The unexpectedly sticky sermon.

According to the book ‘Made to Stick’ by Chip and Dan Heath, (find a full summary on my favourite blog, What’s Best Next)  one of the six key features of ideas that stick in people’s mind is the ‘Unexpected’. I’m convinced this is also a key feature of good sermons, but when you’re dealing with a Bible and a Gospel that don’t change, being unexpected is a challenge. Here are three strategies I use to make my sermon’s unexpected.

1. Exegetical insight. This is the best way to be unexpected – help people understand something new about a Bible passage, or see how it fits together for the first time. Of course there is a danger in simply adopting novel interpretations of passages just to be unexpected. However in my experience there is a stack of stuff that most people don’t understand about most passages, especially on how the overall argument/big idea ties together. So hard work on exegesis is definitely a key to being unexpected.

2. Unexpected application. Even if a passage is extremely well known. Eg the prodigal son or the paralysed man, you can still be unexpected by putting your application in fresh language or addressing our culture in a new way.

3. Unexpected Illustration. Illustrations won’t make up for constantly bland and shallow exegesis and application. But from time to time, an unexpected illustration will make a well known passage or point of application grab people’s attention.

Glad to hear if anyone has any other strategies for making sermon’s unexpected.



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12 Responses to The unexpectedly sticky sermon.

  1. Anthony Douglas says:

    Absolutely. Unexpected choice of passage for Christmas/Easter. Gets ’em every time! eg Lamentations 3 for Good Friday this year, Romans 8 for Easter Sunday, Pss 24 and 46 for Christmas.

    Unexpected introduction. Launch straight into a story, without context. Talk about something apparently utterly unrelated. The real winner is when your unexpected introduction leads you on to your first point, but also serves when you get to the conclusion – that’s gold.

    Unexpected series – where perhaps you’re doing selections from a book (rather than all of it) and don’t pick the obvious. Or just unexpected breakups of passages. I suspect nobody else has been daft enough to do Ephesians in ten weeks and save a whole week at the end for 6:19-24! Or preach the passages out of order – useful in Daniel, chiastic structures etc. Or, do an unusual angle on a well worn book – eg ‘Close Encounters’, a series I did from Luke looking at how different people responded to Jesus.

    Unexpected honesty – don’t treat OT narratives as hagiography! I think people still expect Jacob to be the hero of every story he’s in…

    Unexpected connections – I did a doctrinal series on the Spirit where each week, I used some artwork as my introduction. Not by planning, but after a couple of weeks, I figured it was working well. How would this painting lead us on to ‘x’…certainly kept them listening…

    Unexpected setting. Start preaching in the middle of a reading, if you like. Or from ‘offstage’ before coming on stage. Turn the lights off. Play a recording of something mid-sermon, unannounced.

    In case you’re unsure, Andrew, I agree with you. People think they know what you’re going to say before you stand up, and if you’re in the habit of confirming that, they’ll get in the habit of napping. But if you can make them think…

  2. pharbo says:

    Mate, I reckon your first and second points are the huge ones. Thumbs up.

    With the exegetical insight one, I find it’s not so much the thing that they haven’t noticed before as the implication that hasn’t been noticed before that can be helpful. Reason being that it makes people stop and think about how they read their Bible. If they hear you take something they know well, and then ask them to think about it, and then show them an implication of that text that they’ve not stopped to consider, it helps them expect to learn when they read a text and can help address that attitude of ‘I know it all already’.

    One of these (not a very cool one, but a recent one) is from Galatians 1:6. Read it first, then come to my comment below.

    Just an implication that I, at least, hadn’t thought of from that particular verse is that to turn to a different gospel than the one you received is to desert the God who gave it. Not a really cool one, but hey, as Confucius said, “They can’t all be gems.”

  3. Laetitia says:

    Put it in a chant form or sing it – OK, maybe you can’t sing the whole thing but singing helps it be implanted in the brain – most people remember songs more than sermons. If you want personal confirmation, say the alphabet to yourself – you probably sing it, or work out which months have 30 days – you probably say the chant to yourself.

  4. apricho says:

    @ Anthony. Thanks, some nice suggestions there. I’ve tried a few of them, but never the unexpected setting. Might be something in that.

    @Pharbo (Pharbo???) That’s a nice example of how unexpected doesn’t have to be really major. Even putting something in fresh language can be helpful. Like the present tense thing when telling stories.

    @ Letitia, yeah, it would certainly be unexpected if I chanted a sermon. Not sure if, in the long run, it helps people remember. To some extent you’re picking up on some of the other six points of sticky ideas which are clear and simple. I think the great thing about songs is often that they are distilled down to very clear and simple ideas that are easy to remember. Having a clear simple idea for a sermon is also helpful, especially if you can word it in a catchy way.

  5. Joanna says:

    Do you ever have an interactive section – eg. Asking for people’s comments or questions? From memory, the research on lecturing shows that it’s less effective as a way of teaching than tutorials because of the ‘top-down’ approach to knowledge transfer – I imagine the same applies to preaching.

  6. Laetitia says:

    Jo – I so hear you – I have to remember to minimise ‘Teacher Talk’ when teaching English – get the students to use the language and they’ll remember it. So I expect it applies in other teaching situations.

  7. apricho says:

    Yes, I can remember discussing the whole preaching vs interaction thing at College in Preaching class. I quite like question times and we used to do it at our evening service, but for logistical reasons it is tricky in the morning. Our growth groups look at the passage the week before I preach on it as well, so the majority of people also get to interact with the passage in that setting.

    While monologues may not be the most effective form of teaching, I wonder if they are effective for persausion/motivation. I’m sure I have learnt stacks about the Bible in discussions, but it’s the sermons/sermon series that I remember and that have had a key impact on me at various points in my life.

    Made to Stick also suggests good ideas are credible, concrete, emotional and include stories. Which hopefully help to engage people more. I think you can also do a kind of imitation question thing where you raise questions for people to think about and then move towards an answer. I think this is at the heart of most really good sermons.

  8. Anthony Douglas says:

    I could tell you a story about the week that I was preaching on 1 Kings 1-3 and threw my lower back out completely. The physio made me walk with a stick so I thought, why not? Put some flour in my hair and hobbled onstage as King David, ruminating to myself as the passage was progressively read. I think it worked, plus I got to sit down while preaching!

  9. pharbo says:

    Hey Andrew, pharbo = kutz. (the auto-fill thingy was on)

    Had a quick look at the Made to Stick stuff. Do you think the book is worth reading?

  10. apricho says:

    Yeah, I know pharbo = kutz. Just don’t know why it = kutz…

    I wouldn’t spend weeks reading ‘made to stick’ but if you can get a cheap copy (kindle??) and pick up a few good ideas it’s probably worth it. I’ve only read Matt Perman’s summary, but he’s pretty switched on, so if he recommends it, I would certainly have a look if I was wanting to refine my communication.

  11. CraigJ says:

    Expect them to actually put into practice by the Spirit what the Bible says.. maybe that would be unexpected..?

  12. Joanna says:

    Yes, the interaction thing is challenging in church, and in lectures. And I take your point about persuasion. I sometimes wonder, though, if people who learn well from sermons (old-style) tend to preach that way and ditto with lecturers. I do remember very clearly the few sermons I’ve heard with an imteractive component.

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