Preaching Best Practices for 2022 (Part 1)
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Pastors like you spend hours preparing and praying every week with the hope that someone will take a next step because of your Sunday message. And while being the primary preacher and teacher is one of the four roles that a senior pastor can’t delegate, it’s not a topic we often address at The Unstuck Church Podcast.
If you’re a pastor who wants your preaching to be more innovative, applicable, and effective—then this series is for you. But because Amy and I aren’t exactly experts in this subject area, we’ll be bringing in a few special guests to share their insights. (Listen to the full series: Derwin Gray on sermon series planning, Rick Warren on making preaching applicable, and Andy Stanley on preaching for life change vs. belief).
THE FUTURE OF TEACHING: INTERVIEW WITH BRIAN TOME
For the first episode of our new series, I sat down for a conversation with Brian Tome, the Founding and Senior Pastor of Crossroads Church, a multisite ministry based out of Cincinnati, OH. Brian shared his insights on the future of preaching and teaching, as well as:
- Adapting our teaching for the next generation
- Finding inspiration outside the church
- Data-driven tips for better digital services
- Developing your own teaching presence
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[Free Webinar Replay] Preaching Best Practices
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- Innovate your preaching and make it sticky?
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Let’s face it. Church fundraising is hard, but 90% of the wealth in US households is tied up in non-cash assets. That means churches who are only accepting cash donations are missing massive giving potential, but Overflow is here to help address that challenge. Overflow is an online software that empowers donors to seamlessly give crypto and stock donations to churches and nonprofits within minutes. The average donation to churches and nonprofits is $128. But the average donation through Overflow is $9,500. Your donors want to give stock and crypto because it’s the most tax efficient way to give. Why? Because there’s no capital gains tax. So churches get the full donation and donors get the full tax deduction. As a result, churches have seen up to a 32 times return on their investment with Overflow. So let’s unlock generosity together. Visit overflow.co/Unstuck. Once again, that’s overflow.co/unstuck (not .com).
Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. For pastors, being the primary preacher at their church is one of the most important responsibilities they have. They spend hours preparing and praying with the hope that someone will take a step because of what they hear. On this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy start a series on a topic we’ve never tackled before, preaching. If you want your preaching to be more innovative, applicable, and effective then this series is for you. Before we start today’s episode, if you’re new to the podcast, head over to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do you’ll get resources that go along with each week’s episode, including the leader conversation guide, access to the podcast resource archive and bonus resources you won’t find anywhere else. Again, that’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for this week’s conversation.
Well, today we launch a new series on preaching and teaching, and Tony it’s hard to believe, but this is a first for us. We haven’t covered this before.
Yeah. I mean, we’ve never done a series on this topic before. I mean, mainly because neither one of us are preachers or teachers for a living, Amy.
This is true.
Though you happen to be married to a pastor that teaches, but on the other hand, I’m fairly confident that my wife, Emily, doesn’t aspire to become a preacher. She does have a lot of wisdom to share, but not as a preacher, I don’t think. So because this is such an important topic, but neither one of us teaches in our church services, I decided to invite a handful of my friends who are, I would consider them, experts on this topic to help us. So over the next several weeks, you’ll hear from pastors Derwin Gray from Transformation Church, Andy Stanley from North Point Ministries and Rick Warren from Saddleback Church. But today’s conversation is with Brian Tome. He’s the founding and senior pastor of Crossroads Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and several other locations across Ohio and Kentucky. And I think you’re going to quickly learn through this conversation that Brian has some passion around today’s topic. I primarily asked him to share his perspectives on the future of teaching in churches, which as you’ll hear, led us to some discussion around the differences between physical gatherings and online service strategy. And then he had some fascinating perspectives to share on other topics. So with that preview, here’s my conversation with Brian Tome.
Brian, before we dive into today’s topic, can you give a little bit of the back story of Crossroads Church?
Sure. Crossroads started in 1996. In 1995, I answered an ad in the back of a magazine. Willow Creek Community Church put out this job sheet. And there was 11 people who lived in Cincinnati, who we like to say had given up on church, but hadn’t necessarily given up on God. At least all of their friends felt that way as well. So these 11 people, all of ’em were 30 year olds, guaranteed my salary for a month. I applied for the ad and they answered, and they took me and they said, well, we got enough financial runway to take care of you for a year. So great. Let’s get off the races. So I did the old church planter thing. Two breakfasts in the morning. Two lunches in the afternoon. Coffee late afternoon. Gained about 20-30 pounds in the core group formation phase and started in 1996. And since then, it’s been one adventure, one heartache, one celebration after another. Now 26 years.
All right. So Brian, let me start here. You’re probably familiar with this service order for church services. There’s a welcome. There are three worship songs. There’s an offering moment. There’s a 45 minute message. And then a response song. Be honest. Do you think that formula still works? Why or why not?
I think it works based on who you are trying to reach. If you’re trying to reach people who are church fans and who have a certain level of expectation, then I think that formula is fine. If you’re trying to reach people who don’t have much of a church background or do have a lot of church background, but are just sort of tired with it, you gotta change things up. You gotta try something different. I gotta tell you, I see some of these new churches start, church plants. They start taking off. It’s wonderful. I gotta be really clear. If on day one of your church plant, everybody in your audience, first worship song is raising their hands, you’re shuffling the deck of Christendom. You’re not reaching new people. And if that is what you’re calling is, I think there is a place for that. We need new churches, new expressions. That’s fine. But just don’t talk about, you know, reaching people for Christ. You’re re-energizing people who are already knowing Christ.
Yeah. So with that in mind, let’s talk specifically about younger of adults. And so Gen Z, millennials, not connected to the church, not connected to the faith, and by the way, those two generations now are bigger than the combination of Gen X and the Boomer generation. So we oftentimes, I think, in church, we’ll think about how big the boomer generation is and how much influence they had in the church. But now we have these two younger generations that are larger. As the church, broadly, continues to struggle engaging these younger generations, Brian, does anything about how we teach specifically need to change do you think?
It’s so interesting you mentioned this, Tony. I’ve been telling people a lot about my own personal journey here. I’m old enough. You are too, probably remember the old worship wars when the boomers wanted, contemporary music and the older generation didn’t, and this started the whole contemporary services and the blended services, and all this stuff to keep the church young. And now all that’s gone. I mean, we have churches still fighting over whether or not to have guitars, which my gosh, I feel bad for you. That that’s a tough spot to be in. But these tensions that I remember, back in the early nineties or late eighties, these tensions are now, I don’t know, somewhat coming to roost now where the boomers and Gen Xers are kind of the old guard. It’s interesting how it comes around. And so now, as a pastor, I did a lot of learning on how to start a church, a lot of learning on how to grow a church. Now I’m having to learning on how to turn around a church, how to reinvigorate a church, how to grow a plateauing church. I never thought I’d be there, but that’s where I am. And yeah, the younger generations, they’re different. They’re not as drastically different as, I don’t think it’s as drastically different with as much tension as it was 30 years ago, because people still like loud music and cutting edge worship and all that kind of stuff. But I think their assumptions of what a church is about goes now beyond worship. It goes now to social justice issues. It goes to that sort of thing. And if you’re just thinking, what do we gotta do with the music to stay young? That’s a fine thing, but it’s gonna be more about the structure of your church and your preaching diet.
Yeah. And so specific to teaching or preaching, with that kind of pivot in mind, has anything shifted in the way you approach messages on Sunday?
Not too much. I mean, I’ve been pushed in the social justice areas, not just by our people and younger people, but by God. So I’ve been on a growth journey there anyway, but I have been always wanting to be an authentic version of myself on stage. And that means to be, you know, a bit, just let my personality shine, whoever God’s created me to be. And the younger generation really strikes that as did older generations as well. And they’re looking to cut through the clutter more so than the older generations. The older generations, if you had a good solid sermon and it was, you know, entertaining or engaging enough and the church is going the right way, you’d have them. This is something different. They they’ve gotta look at you and they’ve gotta believe in you. And they ask themselves, is this a guy who I would like as a friend, or in my case right now, at 56. Would I want this guy to be my dad? That’s a different filter and leads you to do say different things.
Yeah. So, let me just get your perspective on this. As you’re looking at trends outside the church context, are you seeing anything that you’re beginning to pay attention to when it comes to influencing how you communicate? How you teach on Sundays?
I get asked ask this a lot. You know, who do you listen to, all that sort of stuff? And I don’t know, there’s no preacher that I listen to regularly. In fact, I can’t even tell you the last time I listened to a sermon by somebody else. And it’s not because I can’t learn from somebody else. It’s because I’ve got other avenues for learning that I want. And. And in the early days, I was too influenced by the preaching style of somebody else. And I was just preaching like them instead of being me. So I’m very wary of listening to any one communicator too much. Cause I start sound like them, you know? And then I’m not myself. And then I can’t reach the people that God wants me to reach. But I do think when you look at outside, I’m always pushed, intensely pushed, whenever I go to a comedy store, a comedy club, whenever I listen to a comedian, because those comedians, they have an amazing physical presence, you know, they own that stage. And I think we need to have that same sort of presence. I mean, there are people who, I guess, who could still get away with Tim Keller preaching. There’s one Tim Keller, by the way. There’s one. One guy who could have his concept stand on their own and stand still behind a podium and wow people. That is him. That’s his unique self. That is Tim. It’s amazing. Thank you, Lord, for Tim Keller. But for the rest of us, that’s not going to work to engage our people. We’re not Tim Keller, with his mind or with his intellect or anything else. We’ve gotta give people what they’re used to hearing when they go to something that mesmerizes them. And that generally means somebody owns the stage. They’re a bigger version of themself when they’re on stage. They know to how to engage a crowd. I don’t think it’s our theology or our thoughts that are keeping back our preaching. I think it’s our presence that’s keeping back our preaching,
Brian, you probably don’t know this, but your team, you and your team, have really been inspiring to me.
I did not know this. This is wonderful.
As I’m trying to help churches navigate this conversation about hybrid church, about church in physical gatherings and also church online. And I’ve been watching your team innovate, how you engage people both online and in your physical gatherings. It’s essentially the same content, but it’s presented in two distinctly different ways. And just one example, I’m assuming this is a reflection of how you do this week to week, but one recent example I saw in your room, you have a 65 minute experience, but it’s a 25 minute experience online. So can you describe some of the other ways that you and your team are approaching online and physical experiences with similar, yet distinctive approaches?
Yeah. Well actually it’s probably more like 70 minutes inside the room, at least when I’m preaching. Last weekend, 71. So don’t try to chop me down a little bit more there. We’re still, Tony. You said innovation. We are innovating, but we’re innovating because we’re learning. We’re still trying to figure out how exactly to crack this nut of reaching people online. We know we know how to give people who are already part of Crossroads an online experience. Someone who’s already part of Crossroads comes to a physical building, when they tune in, they want to see what they know. They wanna see what’s happening on stage. That’s fine. When our online numbers started to skyrocket, we started to do a little digging in. When I say skyrocket, when they started to grow. We’re not skyrocketing. When they started to grow, we started looking into it, and we realized we’re getting people from Seattle and Texas and all over the place. We dug a little deeper. We were getting what we call Crossroads expats, people who used to be in buildings in around Kentucky and Cincinnati. And now they’re in another location and they can’t find a vernacular for church that they appreciate. They can’t find a rawness that they appreciate, so they tune in online, and those people are happy and they keep giving. It’s great. It’s wonderful. But we weren’t reaching people who had never been to a Crossroads building. And our research showed us that when somebody streams a service outside of a region where our buildings are, if they see me and normal people in a building worshiping, having fun, a lot stuff, what’s communicated to them is this isn’t for me. I’m a second class citizen. I’ll never get that. I’ll never be there. But if we create content, that’s based on that, that’s obviously lowered the level and doesn’t assume that you’re ever going to get a Crossroads building, it feels more inclusive to them. So that’s why we’ve done that. We have a very data driven approach. I’d hate to give anybody the impression that God gave us a vision from on high. In fact, I will be the first person to say that I am not the lead innovator in what’s happening online. At this point in the game, I’m the lead listener. I listen to what other people are learning inside of our team. I listen to the data that other people are finding. This isn’t like in 1996 where I had amazing instincts and we just followed. I still have some amazing instincts, but not too much when it comes to the online world. So the data very clearly shows that people outside of where our buildings are, will engage more if we don’t show them a service inside of a building. The data very clearly shows, very clearly. You mentioned earlier about music. If you wanna do stream service and reach people, and you wanna start with music, you will never reach people. They’ll be gone. People do not turn into your online services to do your music. If they wanted to do music, they’d do Bethel. They would do Elevation. They would do that on YouTube. They don’t need yours and my worship. It doesn’t meet that standard. Not only that. People, when they’re with two or three people in a room in their house, they don’t wanna worship. They don’t like it. Awkward. Awkward. So we only have worship at the end of the stream. At the end. And it’s a separate opt in. We found if you lead with worship, you’re gonna lose everybody. If you lead with the end and it’s an opt in, click this link, then great. You can do that. Thirdly, we found when people are streaming, they’re in a different mode of wanting it to be shorter. So we’re shooting for a teaching heavy experience that’s about 25 minutes. That would be insufficient inside of a building. People have sacrificed a lot of time to come to a building. They’ve laid aside other things they could have done that hour. They’ve driven maybe 15 minutes a half hour. They’re gonna drive back 15 minutes, a half an hour. They’re gonna deal with a check-in process for the kids. There’s a high buy-in. So to have a service, I believe, that’s an hour long, to have a sermon that’s 25 minutes long is really ignorant of the sacrifice people have made to come, and so longer right now is good. This is different from the old days in an age in time where people felt like spiritual people went to church. Okay. I guess I gotta go to church. All right, I’ll go to church, but better not be painful. Oh, it’s 60 minutes or less. Okay. I can suck up and bear it for 60 minutes or less. And then they walk in, and they go, oh, it’s not bad. I like it. That’s not the way it happens right now, Tony, the way it happens right now is you stream, you find out what that church’s about. Their webpage. You stream, you figure out if you like them or not. You figure out what their theology is. You figure out what the vibe is. And then when you come, it’s like making a pilgrimage. You’re like in when you come. This changes everything, from the darkness of the auditorium, to the number of songs. And early on at Crossroads seekers would come in. We wouldn’t do a lot of songs. Wouldn’t be very worship heavy. It is now because now when people come in, even if you’re an believer, you know what you’re coming in for cause you’ve streamed the live service. You’ve seen it if you stream the service that is also prerecorded. So anyway, I don’t know how I got here, but I’m just meandering all around to say, this is a new wine skin that we’re trying to figure out. And those of us who have championed the new wine skin idea that Jesus talked about, we forget way back when, like Crossroads was a new wine skin in 1996, right? In 1996 people were giving away CDs and tapes. We never sold anything. We were giving them, literally giving them away to people. Oh, you’ll never be able to do that long term. We said, ah, feel like we need to bless people. And Jesus got really pissed off when people were selling things inside of an atrium for a worship thing. Coffee, giving coffee away was just radical. Coming into our first building, a concrete unfinished floor with unfinished ceilings, like no drywall in ceilings anywhere, a hundred decibels of music, but these were really new wine skin things. And it’s not new wine skin anymore. Now all those things, we’ve refined them. Those things are old wine skins. And we forget those who like new wine skins. Jesus says, you need to preserve the old cause the better tasting wine. So the new wine skin that now every church is tweaked, and we know exactly how to make a live service. Crossroad services, there’s nothing special about our services. They’re just not. Everyone’s doing them. It wasn’t the way it was, you know, in 1996 in Cincinnati. But you can find a bunch of churches in Cincinnati who do a really, really great job with a live service on the weekend. Maybe a better job than we do. It’s cool. The kingdom of God is growing. That’s the old wine skin. That stuff doesn’t need to be thrown out. That wine tastes better. But this stuff, all things about online and virtual, that’s the new wine skin. It’s combustible. It’s fermenting, and it doesn’t taste as good as the old wine skin, as the old wine, but we’ve gotta do it. It’s a new day. It’s a new age. It’s new people.
So Brian, I think pastors are concerned though that if the online experience is too good, it might discourage people from actually coming to the church for worship on Sunday mornings. Should pastors be concerned about that?
Yes and no. Yes, you should be concerned about that. And if you have multisite, you should have all of your community pastors who are concerned about that, too. In fact, if you’ve got a community pastor who is okay with empty buildings, you have a problem. You gotta want to see full building. So that’s good that you’re a little concerned about it, but you can’t fight reality. Reality is a growing number of people want to engage online. And reality is if you don’t give them a really good streaming option, they’re going to go elsewhere. Not just elsewhere, somebody inside of your own city, but they’ll find somebody across the nation to be their church. We crossed over on this about a year ago, we’ve been pushing pretty hard on online digital projects, digital products. We’ve done that. We’ve put a lot, a lot, lot into it. We’ve been on not the leading edge. We’ve been on the bleeding edge. We have wasted a lot of money and wasted a lot of time over the last six years, putting in on this. We didn’t know we were wasting at the time. Just looking back like, eh, that didn’t work. That didn’t work. Now that’s starting to gain a little bit of steam. We started to have our community pastors that were just starting to get bitter towards people who weren’t coming. They were starting to get bitter towards those people and staff who were in our digital products department. And we finally had to have a, what do I wanna call it? Conflict resolution. I don’t even call it conflict resolution. I just need to say what it is. We had a community pastor meeting, and I brought in the head of our online stuff, Kyle Ranson. And I just had to tell people, I said, look, look, none of us like emptier buildings than we had before. Okay. That’s good. But, but we gotta recognize we still have people in our church, because during COVID we had a backbone of digital products to serve them and keep them. You still have people in your buildings right now because of Kyle’s job and all of our online stuff. And on top of that, you all know, you all know, this is a new world. It’s not like online or this. You serve your people best by having them enjoy the digital, spiritual products that we have. And everyone said, Yeah, that’s right. That kind of killed that at that moment. And there’s been a great level of harmony that’s there. So I would say to back to your question to senior pastors. It is tough, but dude, like fighting this is like trying to fight the guitar in 1985. You’re going to lose. So you may as well choose who you’re gonna lose you. That’s what church growth is. You choose who you lose. So do you want to lose everybody who is younger and wants to engage with your church digitally? Or you wanna lose the purists who still haven’t figured out the difference between a dialup connection and a whatever. You know, I can’t even name it cause I’m older. So you gotta choose who you’re gonna lose. And this is, this is not going away. You’re gonna have to embrace it if you want to have a growing vibrant church and a church that meets needs of your members, older and younger.
I would. But first help me, Tony. What pastors are we talking about here? Are we talking about pastors who don’t have a webpage? Are we talking about pastors who have a streaming service? There’s so many different layers and levels to this. I would also say this, even before I say this. Okay, before you clarify for me. I will say this. I said this very vehemently three years ago in as many places as I could. I think it is a defensible strategy to say, we’re going to meet live. We’re going to have a basic webpage, and we’re going to have an email list, and we’re going to do nothing else technologically. I think that’s a defensible strategy. I think also think it’s a defensible strategy to say we are going to try to deliver somebody the quality of content that they would get from any place else on Instagram or any place else on YouTube. And we’re gonna have a full menu of high quality content with apps and all. I think that’s a defensible strategy. Where no man land is, is if you land in the middle someplace, and you try to have everything that all the cool kids have, but none of it’s really compelling. That’s where you get crushed. So I encourage you. You gotta either go for it all the way on one side or go for it all the way on the other side. And I think you can have fruit either, either/or, and if you’re gonna do something in the middle, you can’t do everything. You have to do one thing, just one thing. So do you wanna have your own app? Okay. Maybe that’s the one thing. Do you want to have, this is what I’ve done, this is like one of the biggest fruit bearing things we have in terms of number of people. It’s a garage Bible study. Someone comes out with a camera, and I sit down in my garage in front of the projects I have in my garage, and I have the Bible, and I just do like a 10 minute Bible study. You could do that. That’s a digital product right there. Unless you work in a garage, spend a lot of time in garage, I wouldn’t do a garage Bible study. I talked about being truly who you are. I’m in the garage a lot, working on my motorcycle. I’m gonna rebuild, building furniture, spitting tobacco on the floor, all that stuff. I’m in there a lot. So when I teach Bible there, it’s like, oh, this is in line with who this person is. So it’s a huge audience for us. So I would tell your listeners, you gotta find what’s in tune with who you are, and then do one thing in the digital space that’s really, really great there. That’s what I would recommend.
Yeah. That’s great advice. And I think you’re spot on with that. So Brian, on this topic, as we’re trying to engage a new world, really in many ways with fresh approaches to teaching and preaching, any other final thoughts you wanna share?
I think that God is still looking for who will make themselves undignified before him. David danced before Jerusalem, and his wife didn’t appreciate it. And he said, Hey, I’ll become more undignified than this. Bono says the role of an artist is to jam their fingers inside of their chest, crack open their ribs, reach in, rip out their heart, and put it on display and give it to people, and say, here. Here it is. He says that’s what an artist does. I would say that’s what a life giving preacher, that’s what a life giving Christian leader needs to do. You know, the days of just seeing what somebody else is doing and then copying pasting it. I think those days are gone. You’re gonna have to find your voice. And as it relates to the digital stuff and online, you’ve gotta abandon yourself unto that. People are not looking for good services anymore. I had somebody tell me why they left Crossroads and went to another church, which is a lot of people, by the way, a lot of people. We had a larger back door than anybody, I’m confident of that. And we’re trying to work on it. We’re trying to deal with it. He said of this other good guy who I know. He said, “Yeah, he does a nice service. It’s a nice service. It’s just very nice. He’s nice.” And I thought, well, there’s some people who are looking for a nice service, but that number of people is going smaller and smaller. People are not looking for a nice service. They’re looking for something that grabs their heart and pulls it outta their chest. They’re looking for something that’s a transcendent experience with God. They’re looking for somebody to go set their lives on fire and watch. That’s what we need. It’s not about the digital. It’s not about how you do your services. It’s that heart that will then drive those decisions. And have you have the right conclusion.
Well, Brian had some interesting perspectives to share, Tony, on a variety of topics, including the length of the message that’s engaging the next generation of adults, the distinctive strategies for physical gatherings versus online offerings and some innovative approaches that he and the team at Crossroads have been test driving as they continue you to fulfill their mission as a church. But what stood out to you from that conversation, Tony?
Yeah. What stood out to me wasn’t necessarily what Brian shared, but how he shared it. I mean that was pure Brian Tome. He’s uniquely wired as a pastor, and he comes with a unique, bold personality, and that raw perspective on teaching, it’s really a true reflection of how Brian approaches both ministry and life. So among all the perspectives that Brian shared related to preaching and teaching, the biggest takeaway for me from that conversation is that it’s important for Brian to be Brian, for Tony to be Tony and for you to be you. And we can’t copy and paste someone else’s preaching style and delivery and personality and hope to reach people for Jesus, at least not in today’s culture. I mean, that’s not at all authentic to who you are. And especially for these younger generations of adults who we’re trying to reach, they’re gonna sniff that out and they’re gonna be turned off by it if we don’t come with our authentic selves. So in other words, if you want to improve your teaching and have a bigger kingdom impact in people’s lives, you have to figure out who God designed you to be, and you need to bring more of that to your messages. And here’s my suspicion. If you’re trying to discover who you are as a preacher and teacher, it’s probably going to look a lot more like how you talk to a friend in a familiar setting outside the church, rather than trying to imitate the style of one of your pastor heroes.
That’s so good, Tony. Well, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s episode?
Yeah. If you’re a pastor who is interested in making your preaching more innovative, applicable, and effective, and if you’re still listening to this, I’m assuming you are, we’re going to be taking this conversation even deeper in an upcoming webinar. On May 19th, I’ll be joined by Clay Scroggins, Dan Lian, and this guy named Jason Anderson. I think Amy may know him, and this is gonna be a free one hour event around more preaching best practices. So be sure to register through the link in our show notes.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Before we wrap up today’s episode, I want to take a moment and thank this week’s sponsor, Overflow. Overflow is an online software that empowers donors to seamlessly give crypto and stock donations to churches and nonprofits within minutes. The average donation to churches and nonprofits is $128, but the average donation through Overflow is $9,500. That’s $9,500. Your donors want to give stock and crypto because it’s the most tax efficient way to give. Why? There’s no capital gains tax. So churches get the full donation, and donors get the full tax deduction. As a result, churches have seen up to 32 times the return on own investment. With Overflow, you can unlock unprecedented generosity together. So visit overflow.co/unstuck. That’s overflow.co/unstuck (not .com). Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, have a great week.
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