Whether your church is 50 or 5,000, your congregation has far more diversity than you might think. Now before you say, “Wait a minute, Larry, our congregation is homogeneous, too homogeneous as a matter of fact,” let me remind you that diversity isn’t only about ethnicity. It’s also about age, length of time as a believer, socioeconomic status, special interests, learning styles and a wide array of cultural subsets.
And as if diversity is not enough, everything keeps changing at the speed of the Internet. If you feel like you’re preaching to multiple moving targets each weekend, you probably are! No wonder some of us feel stressed. It’s hard to preach sticky messages or tightly Velcro people to a ministry when everything and everyone keeps moving all the time.
For the past 25 years, I’ve pastored the same church. But it’s hardly been the same church. We’ve grown from an overgrown Bible study, to a small church struggling to break the 200 barrier, to a multisite megachurch. We hit our stride as a boomer-focused, seeker-friendly ministry only to wake up in a culture bored with boomers and enamored with hip-hop, subwoofers and missional focus. By my count, we’ve gone through at least five distinct seasons and iterations of ministry. We’ve been in the latest one for the past four years or so.
In a hyperchange world, sermons that hit it out of the park just 10 years ago—OK, five years ago—no longer cut it. It’s not that God’s word no longer has power; it’s that the cultural language of my congregation and yours keeps changing. And when the target audience keeps moving, it can be hard to hit the mark, much less make anything stick.
So what can we do?
Over the years, I’ve discovered some things that have helped me (and my church) navigate the mounting complexity and ever-increasing rate of change in our culture. They’ve enabled me to grow and change as a preacher—and they’ve allowed our church to become larger, more diverse and demographically younger without losing the boomers and builders who got us started.
From a distance, many people think the key has been our pioneering work in offering multiple venues and styles of worship. No doubt, that’s helped. But just as important (perhaps more so) are a series of things we’ve consistently done from the pulpit to help make sure our messages remain applicable to an ever-widening and fast-changing demographic. Here are a few of the most important ones we try to bring into the planning and delivery of every sermon.
1) Set Aside the Commentaries.
Don’t worry. I’m not suggesting that we set aside the hard work of study, faithfulness to the text and theological precision. I am suggesting that commentaries and the podcasts of our favorite preachers are not the best place to start.
The one thing that plays well in every age group and cultural subset is authenticity. It’s a key to unlocking the hearts of the widest audience possible. The more diverse our communities become, the more important this trait will be. It’s the one thing no one can argue with. It’s hard to write off.
Yet, the only way to preach authentically is to start with what God told you, not what God told someone else at some other time. That means the starting point in sermon prep needs to be: “What does this passage say to me … today?”