Several weeks ago I preached a sermon from Acts 2. I mentioned Pentecost, but didn’t take the time to explain the background of the Pentecost Festival because I was trying keep my sermon from going too long. (From what I can tell, at the church where I preach, anything over thirty minutes starts to feel long.) The sermon’s big idea was what it was like for those gathered to realize they had been wrong about the identity of Jesus and then to be given a second chance to repent and be forgiven of their sins—killing the long-awaited Messiah being their biggest one.
The next week a woman stopped me after the gathering and thanked me for the sermon. Then she said something like this, “Here’s an idea to consider. Think about giving more background information in your sermons. I was raised in a church that didn’t study the Bible very much so I don’t know any of these stories. Last week, when you mentioned Pentecost, I didn’t know what you were talking about. I had to go home and google it and research what Pentecost is. It would have been great if in your sermon you would have spent just a few minutes explaining the background for people like me.”
I thanked her for the idea and then thought about how her comment actually encourages me to put LESS background information in the sermon, not more.
First, it’s great to be reminded that some people in my church don’t know the Bible very well. What a great opportunity for a preacher! It’s like being a shoe salesman and stumbling on a town where everyone is walking around with bare feet.
Second, it reminds me to be careful not to exclude those who don’t their Bible very well by including so many “insider” references they’re unable to track with the overall message I’m hoping to communicate. In this case, understanding the background of Pentecost didn’t keep her from understanding the big idea of the sermon. It was more a point of curiosity for her.
Third, it reminds me how adult learners tend to be motivated by what they don’t know. She was curious enough to do her own research to fill in her knowledge gap about Pentecost. If I had given a two or three sentence summary of Pentecost would she still have done her own research? I don’t know. But sometimes its better to leave some white space in a sermon by under-explaining, than it is to give just enough information to dampen the curiosity of a motivated self-learner. My guess is she knows, and will remember, more about Pentecost now than she would if I had summarized it for her.
(What about those who aren’t motivated to do their own research and don’t know the background of Pentecost? They probably didn’t mind that I didn’t explain it, especially since it kept the sermon from going too long. I’m just hoping they paid attention long enough to hear the good news about a God who gives us a second chance after we make the biggest mistake imaginable.)
One strategy I have for helping folks in my congregation go deeper on their own is to give them a “Dig Deeper” sheet with every sermon. It’s part study guide and part small group discussion starter. If there are parallel passages that I don’t have time to read or explain in the sermon, I list them on the sheet for further reading and research. I also include questions designed to promote personal or small group reflection and interaction.
One way I could improve it would be to point to a few resources the curious could engage to do their own background study. For instance, I could have included a link to an online article on Pentecost for those who wanted to dig deeper, rather than hoping Google would take them to a decent source. If I were really on top of my game, I’d say just enough in my sermon to pique their curiosity about certain details so they would be compelled to dig deeper on their own.
For me, a good sermon is one that has people thinking, reading, researching, and talking long after I’m done preaching. I like it when people say to me as they’re leaving, “Now I have to go home and read my Bible!” or “I’m going to have to think about that one.” That’s much better than “Thanks for answering all my questions. See you next week.”
Preachers: How do you encourage your church to dig deeper?
Listeners: What can preachers do to better engage you in the learning process?