If I was only allowed to give one piece of advice to pastors about how to make their Sunday messages more appealing to a younger audience, it would be this.
Stop making your sermon notes rhyme.
For generations, rhymes and alliterations were expected from public speakers. It made them seem credible, authoritative and prepared. And it was a helpful device for memory.
Not any more.
In a recent Q & A session with pastors, I was asked for ideas on how to reach and retain younger people in our churches. While I’m far from an expert on the subject, my church has a higher percentage of teens and 20-somethings than most, so I gave them my best attempt at an answer.
I offered a couple points off the top of my head while they listened and some took notes. But when I advised them to stop making their sermon notes rhyme, I noticed a subtle shift in the audience.
Some older pastors pulled their heads back in shock as if I’d told them to preach blasphemy next Sunday. But in one section of the room there was a younger group of church leaders who became like bobble-heads nodding up and down. Their response was so immediate and obvious I paused to point it out to the rest of the room.
“Am I right on this one?” I asked the young leaders. Their nodding increased. So I went on, supported by my bobble-head choir of young leaders, to explain why I no longer make my sermon notes rhyme or alliterate.
Why My Sermon Notes Don’t Rhyme
1. People don’t need it as a memory device. If people want to remember what we said, they’ll check the handout notes in the bulletin, or listen to the podcast, or email us, or read the notes we uploaded to the church Facebook page, or record the message with their phone, or… You get the idea. People don’t have their best friend’s phone number memorized. They’re not trying to remember the points of our sermon.
2. People don’t care about what we care about. I hate to break it to you, but all that time pastors spend trying to make our last point start with the same letter as our first three points is wasted. We’re the only ones who care.
3. People prefer one practical idea over five points that rhyme. No one leaves church with the acronym we used ringing in their ears. If we give them one helpful principle, they’ll latch on to it. And if it’s applicable, they may even do it.
4. Rhyming feels phony. This may be the biggest reason of all. It was the one that really got the young bobble-heads going. Real life doesn’t rhyme.
The younger generation has given up on finding easy answers – some have given up on finding any answers at all. But even for those who are open to what the bible has to say, they know that real answers don’t all start with the same letter, or spell out F.A.I.T.H. Pastors think it’s clever – listeners think it’s fake.
5. It feels old. Sorry, but it does. And not in a retro, cool way. In a musty, tired way.
What I Do Instead
“But if I don’t rhyme or alliterate, how do I organize my points?”
Everyone prepares and speaks in their own style, so the way I do it may not work for you. But here’s what I do.
- Throw everything I want to say onto the page
- Arrange it into the most logical order
- Read through those notes and underline the handful of key points
- Edit each point into a simple, stand-alone sentence
- Keep sub-points to a minimum (they make a message feel like a college lecture)
- Replace two or three key words in each point with blanks (it engages people as they wait for the fill-ins)
- Print up handouts with the main points on them
- Use the filled-in points as slides on the screen while I speak
As an example, here’s an outline I used recently for a message on Romans 7.
- God gave the law to protect us from harm
- Our sin nature makes us want to break the law
- As non-believers we have one mind and one nature – the sin nature
- As believers, we have two natures – sin and the spirit – at war inside us
- Fear has no power when we’re in God’s family
There’s nothing remarkable about that outline. But if you know Romans 7, you recognize it as a basic, applicable outline of that chapter in simple sentences.
And yes, you can preach a straightforward message on Romans 7 and keep a young audience interested. Just be honest about it. They don’t want easy – they want real.
I could have spent up to an extra hour of study time trying to rhyme or alliterate those points – but why? It would have meant that much less time to create content. And my congregation would have taken home an outline like this instead:
- God’s Protection
- Our Rejection
- Sin’s Deception
- The Believer’s Selection
- The Family Connection
I know that feels a lot more like a sermon to some of us. But those five points are less real, less understandable and less applicable to real life than the five full sentences I used. And the third point doesn’t really rhyme anyway!
(Gotta tell you, coming up with a way to rhyme those points for you was almost painful for me. I haven’t exercised those muscles in a long time.)
Real Life Doesn’t Rhyme
Instead of playing linguistic games, here’s an idea. Let’s produce better content.
Then let’s put it in a format that matches the way people really live their lives today.
Real life doesn’t rhyme.
So what do you think? Do you have any other preaching ideas we can use?
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