At the end of 2014, Meredith and I traveled. We probably spent close to 20 hours in the car driving. Both of us love podcasts and we decided to power listen to Serial, the breakout podcast hit of the fall.
If you aren’t familiar with Serial yet, it is a long form, narrative style podcast from the This American Life family. In 12 episodes it told the story of a murder suspect and the crime information that didn’t necessarily match up. The New Yorker called Serial “the Podcast to end all podcasts.”
It was a break out hit and one of the most innovative pieces of media in 2014. There are several lessons the church can learn from the podcast. I think now is the time for any local church to begin learning some lessons from new media.
3 Things Churches Can Learn from the Serial Podcast
1. The new media critical mass has been reached.
For the last 10 years people have slowly been learning to get news, build opinions and discuss things in alternative ways. According to Everertt Rodgers’ research Diffusion of Innovation, we have reached critical mass. New media has reached the late majority level. This means the average amount of persons might not have actually engaged in a tremendous amount of new media communication styles, but they are familiar enough with them to hit mainstream. The more narrative, people based storytelling is now accepted and understood easily (rather than tolerated and confused). The 20th century was primarily a knowledge based society. In many ways it was the apex of the last 500 years of a new system of innovation begun with printing press.
If we look at communication development, the last 5 years have been a shift of innovation away from knowledge/information and back towards narrative as the dominate holder of truth. This written -> oral cultural shift doesn’t downgrade knowledge…but instead shows a development of both together. The storyteller no longer is simply a transmitter of previous information, but now holds authority by not just the truthfulness they tell…but how they tell it.
This means people have now changed the way they digest and listen to media. Think of the communication potential your church now has. Instead of reaching people living inside a knowledge based culture,we have to shift to a narrative based. But isn’t that what the gospel really is? The story of many people being reconciled to the Father, through the sacrifice of His Son and then grasped and empowered by the Holy Spirit?
2. Podcasts have now reached mainstream
Podcasts have been around for 10 years in some medium or the other. Apple iTunes has had podcast delivery built in since 2005. Even though it was almost 9 years ago, this was the first step in accessibility. In the last 5 years, the technology for listening to podcasts has changed dramatically. With the advent of smartphones (and the iPhones ability to download/stream podcasts natively) the accessibility was easier than ever before. In the past, you had to search through the store, download to iTunes and then upload the podcast to your iPod.
Serial broke iTunes download records. They reached 5 million downloads quicker than any other podcast. 15% of our population has listened to a podcast in the last month. People are moving towards podcasts as a primary source of information and entertainment. The hardest part about a podcast is finding the best way to listen.
In the last 10 years, vehicles have slowly started making connecting an auxiliary device to the stereo easier. At first it was auxiliary jacks and now it is bluetooth. I don’t think I have had a rental car in the last 5 years that doesn’t have the ability to route my iPhone audio through the speaker.
This makes it easy for your church to distribute content.
Instead of the old tape or cd based ministry, which necessitated changing delivery systems (tapes or CD’s), listeners now have the content at the same place everywhere. They can start and stop with ease. The average commute is 25.4 minutes.
Podcast technology means your ministry can reach listeners who can subscribe to regular content and listen to it anywhere.And the average person now has everything they need to engage with your content and is probably familiar. Churches have used RSS (podcast code) technology for years to deliver sermons…but that is just the beginning. Read “What’s Behind the Greatest Podcast Renaissance” and think about how you can take advantage of this medium
3. How Serial changed everything (in a great way).
Serial changed everything. Or maybe we can say it served as the example of the great change that has been happening over the last 2 years as far as podcasts are concerned. I have podcaster off and on for 10 years. For 8 of those it was a total bust. Getting 10 downloads was a success. No one knew how, knew what or knew why podcasts were great. It was a total niche movement.
But it was worth sticking with. Apple sat on it for years before it hit mainstream.
Serial showed us how everything changed.
It was a distinctly Generation X/ Millennial product. With the crime in Serial occurring in 1999, there are plenty of cultural references.
Sarah Koenig, the host and primary investigator speaks of adolescence not as a statistical fact, but as something mainstream.* It shows a completely perfect example of a secular moral structure…with casual drug use and sexuality on a sliding scale of acceptability. Language isn’t edited out. One particular person involved coined a phrase used through out the show featuring the F-bomb. It was referenced countless times throughout the show. Unedited. No apologies. Besides the moral framework, the style of reporting this has completely changed. It is no longer a disapproving adult, but instead someone who remembers (and even identifies) with the subjects. I can’t imagine Barbara Walters doing this style of reporting.
Serial also served as an amazing example of power listening. We have been familiar with power watching, the practice of back to back viewings of entire television seasons, ever since DVD sets became affordable. Netflix, and other streaming services, have made this a regular part of life.
Serial was the first podcast to seriously look at power listening. People would plan out blocks of time (the holiday season was perfect…because the show had just ended) to listen to the entire 12 episode season.
So ask yourselves this. Are you in the content business or the sermon business?** The church has used technological advances for years in media. If fact, it’s one of the areas we have done really well in.
I think this gives us two questions to ask ourselves.
1. How can my church create or adapt a content strategy influenced by power watching/listening and the consumption of narrative media.
2. Do we speak the communication language of Generation X and the Millennials or are we still directing our digital media towards the style of engagement created by older generations.
Serial has been a great example of the tipping point of new media and any church leader needs to be asking these questions.
*Note. I don’t agree with the information below-but it’s of the utmost sociological importance.
**But let’s think about what a sermon is. It’s an intentional packaging and communication of the Story of God. For me, the basic assumption of preaching/sermonizing is the assumption and goal of a person being affected and making intentional decisions because of the word of God. The lines between the sermon and content are decently blurry.
Let me share with you the sermon workflow I have developed over the last few years. It has been extremely helpful and gives me plenty of time to work on sermons throughout the week and ALWAYS be done on Thursday. I then get a day off (Friday) without stressing about my sermon and an almost free Saturday. I started developing this system with the help of Preaching Rocket.
I do most of my sermon work the week of, with some pre-work allowing me to maximize my week of time. Here is what happens in this “pre” phase.
My Sermon Workflow Before the week of:
I work on all of my sermons utilizing Evernote. I keep one note with a broad list of titles/scriptures/series ideas and anything else. Whenever a sermon makes it into the calendar, it get’s a note all to itself. If it is part of a series, the series gets a note as well. This way I can sketch out the big theme (and all the marketing, images and anything else) looking at all the texts/titles together.
The benefit of this system is huge. These notes serve as a dumping ground. Whenever I come across anything that might be useful, I can simply drop it into the note and forget about it.
When I am 2-3 weeks out from starting a series I start working through the big idea, getting the titles and texts organized in a good flow. I look through any potential resources. I also try to figure out the “big ideas” before I jump into weekly prep. All this allows the series to flow and interact well with the other messages. I didn’t always do this and it was pretty scattered.
During my usual weekly review I finish with some light sermon prep. I read the passage a few times and pray through what I want to tell people and ask them to do. I start filling out my sermon worksheet (this is my secret weapon and you can get it for free here) at this time. It might just be a few details or it might be even farther out.
During the morning I spend about 1.5 hours on my sermon. I do it pretty early in the morning when my creative juices are flowing. I read through the passage a few more times and ask questions of the text. I pray about what God is asking us to do at the end.
In the afternoon I take a final 30 minutes with the passage and my worksheet. At this time I want to have the first draft of my big idea done. All of the structural elements are completed (big idea, the ask and the intended response).
This is exegesis day. I generally give around 3-4 hours to this task, usually in the afternoon. I read through the passage a few more times. If any words or concepts look really important I notate it down. I write down any questions I have as I read through the passage. If I feel the need to do any translation, I do it here.
After I feel I have spent a good bit of time in the text on my own I go to commentaries and dictionaries. I try to answer any questions I have, fill in some gaps for historical data and any relationships this passage has with others. I am just dumping any information that I think might help out. I use post-it notes for much of this and build a HUGE pile of them. Sometimes I have to chart out movements or other linguistic stuff.
I don’t organize any of this, just get it all in front of me. Once I am done with this process, I look back at my sermon sheet and get rid of any information that doesn’t help me support the big idea. I pray through this process as well. I have been known to trash my sheet and refill it out at this moment.
The last thing I do is make a narrative map of the sermon. If you are familiar with mind mapping-this is pretty similar.
This is my main writing day. I usually give 6 hours to sermon work on Wednesday.
I start working through all of the information and organize it into a logical flow. I start broad and slowly start working my way down. The post-its come in handy because I can always rearrange things. I write down illustration ideas on their own post-it and put them into the workflow as well. I also start building my ideas for my images/slides. They get their own color of post-it and live above the larger timeline (I build this on the wall going horizontal).
Once I feel the shape is getting pretty good I write a draft. This draft is ROUGH. I usually immediately read it out loud to myself and fix the problem areas. If I need to get back into the text to make sure something isn’t just me saying it, I will go back and do it at this point.
After I have edited the first draft I will read it aloud to myself again this time. I notate any places change needs to happen. Usually, these are illustrations.
I draw out how my slides will support the sermon and aid the congregation in listening and processing.
Mid-morning on thursday I write my final draft. I look over any of the notes I made on the last draft on Wednesday. Sometimes I will preach it aloud again before starting on my final draft. After the final draft is complete I will read it aloud 2 more times. I will spend 30 minutes or so working on my slides. I will preach the final draft once more with the slides. I control them from my iPad (where my manuscript is also), so I can do this with just my laptop. No need to fire up the whole projection system.
I write the sermon preview at this point and put it up on my blog.
Usually this is done by 2 on Thursday afternoon so I can spend the rest of the day tying up loose ends before I take my day off.
Nothing. I don’t touch my sermon.
My wife goes to bed early. After she hits the sack on Saturday I preach through my sermon 2 more times. By this point, I am familiar with it and this is simply a run through to make sure everything still makes sense. I do a very minimal amount of editing at this point.
I wake up at 5 on Sunday morning. I read through my sermon once, just a quick flow through to make sure it is on the top of my head.
I hope sharing my workflow has been helpful for you. It helps me preach better sermons as well as be mentally prepared to preach on Sunday. I am never worn out because of a late Saturday evening sermon session!
Using Evernote in Message Preparation: Bobby Wiliiams
Besides a Moleskine notebook, evernote is the tool I have heard more preachers refer to using. I use Evernote like crazy. Bobby shares how he sets up and uses Evernote to aid in his message preparation. This is a great beginners guide to using Evernote for preaching.
5 Keys to Effective Sermon Preparation
I remember when I first started preaching. There was no rhyme or reason to how I prepared. I just started typing with an empty document and hoped for the best. Later, I took a few notes from my bible and started at least working with a basic idea in mind.
Over the last several years I have put a pretty good rhythm into place. These are 5 essentials practices that I believe will help anyone’s sermon preparation.
That’s it. You have to be reading. Read many different types of writing; articles, magazines, the newpaper and online. Read books related or unrelated to ministry. You will be surprised how much material you begin building up in your head.
2. Have a Holding Tank.
Find a way to capture this information. I use Evernote and a Field Notes notebook. Between the two, I always have something with me. I organize evernote with three folders to keep me moving forward and specific notebooks and folders for sermons I am researching/writing and preparing.
4. Ask Others
Asking other people what they need to hear from church and letting them in on the preparation and visioning part of sermon work will not only be a help to you, but teach others about the holy act of preaching and preparation.
5. Find/Build and Stick to a preparation rhythm.
This is one of the hardest, but most rewarding practices. Learning to get this built into your weekly schedule will transform your sermon preparation. It will keep you on task and getting done early in the week (no one likes to write a sermon on Saturday).
I was privileged to be part of the sermonsmith podcast a few weeks ago. In my interview I mentioned my sermon planning worksheet. I have been getting questions about this sheet, so I decided to tell a little more about it.
To get the free worksheet-just click this image.
Why I use a sermon planning worksheet
I really prefer having a physical document to orient my sermon preparation. I have found beginning a sermon on this sheet and letting it be for a couple of weeks is a great jump start to my weekly preparation. I have used variations of this sheet for years. In seminary, it was really focused on structural relationships and verb forms. A later version had big space for word study. Over the last couple of years it has evolved towards communication. Once I have a good understanding of the most important thing I can communicate, the sheet helps me trim down and not rabbit trail.
I do leave space for some extra things. I file these sheets away and I am hoping one day they will be a resource to someone.
The major thrust of my current version of the sheet reflects a set of questions at the core of Preaching rocket.
1. What is my message about?
2. What is at stake?
3. What do I want you (them) to do?
4. What is my bottomline?
After working weekly with those four questions and examining both my preparation and content/delivery of my sermons I realized a weakness I need to work on. It was actually glaring (to me. I needed to learn to better preach towards response. You would figure me growing up baptist this wouldn’t be hard. My preaching naturally defaults towards teaching so I need to start spending some time working on response. So the worksheet was modified again!
These are now the sections on my sheet. You can download a copy at the bottom of the post and see how I structure them.
1. What is my text/title?
2. What is my message about?
3. What is my big idea?
4. Important words/phrases5. Relationships/Structures
7. How does this change my life?
8. What do I need to do?
You can see the evolution of my preaching in this current sheet. The heavy exegetical stuff is still there, but the newer additions to the sheet keep it focused. Asking the last two questions reminds me of what the most important part of proclamation is. God’s word never leaves us the same.
Should you use my sheet? Well, you can if you want…but I think you could easily come up with something better. What I encourage you to do is begin a process of discovering what helps you plan sermons best. I would love for you to share yours with me.
I remember the first church I was regularly in the preaching rotation. After a few sermons my pastor gave me a copy of the “Preacher’s Sourcebook of Creative Illustrations“. If you have ever wondered where country preachers get really corny stories…it is in books like these.
I think the method of preaching and preparing for sermons has changed drastically in the last 20 years. When I moved to St. Paul’s I had to shift from longer (30min) sermons to shorter messages. The content also had to shift. I was moving from a much more academic culture into one that had different needs. What I learned was the power of story telling and narrative preaching. I wanted to find great examples of people telling great stories. I want to share some of those findings with you. These are all great place any preacher could pick up a few new tips from.
My Favorite Resources for Modern Preaching
No one is better at telling a story people of all ages can focus in on than Pixar. I didn’t find out about this naturally. The wife and I don’t have kids. Our movie and television watching begins with the Walking Dead and ends with Quintin Tarantino (a GREAT storyteller) usually. I was aware of Pixar, but it was an article by Joe Berkowitz made me pay attention. Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling–Visualized gives so many creative hints preachers can learn from. A google search will turn up more analysis of Pixar around the internet.
2. Fasttocreate.com Fasttocreate.com is the creative arm of Fast Company. Full of intriguing content, much can be learned by spending 5 minutes a day on their site. The writing staff shares, picks apart and focuses on amazing story telling. This is the best place to be If you want to learn how peoples minds are listening, processing and ingesting information.
3. Nancy Duarte and Duarte Nancy Duarte and her team at Duarte are hands down the best people developing digital presentations today. Most people learned about them after they worked on Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” Nancy has written several great books on presentation development. Possibly the best, the one preachers really need to read, is being given away right now digitally. Resonate is a book we should all have in our toolbox. If you struggle with visual images in your sermons you really need slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations. I think both of these books should be seminary and bible college curriculum for the craft of preaching.
These are a few other great resources for modern preaching.
Ted Talks: I didn’t put Ted on the main list because I honestly think they are getting tired. The information is there, but the presentations have started to become lacking. There are still great ones…but I have personally found a hit or miss pattern lately.
SERMONSMITH: If you like digging into other peoples sermon preparation you need to listen to the SERMONSMITH podcast. I love it and don’t miss an episode.
When I was a child I loved traveling during the Christmas season. It meant experiencing the holiday even more special to do it with people I only saw a few times a year. I have plenty of stories I could share about those few days with family during the Christmas season (and on Sunday you will hear a great one!!!).
We associate Christmas with simpler times. We even make the journey home, to those places and relationships that signify simpler times. We go home to Grandma’s, see family, and talk about the last year. We relax in the company of those we love and care about.
Part of the spiritual season is celebrating the coming of Christ to our world. Since we celebrate a God who comes to our world both fully human and fully divine, God himself came home for Christmas. Another dimension to our reflection and worship during the Christmas season is at the center of Christian belief–that Jesus Christ is coming again and we are looking forward to it. Christ is coming home, to relationships and an environment with people he loves.
Coming Home for Christmas is our conversation theme this Advent at New Song. We are going to do some silly things, some serious things and some things for others. But the big thing is us thinking about what does it mean for Jesus to come home, here on our earth for Christmas.
Our Scripture for this first Sunday is a prophecy from Isaiah.
Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting,
“Clear the way through the wilderness
for the Lord!
Make a straight highway through the wasteland
for our God!
Fill in the valleys,
and level the mountains and hills.
Straighten the curves,
and smooth out the rough places.
Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
The Lord has spoken!”
O Zion, messenger of good news,
shout from the mountaintops!
Shout it louder, O Jerusalem.
Shout, and do not be afraid.
Tell the towns of Judah,
“Your God is coming!”
Yes, the Sovereign Lord is coming in power.
He will rule with a powerful arm.
See, he brings his reward with him as he comes.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd.
He will carry the lambs in his arms,
holding them close to his heart.
He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young.
God wants to come a clear a path through all of the mess of our life straight to him. He wants us to be making this path as well.
Clear hearts create clear roads.
Scripture tells us of a God who is making a straight path for His people to follow. His people are also called to begin clearing that path themselves. The best way for us to encounter God is to begin preparing ourselves for when he comes.
It is easy to blindly celebrate Jesus during this season. I imagine Christmas is probably the easiest time of the year to be outwardly Christian. We have baby Jesus in mangers, wisemen, angels…the whole nine yards. But how often to we take a moment to actually pray and think over why each of us desperately need Jesus to come into our world. How often do we let God tell us the areas in our life where Jesus needs to come and live.
When we truly know exactly where we need Jesus to come, both for all of humanity and how he has in the past as well as how we need him to right now for us as well as for the full salvation and redemption of this world, we will understand what it means to hope. We will understand what we need to be doing to clear this path.
So we start off this advent thinking about the coming of Christ. The coming of God into our world. About that time in the past and the time in the future when God Himself will be coming home for Christmas.
Have you ever felt like you bumble through prayer or are dissatisfied with your prayer life? One of the keys to the Christian life is understanding how prayer builds a big vision of who God is.
This week we look at the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6 and find out how it helps us build a great prayer life.
*What is a sermon preview? Sermon previews are released on Friday’s. They are to give YOU a short glimpse of what the conversation is going to be like on Sunday morning. On Monday, the preview is updated with some discussion questions, scripture guide and an mp3 of the sermon. I do these for 2 reasons. The first is so God can continue working in your life throughout the week. The second is for you to share this with a friend. I invite and encourage you to share the preview on Facebook/Twitter and through email.
Chad Brooks is a United Methodist Pastor serving in Louisiana. Married to Meredith, he is currently starting a new church in northeast Louisiana. Host of the Productive Pastor Podcast and lover of motorcycles, Chad would love to find Bigfoot one day.