The Congregational Development Corner: Stop Communicating for Information

11/21/2016

The Congregational Development Corner: 10 for 10 (10 steps for 10 percent growth)

During the 2016 Annual Conference session, action steps for congregational growth were shared during a Fruitfulness in Evangelism panel discussion, moderated by Rev. Jay Hanson, director of Congregational Development. Five clergy – Rev. Antonie Walker, Rev. Leigh Ann Raynor, Rev. Hale Bishop, Rev. Matt Hearn, and Rev. Jim Cowart – each shared two key tools for evangelism and growth and together gave clergy and lay attendees 10 action steps for 10 percent growth. 

In the next several Advocate issues Congregational Development will share articles to give you and your congregation practical steps for church growth and development. 


Stop Communicating for Information

By Rev. Jim Cowart


Don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. – James 1:22 NLT

What’s the goal? It’s a question we need to ask, answer, and revisit often. 

  • What’s the goal of this Administrative Board? 
  • What’s the goal of this Sunday school lesson? 
  • What’s the goal of this meeting? 
  • What’s the goal of this ministry?
  • What’s the goal of this staff position? 
  • What’s the goal of this song? 
  • What’s the goal of this sermon? 
Many times, there is no clear goal. Therefore, we default to passing along information or going through the motions. How many times have you been in a meeting that largely consisted of giving reports? People need information. But they need more than that. They need application. James 1:22 (NLT) states, “Don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says.” 

Consider that last question in the above list. Most sermons aren’t great. And that’s a shame. Think about it. The Sunday morning sermon is one of the few times in America when people sit politely and listen to someone talk without interruption. Where else does that happen? It’s really a great opportunity. It’s tragic if people seek hope and answers to the hurts in their lives, but don’t find them in the sermon. We’re not throwing pastors under the bus. Most of the pastors we know are great people. They love God. They love people, and they really want to make a difference in the world. The motivation, heart, and spirit are there, but there’s often a disconnection between information and application. 

Most pastors have been trained, formally or by example, to convey information in sermons, staff meetings, and lessons. We communicate content. Here’s what happened to Jonah. Here’s what happened to Noah. Here’s what happened to Paul. Yet the unspoken question in the crowd in every sermon across America is, “So what?” Not in a rude, that doesn’t matter way, but in an inquisitive way: So, what do I do with that? How does that apply to me? It’s a good question and deserves to be answered. 

In fact, Paul used a little Greek word repeatedly in his letters of instruction: hina. It means “so that.” Information was not the goal; the “so what” and the “so that” were. Paul didn’t want his readers to know stuff. He wanted them to do stuff, so they could really know Jesus and have a new life. Stop preaching just to share information. Start preaching to help people change their lives. 

A good friend of mine tells a great story. He and his wife went white-water rafting. Before their trip downriver, their guide gave a safety orientation talk about what to do in case they got knocked out of the boat: “Keep your feet up. Stay on your back. Keep your feet pointed downriver. Find the raft, and reach for the extended paddle being offered by me or your fellow rafters.” 

Everything started out great on their river run. The water was cold. People were laughing. The sun was shining. They were having fun until the wife got knocked out of the boat. She fell out in a dangerous spot on the river. The water was rough, and the current swept her underwater and away from the raft. She was out of control and couldn’t get air, and she panicked. The guide was worried, too. He leaned as far as he could toward her and extended his paddle for her to grab. He yelled over the sound of the river, “Listen closely! What’s the Greek word for paddle?” 

What? Of course the guide didn’t say that. He said, “Grab the paddle!”

When my friend’s wife was in danger of drowning, she didn’t need a three-point pep talk on the historicity and eschatology of the paddle. She didn’t need more information. She needed help!

Every week there are people sitting in church, drowning: in debt, in problems, in sin, in life. They don’t need a little homily. They need help. The church has been entrusted with the source of hope, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sometimes as leaders, we are saying the right words. We give correct information, but we don’t bring the message to the logical conclusion: application! “Here’s what God says about (money, salvation, relationships). Now let’s do it, and here’s how.” 

The gospel message doesn’t change. It’s good news! But we have to share it in ways that people can understand and apply. As the old saying goes, “Put the cookies on the bottom shelf” where everyone can reach them. 

So, how do we communicate for application? Here are some suggestions:

For pastors
  1. Make a clear ask in the sermon. No one can follow fuzzy directions. Choose your words carefully. Be specific. Be clear. At the end of a message we give an invitation to accept Christ. We often word it something like this: “If you’ve never stepped across the line and asked Jesus to be your Savior, we want you to do that today. You don’t have to come down front. We’re going to lead in a prayer, and you can say the words to God. He’ll hear you. Then we want you to check the box on your communication card that says, ‘Today, I want to accept Jesus for the first time.’ Drop that in the offering basket because we want to send you some next steps. We want to help you grow in your new faith.” That’s a clear ask. How can you apply that in your situation?
  2. Give specific next steps. In almost every sermon we offer three or four next steps for the congregation and crowd to apply. No more than that because we don’t want it to get complicated. We just want them to do something in response to the message. It may be memorizing one of the primary Scriptures in the message or doing a good deed anonymously. We try to make it specific to the message because the goal is to engage the crowd and answer the question, “So what?” Every week, accepting Christ is one of our next steps at Harvest. 
  3.  Learn from people who do this well. Rick Warren has a great seminar called “Preaching for Life Change.” Rick’s tools can be ordered through www.saddlebackresources.com

    Andy Stanley’s book, Communicating for a Change (Sisters, ore.: Multnomah, 2006), helps build application messages. Here’s what it looks like and how we use it: 
  • Me (Start with a personal story.)
  • We (Explain the shared felt need, the reason for this message.) 
  • God (Explain what the Scriptures say about the subject.) 
  • You (Explain what to do; application; action steps.)
  • We (Explain the preferred future as we apply God’s instructions.)
For other church leaders

Adapt these same principles to your setting. If you lead meetings, ask yourself questions like these: What’s the goal of this meeting? What do we want people to do from here? If you are teaching a children’s message about Jonah, determine the primary goal. With Jonah, for instance, the goal is not just to convey information about a man and a big fish. It’s to teach the principles of obedience and consequence and explain how Jonah’s story is also our story when we don’t listen to and obey God. It’s about application. Answer the “so what” of this story that deals with obedience, running from God, and God’s love for people with whom we are uncomfortable. 

Good leaders help people apply the eternal truths of the scriptures to their real-world lives. 

Questions and thoughts to consider
  1. Is our communication style primarily informational or applicational? 
  2. Are people able to apply the weekend message in practical ways?
  3. How can we incorporate next steps into weekly sermons? 
  4. As an example, what would a practical next step have been for last week’s message? 
  5. What tweaks can we make to our meetings to make them more about application than information? 
Rev. Jim Cowart is the lead and founding pastor of Harvest Church in Byron, Ga. Contact him at jim@harvestchurch4u.org