Not until their 50th wedding anniversary did a country pastor ask his wife about a mysterious blue box she kept by her bedside for their entire married life.
"Oh, that old box," she said in response to her husband's inquiry, "I guess it wouldn't hurt to tell you what I do with it."
She then opened the box to reveal three eggs and $800 in cash.
"What's this for?" the puzzled pastor asked.
"Every time you preached a bad sermon over the last fifty years I put an egg from our henhouse in this box," she replied.
Before the preacher had a chance to congratulate himself, his wife continued, "Then every time I got a dozen eggs I took them to town and cashed them in."
Do you ever feel as though your spouse could get rich by following the same method? Every preacher knows the feeling of not connecting on a Sunday morning--especially if that morning's message is on the sticky topic of marriage.
So, in an attempt to keep you from having egg on your face, I want to help you maximize your preaching potential on this important subject.
INCLUDING SINGLES IN YOUR SERMON
The biggest fear many preachers have about addressing couples in their congregation is that of excluding singles.
Most Saturdays you will find my wife, Leslie, and me in a church somewhere in the country conducting one of our "Soul Mates" marriage seminars. It continues to amaze us that at every seminar there will be several single people--who are not even in a dating relationship--who will register for the event.
Why? They tell me that they are there because they hope to get married some day and they want to be ready.
Now, that's advance planning! They don't even have a date with someone on the calendar and they are at a marriage seminar.
Truth be told, most of these singles are yearning to find their soul mates, and my hunch is that they feel they will be a better catch if they are well-versed on what married life is all about. They want the tools to make their future relationships a success.
I say this so that you won't feel as though you are excluding singles when you preach on marriage. Most singles will appreciate it and listen with eager ears. However, there are several considerations the pastor must keep in mind when preaching to couples about marriage.
First, guard against honoring marriage above singleness. In scientific journals you will find thousands of studies that have examined the benefits of marriage. We now know that married people live longer, healthier and happier lives than singles do. Married couples, on the whole, do better financially (they make more and save more) as well.
While no social scientist would dispute this fact, no sensitive preacher would wave it under the nose of any single. The benefits of marriage are not to be ignored, but the single life should not be denigrated in the process.
Second, in the eyes of God, being single is not the equivalent of being half a person. Jesus taught that marriage was a temporary state of human experience (see Matt. 22:30) and the ability to remain single is a gift from God (see 19:11-12).
Paul builds on this teaching in his letter to the believers at Corinth (see 1 Cor. 7:1-6). There are numerous people in the Bible who were unmarried (e.g., Ruth, Elijah, Daniel and, of course, Jesus Himself).
As you are preparing your marriage sermon, remember to remind singles of their honorable place. Their singleness may be a season of life or a committed decision. Either way, they will be attentive while you preach on marriage.
When I was in seminary I never heard a lecture on the pitfalls encountered in preaching marriage sermons. But over the years, I've educated myself by talking to numerous ministers--and their spouses--about what works and what doesn't, and, in the process, several myths have come to my attention.
Myth No. 1: If you preach the problem, they'll find the solution.
It can be tempting to paint the proverbial picture of the dismal state of our unions. "The very foundation of marriage in this country is crumbling," I often hear preachers say. "Fifty percent of marriages today will not survive" is a common refrain. "Christians are just as vulnerable, if not more so."
Most pastors and congregations are aware of these facts. Instead, give your listeners tools for combating divorce. Show them how to handle the inevitable conflicts of marriage.
Give them steps to cultivate intimacy. Show them practical ways for strengthening their commitments. Reveal the real-life application of forgiveness in marriage. Don't paint a gloomy picture without presenting realistic solutions.
Myth No. 2: The more perfect you appear, the more respect you will gain.
Gary Smalley often says he has made his living by making private mistakes in his marriage and then talking about them publicly. If you've ever attended one of Gary's acclaimed marriage seminars you know how he keeps an audience spellbound with his vulnerability.
Nobody expects you to be a perfect partner at home. The more authentic you are, the more credibility you will have in the pulpit. You don't have to reveal all, but disclosing a few of your own foibles goes a long way.
Myth No. 3: Your spouse will enjoy hearing about herself in your sermon.
Let me follow my last tip with the suggestion that you clear all illustrations about your marriage with your spouse. Nothing makes a congregation cringe more than hearing about an intimate marriage moment that could reflect poorly on your partner.
Did you ever notice how your parishioners' heads swivel when you begin to talk about your spouse? Be sure to give your partner veto power on personal illustrations.
Myth No. 4: Christian couples know how to have spiritual intimacy.
If you were to survey couples in your congregation on how important spiritual intimacy is to their marriages, most would place it as a high priority. If you then asked how satisfied they are right now with their level of spiritual intimacy, the answers would be much different.
Consider speaking on how a husband and wife can walk together with God--not out of compulsion or duty, but because it brings their spirits together like nothing else. I visit many churches every year, and I don't think I have ever heard a sermon devoted to this often-neglected topic.
WHAT HELPS MARRIED COUPLES MOST
In order to maximize the effectiveness of a marriage sermon, a pastor must practice empathy. I know of no better way of developing the topic of marriage for your congregation than for you to put yourself in your parishioners' shoes.
What do you imagine their marriages to be like? If you were the proverbial fly on the wall in their marriage what would you learn?
No doubt, you would see couples in conflict over finances, weary from wrestling with their busy schedules, or experiencing communication meltdowns.
You would also find couples reeling from major jolts, such as infidelity, uncontrolled anger, lack of sexual fulfillment and isolation.
The best marriage sermons come from a preacher who has thoroughly identified with the couples he's ministering to--a preacher who has looked in their eyes and studied their faces. "You can tell a good, surviving marriage," says Pam Brown, "by the expression in the partners' eyes--like those of sailors who have shared battles against foul weather."
Once you have deliberately empathized with couples in the pews, I urge you to preach a marriage sermon that is filled with hope. This is the message most of your married couples want to hear. They don't need you to be a "marriage expert" with a toolbox of tips and tricks for improving their relationship; they need you to give them an encouraging word of heavenly hope.
I once asked a group of students if they had hope. As best I can remember, many of the students said they did. But one student raised his hand and asked an intriguing question: "How would I know if I have hope?"
He was wondering what the experience of hope looks and feels like. What are its ingredients? I don't know that I gave him a satisfactory answer that day, but I have since concluded that the following are indications that one possesses hope:
Hope entails desire. Every hurting or growing couple wants the kind of marriage they do not yet have.
Hope entails belief. Every couple needs to believe that the kind of marriage they want is possible.
Hope entails an element of fear. Though it is entirely possible to have the kind of marriage they want, they are not completely convinced that they will ever have it. They fear the possibility that it may not happen, and the greater their fear, the less hope they have. That is precisely why every good marriage sermon has a heavy dose of hope for every couple who hears it.
What helps couples most in a marriage sermon? Empathy and hope. Your empathy gives them reason to trust your message, and your promise of hope gives them reason to keep their love alive.
Les Parrott, Ph.D., is the co-founder (with his wife, Leslie) of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University (SPU), a groundbreaking program dedicated to teaching the basics of good relationships. Les is an ordained minister and a professor of psychology at SPU. He is the author of the award-winning Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, Becoming Soul Mates and When Bad Things Happen to Good Marriages. For more information, visit www.realrelationships.com.