How To Design a Message Series That Engages Unchurched People

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So, you want to reach unchurched people.

And if you do, Sunday mornings are a make-it or break-it time. Teaching and preaching become a very complex task of being 100% faithful to Scripture and engaging your audience.

Preachers who say they don’t care what their audience thinks probably don’t care about their audience.

Can you write a sermon series for unchurched people and still be faithful to scripture?


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.

This post, by the way, is part of a series:

Preachers who say they don't care what their audience thinks don't care about their audience. Click To Tweet

It’s All About Angle

Let’s tackle the biggest issue in creating a message series that connects with unchurched people: The 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.

Here’s a recent example.

A few years ago, I wanted to preach about why biblical morality was relevant in a rapidly changing culture.

But I knew if I started with “sex is for married people” or “drugs are a bad idea,” the very people I was hoping to speak to would tune out. They might not even show up in the first place.

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 all you want to reach are Christians, that’s a great strategy.

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

And before you start quoting the ‘itching ear’ passage to me in the comments, just understand that you might actually get further by trying to understand your audience than you will by ignoring your audience.

So our service programming team and I brainstormed until we decided to call the series “Rubber Soul,” adding the tagline “Stop Bending, Start Surrendering.”

I worked super hard on the first message in the series, trying to answer the question “If I was someone who completely disagreed with biblical moral standards, why would I listen, and why would I change?”

I chose the story of Joseph and settled on this big idea: You and I need to know what Joseph knew: Moral compromise compromises you. 

To me, the key for that first week was not just to uncover the ‘what’ of God’s morality, but the ‘why.’ I believe God always has our best in mind, and he knew that ultimately moral compromise compromises us (just read Proverbs…it’s SO clear).

If you want more, you can listen here.

You'll get further by trying to understand your audience than you will by ignoring your audience. Click To Tweet

How to Find The Angle

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 2021 to see what your neighbors are already thinking about.

A quick glance shows people are overwhelmed (adult coloring books and a book about tidying up dominate the list), reading about life and death, their kids, their health, and their purpose in life.

Sounds like great preaching material to me.

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 and films about evil are perennially popular. I really don’t like horror movies personally, but in crafting the Supernatural preaching series, I addressed our culture’s ambiguous attitude toward evil: On the one hand we dismiss it, on the other hand, we simply can’t.

What people watch is a great clue to what fascinates people and the angle you can take to engage them.

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, having expensive car payments, and saving too little for retirement are issues that people are struggling with right now.

Provide solutions and talk about them Biblically.

I learned about this Google feature from Rich Birch (so many helpful insights and tips on his blog and 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

Sure, magazines, like much of publishing, are in trouble. But until they disappear entirely, 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 messages “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 minds.

5 Things to Remember As You Write Your Series

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’s 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.

For the most part, Christians and non-Christians struggle with the same things. Preach to that. Click To Tweet

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.

Just remember if you want your content to stand for years, the more current your content is the more quickly it becomes dated.

The more current your content is the more quickly it becomes dated. Click To Tweet

4. Cover only one issue with each message 

Don’t do a 3-point or 30-point message. Do a single-point message. 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.

The person who makes three points in a talk makes no points. Click To Tweet

5. Title the series with the invitation in mind

This one’s key.

I recently wanted to teach a series on the 6 cultural values our church adopted, both as a vision series for our church and as a way of highlighting how Christians approach life and leadership differently.

So how do you title a series like that?

If I titled it “6 Values Our Church Treasures,” how on earth will someone who attends your church invite his friend to it? (Actually, I’m not sure anyone at our church would be interested either…)

So we searched for the felt need under the topic and called the series on our six cultural values “Doing Time: Is This as Good As It Gets?” and wrote it up this way:

So you aren’t a huge fan of your job. And, as grateful as you are, you’re not that thrilled with your life, either. Is this as good as it gets? Or will you just end up doing time until life is finally over? In this series, we’ll look at six significant attitude shifts that can rock your workplace, your family, and your world. They’ll give you a fresh perspective this year and maybe even far beyond.

We create rave cards for each series with a graphic on them and a summary of the series content.

The series started well and attendance grew each week. We had numerous people tell us they wished their business operated on the values by which we as a church operate. I’ve even had invitations to teach the values to companies.

Plus, that angle was so much easier to invite friends to.

You’ve Prepared Your Sermon. You’re Ready For Sunday. But Is It Any Good? Will It Land?

Here’s the problem... you only ever find out if your sermon didn't connect after you've already preached it.

So, what can you do when seminary didn't really prepare you to speak into the current reality of our culture or connect with a growing audience?

What will change that?

Option #1 - Years of trial-and-error (what I did).

Option #2 - Transform your preaching as early as this Sunday.

While there are aspects of preaching that are out of our control, certain skills that make a sermon engaging, memorable, and relevant can be learned and practiced.

That’s exactly why Mark Clark (Senior Pastor at Bayside Church) and I created The Art of Preaching. It's our comprehensive guide that will transform your preaching—from preparation to delivery .

The course covers the foundations of truly effective preaching:

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But it goes WAY beyond that, too. We share our entire method that we use every single time we preach:

  • Specific reasons a sermon may not be effective
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It’s helped 2,500+ pastors preach more engaging and memorable sermons, and it can do the same for you.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.