What makes a sermon life changing?
I really like Andy Stanley’s Communicating for a Change and I highly recommend to any pastors out there working on their sermons. Stanley is provocative, challenging, and wise.
There is one thing about the book that bothers me, though, and that is Stanley’s assessment of what makes a sermon life changing (and what prevents it from being so).
Stanley begins his argument by asking the question: What is the purpose of the sermon? To this he gives three possible responses. First, “Teach the Bible to people.” This approach focuses on explaining Biblical content, regardless of the audience. Second, “Teach people the Bible.” This approach does more to take the audience into account but, says Stanley, it still errs by making content the goal. This method would be ideal, Stanley argues, “if spiritual maturity were synonymous with information transfer.”
The third option, to which Stanley subscribes, is to “teach people how to live a life that reflects the values, principles, and truths of the Bible.” In other words, Stanley’s goal is life transformation.
The first time I read this I wrote in the margins of my book: “Option #4: Be the ‘mouth of God.’ Success = faithfulness to God’s word, which often leads to life transformation. The prophets were passionate in seeking life change but that is not what constituted success.” My point was this: Not every sermon in the Bible was given with the goal of life change (Mark 4:12), but all were given with the desire to speak God’s words. That observation aside, I can get behind option #3 since you could argue that the overall mission of the church, and therefore the preaching/teaching role of the pastor, is evangelism and edification, both of which have an eye toward life change. Despite my quibbling, then, I have no beef with Stanley’s argument at this point.
After arguing that the goal of preaching is life change, Stanley makes a compelling case for one point sermons. This is in contrast to the perhaps more common three (or more) point sermons. According to Stanley, while multiple-point sermons are great at delivering content, they’re not very effective for life change. The reason? Because nobody can remember multi-point sermons! One point sermons are much easier to remember because there’s only one point. They’re also easier to remember if that one point is illustrated, reinforced, and well-crafted. If that one point is made to stick, it can lead to life change. If somebody can’t remember the points of a sermon, it probably won’t lead to life change.
There’s a certain simple logic to this argument that I like. How can something I can’t remember lead to life change? The answer seems simple: it can’t. But, the answer isn’t that simple.
At some point in my Seminary education I heard a sermon described with these words: Redemptive Event. I don’t remember who said it, or when it was said, but these words resonated perfectly with my experience.
I can tell you that growing up I cannot remember a single sermon my pastor ever preached. I don’t know if he preached one point sermons or multi-point sermons. I don’t remember his illustrations. (No offense, Blaine, if you’re reading this, keep reading). Yet, I can tell you that hearing the word preached was transformational. It was redemptive, in the sense that God used it to form my heart and my mind into the likeness of Christ. How were these sermons transformational if the one-liners weren’t memorable?
First, they constituted and reinforced a solid base of Scriptural teaching. Whether or not I remember the particular points, I sucked up the underlying process and logic. I learned how to think as I watched my pastor observe, interpret, and apply the Word. Even apart from content, I was learning from the process. With content, I was learning the fundamentals of applied theology.
Second, they led to countless little and immediate decisions. Sometimes these decisions were driven by point 1A, sometimes by point 3C, and sometimes by a great intro or conclusion. The decision was rarely (if ever) connected to a solid one-liner.
Stanley is quick to admit that the Holy Spirit will work in whatever way necessary to accomplish his goals. He can use a good sermon as well as a bad (thankfully!) and a memorable as well as a less-memorable. But that doesn’t excuse us pastors from trying to write good, memorable sermons. Stanley doesn’t fall into any kind of man-centered error. And, I agree that, all things considered, a sermon is better (more conducive to life transformation) if it is memorable than if it is not. Once again, this means that practically, I’m on board with the one-point sermon, at least in most cases.
Nevertheless, in my estimation Stanley puts too much emphasis on memory (specifically in remembering a single point) in life transformation. I contend that sermons can have an immediate impact on the listener, as they have for me on countless occasions so that, even if the main point of the sermon is forgotten by Monday, the impression of the message has an enduring impact.
What do you think? What makes a sermon life changing?
 Stanley, Communicating for a Change, p95.