Preaching to the De-Churched: An Interview with Mark Batterson
- Tuesday, September 01, 2009
Preaching: Your congregation is also known as the Theater Church. Why is that?
Batterson: I went into church planting with a traditional mindset: meet in a rented facility so you can buy or build a building. Problem is, on Capitol Hill property was going for about $10 million an acre.
Preaching: That's a challenge!
Batterson: Yeah, we were not going to buy property and build something. Long story short, we were meeting in the movie theaters at Union Station, which is the most visited destination in D.C. About 25 million people pass through Union Station every year.
You know, sometimes I'm slow picking up on these things, but at some point I thought to myself: Here we are meeting in a movie theater in Union Station, with amazing screens that we use for videos and worship projection, and there are 48 food court restaurants right outside our front door. And how many churches have their own subway system?
And then I thought to myself: Why would we build a building when we can be at a place like this? So that vision of meeting in movie theaters at Metro stops was birthed. We're now one church with nine services at five locations, four of them movie theaters. And then we own and operate the largest coffee house on Capitol Hill. God has blessed us over these 13 years. And, for what its worth, we are 70 percent single, 20-somethings; so a lot of emerging generation folks are coming to church, and we're doing our level best to reach them for Christ.
Preaching: The vast majority of your people come from an un-churched or de-churched background. How do you go about reaching those "de-churched" folks?
Batterson: That's just someone who grew up going to church but quit going. I've read statistics that as many as 61 percent of 20-somethings quit going to church at some point, and we kind of get them on the rebound. It's amazing how many people were checked out for five or 10 or 15 years, and we find them or they find us on the rebound. We love being a church for those folks who left the church for one reason or another. That's really who we're targeting and part of the reason why we're trying to meet in marketplace locations. It makes it a little bit easier for them to walk in our front door.
Preaching: As you do that, tell me about the approach you take to preaching. If we were to come to one of your locations next Sunday, what might we see and experience?
Batterson: Those of us who are preachers, we eat and sleep and breathe these things called preaching and teaching. I'm going to say up front that even 13 years in, I'm still trying to find my voice; and I make no apologies for that. I have not arrived, and I continue to try to sharpen my edge as a communicator. I do that by listening to a lot of podcasts—I have a steady diet of preachers in my own life.
If I were to describe one thing that makes us somewhat unique, it is that while we are very biblical in our approach, we do try to brand our sermon series. Let me give you an example. We did a series on First and Second Timothy that was expository in nature; but instead of titling it "First and Second Timothy," we decided to title or brand that series "Potential" because we felt like it was all about a guy named Paul who saw tremendous potential in a kid named Timothy. By branding it that way, we felt like it would speak to some of those deep desires in people's hearts to reach their potential.
We're not watering-down or dumbing-down the message of the gospel. In fact, you're never going to reach your potential outside a relationship with Jesus Christ as Creator and Savior. So, we're pretty straight up in the way we communicate from Scripture—we don't pull punches—but we also try to bring a little bit of creativity to bear in branding those series in a way that wouldn't just appeal to the people sitting in our church but encourage them to invite their un-churched friends.
Preaching: How long would a typical message be for you?
Batterson: (Laughs) I think I'm at a stage where I'm getting a little bit more passionate, and sometimes that means I get a little bit louder and a little bit longer! Typically speaking, I usually preach anywhere between 37 and 43 minutes. Our service times are about 65 to 70 minutes, so we don't have long services; and sometimes I have a tough time keeping it in check. But on a normal weekend, somewhere right around that 40-minute mark.
Preaching: There are a number of people who insist that because of declining attention spans, preachers have to offer shorter and shorter messages. Yet it's fascinating that pastors who have churches that are reaching lots of young adults today are not preaching 15- or 20-minute sermons.
Batterson: Number one, I think that young adult demographic has a longer attention span than we give them credit for. But you've got to be a good communicator, and you've got to utilize story and illustration and find ways to mix it up. The other thing I'm finding is that they want you to get in their faces and speak the truth. They want you to challenge them, and I'm very encouraged by that. I think it's a great day for preachers with this upcoming generation.
Preaching: A friend of mine speaks weekly to between 800 and 1,000 20-somethings, and he started out trying to be very creative and innovative. Finally they came to him and said, "No, tell us what the Bible says, what it means, and what we should do about it." They really want to know the truth of God's Word.
Batterson: I think that's bullseye. That doesn't mean there isn't an appreciation for creativity. We try to bring creative elements into play. I've often said that I think the pulpit is the least effective place to preach. I mean, if you can get off-site and preach in a creative location—listen, Jesus preached from boats, you know? Yet I've come to an even deeper conviction this year that it's not my creativity that's going to change people's lives, it's the Word of God. It's the Word of God that will not return void, so we need to preach the Word. I would say, "let it rip." We need to put it out there and go for it.
Preaching: You've got a couple of great books that have become very popular with churches in terms of launching bible studies, and sermon series and other things. The first one has one of my favorite book titles of all time, In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day. That's just got to be one of the all-time best book titles ever done. And then another one that you have is called Wild Goose Chase: Reclaim the Adventure of Pursuing God. Did these grow out of your own preaching ministry?
Batterson: They did. Here's a little back-story on In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day. The entire book really revolves around one little story kind of buried in Samuel about one of David's mighty men, Benaiah, who chases a lion into a pit on a snowy day and kills it. It's just an amazing story. I heard a preacher preach out of that text when I was 19 years old, Michael. And somehow that story just captured my imagination and kind of got into my spirit; and I thought: If I ever write a book, I would love to write a book on that story because I love Benaiah and this idea of chasing lions.
I held on to that idea. And so years later I wrote that book—it came out in 2006—and did a sermon series as well. For both books we actually created Web sites—chasethelion.com and chasethegoose.com—with all of the videos and graphics and transcripts and anything anybody could ever want, and it's all customizable. And so hundreds of churches have done series on those books, utilizing some of those resources on those Web sites; and it's been really neat to see a lot of churches just get the DNA of those books and utilize them on a church-wide campaign.
Preaching: Your most recent book is Wild Goose Chase. What is that book all about?
Batterson: Well, you know the Celtic Christians have this name for the Holy Spirit, An Geadh-Glas, or the Wild Goose. I love that! It sounds a little sacrilegious, but what a great description of the Holy Spirit—you know you can't track or tame a wild goose. There's this kind of element of danger, or a little hint of mystery. And what a great description of what it's like living a Spirit-led life—you're not going to know where you're going all the time, and that might cause a little anxiety; but we also have another name for it, adventure. And so really it's a book that invites people into the adventure of living a Spirit-led life or chasing after the wild goose. It's a book that invites people into that adventure of following after the Holy Spirit.
Preaching: Both books came out of sermon series that you did. Do you preach mostly in series, and how far out do you plan your series?
Batterson: We do series the entire year. Occasionally in between—just to take a little bit of a creative breather—we'll do a buffer Sunday. Sometimes we'll call it PBJ Sunday, peanut butter and jelly. We'll kind of strip it down, not a whole lot of creativity.
We'll often celebrate communion those weekends and do kind of a back-to-basics message. But by and large it's sermon series.
We do a staff retreat in November, and we begin strategizing our sermon series for the next year. By the time we're done with that meeting we will have a rough strategy of those series that we're going to do throughout the next year.
By the way, this might be really kind of a helpful tip: we do an annual survey every year before that retreat; and one of things I do in that survey is to pitch a dozen sermon series ideas to our congregation and say, "Which one of these series would be most helpful to your spiritual growth?" And we track those numbers—the ones that come back with a very high percentage, it's a pretty good bet we're going to do those series. And then, interestingly enough, the ones that come back very low—in other words, the series that people don't want to hear—those series will often end up making the cut, too, because we're wondering, "Why don't you want to hear about this?"
So we'll put together that strategy. That sounds better than it really is because about 70 percent of those series will make the final cut. Then what will happen is we get into a year, we just feel like God's moving a little different direction, and we'll pull
the plug on one series and plug in another series. It's not a perfect science, but what really helps me is that then I can read strategically months in advance as we're gearing up for different series because we'll know what we're doing. It also enables our creative team to put together elements in advance. So we try to plan out that entire year in advance.
Preaching: As you come into that November staff meeting, have you already sketched out some of your ideas about some of those series? How much of the final decision on the series is yours as opposed to a consensus of the group?
Batterson: We have a teaching team, and I speak about 36 weekends at this point. I used to do 48, but we have two other people on that teaching team. And this year we did something a little bit different. I said to them, "Instead of all the series being my decision, why don't you guys pitch a couple of sermon series ideas; and then you can plug me into the series where you want to do it." I'm definitely a key determining factor, even in delegating a little bit of that responsibility; but it is a little bit more of a team effort than just me making that decision.
Preaching: How many weeks would a normal series be for you?
Batterson: We try to do anywhere between three to five weeks. We think if it's a two-week series, we will not pull out all the stops and do banners, posters, invite cards. It's a little bit pared down because you don't get as much bang for the buck. But if it's a three- to four-week series, then we tend to pull out all the creative stops. We really brand the entire series to the hilt and try to have all of those different elements in place. We've found that if we try to go more than six weeks, we start losing a little bit of the attention span or that series starts losing a little bit of its momentum.
Preaching: Are there certain series you've done in recent years that you've felt really resonated with the congregation?
Batterson: Yeah, you know the very first series that comes to mind is a series we did called the "Elephant in the Church." It's a play on that little phrase the "elephant in the room," an obvious truth that everybody ignores. In keeping with what we're seeing with 20-somethings saying, "Hey, get up in my face. Challenge me. Speak into my life," and in part I think because we're in the bastion of political correctness here in D.C., we just wanted to talk about some of the elephants that are in the church—some subjects that are very difficult for us to talk about, but we need to talk about them. And that series was such a huge success the first time around that it has become an annual series.
The topics will range from alcohol—which is kind of controversial depending on your church background—to consumerism, that we want to challenge people to confront the materialism that we see in the church and in our culture. There's the political elephant, which is an interesting one to preach here in Washington, D.C. We actually did that message right before the last election. And so that series has been wildly successful in part because it's a little controversial. That series, all of the branding, and some of the video trailers that we did, the graphics are available at elephantinthechurch.com. If folks want to think about doing that series, they can certainly use everything we've done. The only think we'd ask is: Come up with some of your own elephants, do it better than we did it and then share it with someone else.
Preaching: Are there some things you've learned about preaching and communication that you wished you'd known when you were first starting out?
Batterson: (Laughs) Fortunately I had a wise mentor very early on who encouraged me to preach one-point sermons. I'm not at all against multiple points or even alliterating those points as a kind of memory tool. But I've found that sometimes saying one thing, and then turning the kaleidoscope to reveal different dimensions of that or to come at it from different angles, I think that can be a helpful tool.
I remember a conversation with a member of our congregation whose name I won't mention, but who was a cabinet member and a name people would know. I was a young preacher, and he was attending our church. I remember he came up to me after one of my sermons and said "Pastor, that was a great series of sermons." He very kindly and in an encouraging way said, "Listen, that sermon was great, but it was pretty long. Your first half was really good, but I forgot it because your second half was really good too."
I always struggle with the question: Can I say more by saying less? I strive toward that. It's kind of the "bed of nails" principle. If you lie down on one nail, it's going to puncture the skin and penetrate; but with a bed of nails, the pressure is diffused across a thousand nails and nothing ever penetrates—it doesn't really make its point. I think the same is true with preaching—we've got to try to have one primary point that we really drive home, and then everything else kind of surrounds that point and helps make the point.
Preaching: You mentioned that you were fortunate to have a mentor. Put on your mentoring hat for a moment. If you're sitting with a young pastor, trying to give some counsel about ministry, about preaching, what would it be?
Batterson: I think one of the first things that comes to mind is, find your voice. Listen to as many people as you can; but at the end of the day, what does God want to communicate through your unique personality? Through your unique life circumstances? Through your unique gifts?
And be comfortable in your own skin. I think early on I was trying to be a pastor, trying to be a preacher. More and more now I'm trying to be myself. And people respond to that, the authenticity when you're just being real. And so I think part of finding your voice is, in a sense, discovering your unique contribution to the kingdom of God.
C.S. Lewis said every life is comprised of a few themes. And I think discovering those themes helps us be confident as we communicate. On the flip side, it helps us realize that if we aren't careful we might ride on those hobby horses and preach on the same things week in and week out. And so part of finding your voice is: what are those life themes that God has woven into your life?
The second part of it is gaining more confidence to preach on tough topics. You know, we are not doing people any favors if we dance around the difficult subjects. How can we complain about some of the sexual depravity in our culture if we aren't talking about it from the pulpit? I know those are touchy topics, they're difficult to communicate about, but we've got to have the boldness. Part of finding your voice is the confidence to be able to communicate on tough topics but do it in a way that is more concerned about being biblically correct than politically correct. And in those moments when God's put something on your heart, let it rip.
My word of encouragement would be to thank God for His anointing. I don't know that I can even define it. I don't even know exactly what it is, I just know I need it. I know when I have it, and I know when I don't. And I think as preachers that keeps us humble.
At the end of the day, I think God's anointing is Him taking whatever message we've communicated and using it beyond our ability. It's an amazing thing—once those sound waves leave our lips and somewhere between there and hitting the ear drums of listeners, the Holy Spirit goes to work. That's when preaching is that wonderful tag team. The anointing of God, I think, can accomplish things in peoples' lives that we certainly can't.
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