A Pastor's Journey into Multisensory Preaching
Pastors face a generation accustomed to the vibrant sounds, sights and smells that characterize our multimedia culture. We can either provide our hearers with the traditional menu of 'three hymns and a sermon,' or we can actively engage their senses in an exploration of the reality of our endlessly creative God.
We liven a media-saturated society, which is naturally disposed to communication methods that appeal to all the senses. Unfortunately, the typical Sunday-morning service offers little sensory stimulation apart from the pain in the backside many churchgoers experience after an hour sitting in a church pew listening to a sermon.
I'm an old dude. My favorite movie is still The Ten Commandments. So why would I want to make my sermons appeal to the "Matrix" Generation? Because, even though this group is unique in some ways, what will attract its members will also get the attention of every other generation sitting in worship.
Both The Ten Commandments and The Matrix used special effects to tell their stories. God did too--in the form of miracles. His pronouncements to Moses on the mountain and to Joseph and Mary in the house were spectacular. He engages us through our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.
God used amazing methods when most people could not read. He still uses them today, even in congregations where most people can read. The Word goes beyond words, and He loves using action to startle and evoke action from those who see.
Here are a few methods we have used in our church to tell His stories:
EMPHASIZE THE VISUAL. Like Israel, and the church in its beginning stages, we are a visually oriented society. Even Jesus "did not speak to them without a parable" (Matt. 13:34, NKJV). Parables are stories that evoke mental images.
Even if you don't have money for the latest technology, you can add visual appeal to your sermons (see sidebar page 44). If you do use a screen in worship, the younger members of your congregation are preconditioned to relate to it.
We need to remind ourselves that Jesus didn't preach inside a building every week. When He used illustrations, such as sheep, lilies of the field and birds of the air, He could actually point to the visuals!
Likewise, when the church in the Middle Ages explained the gospel to illiterate masses, it did so with great paintings, sculptures and other forms of art. We need to reengage the arts, especially video, to effectively communicate the gospel.
One preacher that I know has a team that builds movie-type sets on the platform for many of his preaching series. We do not have to wait until Christmas or Easter to create a visual setting that enhances the sermon subject. Nor do we need to limit ourselves to mangers, crosses or banners with pictures.
USE MANY POINTS, QUICK MOVEMENT. When preaching from a manuscript, the tendency is to deliver two or three points and develop them extensively. This method may bore the "Matrix" Generation. Although I may still have only two or three points to deliver, I hit each point from many angles to develop depth (like an MRI instead of an X-ray).
Take a look at Jesus' Sermon on the Mount--many points, quick movement. Biblical research will uncover a lot of knowledge about a little passage.
Many popular books and magazines today are written in a proverb style of writing. The news is mostly "sound and video bites." Video games captivate the attention deficit of every generation.
Therefore, if I only have three points when I preach, I engage the listeners with many stories that don't simply repeat the same point. Additionally, sometimes I break up the sermon into parts, with worship between the parts, to build momentum and suspense.
FIGHT THE ADVERSARY. Many people in the previous generation were embarrassed to talk about the devil. They thought it was unscientific. But Jesus battled him (see Matt. 4:1-11). This generation is up for a fight against the evil one.
Many spend hours destroying virtual evil on their video games, but that is just a foreshadowing of the real fight. The presence of villains in popular movies reflects the reality of the battle against Satan that is a part of our lives.
Drama is helpful in reinforcing the concept of spiritual warfare. Our church has conducted presentations that have increased the tension before or after the sermon, instead of presenting a solution to problems or attempting to restate the sermon.
When the real problems of life, such as the tragedy of domestic violence or abuse, the devastation of addictions or the temptations of materialism are presented without nice-and-neat solutions, you have let the congregation know that we are in an ongoing battle.
EMBRACE THE MYSTICAL. If I thought that people's spiritual lives depended on my rational explanation of the Scriptures, I would quit preaching. I am not smart enough to explain God. This generation is not limited to rational ways of thinking.
They love what they can't fully explain because they know enough about life to know there is more to reality than they can grasp. A generation that grew up with the chaos theory of quantum mechanics won't get hung up on, "But how can a man be born again when he is old?"
Relating to the mystical element in our faith is largely a matter of setting the right environment. We have times when we use candles and incense because that evokes a more contemplative mood. There are times when the King James Version, with its majestic and poetic style, more effectively serves to intone the transcendence of God.
The Spirit cannot be captured by deduction in the sermon or emotion in the music. The things of the Spirit are subtle, like the moving of the wind. The Spirit is best sensed when reverence is the atmosphere.
EVOKE EXPERIENCE (be affective). Just as this generation is not confined to the rational, neither is it engaged by the predictable. Members of the "Matrix" Generation want to feel something. They want surprise, laughter, sadness and tension.
That's what movies take us through; that's what real life takes us through. Jesus said, "'Follow me.'" Then He proceeded to scare His disciples with storms, demoniacs and religious opposition.
One Sunday, I preached on the wedding in Cana. In order to allow the congregation to experience the celebration of a Jewish wedding, we ended the worship service with a conga line and a confetti cannon! While we offended some people, others were better able to experience the life in that Scripture.
Much of evoking experience depends on using your senses (see sidebar on this page). The Caucasian-European heritage of worship style calls for the congregation to sit still and only use their minds when they are listening, and their voices when they are singing. In the non-Western world, Christians use their bodies when they sing and their senses when they kneel, march, clap and dance.
REFER TO OTHER PARTS OF THE SERMON TEAM. This generation is not impressed with rugged individualism, but appreciates teamwork. The calling of the disciples is a theme that appeals to modern hearers. This is reflected in the frequency of teams of heroes often found in the movies, in contrast to one person who accomplishes all.
It is natural, then, that people want to know how others in the congregation, especially those on the worship team, contributed to the sermon.
Use stories about people in the congregation who taught you what was valuable for the sermon. I name positive examples of who on the worship team, or in church leadership, exemplifies the points I am trying to convey in the sermon.
I also use video or audio clips of children and/or adults responding to the topic of the sermon. Sometimes these are "man on the street" interviews with people we don't know and other times people in our congregation are the ones sharing their thoughts.
Including stories in your sermons that come from the life of the church (small groups, church picnics, youth groups and others) will connect God's subplots in your church with the Bible text that you are explaining.
Jesus used His observations of the widow giving the coins, the woman washing His feet with her tears and the commander telling Him that if He just pronounced his daughter "healed" she would be. All of them were parts of His sermon team.
REFER TO OTHER PARTS OF THE WORSHIP EXPERIENCE. Good movies, good lives and good sermons are a matrix of subplots. The songs we sing, the prayers we pray, the communion we take, can enrich worship as they are pointed out and appreciated in the sermon.
This helps people grasp what they have been taught all along. Like a good Sherlock Holmes story, part of the answer lies in what could be overlooked as routine.
Additionally, mentioning the spiritual formation that is taking place in the child-care and Sunday-school classes will broaden and deepen worship. Stories from greeters, ushers and others, who are serving during the worship hour, will include them in the worship experience.
GLOBALIZE YOUR SERMONS.
This is the "www" generation. Its members think globally. For them, "'Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations'" is not a far-fetched missionary mandate. It is a natural consideration.
They listen to world news every day. They are educated in a multicultural context. The movies they watch have international conspiracies. To prevent messages from becoming narrow and parochial, preachers will do well to use more examples of Christians and stories from other countries.
Hundreds of our people went on mission trips last year and took video and ordinary cameras. We edited and spliced the pictures they brought back for a number of powerful presentations in the worship time, combining them with sermons that had to do with worldwide themes.
The "Matrix" Generation is not excited about watching clips from mission trips, but it responds with enthusiasm when they are presented as subplots in a larger drama.
MAKE YOUR SERMONS 'ACTIONABLE.' In the battle of good and evil, people want to feel as though they can do something, like they can make a difference. One of the recurring themes of today's movies and songs is that of being called to change the status quo.
I always have an application point, so that people can act on what they believe. The Scripture is very clear about being "doers of the Word, and not hearers only" (James 1:22). This generation hates the hypocrisy and laziness of simply listening to more information about religious stuff.
Rather than a sermon outline, we give worshipers a sermon application tool--one for adults, one for students and one for children. It suggests ways the sermon may be applied throughout the week.
USE A LOT OF BASS IN WORSHIP BEFORE THE SERMON. I have no idea why, but I know that bass tones in music strike a responsive chord in this generation. From booming car systems to movie soundtracks, the dominant tone is bass.
Maybe it's because bass (like Jesus after the resurrection!) travels through walls, symbolizing the unlimited. Maybe it is reminiscent of the rolling thunder on Mount Sinai before God spoke through Moses (see Ex. 19:16). In any case, something about the bass tone draws us into the experience.
Using bass will draw complaints ("too loud!"). We have had people get up and walk out. We have had people come in angry. ("I can hear that bass all the way in the parking lot!") There is a dilemma here as the demands of what the older generation would like to hear clashes with what will engage the "Matrix" Generation.
REMEMBER THE ROMANCE. Our God is love. He is a relationship (Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yet One). In The Matrix, as in other movies of its genre, romance is a part of the creative tension and redemptive process. In other words, it is no accident that the Bible is a love story about God inviting humanity into a relationship with Him.
We love that way because He first loved His Bride (the church) that way. A main drive of every young person's life is to find the perfect relationship. Of course, that relationship is oneness with God, but faith resembles romance in many ways.
A theme that never gets old in sermons is lifelong affectionate love between a husband and a wife. In my sermons, I often refer to my wife in an appreciative way. I look for illustrations of self-sacrificing love, from my grandparents to literary figures such as Rochester and Jane Erye.
USE IMPERFECT HEROES. This generation revels in the imperfect. From hairstyles that look like they just rolled out of bed to MTV's reality stunt show Jackass, this generation does not relate to those who seem to have it all together.
They can't relate to a perfect God, but they can relate to the servant born in a stable. Therefore, use illustrations that make it clear that people--including the preacher--are not expected to be perfect or even great.
Humor is key here. When we can make fun of ourselves, we are ready to take God more seriously. It is important that we don't use our humor to demean others. It is just as important, though, that we recognize the divine comedy of human inadequacy.
In summary, make sure you are using all the senses and perspectives that are appropriate to a particular worship experience.
Remember, this generation doesn't like to just sit and listen in church any more than yours did. The difference is, their mammas aren't making them go to church like yours may have.
Many churches are enjoying the challenges of becoming profoundly engaging without becoming merely entertaining. Will yours be one of them?
ENGAGING THE SENSES
Sight: Utilize drama teams to perform skits that complement the sermon. Show film clips to illustrate biblical truths. Display slides with classical art relating to the sermon. Include multicultural art and international flags to encourage a global perspective.
Light candles to create reverent ambience. Arrange multiple screens to captivate attention. Build sets and arrange props to provide a backdrop for an illustrated sermon. Display banners to reinforce thematic truths.
Smell: Bake bread near the sanctuary before communion. Burn incense during high church worship services. Bring straw into the sanctuary at Christmas to create the feel of a stable. Hold worship services outside to encourage reflection on the wonders of creation.
Sounds: Utilize sound effects to complement facets of the sermon. Intersperse silence with music of diverse feels and rhythms. Introduce unusual instruments, such as shofars, bagpipes and others. Invite sentence prayers from members of the congregation.
Touch: Encourage greetings among the congregation. Allow for motion and hand clapping during songs. Advocate different prayer positions (kneeling, raising hands and more). Introduce small-group prayer. Rearrange the sanctuary for "in the round" worship. Invite congregants to the altar for prayer, commitment, laying on of hands and more.
Joel Hunter, D.Min., has served since 1985 as senior pastor of Northland: A Church Distributed, an innovative congregation in Longwood, Florida.