7 Principles for Preaching to the Unchurched

by Vince Antonucci

I know a married couple named Dallas and Ann Stamper. Ann was kind of marginally unchurched. She had grown up going to church but hadn’t really gone in years. She wanted to try it again, and thought they should raise their kids in church. Dallas was totally unchurched. He was vehemently against God, church, and Christians. He was also addicted to alcohol and pornography.

But every year or two Dallas’ wife would talk him into trying a church she had heard of, hoping that maybe he would like this one. Dallas had kind of made a game of it. A game he knew he would win. He had created a list of things, and if the church did any of them, he didn’t have to go back. And he knew every church would do those things.

On the way to the church Dallas would restate his list to Ann. He would say: “If everyone’s dressed up, I’d feel dumb for not being dressed up, so I won’t go back. If anyone greets me at the door, I’m not going back. If they make me turn and say hi to the people sitting around me, I’m not going back. If they ask me for money, I’m not going back.” And he’d smile, because he knew every church did those things, and so it would just be one Sunday morning.

I don’t know about you, but Dallas is the kind of guy I want to reach. He’s the kind of guy who needs Jesus, but who most churches will never reach, who, honestly, just about never gets reached. And there are reasons for that.

One of them is how we preach.

If Dallas was to show up at your church, there would be certain things you would need to do in your message, and certain things you couldn’t do, if you’re going to have any chance of:

  • having him not think it’s stupid,
  • and of having him co me back,
  • and of having him s omeday actually give his life to Jesus.

I want to talk to you about preaching to the unchurched. And what I want to do is share some principles that I’ve found to be critical in preaching to the unchurched. I think they’ll be helpful for you. You ready?

PRINCIPLE ONE: You have to Bust Stereotypes.

If we’re going to lead people who are far from God to Jesus we have to bust their stereotypes. This begins with understanding their stereotypes and understanding their mindset. Do you know what an unchurched non-Christian thinks of you, a pastor?

PRINCIPLE TWO: Your assumptions create your crowd.

You need to be extremely careful about the assumptions you make, because your assumptions create your crowd. Let me explain: The way you speak and the words you choose, will ultimately determine who you get at your church, and who will stay at your church.

principle  three: creatively Use their culture.

I hope this is obvious to you, but this is a principle straight from the Bible. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:19, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”

principle four: anticipate objections

The way I view a sermon is as a conversation. Now we don’t have people in the congregation actually comment and ask questions out loud during the message, but that doesn’t mean they’re not commenting and asking questions inside. I would be irresponsible to not think through the comments and questions they’re likely to ask and to try to answer them in my sermon.

PRINCIPLE FIVE:  Watch Your tone.

Now I realize that many of the pastors we look to and listen to today are very bold, and that many of their churches are growing, but are they growing through reaching non-Christians or through bringing in Christians from all the other churches in town? I don’t think there are many unchurched people who are drawn in through boldness.

The tone you want, by the way, is love. The best thing you can do in preaching to the unchurched is let them know that God loves them and that you love them. One of the best things I have going for me, that’s allowed us over the years to reach hundreds and hundreds of truly unchurched non-Christians – the  cynical, skeptical, atheists – is that I don’t make people feel judged, they feel loved. Love is the most powerful force in the universe.

See, I don’t think you have to dumb down or water down your sermons for the unchurched. They want substance, they’re open to truth – t hey just don’t want to hear it from a jerk. So watch your tone.

PRINCIPLE SIX:  Tell Stories, Stories, Stories.

How do you teach the Bible to people who don’t believe the Bible and may not be very interested in what the Bible has to say? You tell stories. Stories are powerful. It’s why we love to watch movies and TV, and read novels.

When you teach propositional truth, you set me up to debate with you. I am going to have objections. When you tell me a story, you set me up to find myself in the story. I can’t help it. Jesus knew this. It’s why He always taught with a story. Matthew 13:34, “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.”

So tell stories. When you tell stories, put in lots of detail, it makes the story come alive. Practice your stories before you tell them. Each time you tell the story you’ll better feel the flow of it and find the humor in it.

PRINCIPLE SEVEN: Give Them the Hero

People (all people, church people, unchurched people) want a hero. That’s why they watch movies and TV shows. They’re looking for a hero. And we have the ultimate hero. Your sermon needs to include you – you need to let t hem know who you are. Make it clever, and creatively use their culture, and its wise to anticipate and respond to their likely objections, but don’t make yourself or your creativity or your intellect the hero, make Jesus the hero. He’s what unchurched people are looking for.

Final Thoughts

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