Monday, August 04, 2008 12:00 AM
The approach of a new school year brings renewed hope as people begin finding their way back into our sanctuaries.
Many congregations experience a nosedive in worship attendance during the "lazy hazy days of summer," and so the approach of the fall program season creates new energy and excitement. Some of us actually look forward to the onset of cooler weather and shorter days since many of our members get plugged back into the congregation with new routines and commitments. This also includes "seekers" who may be visiting our congregations for the first time.
How do we then take advantage of this small window of opportunity to reach some of the seekers who will be visiting our congregations during the early weeks of September? Do we preach differently on Rally Day and the Sundays following?
Many congregations already have plans to reach potential new members with exciting Rally Day activities, ramped up hospitality, and follow-up strategies. All of this is well and good. But what about our preaching plans? Do we make a special effort to address that vague restlessness that many seekers experience? Do we let their needs and concerns help shape both the content and style of our preaching?
I remember well the advice I received from a homiletics professor back in my days at Luther Seminary. He told me after listening to one of my sermons, "Vaage, have you seen the new Wendy's commercial? The one with the little old lady always asking, "Where's the beef?" When I indicated that I had, he continued, "Well, that's not your problem! Your sermons have plenty of beef...what you need is more bun."
"Where's the bun?" That question continues to replay in my mind as I construct sermons some twenty-five years later. That lesson taught me to place myself in the shoes of my listeners -- to find points of contact in their everyday lives that will make the Gospel ring true for them. Sometimes we choke our listeners with too much "theological meat" and not enough "contextual bun."
People need to hear illustrations and images that speak to their daily experience. They need vital, life-giving points of connection to help them digest all the good theological food we hope to share with them.
So how do we find and then make those key points of contact? That's easy -- old fashioned visitation. Nothing helps you get into the hearts and souls of seekers better than talking with them. Maybe you strike up a conversation with a family camping next to you at a state park or visit with someone at a tourist attraction while you are on vacation. Taking the time to engage seekers in conversation by listening well and asking good questions is one way to prepare for preaching to their felt needs and personal concerns.
Preaching to the felt needs of people is certainly a style of preaching Jesus engaged in. The gospels are full of examples of Jesus hanging out where the action was -- meeting with people on their turf and in their natural environments. There was a ring of authenticity in Jesus' preaching that resounded from his many encounters with people both inside and outside the worshipping community.
Where's the bun? That's a question that helps us do a better job of preaching to the seeker by including content that lifts up their real needs and hurts.
Where's the bun? is a question that relates not only to content but also style.
Maybe the "bun" represents using a different delivery of the sermon.
Perhaps a tag-team or dialog sermon would be worth trying or perhaps a style of preaching that engages the congregation with hands-on activities. I know one rural pastor in Nebraska who finds all kinds of items from her Oriental Trading magazine and uses them as object lessons for her sermons. Her favorite is the flying frogs. Watch out, they may be coming to your church soon!
There is no doubt about it. Fall is a very good time to connect with people who are ready for a change in their lives. The lazy hazy days of summer are great. We all need that time for renewal, rest and a change of routine, but by the end of August we are ready for more structure and new ways to invest our energies. Many people we label "seekers" will be among the regular flock of worshippers this fall. Will we be ready to engage them with God's life-giving promises and love?
There are no shortages of good ideas on Rally Day and the Sundays that follow in most congregations. My hope is we will do some extra reflecting on our preaching schedule for September -- to consider the needs of the seeker in planning both the content and the delivery of our sermons.