As I prepare for my first speaking engagements since the pandemic began, I’m certain to again hear this common question: “Why is church attendance declining?”
Last week, I began answering that question in the first of a three-part series. I shared a Gallup poll tracing the decline of America’s church membership by a whopping 23% through the last two decades.
So, what should a church do?
Well, I’m just a chaplain. I’m not a church-growth expert. On Sundays, I’m a listener, sitting across from you. What do we listeners know?
I dare say, a lot.
For instance, we intuitively know the accuracy of a 2016 Pew Research poll that said 83% of Americans say good preaching guided their choice of a congregation.
If we choose our places of worship by what we hear from the lectern, then we are qualified to encourage our pastors in the craft of preaching. Or as my seminary preaching professor often said, “Remember, anyone is a better judge of your sermon than you are.”
With that in mind, there are three tips I often give when speaking to local ministers’ groups. They are ideas you might discuss with your pastor. Just remember, he or she may be much like me – we carry fragile egos.
First, I encourage ministers to make their message short -- 12 minutes, 15 tops. That means sermons should be one point, not three. I knew a pastor who, after making his single point, challenged the people to post on social media what he called, “Sermon in a tweet.”
Second, that single point should be coupled with a call to action. This is the “so-what” of the sermon. Congregants should be challenged with a specific action.
For instance, I once watched a pastor take a “reverse offering.” Offering plates were passed throughout the congregation containing sealed envelopes of money. Each family was told to take an envelope and spend the money helping someone. The following Sunday, people were invited to share their stories.
When speaking about forgiveness, the same pastor asked church members to take a gift to places often perceived as condemned by Christians. Church members brought back stories of their visits to strip clubs, abortion clinics and a gay newspaper.
My third tip is one I especially hope you’ll voice to your minister: Good preaching will be great storytelling. Jesus told story-truths called parables because stories confront people to change.
Tell us a story-truth, pastor. Tell us an amazing story about people, their heartbreak and the consequence of sin.
Tell us a personal story, or even one from pop culture, about overcoming the fear of (fill in blank).
Share the news, historical or current, but never your personal politics. Tell us stories about rockets, racketeering and race. For instance, Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme makes a great sermon on greed.
Give us comedy or tragedy. Like the story of the chaplain who accidentally carried his wife’s pink pillow through airport security. We want to laugh at church too.
Within the first five minutes, give us 75% of the story. Then open the Bible and connect the story with the old, old story of redemption and grace.
As you close the sermon, I promise that we will be anxiously awaiting the end of your personal story. Tell us how things ended well or how they didn’t – but be sure to relate it to the biblical story.
As you can share these thoughts with your pastor, remember that Philippians 2:13 tells us “It is God who is working in you, [enabling you] both to will and to act for His good purpose.” This means you needn’t be a pastor to tell a story-truth.
If all goes well, don’t be surprised if your pastor invites you to share a story of your own.