Communicating for a change

communicating_for_a_changeCommunicating for a Change by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones is both a joy and disturbing to read. It’s a joy because it’s so engaging and well written. It’s disturbing because it asks serious questions about how well our sermons are communicating with people and what difference they’re making to people’s lives. The book is written in two parts with very distinct styles. It begins with the story of a truck driver training a preacher in how to communicate sermons that make a real impact! This section is both humorous and persuasive. The second half shows the imperatives for good preaching being worked out in practice. This is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak!

Stanley’s philosophy of preaching is this:

Every time I stand to communicate I want to take one simple truth and lodge it in the heart of the listener. I want them to know that one thing and to know what to do with it.  (p12)

He’s critical of approaches to preaching that try to say too much and end up not saying anything clearly at all. Whereas a typical sermon might have three or four different points, an intro and a conclusion, his approach is to keep it to one point. Make your one point, make it clearly, apply it well! This may sound too simplistic. What if the passage of Scripture has three or four separate points? Then, he would say, we have sufficient material for a series rather than a sermon. I seem to remember a certain J. Chapman saying something like this! If the preacher can’t find the one major point of the text, then he has more work to do until the one big idea is clear.

Having one big idea does not constrain you to simple five minute, one point, messages. Presumably, the text of Scripture develops a flow of logic to arrive at the big idea. If so, then this will usually offer the best structure for your message. Follow the flow. You may discover three or four sub points, but they won’t be separate and unrelated ideas. Rather, they will develop the argument to arrive at the one big idea.

Stanley suggests that we see a sermon as a journey:

I’ve always thought of a sermon, or any talk for that matter, as a journey. You start somewhere, you go somewhere, and ultimately you end up somewhere. The question is, did you end up where you wanted to go?  (p38)

With this image in mind, a sermon outline should be like a map. It guides us on the journey to the big idea. We go from here, to there, to our destination. This is the sermon journey. By contrast, some sermons simply put marks on the map and then talk about the different places. They don’t show us the best routes between places or how to get where we need to go.

As a preacher it is humbling to think about how few of my sermons might actually get remembered long after they are given. Most likely, very few. If I was asked what were the four points in my message on Sunday, I might struggle to remember every one (let alone a twelve point sermon I gave once!) But one point, taking things deeper rather than wider, should be different.

Stanley distils seven imperatives from his story that he applies to preaching. And I think he’s made his point, because I can’t remember them all without looking back at the book! His points are as follows:

Determine your goal: What are you trying to accomplish?

If you don’t know what you are trying to do with your preaching then you won’t know if you’ve achieved it. I agree with Stanley that our goal should be much more than imparting information from the Bible. I’d argue that we are seeking to apply the gospel-shaped Word of God to people’s lives, for the purpose of God transforming their lives. This is something we ought to be passionate about. People’s lives hang in the balance. This isn’t take it or leave it theological education.

Pick a point: What are you trying to say?

The point might be an application, an insight, or a principle. We need to find the central idea that holds everything together. This will lead the preacher to address two questions: (i) What is the one thing I want my congregation to know? (ii) What do I want them to do about it? Stanley calls us to work hard in our preparation, digging around until we discover this central idea, building everything around it, and then making it stick. This will mean omitting material and shaping what’s left to make one coherent point.

Create a map: What’s the best route to your point?

Stanley has his own template that he uses on most of his sermons. It goes like this:

Me -> We -> God -> You -> We

orientation -> identification -> illumination -> application -> inspiration

This template ensures logical flow. It begins by raising issues that connect with the hearers. People need a reason to listen. There should be a tension to be resolved, such that they’re eager to hear how God’s word answers their questions and resolves the tension. This leads to the “So what?” and the “Now what?” questions, before finally casting a vision for how things could be when God’s word is applied.

Internalize the message: What’s your story?

We’re called to own our message, to internalize it, and to know it personally. Stanley urges us to preach with conviction and passion. There’s something less than persuasive about a preacher who stumbles over their notes, while telling us how important the message is! For the author, this means knowing where he is going so he is not note-dependent. Some things are written in his notes and others are not. The key to knowing the message isn’t rehearsing a text, it’s knowing the map, where you want to get to, and being clear about the key points along the way.

Engage your audience: What’s your plan to capture and keep their attention?

If communication is to be compared with taking people on a journey, then it’s important that they stay on the bus with us! Stanley challenges the common suggestion that people have shorter attention spans these days. He says the key issue is our ability to capture and hold their attention. If people are on board, can see where they’re going, and they want to get to the destination, then they’ll stay with us. It’s up to the preacher to work hard at being engaging, not to blame people for disengaging.

Find your voice: What works for you?

Authenticity communicates volumes. Authenticity covers a multitude of communication sins. If a communicator is believable and sincere, I can put up with a lot of things. But if I get the feeling that I’m listening to their stage personality, big turnoff. I imagine you are the same way. I want to hear you, not your best rendition of your favourite communicator.  (p169)

Having said, “Be yourself”, Stanley won’t allow us to hide behind our bad habits. We need to work to become clearer communicators. If we’re going to improve then we’ll need to listen to ourselves, seek constructive feedback, and make changes. And keep on doing this!

Start all over: What’s the next step?

Preachers get stuck. Sometimes we just can’t seem to get to the big idea. Other times we can’t work out how best to communicate it. This is the reality. It doesn’t always come easily or on time! We are ultimately inadequate for the task of preaching God’s word, so we need to learn to depend upon God. It’s only the work of God’s word and Spirit that will change people. I must never forget this. Clever communication is not enough!

When we get stuck, it should lead us again to prayer. Please God, work through me and your word, by your Spirit, to transform people. Stanley also suggests going back and asking five questions. He finds these questions regularly give him renewed traction:

  1. What do they need to know?   INFORMATION
  2. Why do they need to know it?   MOTIVATION
  3. What do they need to do?   APPLICATION
  4. Why do they need to do it?   INSPIRATION
  5. How can I help them remember?   REITERATION

So what do I make of this book? And will it help our preaching?

To be honest, I found it refreshing and stimulating. It made me think again about the earnest responsibility and important craft of preaching the Scriptures. Preaching is something we should take seriously, keep practicing, keep learning about, and be open to making changes. The creative approach of this book models the passion of the authors that we should do this well. It’s God’s precious life-transforming word we’re handling, so let’s give it the respect it deserves.

13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. 14 Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. 16 Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.  (1 Timothy 4:13-16)

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.  (2 Timothy 4:1-2)

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.  (James 3:1)

Communicating for a change is a potent double entendre. ‘Communicating, for a change’ is a sad indictment on some preaching. Words are spoken, but the hearers are rarely engaged. Communicating for a change‘ is what we’re called to do. Preach the word so that people are moved to trust God and follow him with their lives.

I believe this book can help us to work at clarity in our preaching. Unless you believe that you should be offering a verbal commentary on every detail of the Bible passage, then you will need to be selective in your handling of the text. Being faithful requires you to let the Bible speak, and this means working hard to understand the issues, the logic, and the overall message. It means speaking in such a way as to reveal God’s word, not disguise or veil it.

I have some concerns bubbling up as I read this book. The author seems to start mostly from human issues and then find Scriptures to address them. The danger of this angle is that we control the agenda. A book-by-book, chapter-by-chapter, or passage-by-passage approach to preaching forces us to deal with whatever issues God’s word places on our agenda. It keeps me from my hobby horses and it helps me reevaluate my priorities.

I wonder also whether it places too much importance on the message being fully memorable. If preaching helps people get into the text for themselves, then as they go back to the passage afterwards (like good Bereans, Acts 17) God’s word should become clearer and more readily applied. Or to put it another way, we don’t want the listener to remember more of what the preacher said than what the Bible says. Surely, the preacher is to fade into the background and let God’s word take centre stage. I think Stanley would agree with me here, and say it’s all the more important we preach with clarity and conviction.

I love the call to passion and engagement in preaching. Great preaching warms the heart. Dull preaching puts people off God – and that is not excusable. I’ve listened to some sermons that sound like a person talking about their PhD. They obviously know a lot about the topic, and it means a lot to them, but it hasn’t engaged me or any of the other listeners, it seems. I’m not quite sure why we need to listen or what point the speaker is trying to make. This book calls us to make a priority of engaging people.

I’ve never heard Andy Stanley preach, so my assessment of this book is not shaped by the talks he produces. At the end of the day it’s not about the right model or technique. It’s about communicating God’s will to the hearts and minds of others, so that the gospel transforms their lives. This must be theologically-driven. It’s the nature and power of God’s Word that will lead me to handle it with great care and to be deeply concerned about the way it impacts others.

6 thoughts on “Communicating for a change”

  1. What about about one of the most basic ways to get better at anything: imitating good models? These days it’s possible to download good sermons for study. Of course, you have to exercise judgement. And the usual warnings about the possible side-effect of seeing more clearly the flaws in one’s own pastor’s/minister’s preaching apply. But sometimes the best way to learn something is to study the work of someone who, by virtue of years of experience, has become very good at it.

    What does the book have to say about this?

    1. Stanley does this himself, and recommends it. There is much to be learned from others. Some stumble cos they never learn to be themselves, so he recommends listening to ourselves too. Often we’re afraid to do this!

  2. If a minister could do a survey of what each congregation member learnt from a sermon, after the end of the service he could be truly encouraged or alternatively horrified at their lack of retaining the message. One main point for older brains seems to go well. For students with young brains, sure preach a multi point sermon.

    1. But there’s the rub: in a healthy church, in a “typical” Sunday morning congregation (whatever that is), there’s a mixture of all types (ages, levels of education, etc.). And while the temptation to bamboozle/obfuscate must always be firmly resisted, so too must the temptation to “preach down” to the congregation in order to reach a perceived “lowest common denominator”. And I’d even go so far as to suggest that in seeking a “middle ground” one should aim at least a little higher than the “middle”.

      Different people will learn in different ways, so one way to reach multiple “targets” is to use multiple modes. E.g., use a story, an image, and a mnemonic. This is all standard stuff to teachers, I’m sure.

      (Mnemonics work particularly well for me. I still vividly remember a sermon of 15 years or so ago on 2 Corinthians 9 because we were encouraged to be “cog” givers: cheerful, obedient, generous.)

  3. God bless you so much, this has helped me do a report on the book. I’m a student at African bible college malawi

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