A few months ago I was invited to speak at a 20-something conference. I was driving north on interstate 95 listening to a CD when I heard something totally deflating if you're a preacher by trade: "Studies indicate that we forget 95 percent of what we hear within three days."
And that's if your sermon was good!
I felt like doing an illegal U-turn and driving home. I remember praying this 70 MPH prayer (with my eyes open): "God, I don't want to invest my time and energy saying things that people are just going to forget anyway. Help me say things in unforgettable ways!"
Unforgettable. To say things in such an anointed way that hearers don't just remember. They can't forget!
I have a simple conviction: the most important truths ought to be communicated in the most unforgettable ways.
The Red Pill
There is a riveting scene in the blockbuster movie The Matrix where Neo meets Morpheus for the first time. Morpheus gives Neo a choice between two pills: "You take the blue pill, and the story ends. You wake up in your bed, and you believe whatever you want to believe."
Think of biblical exegesis as the wine. Think of cultural relevance as the wineskin.
Unfortunately, that's what happens with most messages in most churches on most Sundays. People pop the blue pill. They may be inspired or convicted or challenged by a message, but they go to bed Sunday night and get up Monday morning, and they can't remember a single word said.
But Morpheus gives Neo another option: "You take the red pill, and you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes."
That's the goal. Get people to pop the red pill and go down the rabbit-hole of faith.
Here, in six words, is my philosophy of preaching: say old things in new ways.
In the book In Their Time, authors Anthony Mayo and Nitin Nohria cite one common denominator among all great leaders. "They possessed an acute sensitivity to the social, political, technological, and demographic contexts that came to define their eras." Mayo and Nohria call it "contextual intelligence." After studying 1,000 leaders, they came to the conclusion that contextual intelligence is "an underappreciated but all-encompassing differentiator between success and failure."
If there was a way to measure contextual intelligence, Jesus would be off the charts. No one was better at recontextualization. He said, "You have heard that it was said but I tell you." Jesus repackaged old covenant truths in new covenant ways.
Truth is kaleidoscopic. It is multi-layered and multi-dimensional. And sometimes a new angle on an ancient truth can result in metanoiaa paradigm shift. A new angle can reveal new patterns.
I recently did a series titled The Physics of Faith. Each message revolved around a law of physics familiar to anyone who has taken Physics 101. I used Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, Bell's theorem, and the second law of thermodynamics to frame spiritual truth. I believe every "ology" is a branch of theology. We should cross-pollinate with different disciplines. If all truth is God's truth, then we need to redeem scientific research and leadership theory and cultural trends and use them to serve God's purposes.
The old real estate adagelocation, location, locationadapted to the realm of communication is metaphor, metaphor, metaphor. In De Poetica, Aristotle said, "The greatest thing by far is to be the master of metaphor." Jesus set the standard. He used agrarian metaphors to frame truth because he knew that most of his listeners spent most of their day in the fields. He used familiar metaphors to brand truth. We call them parables.
We try to brand every message series with an organizing metaphor. The organizing metaphor for our last series, On Mission, was a customized passport that was so authentic it could probably have gotten you through customs! And for our next series, Wired, we'll use wireless technology to talk about increasing spiritual bandwidth. We're kicking off 2006 with a series called Fuel. We're in the process now of buying gas station relics for staging at our coffeehouse on Capitol Hill.
The key to branding a message series is redeeming metaphors that are on the frontal lobe of cultural consciousness. A few years ago, OnStar launched its marketing campaign in the D.C. area. It seemed I couldn't turn on my radio without hearing the tag line, "Always there, always ready." We decided to call our series on the Holy Spirit OnStar Onboard. I even borrowed a Ford Explorer with OnStar onboard, and we shot the series trailer driving around Washington, D.C., talking to an Onstar operator.
Three core convictions are the driving engine behind National Community Church, and all three affect my preaching:
1. The church ought to be the most creative place on the planet.
2. The greatest message deserves the greatest marketing.™
3. The church is called to compete in the marketplace of ideas.
Irrelevance is irreverence
The key to unforgettable preaching is packaging truth in ways that are biblically sound and culturally relevant. Let me borrow from the parable of the wineskins. Think of biblical exegesis as the wine. Think of cultural relevance as the wineskin. If you have one without the other, you're not going to quench anybody's thirst. You need the substance (biblical exegesis) and the container (cultural relevance).
If we divorce biblical exegesis and cultural exegesis, we end up with dysfunctional truth. It doesn't do anybody any good. Either we answer questions no one is asking, or we give the wrong answers.
National Community Church has a core value: irrelevance is irreverence. God isn't just omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. He's omni-relevant. He knows the number of hairs on our head. He knows every need before we verbalize it. No one is more relevant than God. So anything less than relevance is irreverence! Relevance = Reverence. Cultural relevance doesn't mean dumbing down or watering down the truth. It's about incarnating timeless truth in timely ways.
Two of our hardest hitting series each year are two of the most relevant: God @ the Billboards and God @ the Box Office. The 60 percent of Americans who don't attend church get their theology from movies and music. So we redeem popular songs and popular movies by juxtaposing them with Scripture. We literally roll out the red carpet during God @ the Box Office and treat every NCCer like an Oscar nominee.
Red carpet treatment doesn't hurt when your goal is getting people to pop the red pill.
Mark Batterson is lead pastor of National Community Church in Washington, DC, and author of Wild Goose Chase (Multnomah Books, 2008).