By Frank R. Lewis
Jesus, the greatest teacher who ever lived, knew how to help everyone in His audience listen for the whisper of God.
He had a conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus and stirred his heart with the idea that God moves with power like the blowing wind.
He also held the imagination of a little boy whose mother packed his lunch with two small fish and five loaves of bread.
When Jesus taught large crowds, He painted word pictures with images of two builders: one wise, the other foolish.
He told the story of a son who wished his father was dead and his generous father who longed for the day this same son might return home.
Jesus taught a message on justice when He said a man was beaten and robbed by thieves—and had it not been for the kindness of a stranger, a Samaritan, he would have probably died from his wounds.
Christ’s stories touch our hearts every time we hear them because they’re our stories, or we hope they will be one day.
What we see in these and other teaching moments in the life of Jesus is that He was incredibly simple with His explanations about who God is and how God loves.
He didn’t waste words, chase unnecessary rabbits, or seek to impress the theologically astute.
He presented the Kingdom of God in such a way that everyone present could hear it. My preaching doesn’t always do this, but I wish it did.
The teaching and preaching of Jesus might be the best model for us as we reopen our buildings following COVID-19’s forced closure.
Some of us will be preaching to a smaller audience made up of younger worshippers.
The children who may have previously been engaged in a children’s ministry may be sitting in socially distanced worship services with their parents.
Here are five ways I’m tweaking my preaching for the next season of my ministry.
1. Shorten the length of the sermon
It’s important to preach shorter sermons. This is a personal goal of mine during this season.
At my church, we have a large enough sanctuary to social distance without adding services to our regathering schedule, but that’s not the case for many pastors.
If you’re preaching multiple times, consider a 20-minute sermon and a 50-minute worship service.
Not only will this provide an added window of time for transition between services, but it will also keep the teaching or preaching time more focused as you share the message faithfully.
2. Use a listening sheet
If you aren’t using a listening sheet, consider doing so. Shortly after our building closure, one of our dads suggested I make a fill-in-the-blank listening sheet available as a download on our website.
Today, our congregation loves it and wouldn’t think of regathering without it. Most of us weren’t trained to hold a televised (or online) audience for the length of time a sermon lasts.
News anchors cut away every few seconds to video clips and other supportive images to keep a market share of the audience riveted to their broadcasts. A listening sheet is a tool to help our younger members listen better.
If we provide helpful lists or teaching points, or even questions to help them dig deeper in the days after the sermon, that’s even better. Most people remember points better when they write them down.
The listening sheet doesn’t have to be fancy, but it needs to be thoughtfully prepared.
Following one of our first Sunday services after our reopening, the father of two of our students shared that his girls were listening to my messages in ways he’d never seen before.
I’m hearing the same thing from our oldest worshippers. The listening sheet will be a part of my preaching preparation for a while.
3. Speak to the children
Speak to the boys and girls, not just their moms and dads. COVID-19 has affected all of us.
Parents may have had to work from home, but children had to start learning from home in a virtual setting unless they were already in a homeschool environment.
This means friendships and interactions with peers at school were put on hold. That kind of change brings anxiety to everyone impacted.
Attempt to share a word to the boys and girls in your audience when you’re listing difficulties people have faced in the past year.
Children know things are different. Going to school is different. Seeing people wearing masks is different. Protests and violent actions on the news is different.
We have no idea today how the stress of 2020 is going to affect today’s children 10 years or more from now, but it’s safe to say these events are going to leave a mark on our children and grandchildren.
It’s normal for them to feel anxious. But it’s powerful for them to know the gospel is for them in the midst of these anxious days.
4. Keep it about the gospel
As the church begins to reopen, I think it’s going to feel a lot like church planting.
When I was a church planter, I shared the gospel as plainly as possible in every sermon because I knew there would be people in every worship service who had never heard it.
There are people who may have been closed to the gospel in the past but are suddenly ready to hear a word of hope. This is true for our youngest worshippers, too.
They’ve heard the stories of people dying from COVID-19. Some have lost a family member to the pandemic.
We must never underestimate how God might be preparing people for a gospel harvest as the church reopens.
5. Take advantage of unique family discipleship opportunities
For years, our approach to children’s worship ministry has been guided by the idea that children learn to worship best by observing their parents in worship.
When a child sees that their mother or father has a loving relationship with the Creator of the universe, it provides a powerful example to follow.
When children know parents pray, sing, and serve with passion, give generously, take sin seriously, and listen carefully to the exposition of God’s Word, they learn something about faith because they see it at work in the life of their primary spiritual mentors.
Reopening gives us all a chance to clear the calendar and simplify the program.
If doing so means children are seated beside one or both of their parents for a while, we want to take advantage of equipping parents so they can model a life of worship for their children.
When I started reading the accounts of the Great Awakening just a few years ago, it changed the way I started praying and preaching.
Most pastors I know have spent a lot more time on their knees recently praying that the pain we’ve known in 2020 will not be wasted, but that somehow in the sovereign providence of God, it will be the seedbed for a spiritual awakening in our day—the likes of which we’ve never seen.
Let’s pray and preach in a way that we may live to see this happen.
FRANK R. LEWIS has been the senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Nashville since 1997. Prior to that he served as a preaching and worship consultant with LifeWay.