Update, December 6, 2013: Jared expands on his position in a timely episode of the Janet Mefferd Show, in which he states that his beef, in essence, is with those preachers who make it their goal to be showmen rather than to preach the word. In light of this, I don’t think there’s any serious disagreement between us, but if you’re a preacher you’ll probably find what I have to say interesting all the same.
Last Sunday I read 10 Sacred Cows in Christianity That Need to be Tipped by Jared Moore. Overall it’s a good, quick read, although probably aimed more at a megachurch sort of audience than a small-church conservative Calvinist like me. I say it’s good overall because, while 9 out of the 10 practices Moore highlights are in need of a “tipping”, I think the first one is overstated at best.
It is titled Entertaining Sermons, and here’s part of what he says:
Unfortunately, when we seek to entertain our hearers, we prove we don’t believe that God or Scripture can hold the attention of God’s people—at least that’s what our dependence on entertainment communicates. In other words, we may say “the Bible is worthy of your attention,” but if we use entertainment to communicate this truth, then we’re undercutting our message with our methods.
In fairness to Moore, he says a bit more than this, and what he says makes it clear that the kind of entertainment he has in mind is something akin to pastors becoming comedians for the sake of getting butts on seats. And to that extent, I agree with him—church is not a show or a performance.
But I feel inclined to strongly attenuate Moore’s comments. I feel like he is suggesting that being entertaining is intrinsically at odds with being a faithful preacher; with expounding accurately the truth of Scripture. This seems not only wrong to me, but exactly opposite to reality—and quite a dangerous notion to adopt if you’re a preacher who wants to see his church grow and flourish. This is because entertainment is at the heart of attention. And as Moore himself seems to recognize, attention is at the heart of good preaching. Indeed, with the American Heritage dictionary, I would take the following definition:
Something is entertaining just in case it is agreeably diverting.
Let me quickly comment on these two qualities:
Preaching must, of course, be diverting in the right way. But it certainly should be diverting. It should divert us from the world; from our industry or drudgery or apathy or lethargy; and it should divert us to Jesus. And it should do this consistently and sustainably.
And consistency and sustainability are only possible if the preaching is agreeably diverting. If you’re a preacher and your congregation doesn’t find your sermons agreeable—if you routinely say things they don’t like, or disagree with, or are offended by, or believe are false—then they won’t take them to heart, they won’t listen, and eventually they won’t even come to church any more. Now, this is not to say that you must tickle their ears (2 Tim 4:3 ESV). I am not in the least suggesting that you only preach things which people naturally find pleasing—as you would expect from Romans 8:7, that would result in basically eliminating sin and judgment from the gospel, and replacing them with health and wealth. But the point of church is not to convert natural people; it is to feed spiritual ones—and they are not only willing, but eager to hear things which non-Christians would find quite disagreeable (1 Cor 2:12-14). They are glad to be convicted of sin. They are pleased to hear of God’s justice as well as his mercy. They want to know what he hates, as well as what he loves. They wish to be prepared for trials, rather than falsely assured of prosperity.
So what is “agreeable” is decidedly a matter of context. And I’d say that if your congregation doesn’t find the truth of Scripture agreeable, then the problem is not with your preaching, but with the fact you are preaching to non-Christians. I am presupposing here that your audience is at least mostly converted.
So with this in mind, let me expand a little on what I said before: that entertainment is at the heart of attention.
On agreeable diversion as “attention-thievery”
There is only one kind of thievery a preacher should ever engage in—but it is a kind he must engage in every time he appears before his congregation. He must thieve off with their attention, and he must not return it until he is finished saying what he intends to say. If he fails to do this—if their attention is often diverted away from the sermon—then he is not doing a good job, and his preaching will be ineffective.
I happen to know something about this topic because it is how I earn my bread and butter. I generally don’t flash my badge, but in this case I think it’s important to demonstrate my credentials, because what I have to say is not merely my opinion. It is hard fact rooted in both scientific research and personal expertise. I am a recognized authority in online marketing, and particularly in the matter of getting people’s attention and holding it for long enough to persuade them to take a particular action. I do this primarily with words—on websites and in email sequences. Technically this is called conversion optimization, but what it comes down to is attention-thievery. (If you’d like to know more you can even go to www.attentionthievery.com or www.informationhighwayman.com, and you’ll also find many articles I have written for industry-leading sites like KISSmetrics and Unbounce.)
I also teach conversion optimization to other business owners—and one of the ways I present it is with a system called the 3C Conversion Cipher. This outlines the minimal conditions required to reliably get someone’s sustained attention. Whatever you say must…
1. Connect to your audience
- It must be relevant to their needs (or why would they bother listening?)
- You must present it with a good level of rapport so they are favorably disposed to listen to you
- You must reason through it logically so they can follow it
2. Be clear to your audience
- You must use precise language, so your ideas are not muddy
- You must use simple language your audience would use, so they can understand it
- You must use concrete language and examples (rather than abstract concepts), so they can picture it
3. Contrast with what your audience has already heard
- It may be incongruous, in the sense of being something seemingly counter-intuitive or contradictory or even just funny
- It may be intriguing; whether something that teases them to discover the answer, or merely something new
- At a minimal level it must isolate itself from other things they’ve heard, by being unusual or perhaps controversial
As you can see, while Moore draws a strong distinction between the message and the method of delivery, a bona fide attention-thief sees no such division. The method and the message are intertwined. An “entertaining method” does not draw attention away from the message, but in fact supports the message.
Now, I am not suggesting that preaching is merely a form of marketing. Nor am I suggesting that the principles of “attention-thievery” apply to preaching in exactly the way they apply to marketing. Nor is it even obvious how these principles apply in many cases. For example, relevance is extremely important in connecting to an audience—yet this has been so abused in preaching that the term is almost synonymous with redefining the gospel or inventing ploys to draw people in. But this fundamentally misunderstands the difference between appealing to shallow needs which people think about often, and to deep needs which they prefer not to think about because they find them hard to fill. The message of the gospel is entirely and profoundly relevant to every person ever—so it is up to the preacher to use clarity and contrast to overcome any natural resistance the “buyer” has to believing that, rather than trying to “sell” them a different “product”, a different gospel, altogether.
Similarly, contrast is very important in marketing, but can be burdensome to the point of danger in preaching. It is not ultimately the preacher’s job to find a new angle or a unique hook or a fresh perspective on what he is preaching. It is not his job to say something which has never been said before. But neither is that necessary, because most church-goers will not have heard just about any perspective he has on a given passage. Just because the preacher doesn’t feel like he is being very original doesn’t mean that his audience won’t get something profoundly new and important out of his message. (To take a trite example, what I am writing right now seems to me quite hackneyed and obvious, but it is probably not something you’ve heard before, and especially not framed in the way I’m framing it.)
Good preaching is entertaining by definition
Anyway, getting back to my main point, if being entertaining just is to be agreeably diverting, and being agreeably diverting just is a matter of sustainably holding your audience’s attention, then any good sermon must be entertaining. Just as entertainment is at the heart of what I do as a marketer, it is at the heart of what we do as preachers. If my marketing copy were not entertaining—if the only readers who kept their attention on it did so by force of will, because their jobs required it—I would go out of business. Most people would not read it, and copy which does not get read does not convey any information, and so it does not persuade anyone to take any action.
The same is true of sermons that don’t get listened to. Every sermon should convey information, and it should do so in a way that encourages some action. That’s what separates a sermon from a lecture: a sermon is simply a lecture which an everyday Christian can apply to his life. But if the everyday Christian has to struggle to sustain his attention on it, he is unlikely to absorb enough of it to do this.
In other words, if the sermon is not entertaining—if it does not sustain his attention—he will not be able to make a choice about applying it to his life. In which case, the preacher has failed.