Can you craft a message series for unchurched people and still be faithful to scripture?

Absolutely.

Can you preach to a room full of churched people and unchurched people at the same time with the same message and help them both take a step in their faith?

Without a doubt, yes.

The question is how.

couple on bikes

While a blog post can’t exhaust the subject, let’s get started and tackle the biggest issues in creating a message series that connects with unchurched people: angle.

Preaching to unchurched people is not about watering down content, preaching ‘baby’ sermons or avoiding hard subjects.

It’s really all about the angle you take on a subject.

Let me give you a recent example.

I wanted to preach through a Biblical book recently, and I picked Esther.

I could have called the series Esther. But that would have been, well, interesting to people who like the book of Esther.

So after thinking it through, I called it “Your Big Moment”. After all, that’s what happened to Esther (and Mordecai, and Haman) – she had her big moment, when she least expected it. Because people can relate to wondering about whether or when their big moment will come, we found an angle that worked for churched and unchurched people. And I managed to cover the story of Esther in the process.

The problem with most message series is that they are focused on what the speaker wants to say, not what the listener wants to hear. If you only want to ever reach Christians, that’s a great strategy.

If you want to engage unchurched people, in my view, it’s a terrible strategy.

So where can you get ideas to find the angle? Obviously, you should talk to unchurched people…but in addition to that, here are five ways you can stay on top of what people in your culture and community are thinking about:

1. The Amazon Top 100 List. Check out the Top 100 of 2013 to see what your neighbours are already thinking about. Finding 6 books on eternity and near death experiences on the list caused me to create a 7 part series called “Afterlife”. The series resonated deeply because so many unchurched people were already investigating the issue on their own.

2. Movies. This doesn’t mean you have to do an “At the Movies” series, but it does mean what people are watching gives you a clue as to what they are thinking. Horror movies are perennially popular. I really don’t like horror movies personally, but in crafting a series for 2014 on evil, I’m going to make sure we cover our culture’s ambiguous attitude toward evil: on the one hand we dismiss it, on the other hand we simply can’t.

3. Media Coverage. The media covers certain issues again and again. One of them, for example, is financial uncertainty. If you’re talking about money, for example, research stories that talk about how financial uncertainty impacts average families daily. Household debt levels, being underwater on a mortgage, have expensive car payments and saving too little for retirement are issues that people are struggling with right now. Provide solutions and talk about it biblically.

4. Google Trends. I learned about this Google feature from Rich Birch (so many helpful insights and tips on his blog and new podcast). With Google Trends, at any moment, you can see what people are searching for on Google. That will get your mind racing.

5. Magazines. Next time you’re at the supermarket, scan the headlines of the magazines by the checkout. Again, you may not want to do a series on 101 sex tips, but when we did a series on sex a few years ago, it led me to call one of our message “Sex Tricks”. Interesting, isn’t it? In the end, it was all about how sex tricks us when we remove it from the context of marriage. The subjects these magazines cover again and again connect with people and give you clues into what’s on their mind.

Once you have started to get a sense of the what’s going on around you, there are five things to consider as you draft the series:

1. Frame what people NEED to know within the context of what they WANT to know. There’s what people want to know. That can easily drive a topical series on issues like suffering, relationships and even creating a better life. But then there’s what people need to know, like specific teachings, doctrines and even sections of scripture. That’s where the angle become everything. For example, when I read through Psalm 101, I knew I wanted to preach it. But how do you angle a Psalm? The psalm is all about how David crafted a life of integrity and how he deleted certain influences from his life while saving others. We called the series Save and Delete and dangled this question in front of people: can you delete certain people from your life?

2. Look for people issues. Churched and unchurched people struggle with pretty much the same things. They have relational issues, financial issues, personal doubts, health concerns and insecurities. They feel like God is more distant than he needs to be. They struggle at work. And when they’re incredibly successful, they struggle with thinking there has to be something more. When you connect on those issues, you connect with everyone. Christian and otherwise.

3. Don’t be trendy, just be relevant. If you talk about the current NFL season a lot or title a series after what’s #1 at the box office today, your series has a tiny shelf life. It will go stale within weeks or months. But let the trends point you to the ongoing issues underneath. Every #1 romantic comedy points you to the underlying tensions of love and relationships. Angle the series from that perspective and you will always have an audience.

4. Cover only one issue with each message. Don’t do need a 3 point or 30 point message. Do a single point message (more on that later this week). Reduce each week to a single point and make most of your series 3-8 weeks. Less than 3 weeks is not really a series. More than 8 weeks and you’ll lose people’s attention. Covering one main idea per week makes a series far more memorable. As is often said, the person who makes three points in a talk makes no points.

5. Title it with the invitation in mind. This one’s key. If you title your series “5 Signs You’re an Emotional Disaster”, how on earth is someone who attends your church going to invite his friend to it? So we called a series on love “Like It or Love It” and wrote it up this way:

What do you mean when you say you love someone? What should you mean? You say you love chicken wings, but you also love her. Can one emotion cover both situations? Where’s the line between liking and loving? We’ll explore Christianity’s radical teachings about love in a way that can change what you like, what you love, and how you live.

So much easier to invite your friends to.

I hope these are helpful.

Oh, and as a bonus this week, all my blog subscribers will get the written outline for two of my message series (small group questions and all) for free. I’ll send it out with my Saturday subscriber email. If you’re not on my blog Insider list, just sign up today using the form at the top right of my blog under my pic. Then watch for it in your inbox Saturday morning.

What are you learning about writing series for unchurched people?

26 Comments

  1. Aaron Newell on May 8, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    Good thought I have also found that 25 minutes seems to be almost the sweet spot when it comes to a message, anything more and people start to check out, sure it’s possible to preach longer if most of the people you are preaching too are Christ Followers but what can be said in 40 minutes with fluff can be said in 25 with fervor.

  2. MP on May 6, 2014 at 5:48 pm

    Carey – great article – honestly I am surprised at the comments below – don’t these guys have hyper-reformed sites to parade their pharisaism and self-righteous banter? Have any of these guys read Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill?
    There is a lot of bad preaching that claims to be “biblical and theological” but in the end its boring, irrelevant and people only listen because they are polite and know they should sit still and pretend to be engaged. Lost people rarely darken the doors of these types of churches and salvation and conversions is relegated to the poor children that have to grow up in these dead churches.

  3. Josh Radke on May 2, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    Let me paraphrase what the leader of my church body, Matt Harrison, recently said:

    ‘At the heart of virtually every problem in the church, at the bottom of every strained relationship, at the center of every reason an inactive member stays home on Sunday or leaves the Church is the issue of the proper distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel. Without this understanding, the Scriptures make no sense, we will have no idea why we go to church (or worse, the wrong idea) and we will have no clue as to “Why Christianity…?”

    We may well be a royal pain and terror to those around us. Even worse, without a clear understanding of Law and Gospel, we’ll be of no use to people around us struggling with spiritual and life issues. Worse still, we may even become a millstone round their necks, helping them (and ourselves) on the way to hell!

    The Lutheran Reformation began when the Lord God Himself, through the Scriptures, opened Martin Luther’s mind to the scriptural distinction between the Law and the Gospel. The Law makes demands, which we could not, cannot and never will fulfill. “No one is righteous, no not one” (Rom. 3:10).

    The Gospel, however, makes no demands and even gives the faith needed to believe it (Eph. 2:8–9). The Gospel is the forgiveness of sins. Christ was slain from the foundation of the world for you (Matt. 25:34)—His death, His descent in victory to hell and His glorious resurrection and ascension are all, all of it, for you! And that’s all Gospel!

    But there is even better news, and this is the point where the devil bedevils us. What Jesus attained for us some 6,000 miles away and 2,000 years ago is delivered in the word of preaching, in Baptism, in absolution and in the Supper.

    In church, the Scriptures are read, and they contain both Law (demand, threat) and Gospel (forgiveness, promise). The sermon is preached, and the texts explained. The Law threatens and drives us to Jesus! The Gospel is not merely described or spoken about, it’s delivered! “The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16), right now, for you!

    Most people who stop going to church or get church wrong think it’s about ethics. They think it’s about following the rules (i.e., following the Law). No, it’s finally about sinners receiving forgiveness (Gospel).’

    A pastor does not have a sermon if Jesus has not died and risen at least once in it. In fact, the success of a sermon can be discerned by the number of times ‘Jesus, for you’ is mentioned.

  4. Matthew Jamison on May 2, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    Can you delete certain people from your life? Uh, yeah. David sure deleted Uriah the Hittite from his life. The Psalms are not about how David or anybody else can “craft a life of integrity.” They are about repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name.

  5. Robert Reece on May 2, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    I can almost hear the american christians saying “judge not…..” and I be like have you actually read the whole verse?

  6. Gary Good on May 2, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    The story of Esther is not your story; it’s not about you or “your big moment” The story of Esther is about Christ.

  7. MKulnir on May 2, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    Your bio describes you as “lead pastor.”
    That is already a step in the wrong direction.

  8. Robert Reece on May 2, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    2 questions for the author. Do you ever do a sermon series on the wrath of God and on 1 Cor 6:9-11?

  9. Robert Reece on May 2, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    Completely unfaithful approach. The assembly is for the “saints”. While unbelievers are welcome a message should NEVER be for them. Thats what evangelism is for, hence GO THEREFORE and preach… the idea of church being an evangelistic tool is unbiblical. And the sermon should never focus on application it should focus on Christ and the text at hand then you figure out the application. This is american christianity at its worst. Will people know when they leave that without Christ they are headed for hell? Do they know that Christ is the only escape? Do they know to fear God? Do they know they have broken Gods laws? Do they know that God is angry at sinners everyday and need to repent?

    • Aaron Newell on May 8, 2014 at 10:45 pm

      Show me one place in the gospels where Jesus turned a person into their sin…The more I read the more I realize the people Jesus rebuked and chided and derided and threw out of the temple were the pastors…sinners, broken people, he loved and visited and ate with, God is not angry at sinners he is angry at christians small c on purpose who have taken his name, but not his example. Sinners he loves, sinners he weeps over sinners he reaches too.

      • Robert Reece on May 8, 2014 at 11:04 pm

        Gods word isn’t restricted to the 4 gospels. It is all 66 books my friend. All of the bible is Gods words through faithful men. And there are plenty of examples I can elaborate on. The house of worship are for those that will do just that, worship. Unbelievers do not worship God, as a matter of fact the bible says they hate God in their minds because of wicked works. Now I will reiterate that which you strategically ignored. Unbelievers are welcome, I would serve them in church, but the fact is Church is Gods house to deliver the word of God to His people not pagans. That is why we are to go OUT into the world and preach to them in hopes God grants them repentance and then we welcome them as brothers into church. Not use the church as an evangelistic tool. Never do you see in scripture unbelievers gathering in worship with believers. Anytime you saw interaction with unbelievers was outside the house of God. This is why you see church discipline in the bible where unfaithful people were kicked out to be handed over to satan as the bible says.

  10. Anthony Wade on May 2, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Warren theology at its finest. Draw the unchurched by manipulating the Gospel. God named the book Esther but that apparently is not relevant for “this generation.” Nonsense. You end up with thousands of goats and try to teach them to act like sheep. On the last day they end up saying Lord Lord.

    • Aaron Newell on May 8, 2014 at 10:48 pm

      God did not name the book Esther any more than he sat down at his place and typed the manuscript. All scripture is given by inspiration of God does not mean that God whispered chapter and verse into the authors ear.

      • Anthony Wade on May 8, 2014 at 11:29 pm

        chapters and verses were added much later. Titles were not. Divine
        inspiration is divine inspiration. However, you missed the forest for
        the trees.

  11. Gary Good on May 2, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    The problem with this post starts with the title. Pastors are not supposed to “design a message.” They are to preach the message that has already been given to us. It’s called The Gospel!

  12. Gary on May 2, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    One of the problems is that too many Christians (pastors included) think that church is the place to reached the lost. So, they so all sorts of things to attract the lost to bring them. But, in order to keep them, and keep them coming back, the Gospel is either watered down or non-existent. The preaching is all about how you can have a better life — a better marriage, improved finances, overcome obstacles, etc. THAT IS NOT THE GOSPEL.

    The Gospel is that we are all sinners, under the wrath of God and that He sent His son Jesus to die in our place to pay the penalty for our sins. We need to repent and believe in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins.

    If you’re not calling people to repentant faith, you’re doing it wrong, and you lose the privilege of calling yourself a church.

  13. Gary on May 2, 2014 at 1:39 pm

    Maybe I’m crazy, but it seems to me that the “Church” is for believers. The duty of the pastor is to disciple and care for his flock. The pastor should not be “scratching itching ears.” The “disciples” are to be taught and trained so that (among other things) they can go out into the world and proclaim the Gospel, making disciples of the lost.

    Of course, unbelievers are welcome to attend church services. But just because there may be unbelievers in attendance, it is not acceptable to preach about them instead of preaching about Christ. We are called to not conform to the world, even though the message of Christ is offensive to the world.

    As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:22-25, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

    If unrepentant sinners do not find your sermon foolishness, then you’re doing it wrong.

    • Anthony Wade on May 2, 2014 at 2:12 pm

      Well said. You must understand that disciples of the purpose driven church are under the false belief that they are responsible for the horizontal growth of their church. They need to read Acts 2 again and see that it is God. They should be responsible for the vertical growth of their church – discipling.

  14. Pagan girl on May 2, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    As an unchurched person I find these tactics incredibly insulting to my intelligence. I’m not looking for tips on how to manage my finances,raise my kids etc. what I want to hear flat out,without sugar coating it,is what your church believes,why they believe it and why I should. I’ve gone to a few of these churches to check them out and left deflated and depressed over the lack of substance.

    • Anthony Wade on May 2, 2014 at 2:12 pm

      Find a real church that preaches the real Gospel. God is all we need.

      • Rick Koenig on May 3, 2014 at 5:10 pm

        Anthony, God is all we HAVE…

        Amen.

  15. RWTurner on May 2, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    Carey – this all sounds really good in terms of positioning. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pass the biblical test.

    Paul said “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” He didn’t try and spin his message, he preached Christ crucified and resurrected for the forgiveness of our sins. Pastors must preach Christ crucified and call sinners to repentance. What they need is reconciliation to God, not better financial habits.

  16. […]  If you want to read more, I outlined how to write a message series for unchurched people here. […]

  17. davebuller on September 10, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    Really like this.

  18. Links I Like | JoshuaReich.org on September 10, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    […] How to design message series for the unchurched. […]

  19. Donny Rector on September 9, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    Great post. These are some great tools to keep in mind to reach out to unchurched people.

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