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Should sermons be entertaining?

Jared Moore says no. I say…not so fast.

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:

Diverting

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.

Agreeable

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

  1. It must be relevant to their needs (or why would they bother listening?)
  2. You must present it with a good level of rapport so they are favorably disposed to listen to you
  3. You must reason through it logically so they can follow it

2. Be clear to your audience

  1. You must use precise language, so your ideas are not muddy
  2. You must use simple language your audience would use, so they can understand it
  3. 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

  1. It may be incongruous, in the sense of being something seemingly counter-intuitive or contradictory or even just funny
  2. It may be intriguing; whether something that teases them to discover the answer, or merely something new
  3. 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.

Caveats

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.

6 comments

  1. Scott Dennison

    Very interesting POV, enjoyed the read Bnonn. At my church we know that about 72% of the people in our county are unchurched or de-churched. They don’t know Jesus and many of them don’t know that they should.

    For that reason we tend to make the public face of church a bit entertaining. In fact we just finished a 5 part series called Happy, Happy, Happy where we did a riff off of the “Duck Dynasty” TV program as the set-up for messages that speak to the joy that comes from a relationship with Christ.

    This pic https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10201473721298047 is of my pastor sitting at the top of a 16ft ladder. Why? He climbed it as a way of illustrating the steps involved in going from no knowledge/understanding of the Gospel to a deep fulfilling relationship that makes life, no matter the circumstances better.

    Many of our weekly messages are found at http://www.bridgepointonline.org/

    Take care and God Bless!

  2. Igor

    I like it, you Calvinist son of a gun. Excellent form, sah! Thanks for not getting into ideologies and doctrines and all the useless rabbit holes that get people no nearer an understanding of the truth that is within themselves (as opposed to the truth within me). And thanks for all the emails you send. Love the lack of fluff. I study your emails as examples before sending out to my list.

    -Igor

    P.S. highly recommend a listen – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZhY5iTvn8k

  3. Michael

    True, true…

    Reformed preachers particularly should NEVER be boring or plodding. If they are, then clearly they’re masking the magnitude of the Gospel message!

    Yes, some passages are more difficult than others to understand and some are so common they might be taken for granted. But, anyone called to preach needs to put himself in his listeners shoes (like customers). If it sounds boring or tedious or redundant, then it probably is. Put in the time to prepare a sermon, practice it (pauses, emphasis, objections, etc.) and pray for the Holy Spirit’s work in annointing the message and opening the hearts of the audience.

  4. Myrrhcy

    You make some great points, however, since the second part of your chosen definition includes “amusing,” therefore maybe Moore’s comments are not overstated, but rather underdeveloped or not focused enough on defining his terms? (I haven’t read the book.)

    Instead, I would suggest preaching needs to be “gripping” defined as
    “firmly holding the attention or interest; exciting” or “holding the attention or interest intensely.”

    I’m thinking of Jesus speaking with the Pharisees and Nicodemus in John’s gospel and several encounters with his true disciples. There was nothing pleasant or “agreeably diverting” about those conversations, yet it was certainly attention-getting and exciting–several times exciting the Pharisees’ anger to the point of trying to kill him. I’d argue Jesus was most definitely preaching (being, of course, the perfect preacher.)

  5. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    There’s definitely some merit to that argument. Entertainment does tend to connote frivolity, so perhaps I pushed too far in the other direction against Moore :) I really like your definition of “gripping” rather than “diverting”.

  6. Jim Houx

    Bnonn, outstanding analysis man.

    A couple years ago, I was listening to folks criticize the modern megachurch about how the church has “sold out to modern marketing principles.” After I learned your Attention Thievery techniques, I spent several months analyzing the issues, and ultimately I came to the conclusion that the problem with the modern megachurch has *nothing* to do with marketing principles or entertainment. The problem is the message has been watered down and the folks aren’t being delivered the full Gospel in all its bone-and-marrow dividing rightness.

    I am completely convinced that a comedian like Yakov Smirnoff could make a crowd of unbelievers laugh and completely loosen up and then deftly and sincerely slip in more sobering things that gets them questioning their eternity — and upon delivering the Gospel, some of those people would be rocked to the core and forever changed for Christ. It’s not about how we get or keep listener attention. It’s about whether or not the listener hears the unadulterated truth. There is a great deal of responsibility on our parts to be wise about delivery to make sure the most important part of the message gets through and sticks.

    I think you have a wonderfully keen message here, brother. I would definitely keep encouraging folks to read your article.

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