The weekly sermon—whether delivered on Saturday night, Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon, Sunday night, or watched later online—is the singular time each week the pastor has to address the most people at once. One important reason for the gathering is to hear the message. Does God have anything to say? What does He have to say?
In the second decade of the 21st century, those of us tasked with preaching and teaching God’s word on a regular basis face challenges different from those who preceded us. We preach to congregations who are less and less biblically literate. We preach to congregations who are influenced as much by what they read during the week as by what they hear on Sunday. We preach to guests who were not raised with a Christian worldview. We preach to people who are close to being “done” with church once and for all.
As such, it is important to never assume a baseline of biblical knowledge when preaching, even if you are preaching to your church for the 532nd time. It is better, in fact, to assume exactly the opposite: expect there to be people seated before you who know little of Christianity, little of the Bible, and nothing accurate about God.
Many of the insider comments we make as pastors (“an epistle is the wife of an apostle,” “it’s in Hezekiah or Second Opinions,”) are not only lost on people of this age, but could make them feel even more like outsiders than they already do.
To address the reality of the unreached and those lacking knowledge among us, here are six things pastors should say in every sermon.
Explain where to find the text: “Now, you can find the book of Galatians…”
Don’t just say Psalm 119:5. Explain where to find it in the Bible. Mention that is starts with a “p” not an “s.” Do not assume everyone under the sound of your voice knows anything about Psalms. Start from scratch every week. Also, if your church uses “pew Bibles” use the page number each week. Add it to the title slide if you use Power Point or other presentation software for notes.
Explain the two testaments: “You may not know, but the Bible is divided into two parts called ‘testaments.'”
Every time I introduce a sermon I explain there is an Old Testament and a New Testament. The Old Testament is the first part of the Bible and the New Testament is the second part of the Bible. It’s a brief but instructive way to get that distinction into the minds of those who lack biblical knowledge.
Encourage use of the index: “If you need to use the index, please do so.”
If you have new believers or non-believers attending they may feel awkward about trying to find a book of the Bible. Genesis, Psalms, Matthew, and Revelation are pretty easy; after that some might get bogged down, embarrassingly flipping pages long after everyone else has stopped. Sometimes if I’m preaching from a minor prophet, I get everyone to turn to the index and lead them to the correct book.
Mention Bible apps positively: “Open your app to Micah 1.”
I tend to be a purist when it comes to scripture, taking a leather-bound copy with me whether preaching or listening. I love the feel, underlining, and note taking—the whole nine yards.
But, pastors need to be realistic. The Bible—the same inspired Word of God—exists on apps, too. I’d rather have a person following along on a digital version of God’s Word than no copy at all. When you say something like, “Turn in your Bibles to Mark 3, or find it in your app…” you let app users know you understand and approve of their particular tool.
“We welcome those of you who have lost faith, are seeking, are new to church, or wondering about God or Christianity.”
If you have been in pastoral ministry longer than a few minutes you have run across those people who think “the church building will fall down” if they attend. It is not true, of course, but there are those who are deeply uncertain about what will happen if they attend your church. I recommend affirming them.
You might think, “Every week I know almost everyone by first and last name. Why should I mention people who are not there?” Because your congregation needs to hear that you expect unbelievers to be in attendance. If you express each week that expectation they have a new tool in their tool kit when inviting unbelievers: “Our pastor loves it when people who don’t know anything about church come to our church.”
“If you still have questions, please see me after the service, or email me.”
I still give a come-forward invitation (“altar call”) nearly every time I preach. However, I recognize many, many people who are seeking or are uncertain, aren’t going to participate in a process that isn’t remotely familiar to them. They likely aren’t going to volunteer to isolate themselves before a crowd of people they do not even know. It is awesome when they do, but we need to provide other options.
Giving the option to contact you later may be the opening they need to take the next step.
When I’m preaching, the introduction usually goes something like this:
I’d like to invite your attention to the book of Acts, chapter 5. It’s spelled A-C-T-S, not A-X or A-X-E.
Acts is in the New Testament, which is the second part of your Bible. The first part is called the Old Testament. That makes sense, right?
If you have a Bible with red words, Acts is the book right after those—the fifth book in the New Testament.
If you need to use the index, that’s cool. If you are using the Bible from the rack in front of you, it’s page 1,137. If you are using an app, it’s in the same place.
Now, if you are here today and are checking out Christianity, or maybe returning to the faith of your childhood, or maybe you’re not even sure there is a God, I’m glad you are here. You are welcome with your doubt, uncertainty, or questions and we pray God will reveal the truth about Himself to you.
Now, lets look at the text together.
That took 42 seconds from a 30-40 minute sermon. It is well worth it to make a connection.
Unbelievers and those with little knowledge of the Bible or Christianity need to know we affirm them. Perhaps they “are not far from the kingdom of God” themselves. May we remove every obstacle so that only the cross remains.