the purpose of a sermon is not information transfer, but a compellingly varied invitation to experience the reality of the resources of heaven. The focus then is not on the event of the sermon, but on the reality to which the sermon points. Thus the sermon needs to be decentered. It is no longer the main thing in the service—but a celebratory extension of worship. Rather than having a teaching sermon as the service anchor, one might think of having an average person from the congregation give an open-ended testimony about the nature of life in the kingdom, that includes their failures and their victories. An “I believe, help Thou my unbelief” testimony might be more authentically real than the “Answer Guy” waxing eloquently on a passage of Scripture. The sermon remains important, but it can no longer be the main thing around which the service is centered.

5. Follow the TED Talk rule

It is also true that sermons need to be much shorter than is typical. We may complain about the change in the public’s attention span and remind people of the length of the Lincoln-Douglas debates (three hours), but this does nothing to change people’s lived expectations. The perceived gold standard in public communication are TED Talks and they never run longer than 18 minutes. Like TED every sermon should have a countdown clock. Humility and self-awareness dictates that one’s sermons should stay within this same approximate time frame. People don’t want to hear more than this. To be effective within this time constriction means more work not less needs to be done to craft an effective message. Every word must carry weight and meaning—there is no time for bunny-trails. One might also consider having a downloadable podcast of the sermon ready by the end of each service, or automatically sent to people's phones after they have opted in. If we have a better story to tell, then we need to make it readily accessible and sharable.

6. Start with a picture

People think first in frames or pictures. If your facts don’t fit their frame, then your facts bounce off and their frame remains. C.S. Lewis said, “All our truth, or all but a few fragments is won by metaphor.” This means that in a hyper-pluralistic, cross-pressured age one can naturally assume that people are coming to any sermon with different frames. All effective communication must first win the frame before giving an argument. So all sermons need to first establish a shared picture, frame, or overarching metaphor. And then the sermon needs the discipline to stay within that frame. Too often we assume that people are already working within our frame. Or we use more than one metaphor within our sermon. Without a clear singular frame, one only hears disparate facts that convince no one. Start with a picture and stay with it.

7. Frames are won by the imagination not reason

Moreover, if people are operating from a different frame—which should be assumed—then one must not think that one can argue them into a new frame. Arguments and facts work well within a frame, but not between two different frames. The work of convincing someone of a new frame is an exercise of the imagination, not reason. It is a right-brained experience, not a left-brained argument. So all the tools of engaging the imagination need to be used to justify one’s initial frame—beauty, storytelling, and most powerfully lived experience.

So an effective sermon needs to first establish a clear frame, stay within it, and justify it through the application of the imagination. Our audiences at this point don’t need a lecture but an “ah-ha experience.” “Oh, now I see it.”

8. Flip the script—hands, heart and head.

This then touches on the most effective means by which people learn and remember what is being said. Nothing beats lived experience. Yet too often we give people abstractions. We tend to start with the cognitive and then move to practical. We need to flip the script. Our sermons need to move from the hand to the heart and lastly to the head. This is the reverse of what we typically offer: observation, interpretation, and application. We need to flip the script and start with the application. Since most 18-minute sermons cannot include a field trip, the way we can get at lived experience is through stories or parables. Stories enable one to enter into the experience of others via our imagination. But these are not stories for the sake of stories, narratives for the sake of the narrative, but stories that reinforce the overarching one picture or metaphor of the sermon.

9. Assume responsibility for stickiness

The preacher needs to assume the responsibility for enabling his audience to get the big idea of the sermon and remember it. Everything within one’s sermon needs to be in service to this one big idea. It is unlikely that one can get to more than one big idea in 18-minutes and do both justice. Listen to a Malcolm Gladwell TED Talk: an arresting opening, multiple relatable stories that serve one point. A sermon with twelve points is by definition an eye roll—no matter what is being said or how well it is communicated.

In their book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath use the mnemonic SUCCES to explain stickiness: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credentialed, Emotional, and Story. Dallas Willard writes, “The teacher in Jesus’ time—and especially the religious teacher—taught in such a way that he would impact the life flow of the hearer, leaving a lasting impression without the benefit of notes, recorders, or even memorization. Whatever did not make a difference in that way made no difference.” The Heaths add, “The stars of stickiness are those who make their case by telling stories, or by tapping into emotion, or by stressing a single point rather than ten.” In our ADHD distracted world, we should do no less. The rationale behind SUCCES is dialogue or a sense of an interactive conversation with one’s audience. Here is what stickiness means to our sermons:

Simplicity – Simplicity is the core idea told in a compact fashion. Proverbs are the Holy Grail of simplicity.

Unexpected – The unexpected can be fostered through surprise or creating interest. Create the need for closure, such as presenting the material as a mystery.

Concrete – Abstractions make it difficult to understand, remember, and share with others. Be concrete in the way information is conveyed.

Credible – Seek ways that the listener can take ownership of the information, through vivid details and contextualized statistics. We must seek ways for our listeners to test-drive the information for themselves.

Emotion – Create empathy for a specific individual. Make people care by appealing to things that matter to them.

Stories – Stories are a stimulus to act. They are like flight simulators for the brain. They pose questions and open up situations that demand closure—thereby involving the listener.

10. Stay reality based

It is also important in our sermons that the information we communicate be reality based. Often in our modern context, spiritual information is thought to be something distinct from the real world. Faith is contrasted with knowledge. We must lean against this tendency. When we talk about faith, we need to be understood as talking about reality and it is for this reason that the proof of what we say should be testable in life—the proof is in the living, not in the argument.

11. Reality is messy experienced in multiple shades of grey

One cannot talk honestly about lived reality without it getting messy. Black and white experiences only happen in abstractions. Real life is multiple shades of grey. Thus our sermons need to be able to embrace ambiguity and doubt, the messiness of irresolution, even the conscious acknowledgement that some aspects of reality are beyond our grasp. Such humility in our theology will help keep the preacher from being the “answer man,” and thereby serve to heighten his or her authenticity. The assumption that a person somehow has a corner on truth is a recipe for hypocrisy and inevitable disdain. This humble attitude and honest embrace of messiness must find its way into our sermons.

12. Tell a better and larger story

One of the blessings of not having to depend on my own individualistic spiritual experience is that I can rest my sermon and theology within a larger context. The antidote to DIY theology is to frame our sermons within a larger narrative, minimally the holistic four-chapter gospel—creation, fall, redemption, and restoration—and maximally within the tradition of historic mere Christianity. A Scottish Zen Buddhist filmmaker friend once told me that his criticism of much of the Western New Age spirituality is that it does not take seriously the historic traditions of their spirituality. It is shallow and has no roots in a larger spiritual tradition. So we too do well to lean against the DIY individualism of evangelical belief, which often has the same DIY eclectic self-help individualism as New Age spirituality. Instead we should frame our sermons within the mere Christianity of the Vincentian Canon: “That Faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” We must reinforce the historic dimensions of our liturgy and worship of which a sermon is simply a small component.

To this end it is helpful to use the lectionary in our sermons, which structurally grounds our Scriptural reflections within the experience of a global historical liturgical church. It also serves to mitigate our preaching merely on our own hobbyhorses.

In this regard, we must seek to demonstrate within our sermons how biblical authority can be respected without abstracting it outside of its human and cultural context. Books by Pete Enns are useful in this regard as mentioned in the previous blog (Part One).

Putting all this into one 18-minute conversation week after week is intellectually and spiritually demanding. Few do it well. This is actually a comfort, because it is at the point of our insufficiency that God through his Holy Spirit promises to show up.

What is true of Capitol One is also true of the church. Now is not time for business as usual. It is time to re-imagine church and thus it is necessary to re-imagine the sermon.

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