Preaching To the Unchurched
Colossians 4:5-6) [TEV] Be wise in the way you act toward those who are not believers, making good use of every opportunity you have.
6) Your speech should always be pleasant and interesting, and you should know how to give the right answer to everyone.
Ephesians 4:29) [GW] Don’t say anything that would hurt another person. Instead, speak only what is good so that you can give help wherever it is needed. That way, what you say will help those who hear you
When Rick started Saddleback he had about 10 years of sermons stored up from his previous work as an evangelist. He figured he could have coasted the first few years without much sermon preparation. But he decided if he was going to attract the unchurched he’d better review those sermons. Here’s the question he asked, “Would this message make sense to a totally unchurched person?”
It didn’t matter if he liked the sermon, or if the sermon was doctrinally sound. If he wanted to attract the unchurched then his message to them would have to be one that they could understand. He threw out all of his messages, except 2, and started over.
Applying Your Style To the Audience:
The style of preaching he uses in their seeker services is very different than when he’s teaching believers. Rick insists, “The style of communication that most church members are used to is counterproductive in reaching most of the unchurched.”
At one point at Saddleback Rick took 2 ½ years teaching verse-by-verse through the Book of Romans. He says that style of preaching works great in edifying believers, because they’re convinced of the authority of Scripture. What about the unbeliever?
When Paul preached to the pagan audience in Athens he started on common ground with them. Instead of beginning with an Old Testament text, he quoted one of their own poets to get their attention, and to establish common ground.
Our English word communication comes from the Latin word communis, which means “common.” We can’t communicate with others until we find something we have in common with them. With the unchurched we won’t establish common ground by saying, “Let’s open our Bibles to Isaiah, chapter 14, as we continue in our study of this wonderful book.”
The common ground that we have with unbelievers isn’t the Bible, but rather, it’s our common needs, hurts, and interests as human beings. We can’t start with a text and expect the unchurched to be fascinated by it. We must first capture their attention, and then move them to the truth of God’s Word. By starting with a topic that interests the unchurched and then showing what the Bible says about it, we can grab their attention, disarm prejudices, and create in interest in the Bible that wasn’t there before.
Each week Rick begins his message with a need, a hurt, or an interest and then moves to what God has to say about it in His Word. He doesn’t concentrate on a single passage, but he uses many verses from several passages that speak to the subject he began with.
A NOTE FROM RICK WARREN: I honestly don’t think God cares at all whether you teach the Bible book by book or topic by topic, as long as you teach the Bible. He doesn’t care whether you start with the text and move to applying it to people’s needs, or start with people’s needs and move to the text.
Many criticize “preaching to felt needs.” That’s exactly what Jesus often did. Even God’s names are revelations of how God meets our felt needs! Jehovah Jireh means God, my provider. Jehovah Shalom means God, my peace. Jehovah Tsidkenu means God, my righteousness.
Preaching that changes lives brings the truth of God’s Word and the real needs of people together through application.
Make the Bible Accessible to Unbelievers:
Unbelievers feel intimidated by the Bible. It’s filled with strange names and titles, and it sounds different than everything else they’ve read. The KJV is especially confusing to unbelievers. Also, the Bible is the only book they’ve seen that puts numbers before each sentence and is bound in leather.
Since God’s Word is the “Word of Life” we must do all we can to bring the unchurched into contact with it, and help them feel comfortable using it.
Here are several things we can do to relieve anxiety and spark their interest in the Bible:
Read Scripture from a newer translation. With all the good translations and paraphrases available today why would we want to complicate the Good News by using 400-year-old English? When King James had the translators of his day translate the Scripture it was so they could have a contemporary version.
Use pew Bibles. At first Rick used pew Bibles so instead of asking an unbeliever to turn to a certain text, he could have them turn to a page number. That way the unbeliever wasn’t embarrassed that everyone around him found the passage before he did.
Select our Scripture readings with the unchurched in mind.
2 Timothy 3:16-17) [TEV] All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living,
17) so that the person who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed.
God inspired all Scripture, but all Scripture isn’t equally applicable to the unchurched. Some passages are clearly more appropriate for seeker services than others. For example, we probably don’t want to read David’s prayer in Psalm 58, “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God…Like a slug melting away as it moves along, like as stillborn child, may they not see the sun…The righteous will be glad…when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.” Rick suggests we save this passage for our own personal quiet time or I could save it for the local pastors’ breakfast.
Certain texts require more explanation than others. With this in mind, at Saddleback they like to use passages that don’t require any previous understanding. They also like to use passages that show the benefits of knowing Christ.
Provide an Outline with Scriptures Written Out:
There are several reasons for this:
- The unchurched don’t own Bibles.
- It relieves embarrassment in finding texts.
- We can cover more material in less time.
- Everyone can read a verse out loud together because they have the same translation.
- You can use and compare many translations.
- The audience can circle and underline words for emphasis and take notes.
- It helps people remember the message.
- People can review the verses later by taking the notes home.
- It can become the basis for a small group discussion.
- Members can teach the outline to others.
Plan Your Titles to Appeal to the Unchurched:
A sample of sermon titles advertised in the Los Angeles Times in the church section were as follows:
- The Gathering Storm.
- On the Road to Jericho.
- Peter Goes Fishing.
- A Mighty Fortress.
- Walking Instructions.
- Becoming a Titus.
- No Such Thing as a Rubber Clock.
- River of Blood.
- The Ministry of Cracked Pots.
Would any of those titles make you want to jump out of bed and rush to church? Would any of them appeal to the unchurched?
Rick has been criticized for using sermon titles for the seeker services that sound like Reader’s Digest articles.
Luke 16:8) [GW] Worldly people are more clever than spiritually-minded people when it comes to dealing with others.
Matthew 10:16) [GNB] Listen! I am sending you out just like sheep to a pack of wolves. You must be as cautious as snakes and as gentle as doves.
Unbelievers are wiser than we are when it comes to knowing how to communicate with other unbelievers. We must get better at it if we want to reach them with the Gospel.
Rick’s sermon titles are intended to impress members of other churches. Christians aren’t their target. They’re not being shallow; they’re being strategic.
Preach In Series:
Rick tells us that few pastors understand the power of momentum. Preaching a sermon series is one example of using this power of momentum. When you’re preaching to the unchurched, and your series deals with felt needs, then each message builds on the one before, creating a sense of anticipation.
Rick says that the best length for this kind of series is 4 to 8 weeks.
Be Consistent In Your Preaching Style:
I shouldn’t switch back and forth between targeting seekers and believers in the same services. For example, I shouldn’t follow a series on “Managing Stress” with “Expository Gems From Leviticus.”
I can preach on Christian growth themes in a seeker service, but when I do, I must communicate it in a way that connects it somehow to the needs of unbelievers.
Choose Guest Speakers Carefully:
Saddleback doesn’t have many guest speakers anymore because they have a pastoral staff of preachers. When we can get to a place where we have ministry staff we can then understand that in house ministers know our people, love our people, and will use the style of preaching that is consistent with our philosophy of ministry. In most cases, guest speakers would work better in the services geared towards believers.
Preach For Commitment:
We should always offer unbelievers an opportunity to respond to Christ in a seeker service. They may choose to not respond, and you must respect that without pressuring them, but the opportunity must always be offered.
After trial and error Saddleback came up with their registration/commitment card idea. They turned the back side of their Welcome card into a Commitment Card.
Offering a time of commitment is an important element of a seeker service.
Here are some suggestions for leading people to make that commitment:
Clearly explain exactly how to respond to Christ. The unchurched need to know exactly what’s going on.
Plan out your time of commitment. We need to carefully think through what we want to happen.
Be creative in inviting people to receive Christ. If I were to say the same thing every week the audience would disconnect out of boredom. I would need to think it out and write out my call to commitment with each message.
Lead unbelievers in a model prayer. I would ask them to repeat a simple prayer, in their hearts, after me. Unbelievers don’t know what to pray, so this helps them to verbalize their new found faith.
Never pressure unbelievers to decide. We need to trust the Holy Spirit to do His work. Would you keep going to the same grocery store if every time you went to buy a gallon of milk the clerk tried to pressure you into buying a steak? Where do we find pressure altar calls in the Scripture?
Offer multiple ways to indicate a commitment to Christ. If we were to ever have a traditional altar call, we could use the card approach for those to shy to walk down front, for example.
Altar calls weren’t given in the New Testament. Ashael Nettleton began using it in 1817, and Charles Finney popularized it.
One of the most effective ways Rick has used is to take a “spiritual survey” at the end of a service. He had them write down an “A” on the back of the card if they had committed their life to Christ prior to that serve, “B” if they were committing their life to Christ in that service, “C” if they were considering committing their life to Christ, and “D” if they felt they would never commit their life to Christ. One service they had 400 “B”s. They’ve had as many as 800 “C” – which gave them a great prayer list. They’ve never had more than 17 “D”s.
Expect people to respond. Rick tells us that he doesn’t know exactly how his faith affects the spiritual battle that is waged for the souls of the people, but he does know that when he expects unbelievers to respond to Christ, more do than when he doesn’t expect them to respond.
The Primacy of Preaching:
Rick tells us that this chapter wasn’t intended to give us a full explanation of his philosophy of preaching. He said that could be a book of itself [maybe he’s written such a book since he wrote this one]. His purpose for this chapter was to simply highlight some practical suggestions that can make a big difference in preaching to the unchurched, regardless of my preaching style.
In this high tech age preaching might be considered more boring than it once was. It’s not the communication of preference. However, Rick says, nothing can take the place of Spirit-anointed preaching when it comes to reaching the unchurched.
1 Corinthians 1:21) Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb–preaching, of all things!–to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation.
Walk of Grace Chapel, Council Bluffs Church