There are lots of great books out there by very accomplished speakers on the subject of effectively communicating and I encourage you to read them. (I especially like Maxwell's "Everybody Communicates..." and Stanley's "Communicating..."). My goal with this article is to give some practical examples of effectively connecting with your small town audience. No matter whether you are speaking to dozens or thousands, it is important that each week you connect to them and you intentionally give them several ways to connect to you.
The greatest compliment Sheryll and I receive as pastors sounds something like this, "You're normal." For a lot of people that wouldn't be what they desired as their most common compliment, but if you look at what is meant by it then you know it means you are hitting the mark. What people mean, by and large, when they say that is you are making sense to them, that they felt like you spoke their language. They also mean that you aren't only speaking the language, but that you are really 'doing life' with them, that you are experiencing and dealing with many of the things they experience. Sometimes people get the idea that their pastors live in another world that has no temptations or problems, kind of like we live in Heaven most of the week then appear on Sundays to deliver a message from God. When you connect with their life 'here on earth' then you become a real person to them, and that gives you more authority to speak into their lives.
That's what effective connection will give you-- authority and influence. We see it in the life of Jesus when they marveled at the authority with which He spoke. They were accustomed to hearing "3rd person" reports about God, but He spoke like someone who knew God personally. In our setting as pastors, people are accustomed to hearing people who speak like
they know God, but they will connect to someone who speaks like they know them and the life they are leading. Too often we as pastors speak about the life of those we lead as a "3rd party observer" rather than a participant. Many times we innocently become theorists rather than practitioners with the things we are teaching from the pulpit.
In 2003, when Sheryll and I started the launch team that would eventually become LifeGate Church, we were recovering from a 'church gone bad' scenario and were in terrible shape financially. So I found a job working as a Behavioral Health Therapist for children and adolescents. Not only did that job provide badly needed income, it helped me become a better
pastor in several areas. Every day I worked with kids who couldn’t cope in healthy ways with the things they were facing and I, along with our team, had to offer them viable alternatives. We were doing group therapy for extended periods of time with these kids so you actually tested your proposed solutions and vividly saw whether or not they worked. Along with that we were working in an environment that was very secular and negative, as with most mental health facilities. But guess what—the Gospel worked! I wasn’t allowed to openly proselyte but by simply using the principles of the Gospel, the same stuff we preach every weekend, we were able to effectively help the kids in our care and change the atmosphere of our work environment. By creatively finding practical application of the Biblical principles, our therapy team was able to help our kids develop healthy coping skills that actually worked, giving them the tools to succeed. And that’s the goal for us each weekend when we share the Word—giving people some practical tools that will help them better succeed at overcoming the things they face that very week.
So here are some tips on doing that every weekend:
1. Use smaller words.
If your goal is to make your listeners think you have a great vocabulary, then keep using those big, fancy words. But if your goal is to help people understand and apply the Gospel, go simple and small. If you are forced to use a big word, then break it down and explain it in a simple way. There used to be a magazine I liked to read when I was a kid (bout to go old school) called Reader’s Digest. It was aimed at an 8th grade reading level. Years ago I learned that you should prepare your messages for a Reader’s Digest level.
I heard Rick Warren once say that we should be cautious about using too many Bible translations or original Hebrew or Greek words because we subtly send a message that the average reader will struggle understanding the Bible. Our goal is to get people in the Word, to get them to desire to read their Bible and hear for God for themselves. So we must present the Word as accessible for anyone. Real genius makes complex things simple and understandable.
2. Use illustrations and object lessons.
People learn in different ways. Every time you add use of another of the 5 senses (see, hear, feel, smell, taste) you double the learning potential. If I hear it I retain about 10%. If I hear it and see it, I retain about 20%. If I hear it, see it and smell it, I will retain about 30%. Ed Young, Jr. is a master at this. If you don’t have it already, check out his book, The Creative Pastor. This is as simple as having an actual ax when you are talking about staying sharp, having an extension cord and a light when talking about staying connected. This is a great place to get your team involved. Let them know what you want to share and welcome their ideas on illustrating it.
3. Say one important thing over and over.
If people could only take one thing from your message this week, what would you want it to be? What one thing will most help them live Christ-like lives? Andy Stanley calls it the Big Idea. If you think about it, as ministers of the Gospel, that’s what we do—we say the same thing every time we speak—we just dress it up differently. Every week we say Jesus is the answer, then we dress it to apply to relationships, finances, overcoming adversity, etc. I’m not saying you can’t have multiple points when you speak—I’m saying make all those points drive home
the one thing you want folks to take home with them. Back in Pastor Willie George’s Gospel Bill days, he taught us this principle at Kids Ministry seminars. Say one thing in a lot of different ways and the kids will remember it.
4. Be transparent.
We hear that a lot, but what does it mean? For me, it means let people know the Lord is speaking to you, not just through you. What are the challenges you are facing, or have faced, in applying the principles you are teaching? Now let me be very clear here—I don’t mean you reveal that you are living in sin, or you are totally undisciplined in your lifestyle and have poor boundaries. If you are struggling with that, then step aside and seek help, quit teaching and get your life straightened out! It is a great responsibility to stand in front of others and teach the Word. We must lead lives worth following. That doesn’t mean we don’t have struggles, but it does mean the power of the Gospel is actively at work and on display openly in our lives as we overcome those struggles. Transparency means I am willing to share with you the journey I am on so you can see that overcoming power at work in me. Paul is describing Biblical transparency when he says, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”
For instance, the Sunday after we returned from a trip to Israel I was teaching and, in an attempt to be funny, I was making a joke about not knowing there would be no bacon in Israel. I am overweight, and at that time I was very overweight. As I shared my joke I heard the Holy Spirit rebuke me, asking me, “How long will you make fun of being undisciplined?” I immediately stopped and repented to God and to those I lead. Then I began a journey of losing 60 pounds by listening to the Holy Spirit about my eating habits. Along the way I would share things I learned from Him with those I lead. Transparent not only means they see your struggles, but, most importantly, they see you overcoming those struggles by the power of the Gospel and by practically applying the very principles you are teaching them.
Transparency doesn’t have to be that heavy either. Transparent means they know that you and your spouse have disagreements, or that you sometimes blow it as a parent. Transparency means they know you do dumb things sometimes and don’t mind being laughed at and with. Basically, transparency means the same person they see at the grocery store during the week is the one up there teaching them now. A real person on a real journey with Christ.
And here’s another important tip about transparency—don’t throw your spouse or your kids under the bus in your attempts to be transparent. They already live in a glass house and it’s important to protect them. Use yourself all you want, and if the illustration includes them, make sure you are the ‘bad guy’. If you are unsure about the illustration, ask them before you use it. You may think it is funny, but your teenage daughter may think it is horrifying. We want our spouses and kids to love the ministry and your priority of protecting them in this area will help that goal.
5. Be Touchable.
This starts with being available in that very important 30 minutes before and after the service. Don’t just magically appear when it’s time for you to speak, o great anointed one, and then just as mysteriously disappear when you are finished. Be there, greet, talk, and walk slowly through the crowd. Laugh with them, stop in the foyer or at their seat and pray with them when they share a tough time they are facing. We ask our folks to share prayer requests. Read those during the week and then let them know you prayed for their grandmother. Work at learning and remembering names. I position myself in our foyer and see how many people in a row I can greet by name. Then I make a goal of increasing that each week. You’ll be amazed at how much this means to people.
And during your message, don’t be afraid to show emotions. Don’t be afraid to be visibly moved by the goodness of God or overwhelmed by His presence. When you blow it pronouncing some word, or make a mistake in reading the Scripture, or say something that’s just wrong, be real and stop and correct it. Make fun of yourself. Those people sitting in those seats are the ‘sheep of your flock’, the people the Lord has entrusted to your care. Fall in love with them, be yourself around them. Trust them to love you back and you will develop a strong relationship where your mistakes, which you will make, will not be fatal and where Christ will be honored.
I would love to hear your tips on connecting with those you lead. Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or if you have something you would like to share on our SmallTown.Church blog, send it to me and let’s all help every small town have a great, healthy, life-giving church.