Making Unity Stick in the Church Body

I am not a fan of preaching that calls for people to chant or clap or do certain things to prove that they are listening. However, I understand that such interactive responses can be helpful to make a message stick and to keep the audience engaged. Maybe it’s a personal preference issue, or maybe there is biblical, theological warrant for my concern. Either way, I am not personally comfortable with interactive gimmicks during the Sunday sermon.

sticky sermon activity unity illustrationI do understand, however, that there are occasions for preaching and teaching which allow for more interactivity between the preacher and the audience. Classroom settings, Wednesday night Bible studies, or conference sessions could be places that allow for more interactivity between the preacher and the audience.

For those worried about the charge of being unbiblical for using interactivity as a vehicle for communication, I would encourage a quick review of the prophets—especially Ezekiel. The writer of Hebrews may have had Ezekiel in mind when he opened his great letter by saying in former days God spoke through the prophets in many portions and in many ways. Surely, God spoke through Ezekiel in some bizarre ways.

Ezekiel had to act out the siege of Jerusalem. He had to pack a bag and go on a trip to demonstrate the reality of Judah’s upcoming Exile. He was required to bind himself with ropes to teach the people of their impending bondage. He was required to bake his bread over a flame fueled by dung in order to demonstrate the poverty awaiting God’s people. There is no lack of dramatic flair in the book of Ezekiel. The message for God’s people was severe. Drastic measures had to be taken to make the point plain. For Ezekiel, this meant drama and interacting with the people in unconventional ways.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Ezekiel gives us warrant to do whatever we want in a worship service. There are limits and parameters to pulpit activities. Again, I am not advocating lying forty days on your side with your arm bared before your people the way Ezekiel had to do it, but I am saying in some contexts it may be appropriate to “act out” a part of your message or to introduce an easy activity to make your point plain to your people. Allow me to offer an example.

In a particular message on a Wednesday night, I was hoping to get across the point that we too often fall prey to comparing ourselves with others and, thus, judging one another with human motives rather than seeing one another as God sees us. That point can be made from several different places in the New Testament (Matthew 7:1-5; Romans 14:1-4; Romans 15:1ff.).

On this particular occasion, I was teaching from Ephesians 2, that great passage in which Paul exalts the unifying power of Christ, who is able to break down all the barriers and dividing walls that we artificially overstate. To feed our fleshly pride and pretend that we are superior to others, we proudly build walls of division around educational levels, annual income, managerial rank, neighborhood of residence, color of skin, or type of music. We separate based on whether we like motorcycles, bull-riding, or beer drinking. The sinful human heart can build a wall out of just about anything.

In Ephesus, there was still a problem of wall-building in this predominately Gentile church. Paul reminds them (2:11-12) that there was a time they were excluded—until Christ obliterated the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile. On the basis of Christ’s work, the church at Ephesus could reasonably expect to dwell in unity with all believers—regardless of ethnic heritage (4:1-6).  My dilemma in light of this great instruction was how to make this truth stick with us after the message ended. Here is what I decided to do.

I had everyone stand up and look around them—particularly noticing all the differences in the congregation gathered. Some folks were tall; others were short. Some had on very nice clothes, others rags. Some folks had white skin, others black or brown. Some folks were old, while others were young. There were gray-haired folks with brown eyes; brown-haired folks with blue eyes; and blond-haired people with green eyes. A few of the people had red hair with either blue or hazel eyes.

All the distinctions were noticeable and very real. We could have divided into groups if we had so desired. But, of course, that was not our desire. The desire we were pursuing was the desire to be united in such diversity. How could this diverse group of people see themselves as one body? How could we help but notice all the differences?

After folks had enough time to notice all these differences, I asked them first whether they noticed any differences within the congregation. Of course, everyone noticed a great many differences. Second, I asked them to imagine this same group of people assembled outside in the parking lot.  Then, I asked the group to imagine what differences would be visible from a jet flying overhead.

Our congregation was situated such that, on occasion, jets flying to the airport made their landing approach just overhead. From one sticky sermon illustration unity one faithof those jets, all the people in the parking lot looked the same—more like ants than humans. The truth is, from high above everyone looks the same. The variances which we think make us so different from one another are barely visible from the window of a jet.

If we can see such a radically different perspective from the window of a jet at 30,000 feet, how much more can God see a different perspective from heaven above!  What this interactive illustration demonstrates is that we overplay distinctions between us when we maintain a merely human perspective on life. If we somehow could see ourselves the way God is able to see us from an eternal, divine perspective, we would likely see the barriers and dividing walls broken down.

This idea is captured in a ministry of which I am aware called Vision Beyond Borders. The ministry focuses attention on needy people abroad, stating that Christ’s view from the cross was a vision beyond borders. We artificially accept the boundaries built by prejudice and by practical political concerns, while Christ died with a view of saving people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. The New Testament encourages us to be leaders in breaking down the artificial walls which tend to rob us of fellowship with other sinners saved by grace.

When I had the people sit down again, I did so with the reminder that even sitting down causes some of the distinctions to diminish (height for instance is not as noticeable while seated). The main point of the illustration—a point which was cemented by the interactive illustration—was that the distance between us is major only when we fixate on ourselves. When we fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, we get a different view altogether. The distinction between us and Christ far exceeds any distinction we notice between ourselves in our pews. Christ is highly exalted—the name above all names, the one seated at the right hand of God. If our attention and affection remains focused on Him, then our barriers and divisions will begin to disappear, proving to have been no more durable than the morning fog which dissipates under the heat and light of the rising sun.

A Sticky Sermon by Story Seeding

There is a sense in which godliness grows.  The Apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians that he planted the seeds of faith among them, Apollos watered those seeds, but, ultimately, God caused their faith to grow (1 Corinthians 3).

Sticky SermonThe basic concept of a sticky sermon is to plant biblical ideas in the minds of your hearers which, over time, cause them to grow in godliness.  Lately, I have been trying to develop this idea for my students in preaching class. What I’d like to do here is share and develop some of the basic tips and techniques for preaching sermons that stick in the minds of Christians.

There is a beauty to speaking with a Christian on a Thursday afternoon break and having him or her share what “Brother Bob” has been talking about on Sundays. Christians are to be salt and light in the world, so they need sermons which act as salting agents for their own minds–stimulating, seasoning, and preserving theological thoughts throughout the week so that when the opportunity arises, they are able to make biblical application to real-life situations in the workplace.

One of the techniques which can help to fuel this dynamic is what I call “Story Seeding.”  Story seeding is simple, really, but it requires a little forward thinking. Imagine you were preaching or teaching from Ruth 1, the scene in which Orpah kisses Naomi good-bye, while Ruth clings unwaveringly to her:

“Ruth said, ‘Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16).

Here is a beautiful picture of loyalty and faith. But focus on the reality of what Ruth is saying and doing. She is turning away from herSticky Sermon story seeding history, her roots, her homeland. She is leaving behind all that she has known of life in Moab, and she is walking by faith into a new reality and a new homeland, uncertain of her future, only certain of her commitment.

From this profound point, think forward to the week ahead. What major event will be taking place in the next week or two? What will people be hearing about or listening to or watching in the coming days?  The Olympics. Soon, the pageantry of the Winter Olympics will unfold on televisions across the U.S. The color of the flags, the drama of the opening ceremony, the excitement of the competition—these events will impact people in the coming weeks.

So, take your point from Ruth 1 and attach it forward to what people will be seeing in the coming weeks, and you have just practiced “Story Seeding.” Here is how it might work:

Don’t you just love the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics? Oh, I don’t mean the weird tribal dances or enigmatic references to post-Industrialism which have plagued the prior Olympic Games. No, I mean the real festival of ethnicity which takes place as nation after nation walks through the arena with athletes acting as standard-bearers for an entire people—waving the colorful flags in procession, swelling with great pride at having the opportunity to represent their homeland.

Now, focus on any one of those athletes and imagine that person as Ruth. Imagine this athlete in the midst of the procession setting down their nation’s flag and walking over to the Jamaican group and saying, “I will go where you go. I will live as you live. Your nation will be my nation. Your people will be my people.” Could you imagine the scandal? How could someone do that–just walk away from their homeland? Trade nationality? Trade identity?

This is what Ruth has done. And she didn’t do it for any negative reason—as an athlete from North Korea or an oppressive Communist regime might try to do. No, Ruth forsook her country, her history, and her homeland for a positive reason: “your God will be my God.”

Okay, okay… I don’t want to preach the whole sermon here, but you get the point. You are illustrating forward in such a way that your people will be thinking about your preaching/teaching point all week, and, when the Olympic event itself happens, your folks are very likely to have this biblical story stirred inside their heads. Your sermon has become sticky; it has stuck itself not just into their intellectual data folder. It has now entered their everyday lives at a practical level which they can easily share.

That is a sticky sermon point! Give “Story Seeding” a try and see if it doesn’t help your teaching and preaching stick.