That week, inspired by Smith’s message from John 4, 17-year-old Greg Laurie sketched a series of cartoons that illustrated the passage’s main point—that only God’s Spirit could fill the universal thirst of man. Laurie titled the tract, “Living Water.“ It was the first evangelistic effort of a young man who would go on to lead a church of 15,000 and preach at the stadium-filling Harvest Crusades worldwide.
What was it about Smith’s message that challenged and moved a young man’s heart to action? Undeniably, it was the power of God. But as pastors, what are the keys to presenting messages that communicate God’s Word in a way that attracts unbelievers, helps open their hearts to the Holy Spirit, and compels them to respond?
We asked some of the nation’s most effective evangelistic pastors, “How do you preach for outreach?“ While issues of style, and to some degree even theology, may differ among them, these venerable teachers agreed on core principles that are at the foundation of their approach to sharing God’s Word with unbelievers.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
Communication 101 tells us the most effective speakers are those who have not only mastered their subject matter, but who possess an in-depth knowledge of their audience. Pastors who understand the mindset of those filling their church seats each week naturally find their sermons making a greater impact.
And while it may seem obvious, pastors who preach for outreach effectively are acutely aware of the unbelievers in their midst.
“I assume every Sunday morning that there are people who haven’t made up their minds about Christ,“ says Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church in suburban Atlanta, which in five years has grown from 2,000 members to more than 13,000.
“I don’t pull any punches in terms of truth, but try to be sensitive and address issues that I know will be difficult for an unbeliever to understand,“ Stanley says.
Tim Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, agrees with Stanley and suggests that pastors imagine a “particular skeptical, non-Christian in the chair listening as you write your sermon. Add the necessary asides, qualifiers, and extra explanations.“
‘A Broken Heart on Every Pew’
For Max Lucado, pastor of Oak Hills Church of Christ in San Antonio, Texas, and well-known author of more than 50 books, including Traveling Light and Next Door Savior, this principle is simple yet transformational: “Our slogan is that we’re going to preach like there’s a broken heart on every pew,“ he explains.
Fellow pastor and Texan Tony Evans agrees. “Entering into the ‘darkness’ of what unbelievers may be facing is critical to reaching them with the Gospel,“ he says.
“I want to enter into unbelievers’ hurt and pain,“ explains Evans, senior pastor of the fast-growing, 7,000-member Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas. “I want to show them the light at the end of the tunnel—that it’s not as bad as they may think it is, feel it is or believe it is, if they will let Jesus Christ enter into it.“
Beyond touching the issues of pain and spiritual struggle within each unbeliever, pastors agree that understanding this mindset and worldview is also integral to connection.
Whether traditional, contemporary, or postmodern in their orientation, pastors need to be aware of the age, perspective, and worldview of the people in the seats.
“Baby Boomers have been raised with a Judeo-Christian worldview and think in a linear fashion,“ explains Dan Kimball, pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California.
“Step-by-step Gospel presentations such as the ‘Four Spiritual Laws’ are effective for modern audiences,“ Kimball says. “However, to postmoderns, this linear, logical approach to the Gospel sounds really cold and trite. What we do in our church is more or less connect the dots, showing how the Gospel makes sense within an unbeliever’s already established worldview.“
Kimball also finds that most postmoderns are craving a “meaty“ examination of biblical principles. In his book, The Emerging Church, he tells the story of a young woman disappointed by a contemporary church service. Her comments of frustration sum up the yearnings of many postmoderns: “I didn’t come to this place to be lectured at by a Tony Robbins clone. I thought I was going to meet God here.“
CRAFT SERVICES TO ENGAGE UNBELIEVERS
For many of these pastors, connecting with the hearts and minds of an unbeliever goes beyond the message and into the sermon’s context—the church experience.
Connection Through Creativity
Ed Young, pastor of the fast-growing Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, is known for the creativity he applies to ministry. “When you invite guests to your home, you may serve the same food you give your family, but you serve it in a more thoughtful and creative way,“ he asserts, adding that approximately 50 percent of Fellowship’s attendees have no previous religious background at all.
Young preached from the top of a British military Scorpio tank during a recent message on spiritual warfare. He has also brewed espresso on stage during a message called “Espresso Yourself,“ addressing personal expression in today’s culture. And while the use of what some might call sermon “gimmicks“ may not be every pastor’s style, preachers like Young and Stanley find that often these can be valuable tools for engaging the attention and imagination of an unbeliever.
“If I could do miracles, I’d do miracles,“ Stanley quips. “But since I can’t, we have visual aids.“
Making the Message Relevant
Beyond creativity, many pastors like Lucado say that another key to evangelistic preaching is making the message and the service relevant to the unchurched.
“To us, relevant is in the medium, not the message,“ says Lucado. “Relevant means putting words up on screens. Relevant means everybody can find a place to sit, that you don’t have to dress a funny way to come here.“
Those same principles were forged in the 1970’s. Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, was revolutionary in creating a relevant approach to church and has since reached thousands, making church accessible to the culture by offering contemporary music, come-as-you-are dress and preaching that taught Scripture in everyday language. Today, accessibility is still a critical factor in bringing God’s Word to unbelievers, says Smith.
“As I am preparing a message, I always have in mind the person who may know nothing about the Bible or God,“ he says. “I therefore seek to avoid the phrases and words that are so familiar to us who have been in church many years.“
Redeemer’s Keller also crafts his messages with unbelievers in mind. “In a missional church, preaching and communication should always assume the presence of skeptical people and should engage their stories, their culture—not simply talk about ‘old times,’“ says Keller.
Fellowship’s Young agrees. “The problem with pastors is that they hang out too much with Christians,“ he says. “We start thinking like that and forget that the world doesn’t think that way. We’ll give a message a title that sounds good to us, but it’s totally irrelevant to what other people are dealing with.“
While the battles may still rage in some circles, for most of the pastors interviewed here, the question of topical vs. expositional preaching is almost a non-issue.
“You can use any style of preaching, topical or expositional, as long as you adapt your preaching to the mindset of an unbeliever,“ Evans says. For him, that means raising the questions unbelievers are asking. “Get into their shoes and deal with what they’re dealing with,“ he says. “It’s a relevancy issue.“
Brian Mavis, former pastor and general manager of the pastoral resource Web site www.SermonCentral.com, suggests that pastors combine an expository and topical method to be both biblical and relevant. He describes the style as “topositional“ preaching.
So what topositional hot buttons generally hit home with unbelievers?
All agree that the staples, such as improving relationships and coping with stress, still have appeal. However, the felt needs of unbelievers go much deeper than that.
“I believe in talking of the futility of life apart from Christ and the sense that life must have something more to offer,“ Calvary Chapel’s Smith says. “These are feelings common to even the most successful people. The hope and promise that you can have an experience that will completely satisfy the inner emptiness has universal appeal.“
A recent, informal survey with unbelievers confirms Smith’s observations. Mavis asked a group of unbelievers: “If you could go to church only three times the rest of your life, what would you want to hear about?“ Their answers revealed a common theme: a search for peace and purpose.
James Emery White, senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, has found these trends to be true in his church as well. For an upcoming message series called “You Asked for It,“ church staff asked worshippers to submit the top issues they wanted to hear about. Many submitted questions like “Is God good?“ and “How do you pray?“ The second most-asked question was, “How can I be absolutely sure that I’m saved?“
In today’s multi-sensory culture, creating a setting for an encounter with God goes beyond a spoken message, says Vintage Faith Church’s Kimball. “We need to think about how the sermon fits within the entire worship experience and blend our propositions of truth with experiences of truth.“
During a special evangelistic Sunday service, Young Nak Presbyterian Church—a Korean-American fellowship in Los Angeles—portrayed the life of Jesus through a three-minute dance.
“It was really powerful and appealing, even to the non-Christian,“ says Senior Pastor Jim-Bob Park, whose members drive as far as two hours to attend the 1,200-member church. On Easter Sunday, Young Nak gave everyone in the service a cross made from palm leaves. “People were able to hold, see, touch, and hear the resurrection story,“ Park adds.
Lucado shares how his church tangibly communicates Gospel truths. “One Sunday, we printed up checks that said, ‘Pay to the order of …’ and we left it blank. On the payment line, we wrote ‘the free gift of salvation’ and signed it ‘Jesus Christ.’ We shared that they needed to accept God’s free gift of grace to get one of these checks. People were very moved.“
While the music, stories, and the visual arts can play a significant role in creating an experience of truth for an unbeliever; perhaps the most compelling message
is the evidence of a life changed by God’s love.
“Testimonies are the most evangelistic thing we do,“ says Andy Stanley. “How do you argue with someone’s story?“
Since testimonies are a requirement for adult baptism at Stanley’s church, worshippers hear stories of life change from the pulpit about every other week during baptisms.
The Power of the Word
While the Holy Spirit uses all the factors already discussed, ultimately the key to pulpit evangelism is the power of God’s Word to speak to the heart of an unbeliever.
“We know that God’s Spirit continues to spill out through those who speak of His Truth,“ says Chuck Smith, “simply because He has promised us that His Word would not return void.“ (Isaiah 55:11)
TEACH FROM A LIFE OF AUTHENTICITY
Knowing one’s audience is foundational. Crafting a sermon to engage an unbeliever is critical. And facilitating God-encounters is essential. However, these life-changing principles can be sadly void if a pastor’s life contradicts the truth of his or her message.
“You can’t lead people to follow where you aren’t going yourself,“ Merritt says. “You’ve got to be out there sharing your faith and building relationships.“
Young Nak’s Park concurs, “Anybody can preach it—it’s difficult to live it. When you live out what you’re preaching, that becomes a testimony in itself.“
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