Preaching for Life Change

Written by Larry Dinkins on .

guest post by Dr. Larry Dinkins 


At the U.S. Center for World Missions a group of us mission trainers were asked to brain storm concerning our understanding of an "ideal" cross-cultural church planter. They encouraged us to go ahead and dream, so we listed most all of the skills, character traits and qualities that would make for a successful church planter. Only when this target was clearly defined did we take on the task of designing a training program to ensure our desired result. 

Recently I've been reflecting on how this same process can be applied to preaching.  Clearly defining what you want to happen in the life of your listener by the time the sermon ends (and beyond) will hugely shape how one constructs and delivers a sermon.  The typical response I received at the end of my sermons in Thailand was, "Di mak, Ajarn" (Good sermon, Teacher). Although gratifying, I never knew just what they were taking away from my forty minutes of preaching. Now hopefully older and wiser, I am shooting for a more clearly defined target.

Now I am interested mainly in three basic "take aways" from my sermons:

1. If I interviewed my listeners at the back door of the church, could they tell me (without using notes) the main idea I was trying to get across? Could they articulate the gist of what God was saying through the passage treated? Did I make that one main idea crystal clear and reiterate it enough times in helpful ways so that it couldn't be missed?  My first take away concerns MEANING.

2. As I applied that main idea, did I do so in such a way that it was both personal and transformational in their lives? Did they leave the sanctuary with a measurable action plan for tangible obedience in the coming week, months and years?  For instance did they leave thinking that a commitment to praying more was a good idea, or did they return home and put something tangible in their calendar to make it a reality? My second take away concerns TRANSFORMATION.

3. Over the years I've gone to innumerable lunches following church services and sat at tables with believers who said absolutely nothing about the sermon they just heard. I think the main reason is that what they just heard was very hard to remember. Usually the sermon was crafted with points and even sub-points that were frankly never designed to be repeated or reviewed.  The preacher may even have highlighted some of the points by saying, "This is very important," but immediately looked down at his notes yet again to read just what that important point was all about.  In other words, there was no real attempt made to make the message memorable.  Carol Davis who teaches Perspectives classes is fond of saying, "Do not teach anything that is not immediately transferable." The early church grew most rapidly because believers knew the sermons and stories of Jesus and were able to powerfully relate them to others in a winsome and natural way. My third take away concerns MEMORY.
Part of the above analysis was prompted by a book by Andy Stanley I recently finished called Communicating for a Change. I began listening to Andy's father, Dr. Charles Stanley back in the 1970s. I am very used to Dr. Stanley's style which has not changed much in 40 years. He still wears a formal suit, holds an open Bible in his hand, a traditional church backdrop behind him, and until recently stood behind a massive white pulpit (it's smaller now). Dr. Stanley is still a master of lists, acrostics and alliteration for his textually based messages and gives them with a seasoned Southern Baptist delivery. Charles Andrew Stanley is a study in contrasts to his illustrious father (yet both are listed among the 10 most influential preachers in America).  Andy (which he prefers) is likely to dress in khakies and a polo shirt on a high tech stage with a folding chair instead of a pulpit and a large HD screen to display scripture passages.  Both father and son can easily fill 40 minutes in their sermons, but that is where the comparison seems to end.  Andy gives a high octane quick delivery without notes on a contemporary felt need of his audience and drives home his message with one main idea coupled to practical applications. Andy worked for his father for many years and no doubt had heard hundreds of sermons by his dad by the time he branched out on his own. That is why Andy's honest comments sprinkled throughout the book about his father's style in contrast to his own seem so surprising yet compelling at the same time.
Andy is not content with a simple information or Bible knowledge transfer, but designs all his communication for life transformation. "Preaching for life change involves picking those passages that are most appropriate for and applicable to our audience. This is what Jesus did. This is what Paul did. They addressed felt needs and supported their teaching with references from the Old Testament. Nowhere in the Scriptures is there an example of, or reference to, anyone teaching through a book of the Old Testament."
Andy critiques the common point by point sermon in no uncertain terms. He comments on note driven preachers who end up with 4 points, but by the 4th point their audience has forgotten points 1-3. "The point of points is to move people systematically through an outline. And if that is your goal, stick with your points. Good things will come of it. But if life change is your goal, point by point preaching is not the most effective approach."
The chapter on "Internalizing the Message" was worth the price of the book (I read that chapter three times). My masters thesis at Dallas Theological Seminary was on Bible memory approaches and I was able to teach on that subject at DTS, so this topic has a special interest to me.  One thing I appreciate about Andy is that he has true ownership of his material and has absorbed and internalized it so that it easily connects with his audience and flows from his lips with strong conviction. To accomplish this, Andy advocates preaching without notes. He says, 'I find it disingenuous when a speaker says, "This is very important," and then reads something from his notes. Constantly referring to notes communicates, "I have not internalized this message. I want everybody else to internalize it, but I haven't."' I've been in far too many situations where sermons have been "note driven" with the preacher referring extensively to his notes and the audience dutifully taking them down on paper.  I come out of such sessions with the satisfaction of a pad full of notes, but a heart that feels some how short changed by what sometimes amounts to more of an academic lecture than a motivational and inspiring proclamation of living truth.
In life situations we don't have access to the notes we've taken during sermons. If we are to have victory in time of temptation or making wise decisions at critical times, it is imperative that the Word be implanted in our heart pocket and not just in our notebooks. We are constantly admonished in the Bible to not just study the text or memorize by rote select scriptures, but to internalize, understand and remember the Word for easy access to life situations (Dt. 6:4-9; 20-25). Andy makes this observation, "Most preachers main concern is to cover the material, not did the audience understand and will they remember the material."
Andy's leaves his readers with this challenge: "Are you willing to abandon a style, an approach, a system that was designed in another era for a culture that no longer exists? Are you willing to step out of your comfort zone in order to step into the lives God has placed in your care? Are you willing to make the adjustment? Will you consider letting go of your alliterations and acrostics and three point outlines and talk to people in terms they understand? Will you communicate for life change?"


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