A Fast Company article, "Weird Science" (May 2006), spotlighted one of the most innovative chefs in America. Homaro Cantu is part chef, part mad scientist and part inventor. And he is on a mission to change the way people perceive and experience food.
The menu at Moto restaurant in Chicago is constantly changing as the chefs use everything from a Class IV laser to liquid nitrogen to experiment with new ways of making and presenting their meals. Cantu and his rebel chefs are pushing the culinary envelop by combining foods in unprecedented ways. Their doughnut soup, for example, tastes exactly like the inside of a Krispy Kreme doughnut. And if you want, you can actually eat their edible menus.
So what makes Cantu such a remarkable chef? It is his unique combination of the fresh with the familiar. In the words of Jennifer Reingold, Cantu has a way of imagining startlingly original ways of presenting and reconstituting food." It is about the "deconstruction of a comfortable, memory-evoking food and its resurrection in a totally different presentation."
Maybe we ought to approach the spiritual diet of our congregations with as much intentionality and ingenuity as Homaro Cantu? Maybe we need to go back to the test kitchen and come up with a few original recipes? Maybe we need to present the truth in some startlingly new ways? Isn't that one job of the homiletician?
John 12:49 has always been my preaching mantra. Jesus said, "I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it" (NIV, emphasis added). Think of what as the meal. Think of how as the presentation.
Maybe we should approach our preaching craft like a gourmet chef. We not only have to serve well-balanced meals that nourish our congregations. We also have to serve meals that taste good and present well.
Have you ever analysed the 53 parables Jesus told? They weren't just truthful. They were flavorful. I would suggest that they had high entertainment value for the listeners. I'm not suggesting that the church is in the entertainment business. But our sermons ought to be anything but bland. Spicing up our sermons is very different than watering down the truth. It doesn't mean we are less truthful. It simply means we are more engaging.
In her book, Creed or Chaos, Dorothy Sayers writes: "We are constantly assured that churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—'dull dogma,' as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—the dogma is the drama."
Is there anything more exciting or more entertaining than being a Spirit-led follower of Christ? It is the antithesis of boredom. And our sermons ought to reflect that truth. In the words of Peter Kreeft, "It doesn't matter whether it's a dull lie or a dull truth. Dullness, not doubt, is the strongest enemy of faith."
Kreeft argues that our greatest failure isn't moral or intellectual. It is an aesthetic failure. If our sermons are going to be heard we've got to capture the imagination, target the tastebuds and appeal to the aesthetic sense of our listeners just like Jesus did.
The other night our family was at the dinner table and one of our kids almost spit out their corn after taking one bite. It's not that it didn't taste good. It was the fact that it was absolutely bland. We looked at the can the corn came in and discovered that there was no salt added.
Bland is bad when it comes to food. It is even worse when it comes to preaching. Do we take seriously what Jesus said in Matthew 5:13? " 'You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor?' " (NLT)
What is the function of salt? We tend to think of salt as a preservative. And that is certainly one function of a sermon. It stops spiritual decay. But salt is also a flavor additive. It makes everything taste better by adding flavor! We are literally called to spice things up. I don't know anybody who settles for nourishment when it comes to food. We want food that appeals to our taste buds. We want sweet and sour. We want hot and spicy. We all know that the fundamental role of food is to provide caloric energy. But we don't just eat for energy. We want our food to taste good. So how do we salt our sermons? There are a thousand ways to spice things up, but here are some secret ingredients.
Add object lessons. Jesus set a precedent in His parables. He used everything from mustard seeds to Roman coins to little children to drive home His points. He even did illustrated sermons. Putting a towel around His waist and washing the disciples' feet was probably His most memorable message. And He didn't have to say a word!
Think of objects as condiments. They help people remember the point you are making. Over the years I've used everything from nails to silly putty to pop rocks to help people digest what I'm trying to communicate.
Recently, our pastor of media made a point with a $20 bill. He held it up and asked if anybody wanted it. Everybody raised their hand. Then he crumpled it and stomped on it, and asked if anybody still wanted it. Of course, everybody did. Why? Because it was still worth $20. In the same sense, nothing that happens to us makes us any less valuable to God.
That simple object lesson was the most memorable part of the message. Why? Because it added some spice. It's amazing the way a little salt and pepper can make a sermon so much more memorable and enjoyable.
Add video illustrations. According to neurological research, the brain is able to process print on a page at a rate of approximately 100 bits per second. But the brain can process a picture at approximately 1 billion bits per second.
We try to shoot on location video illustrations as much as possible. There is something about seeing images set to music that leaves an indelible impression on the cerebral cortex. Multimedia doesn't just demand attention. It is more memorable than the spoken word because it engages more senses.
At National Community Church (NCC), we shoot video illustrations and sermon series trailers. In May, we hosted the first national conference for pastors called The Buzz Conference (www.buzzconference.com). As part of the conference, we hosted a Buzz film festival. Some of the scripting and cinematography rivals Hollywood and Madison Avenue. To check out some of our videos, you can visit our video archive at www.theaterchurch.com.
Add stories. Another way to spice up your sermons is via stories.Soren Kierkegaard made a distinction between two kinds of communication: direct and indirect. Direct communication is a straightforward presentation of the truth. And there is certainly a time and place for direct communication.
Jesus employed direct communication when He was talking to the Pharisees. But direct communication has a downside. It often puts listeners in a defensive posture because it can feel like a frontal attack.That is where indirect communication comes into play. Indirect communication is sneaking in the side door. It is helping people discover the truth for themselves. Kierkegaard also referred to it as "wounding from behind." The most effective form of indirect communication is storytelling.
Ingmar Bergman, Swedish filmmaker, said, "Facts go straight to the head; stories go straight to the heart."
Sermons need to be both/and. They need facts that inform the left brain. But they also need stories that capture the imagination of the right brain.Jesus was the quintessential right-brain preacher. He certainly employed left-brain logic. In fact, He is the Logos. But He never preached without using a parable that would make sense to the right brain of listeners! Matthew 13:34 says, "Jesus always used stories and illustrations."
Madeleine L'Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, said, "Jesus was not a theologian, but a God who told stories."Stories not only help people digest complex truths. They also help them taste truth. So the next time you craft a sermon, why not experiment with a new recipe. And don't forget to sprinkle some salt and melt some cheese on top. Bon appetit!
Mark Batterson serves as lead pastor of National Community Church (theaterchurch.com) in Washington, D.C. A few years ago NCC launched Ebenezers (ebenezerscoffeehouse.com), a buzzworthy hangout for sinners and saints on Capitol Hill.