How do you feed people with finicky spiritual tastes?.

When They've Heard It All Before

by Craig Brian Larson

A year ago my wife's work schedule shifted, and preparing dinner became my responsibility. My range of meals was limited: a bowl of Wheat Chex and a lunch-meat sandwich. I quickly developed an expanded array of dinners for my boys to choose from: spaghetti with Prego three-cheese sauce, spaghetti with Ragu traditional sauce, spaghetti with Kraft parmesan cheese.

The first time or two their palates bathed in my spaghetti creations, my sons cleaned their plates. But soon the proud chef began to get a different response to his triumphant announcement, "Spaghetti's ready!"

"Aw, Dad, don't we have anything else?"

I was incredulous. "You don't want my spaghetti?"

"No, Dad, we've had that for days."

I learned something about my boys: They want a menu that looks like the classified ads of the Chicago Tribune; they want more choices. When they're really hungry, anything will do—even spaghetti. But otherwise they get picky.

The same thing can be true in church. Sometimes it seems we preach to only two kinds of people: the starving and the stuffed. Younger Christians devour every sermon. To them it's all new, all delicious. But our homiletically plump attenders, some of whom have been in church a lifetime, have indifferent appetites. For them our sermons may seem like just another plate of spaghetti.

Must Bible truths inevitably lose their flavor? How do we preach to those who have heard it all?

I discussed this challenge with some sermon connoisseurs and discovered seven ingredients that can season a sermon, turning it from truck-stop fare into an appetizing home-cooked meal.


Round Out Bible Characters

For many sermon veterans, familiar Bible characters are flat, one-dimensional, either good or bad. Flat characters are fine for fairy tales, but real people have inner tensions, complications, and mixed motives. Saints have their selfish moments, and even in the darkest of souls a light flickers now and then. When a preacher portrays that, weary listeners take interest. In his sermon "Good Guys, Bad Guys, and Us Guys," Haddon Robinson looks at the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and dispels the stereotypical view of the bad guy.


"In the eyes of good and decent men of that day," says Robinson, "the Pharisee was a religious and a moral success. He could stand in the temple and pray, 'I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, evildoers, adulterers. I tithe all I take in. I fast twice each week.' I'm sure he was praying sober truth. In business, he had not made his living by driving his neighbor to the wall. His word was his bond. When he made a promise, you could count on it. And in a day as sexually loose as our own, he had not sacrificed upon some wayside altar.

"Measured by any conventional standard, ancient or modern, the Pharisee was a religious success. He says that he fasted twice each week. That was far more than the Old Testament had asked. In the ancient law, the people of God were asked to fast once each year—on the Day of Atonement. But in his devotion to his religion, this Pharisee would not be held to that. So, twice each week, on Monday and Thursday, he denied himself food.

"He also says he gave a tithe of all that he took in. I suspect he is saying more than that he was a tither. That would have been characteristic of a great many people of his day. I think he is saying he tithed those things the law did not ask him to tithe. Perhaps each year he figured up his net worth and gave a tenth of that to God.

"This Pharisee was in deep earnestness about his religion; you had to be serious about it to make yourself as uncomfortable as he made himself. God was as real to him as the shekels in his pocket, and he was willing to lower his standard of living a bit for him. And his religion had done him good: the people in the community respected and admired him as an outstanding citizen, a contributor to the community."


Robinson has destroyed the caricature of the Pharisee and reminds us we have more in common with him than we ever want to admit. This technique sharpens the sermon, giving listeners insight into both biblical text and their motives.

Rounding out Bible characters often requires sanctified imagination. The Bible may not explain all the motives for someone's action, but if we put ourselves in their silk or sackcloth, we soon appreciate what they were going through.


Make Application Specific

A friend confessed frustration with his pastor's sermons: "He spends the entire 30 minutes talking up in the clouds. I wish he would give me one concrete example of what he wants me to do!"

An example is more powerful than an explanation.

There's a world of difference between telling someone that prayer changes things and sharing a fresh example of a situation transformed by prayer. In his sermon "Finding God in a Busy World," John Killinger concludes his message on prayer and solitude with this story:


"I was in Brooklyn Heights some months ago to visit the church where one of the greatest Congregationalist ministers had once preached, the great Henry Ward Beecher. In the evening, I walked with one of my hosts along the promenade that overlooks Manhattan. ... She talked about her life when she had arrived there several years before. Her husband had left her, and she was having difficulties with her only child, a daughter. She had come to this place at night thinking she could not go on. She hadn't wanted to take her life, but she didn't know how she could go on in the pain and the agony she was feeling.

"She said she sat on one of the benches and looked across the bay at the city. She stared out at Liberty Island in the distance, and she watched the tugboats as they moved in and out of the bay. She sat, and she sat. The longer she sat, she said, the more her life seemed to be invested with a kind of quietness that came over her like a spirit.

"Down deep she began to feel peaceful again. She said she felt somehow that God was very near to her, as if she could almost reach out and touch God. Better yet, she didn't need to reach out. God was touching her. She felt whole and complete and healed as she sat there that evening. It became a turning point in her life.

"'Since then,' she said, 'whenever I feel under pressure at my job or from any personal problems, I come down here and sit on this very bench. I'm quiet; I feel it all over again, and everything is all right.'

"'Be still and know that I am God.'

"When we know that, everything is all right."


Giving concrete examples of how to put a sermon into action doesn't always require telling a story. It can mean just being specific about what you want people to do. For example: "Let me suggest four specific ways that you might improve your Bible reading in 1996. (1) Some people are helped by using a one-year Bible that organizes Scriptures into a reading for each day of the year. (2) Others like listening to the Bible on audiotapes in the car or while they work around the house. (3) Some benefit from a special Bible that gives study notes or discussion questions or illustrations. (4) Others need to be accountable to a friend to discuss the highlights of their reading."

There are many ways to get specific with application. By employing these techniques, we put the ball in the listener's court. A plan of action is presented. A challenge is issued. The rest is up to them.


Let It Grip Your Soul

A critical quality in preaching effectively to those who've heard it all is sincerity. If our sermon is honest and heartfelt, a truth as common as "Jesus loves you" can thunder for listeners.

Authenticity is heightened when we are humble and transparent. When we pray through our message until it grips our soul, we can preach with honest passion and avoid the sin of self-righteousness.

In his sermon "Valley of Death's Shadow," I felt Leith Anderson's sincerity as he preached about overcoming fear:


"I have seen men and women walk through evil that stinks," says Anderson, "and they're strong and fearless. And I've experienced it myself.

"There have been times when I've been lost, away from home, and panic struck my heart—and yet alone I experienced the wonder of the comfort of the Shepherd.

"There have been situations in my home and family that brought me to a point of worry that I don't even have any words to begin to describe—only to discover that the Shepherd was there and that it was okay; there was a calmness of heart.

"I've laid on my bed, and I have wept for people in the horrors of their circumstances and somehow felt responsible that I've got to do something to help—yet knowing that their needs far exceeded any capacity or capability that was mine, and seeing and feeling the transformation of those tears to trust.

"So in my own limited way, I know what it's about to fear no evil. But if I'm going to be candid with you, let me tell you that it's often not like that, that I forget that the Shepherd is there, that I reach out and take the problems that a moment ago I thought I gave away, and I pull them back, and I hold them close, and that I struggle and grope with them. I let my imagination run wild, and I can worry myself sick about the evils that endanger me and those I love.

"What I need to do always is what we all need to do always: trust the Shepherd. Understand, that's not some power of positive thinking; that's not some manipulative self-talk; that's not some Yoga technique. It is hard reality that I will fear no evil because the Shepherd is with me.

"He's here. He's here! He keeps his promises—He really does, in even the deepest and the darkest of valleys."


Through his presentation, Anderson's congregation knows its shepherd has tested the principles he preaches.


Address the Tough Questions

We would like to think that hearing a lot of sermons would answer most of a person's questions. Yet even people who have heard it all love to hear a preacher tackle the tough ones.

In "Getting Sober for Christmas," Mary Graves says during the Christmas season we need to deal with sin so Christ can truly come in our hearts—and that raised a question.


"I was talking to a Christian therapist, a marriage-and-family counselor," says Graves, "who was confiding in me the trouble she was having with the teaching in her church. They had done a whole teaching on the new confession of faith put out by the Presbyterian church, called the 'Brief Statement of Faith.' It is a great confession. The problem that she had was with one line in this confession, line 39, which says, 'We deserve God's condemnation.' She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, 'Do you realize how many people I see in my practice who are so beaten down with self-condemnation that they can hardly function? When they come to church on Sunday mornings, they don't need to hear that they deserve God's condemnation. They need to hear that they deserve God's love.'"


At this point, Graves must choose either to breeze by this issue of self-condemnation or to deal with it.


"She raised a good point, something that we need to clarify before we can move on. For what does it mean to be humbled before God? What does it mean for me to say that I am a sinner who needs to be cleansed, that I need baptism, that I need repentance, that I need forgiveness? What does it mean for us to say that we are sinners who deserve God's condemnation?

"John Bradshaw wrote a book called Healing the Shame That Binds You. At the beginning of that book, he talks about two kinds of shame. One shame he describes as toxic/life-destroying shame. That is the shame that binds. It is the shame that cripples and condemns. It's the shame that this therapist I was talking to was weeping over. My friends, it is the shame that God weeps over and seeks to heal.

"Bradshaw goes on and says there is also a healthy shame. There is the shame that heals. This is the kind of shame that comes from God's truth. ... It is the shame that sobers. It is the shame that recognizes that my self-centeredness has led me astray, the shame that recognizes,'I have been so self-absorbed, Lord, that I have forgotten about you and your ways. ...'"


This is not some casual aside or homiletical meandering. Graves has first raised, then addressed, an issue that even longtime listeners want to understand.


Probe Their Spiritual Condition

The will of God is infinitely challenging, and the sinful nature finds unlimited ways to sin. It's nice to be profound. It's more important to be penetrating.

When we probe the depths of the human heart, enabling our listeners to see how their lives compare to God's will, we will challenge people. Sincere followers of Christ earnestly want that challenge on a regular basis. And even those who have heard it all may admit they are not assimilating every sermon.

In his sermon "Christmas 365 Days a Year," Stuart Briscoe brings listeners face to face with their spiritual condition:


"The Bible says we're being changed from glory to glory even by the Spirit of the Lord. Do you know what you ought to be able to do at the end of a year? You ought to be able to look back and see some specific ways in which you have grown spiritually. There ought to be evidence of new habits, new attitudes, and new abilities relating directly to the fact that you're being changed by the Spirit of the Lord.

"Can you think of one overwhelming weakness that had you by the throat at the beginning of this year? Do you honestly believe that if Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, came into your life, he could release you from it, and you could live in newness of life?

"You say,'I don't know about that.' Nothing is impossible with God. If it is part of the divine will, it rests well within the divine capability."


Briscoe refuses to let the subject of spiritual change remain abstract. His probing questions will lead all but the most hardened listeners to self-examination.


Harness the Power of Story

Jesus preached to people who had heard it all before. He came telling stories.

Listeners will rate even the most elementary idea as great preaching if we can help them feel it one more time in their hearts. In his sermon "A Purpose Runs through It," Bryan Wilkerson covers a familiar passage, Romans 8:28-30, and an age-old truth, God's good purpose, and makes waves with an analogy:


"One of the most beautiful movies of last year was 'A River Runs through It.' The movie told the story of the Maclean family, who lived in Montana early in the twentieth century. The father was a Presbyterian minister—stern but loving. They had two sons: firstborn Norman, who tells the story, and a younger son, Paul ...

"The real protagonist in the story is the river that runs through their part of Montana. That river becomes the focal point of their family life and the catalyst for everything significant in their lives. It was walking along the banks of that river on Sunday afternoons that the father forged a relationship with his young boys—turning over rocks, teaching them about the world, about life, and about the God who made it all. It was the river that the boys ran to after studies were over, and sibling rivalry and brotherly affection flourished as they fished for trout together on that beautiful stream.

"When it came time for these adolescent boys to prove their moxie, they took a death-defying ride down the rapids in a stolen boat. It was on the river that young Paul made a name for himself as the finest fly-fisherman in the territory. When Norman came back from college searching for himself and his roots, it was to the river that he went to fish, alongside his brother.

"The Maclean family knew failure and success and laughter and fighting and change and disappointment, but always the river was there. It was the defining force and the spiritual center of that family. Montana would have been just a wilderness; their home, four walls and a roof; their individual lives just sound and fury—if not for the river running through it all. "I would like to suggest this morning that there is a river that runs through the lives of Christian people, and that river is called the Purpose of God ..."

For the remainder of the sermon Wilkerson deals with the tough questions people in his congregation were facing after the death of a little girl in the church. As he explains difficult theological concepts, he repeatedly comes back to the image of the river, concluding with these words:


"Christian, whatever has happened to you in the past, whatever your present circumstances may be, whatever the future might hold, know this: A river runs through it, and that river is called the Purpose of God."

The ability to paint pictures on the walls of the soul is a hallmark of great preachers.


Utilize Surprise

When we tell stories from an unexpected point of view, adopt the contrarian perspective, or use a surprise ending, we can catch people familiar with the conventional.

In "The Writing on the Wall," William Willimon ends a sermon on the topic of God's judgment with a surprise:


"Some of you have heard me tell about my early ministry when I served a little church in rural Georgia. One Saturday we went to the funeral of a relative of somebody in my church. It was in a little country church not of my denomination. I grew up in a big downtown church. I had never been to a funeral like this one. They had the body out there. The casket was open, and the funeral consisted of a sermon by their preacher.

"The preacher pounded on the pulpit and looked over at the casket. He would say, 'It's too late for Joe. He might have wanted to get his life together. He might have wanted to spend more time with his family. He might have wanted to do that, but he's dead now. It is too late for him, but it is not too late for you. There is still time for you. You still can decide. You still are alive. It is not too late for you. Today is the day of decision.'

"Then the preacher told how a Greyhound bus had run into a funeral procession once on the way to the cemetery, and that could happen today. He said, 'You should decide today. Today is the day to get your life together. Too late for old Joe, but it's not too late for you.'

"I was so angry at that preacher. On the way home, I told my wife, 'Have you ever seen anything as manipulative and as insensitive to that poor family? I found it disgusting.'

"She said, 'I've never heard anything like that. It was manipulative. It was insensitive. Worst of all, it was also true.'"

Willimon's surprise ending jolts listeners out of their complacency. Those who've heard it all may seem to have stony hearts and minds. But "the finest edge," said John Lyly, "is made with the blunt whetstone." Preaching to the whetstones in our midst can sharpen our communication skills.


Craig Brian Larson is interim pastor of Lakeshore Assembly of God in Chicago, Illinois.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./Leadership Journal