Putting the Cookies on the Lowest Shelf

I recently met with about 80 contractors who will be working on a new building for the church I serve as pastor. I introduced myself and the 200-year history of our church, told them about our mission to glorify God by proclaiming Jesus Christ and serving others, and then I turned it over to our architect. From that point on, I might as well have been in Uzbekistan at a goatherders’ convention because I had no clue what they were saying. 

    The lingo that the architect and the contractors spoke was completely foreign to this seminary professor and pastor. Every now and then someone would use words and concepts that I understood, but soon they would leave me with a sense of isolation, completely out of my element once again, while they shared a camaraderie and enjoyed a fellowship from which I felt impossibly excluded.

    Preaching and worship can leave a new Christian or a visitor overwhelmed by that same perception of being an outsider and not a little unwelcome. Some pastors and churches have attempted to solve this problem by removing any insider lingo or theological terms, but they run the risk of losing the gospel itself since the good news of Jesus relies on concepts of sin, alienation from God, repentance, justification, propitiation, substitution, and sanctification. How can one’s preaching be true to the gospel but also accessible to anyone?


1) Don’t dumb it down, explain it.

    Murky enlightenment, vague clarification, and partial explanation are oxymorons! Preachers often underestimate their congregation’s intelligence and willingness to learn and consequently tend to reduce deep theological truths to something they can say in 140 characters. Twitterworthy and pithy sayings rarely go deep or far enough to elucidate robust biblical truth.  Followers of Jesus are indwelled by the Spirit and have a propensity toward learning spiritual things. Don’t assume their disinterest or inability to appreciate theological truth. Take the time to explain carefully and clearly.

2) Don’t avoid difficult theology, illustrate it.

Nothing puts a handle on theological truth like a narrative. Use vivid biblical, personal, or cultural stories that connect the intellectual content of revealed truth with the emotional experience of an appropriate enlightening illustration. To be sure, illustrating a sermon well is hard work and requires a lot of searching. Preachers may consider a hundred possible illustrations to find that one gem, but the congregation will be grateful for the effort of one who illustrates well. Remember the SHARP acronym: stories, humor, analogies, references, and pictures can serve well to make doctrinal truth memorable.

3) Don’t merely explain it, reword it and repeat it.

Preachers need to develop their vocabularies, not in the sense of using big words, but for the purpose of saying the same truth in multiple ways. The concept of justification, for example, might be defined, then pictured in a story, then reworded and restated in a more earthy way. Within the congregation are different kinds of learners. Preachers who connect well learn to restate, reword, and repeat in diverse ways in order to engage the entire audience.

4) Don’t preach to your church like you would to a group of seminary students.

After three or four years of sitting in classes with other students, listening to preachers in chapel preach to seminary students, and learning from professors who spend most of their time communicating with seminary students, young pastors may naturally expect that what nourishes them will also work with their congregation.  Preaching to the average church requires a slightly different approach, however. The preacher must not only convey truth, but also make it accessible. The congregation is not dumb, by any measure, but they live and think in different categories. A wise preacher puts the cookies on the lowest shelf, finding a way to teach deep biblical truth in such a way that the simplest believer and the educated church member can both feed on the richness of God’s Word.