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Sticky Sermons: Evolution of “The Stickiness Factor” ………………… 3

Elements of a STICKY Sermon: Scripture ………………………………… 5

Elements of a STICKY Sermon: Tension ………………………………….. 7

Elements of a STICKY Sermon: Interaction …………………………….. 10

Elements of a STICKY Sermon: Challenge ………………………………. 13

Elements of a STICKY Sermon: Kerygma ………………………………... 17

Elements of a STICKY Sermon: Yearning .……………………………….. 22

Sticky Sermons: Evolution of “The Stickiness Factor”

"Stickiness," a simple children's word,

moved into adult discourse when it was
included among the factors that cause
ideas to spread in The Tipping Point by
Malcolm Gladwell.

According to Gladwell, "The Stickiness Factor says that there are

specific ways of making a contagious message memorable; there
are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring
of information that can make a big difference in how much of an
impact it makes" (p. 25).

The next big move for "stickiness" came when Chip and Dan
Heath, brothers who are university professors, wrote Made to
Stick. They picked up Gladwell's concept of "The Stickiness
Factor" and took it further. They said their objective was to,
"[I]dentify the traits that make ideas sticky, a subject that was
beyond the scope of Gladwell's book" (p. 13).

The word was "baptized" when Larry Osborne, lead pastor of

North Coast Church in California, brought "sticky" to the church.
He wrote two books taking full advantage of the new buzzword:
Sticky Church and Sticky Teams.

Following their lead, I am aware that some sermons can be

"sticky," while others seem to be written and delivered with a
teflon coating!

Sermons, as I am describing them, are designed to be delivered

in a particular context. Granted, some guys have gotten a hold of
a bullhorn and tried to make a pulpit out of a street corner, but that
is the exception rather than the rule. The street corner is no place
for a either a sermon or a guy yelling at people he doesn't know.

The proper context is in the weekly gathering of Christian

believers for the purpose of worshipping God. The sermon is just
one component of that gathering. The others include greeting one
another, praying together, singing in unison, offering support,
reading the Scriptures, and sharing communion. To imagine a
sermon apart from that context is to act as if an appetizer is the
sum total of a five-course meal. What this combination of
components looks like, sounds like, and feels like in actual
practice differs from place to place and denomination to
denomination, but the gathering itself is standard Christian

Because of the ongoing regularity with which preachers are

delivering sermons, I want to identify what I perceive to be the
elements of a "sticky sermon." After all, when you preach you
want the ideas, beliefs, actions, and strategies that you are
presenting to attach themselves to people's lives. In other words,
you want them to stick.

In what follow, I'll use an acronym of the word "sticky" to identify

which elements should be present in the content and
communication of a sermon, delivered in its proper context, to
help you make it stick.
Elements of a STICKY Sermon: Scripture

I went to a sales seminar a couple of years ago. Over the course

of the day there were musicians playing music while encouraging
us to sing along, speakers telling success stories, designated
times to meet and greet other attendees, opportunities to attend
breakout classes, and appeals to attend another seminar in the

It all felt like a bad high school pep rally, or sadly enough, like a
contemporary church service. The blunt truth is that too many
sermons today have been reduced to motivational speeches that
could have been delivered by Tony Robbins.

What prevents this from



In the Bible we find people,

stories, poems, prayers, events,
and correspondence testifying to
the ongoing acts of God within
creation and on behalf of his people. Scripture, then, is more
than a veneer to overlay a motivational speech about how much
of our personal potential we have yet to realize.

Scripture is the very foundation and authorization of our


John Piper, pastor for preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church in

Minneapolis, says that using Scripture is not to be neglected or
considered as an afterthought. He writes, "Again and again my
advice to beginning preachers is, 'Quote the text! Quote the text!
Say the actual words of the text again and again. Show the
people where your ideas are coming from'" (The Supremacy of
God in Preaching, 88).

If you are to keep the sermon from sounding like a trivial, self-
indulgent exposition of contemporary culture and human
achievement, you must stick to Scripture.

The historic dimension of Scripture keeps us from the

ethnocentrism that so easily think our modern way is the best
way and they're way (whoever "they" might be) is clearly inferior.

Likewise, the present application of Scripture prevents us from

the pious nostalgia that thinks the "spiritual" life would be so
much better for us if we lived a long time ago and far, far away.

Over against those responses, the Scriptures insist that we live

as characters in the forward-looking drama of God and the world
that God is renewing through us, his image-bearing creation.

A sticky sermon, then, must negotiate the distance between the

historic and present aspects of Scripture in ways that listeners
can understand. N.T. Wright notes the centrality of this task
when he says, "[T]hroughout the history of the church, preachers
have sought both to understand what Scripture was saying in its
original context and to convey to their hearers what this might
mean in their own day (Simply Christian, 188).
Elements of a STICKY Sermon: Tension

You spend time each week exploring a passage of Scripture. You

read slowly through it, linger over it, place yourself in it, cross-
reference it for parallel passages, consult what commentators
have said about it, and explored various instances where its
theme intersects with the modern world.

By the time you show up to

deliver a sermon out of the
passage, you've invested
many hours in the process.

The most important thing to

recognize here is that it was
during the sermon creation
process that you sorted
through the tension, ambiguity, and complexity, and emerged with
clarity. The people who are present, most likely, have not.
Therefore you must always remind yourself that most of the
people listening to the message are hearing that passage for the
first time that week - or the first time in their lives. They haven't
invested the hours or the effort that you have when you stand up
to speak, so logically they are not nearly as excited as you are
about the conclusions you've reached!

If you don't engage the listeners, your words will be heard with
their ears but not with their minds and hearts.

How do you engage people?

Provoking tension is the key to getting and keeping people
George Lowenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon
University teaches that gaps in our knowledge cause pain. When
we want to know something but don't, it's like having a rock in our
shoe: we can go on if we want to, but we're aware that something
needs to happen to resolve the situation.

Eugene Lowry connects this insight to preaching in his book The

Homiletical Plot. He says, "The first step in the presented sermon,
then, is to upset the equilibrium of the listeners, and is analogous
to the opening scene of a play or movie in which some kind of
conflict or tension is introduced....The central task of any sermon,
therefore, is the resolution of that particular central ambiguity" (p.

How do you provoke tension?

1) Question Conventional Wisdom
Everyone lives by a set of rules, whether we call them that or
"guidelines, "principles," or something else, is beside the point.
With every action we take, we have a corresponding expectation
for what the result should look like. When the result matches the
action, time and time again, we begin to think in formulas. For
instance, x + y = z. Conventional Wisdom is comprised of
hundreds of formulas like these in all walks of life - from finances
to relationships. That's fine as far it goes, but sometimes life
throws us a curveball and we find that the old formula no longer
makes sense of the present situation. Because real life is messy,
I'm convinced that the number of outcomes that can be logically
predicted by Conventional Wisdom is slim to none. You are in a
position to point this out, and thus provoke tension. For instance,
you could say something like, "What we thought was x is really
not...it's actually j."
2) Acknowledge and Interact with the Conclusions of Others
We live in a time when information and sound bites are freely
distributed. People are exposed to the conclusions of others on
websites, television programs, and radio shows. You must
acknowledge that, specifically on the topic at hand, other people
hold viewpoints and conclusions different from your own. Not to
do so is not only counterproductive, but comes across as evasive.
It's counterproductive because you've lost the opportunity to
create and relieve tension through offering a worthwhile critique;
and it seems evasive (especially if another conclusion is well-
known), because you have chosen not to mention the "elephant in
the room." Explain to people your reasons for choosing the view
you hold over-against the other views on offer.

So don't shy away from the tension. Provoke it. People will stay
engaged because they want the tension resolved. And when
people are involved in active listening with a purpose (relieving
the tension), your sermon is sure to stick.

If you desire to increase "The Stickiness Factor" of your sermons,

I encourage you to lean on the Scriptures - both the story they're
telling and the God to whom they're pointing.
Elements of a STICKY Sermon: Interaction

One reason that so many sermons today lack anything

resembling "The Stickiness Factor" is that they are monologues in
which the person with the microphone has all the say. Sermons,
as a general rule, do not provide opportunities for planned
interaction between the
one preaching and the
ones listening. That is
a rule that must be

Of course many
preachers practice
some form of
unplanned interaction
by simply paying
attention to the lives of various members within the congregation.
This type of interaction is certainly not to be overlooked, and if you
aren't paying attention the lives of the people who attend your
local church then it's time to start.

This unplanned interaction is what Fred Craddock has in mind

when he says, "[T]he listeners participate in the sermon before it
is born. The listeners speak to the preacher before he speaks to
them; the minister listens before saying anything" (Preaching, 25).

That's good but, in my opinion, it doesn't go far enough. I believe

that churches must begin to include planned interaction as part of
what passes for a sermon. In other words, a sermon must be
seen as incomplete until the preacher stops talking and starts
listening to the responses of the people who are present.
By Planned Interaction I mean, primarily, giving other people a
chance to voice their questions, objections, and needs for
clarification DURING the time allotted for the sermon.

Why isn't this happening already?

I can't say for certain, but I have a couple of hunches:
1) "Sermonizing" reached its present form in the time after the
Protestant Reformation (16th century) when most people couldn't
read and were largely uninformed about the current events
happening outside their towns. Change is uncomfortable so
churches have kept the same format in place ever since.

2) To give a more contemporary explanation, preachers are

thinking ahead to their podcast during which people can't interact
anyway. Preachers of this sort have in their minds all the people
across the world who will be helped and inspired by their
sermons, all the while leaving the people in their midst

3) The church already has an organized time for interaction and

discussion through Sunday School classes or small groups/home
groups. This is the response I hear most often, so I answer here
by simply pointing out a few things:

a) Most of those extra-curricular groups are attended by less

than 50% of church members.

b) People in general, and families in particular, are busier

than ever and the time available to sit and get "chummy"
with people you see once a week is quickly sliding down the
list of priorities for most Americans...yes, even Christian
c) Unless your church utilizes "sermon-based small groups"
those who do attend those other formats are treated to
ANOTHER lesson that is based on a different topic than the
one that covered in the sermon so their questions related to
the sermon are still left unanswered.

Whatever the reason, sermons must change to include

interaction. Preachers cannot continue expecting competent and
informed people, who provide meaningful insights all week long at
their places of employment, to show up each week only to be told,
"Thanks for coming, so glad you're here. Now sit down and be

However, I try to be a realist and I approach the element of

interaction realistically. I'm well-aware that some people are in
churches that have followed the same order of service for the last
hundred years. For pastors in those settings, I believe a
compromise can be struck on a looser meaning of interaction than
the one I proposed above. In the looser meaning, I still insist that
you must give people a chance to voice their questions,
objections, and needs for clarification, but instead of doing it
during the sermon, it should be done IMMEDIATELY after the
worship service has concluded.

Either way, whether you interact in the sense of the primary

meaning or secondary meaning, the point remains:
If you desire your sermons to be "stickier" you must interact with
those who are present by giving them a chance to speak and be
Elements of a STICKY Sermon: Challenge

Sermons that offer high platitudes, abstract

ideals, vague generalities, and trite clichés
are fine if you want to leave "well-enough"
alone. But they lack any semblance to
what we're calling "The Stickiness Factor"
in this e-book.

In contrast, sticky sermons call attention to

what's happening "in the fray." They point
to a peculiar God, and summon specific people with a concrete
challenge that can be appropriated in particular ways.

The specific people I have in mind are those who identify

themselves as the people of God - those members of the church
who have committed to contribute within the local congregation
and are present week after week. These are the people who have
embraced the identity and vocation of being Christian as the path
to life (in the next element, kerygma, we’ll look at how to address
those who don't fit this description).

Those who gather are inundated with other voices during the
week. The voices are not those of innocent bystanders, but rather
they are the voices of those with vested interest in the dollars,
time, and efforts of the Christian believer. And rest assured, in
ways that are not nearly as dramatic as the story of Jesus being
tested in the wilderness to go the easier way, those voices are
promising more for less - all that's required is the embrace of a
new, corresponding identity and vocation.

Despite those voices, the faithful return to this God and this
community to express their worship and be convinced all over
again of the truthfulness of the message we proclaim. All this
should serve as notice: the presence of alternative truth-claims
about what's real and what is not, each backed up as they are
with their own sacred texts and ways of being, reinforces the
urgency and boldness required to issue a concrete challenge in
the act of preaching.

What I mean by "challenge" is the summons to live in ways that

are congruent with the mission and message of Jesus for the
world. This concept is unpacked in detail by Walter Brueggemann,
who writes, "I understand preaching to be the chance to summon
and nurture an alternative community with an alternative identity,
vision, and vocation, preoccupied with praise and obedience
toward the God we Christians know fully in Jesus of Nazareth"
(The Word Militant, 56, italics his).

So I want to offer two ways that the challenge can take shape:

1) Prophetic Redescription
Every member of the church is involved in different levels of
accommodation, as it relates to a life-world that is incongruent
with the mission and message of Jesus. This should not be
automatically attributed to disobedience because some people
simply don't know there's another way to think or act in particular
situations. In fact, many people have attended the church's
worship gatherings for a decade and, because the sermons have
simply reinforced the dominant culture of our time (which
sociologist Christian Smith has termed, “Moralistic Therapeutic
Deism”) they have never been made aware of any subversive
implications brought about by their identity and vocation as a
Therefore, to quote Brueggemann once again, "The task of the
preacher is to exhibit this particular narrative script of the Bible
and to show how and in what ways life will be reimagined,
redescribed, and relived if this narrative is embraced" (The Word
Militant, 32).

2) Public Testimony
This aspect of the challenge takes seriously the pluralism of our
day. The Christian message is not the only offer of life that people
encounter. The content of the testimony, therefore, must be
specific rather than universal, and persuasive rather than

By specific, I mean pointing to something to which can be

concretely known; and by persuasive, I mean explaining the story
in such a way that people are drawn into it and want to be a part
of it themselves.

Testimony was a central part of the faith communities that are

highlighted in the Bible. Over and over again we are met with the
instructions to "Tell of God's great deeds." It is, indeed, this
peculiar God who creates life from barren wombs (Genesis 21:1-
7), sets slaves free from captivity (Exodus 15:20-21), and gives
bread from heaven to those starving in the wilderness (Exodus
16:13-18), to name a few things. And so the people of God are
called upon as witnesses in a public courtroom, as it were, to
testify to any and everyone that "The Lord has done great things
for us" (Psalm 126:3).

Christian theology asserts that God is both transcendent and

immanent, both beyond us and with us. To leave God "above the
fray" is to neglect a major facet of who God has disclosed himself
to be. If the immanence of God is neglected long enough, your
sermons will divulge into the lofty platitudes that leave people
unmoved, unchallenged, and unchanged.

Instead, use your sermon as an opportunity to point to a peculiar

God, and summon specific people with a concrete challenge that
can be appropriated in particular ways.
Elements of a STICKY Sermon: Kerygma

Kerygma is not a word that is on everyone's lips these days. So I'll

start off by giving a little background about what it means and
what I mean by including it in the list of elements that increase
"The Stickiness Factor" of a sermon.

My first encounter with the

word kerygma came in A
Theology of the New
Testament by George
Ladd. In that book, he
identifies kerygma as:
"[T]he early church's
proclamation of Christ" (p.

Granted, a quick trip

through church history will yield a few variations on the meaning
of the word - some highlighting this or that particular aspect; but
for our present purposes, this simple description gets us going in
the right direction.

Kerygma (pronounced "ker-ig-ma") is a Greek word, which, in

verb form, refers to a proclamation or announcement. In later
Christian theological discourse, the word took the shape of a
noun. It was used as shorthand for the irreducible claims of
Christianity, which were made from its earliest days.

When the verb form and the noun form are joined, the word takes
on a whole new layer of meaning. So it's within reason to offer a
present-day, working-definition of the Christian Kerygma as:
The lean proclamation that emerges when the historical
events that converged on Jesus are systematized and
invested with theological significance.

Every proclamation or announcement (Christian or otherwise) has

an aim, a goal, an agenda, something it seeks to accomplish as a
result of people hearing the utterance. The Christian Kerygma is
no different. Its aim is for all people everywhere to "confess with
their mouths that 'Jesus is Lord' and believe in their hearts that
God raised him from the dead, so as to be saved" (see Romans
10:9). The kerygma achieves what it set out to do when, on the
basis of the proclamation, people turn from their customary ways
of thinking, being, and doing, and replace them with ways that are
congruent with new life in the Kingdom of God.

So the kerygma was part of early Christianity's proclamation

about Jesus, and they used that proclamation to bring about
repentance and faith in those who heard it. But what can we say
about the content of the Christian Kerygma?

Another way to ask the question is: What did the early Christians
proclaim to the non-Christians about the theological significance
of the historical events of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection?

C.H. Dodd attempted to answer that question by filling up the

content of the Christian Kerygma using early New Testament
records of preaching from the Apostles Paul and Peter.

On the basis of his conclusions, I insist that the ancient Christian

Kerygma was comprised of five basic propositions (rooted in Old
Testament Expectations):
1) "The Age to Come" has been inaugurated in the midst of the
"Present Evil Age."

2) This has happened through the life, death, and resurrection of

Jesus the Messiah (Christos in Greek, which means, "anointed

3) Through his resurrection, this Jesus has been vindicated,

exalted, and enthroned at the right hand of God the Father as "the
Christ," the rightful Lord of the world.

4) The Holy Spirit is the present sign of Christ's presence and

power among us.

5) The "Age to Come" will reach its consummation when Christ is

revealed from heaven, at which time all the living and dead will be
justly judged.

Then, on the basis of these 5 statements, an appeal is made for

people to "repent, believe, and be baptized."

Therefore, I place kerygma in the list of elements that make for a

sticky sermon because preachers are not merely to drone on with
bare facts about what did or didn't happen. Rather, they must
seek to explain the significance of the historical events
surrounding Jesus in a way that can convince and convert those
who are presently standing outside the community of Christian

Whereas the previous element -"Challenge" - was posed to

"insiders," the kerygma is the directed toward "outsiders." It must
be noted, though, that this is only one element of a sticky sermon.
Despite the tendencies of some pastors/churches/denominations,
we must remember that this is NOT the main element or the only
element of the sermon. But also, despite the tendencies of other
pastors/churches/denominations, we must remember that it is an
element nonetheless.

Two Possible Objections:

1) Isn't that intolerant?

My Response: No. I'm approaching the sermon and the kerygma

element within it as being given at a particular time in a particular
setting, which is decidedly NOT on a street corner - or anywhere
else - to disinterested passersby.

Further, when people who are not Christians show up in the midst
of Christians who are gathered for worship, they are not expecting
a music concert, a tailgate party, a coffeehouse conversation
(though some sort of planned interaction is certainly a good thing),
or anything else of the sort. And if they are expecting those types
of experiences, they won't be around for long because neither the
church's purpose nor its budget can sustain such things for very

Instead, they show up at a Christian church because they want to

know about the God whom Christians worship as the one true
God. The Christian Kerygma meets people where they are,
speaks in terms they understand, and allows them to walk away in
unrepentant unbelief is they so desire. That is not intolerant.

2) Must the Christian Kerygma be so specific?

My Response: Yes. In a time in which many Americans - including
churchgoing Americans - have embraced Gnosticism in its harder
and softer forms, Baha’i (even if they don’t call it that), and various
forms of deism, it matters that we are clear on the content of what
we, as Christians, believe transpired theologically in the historical
events surrounding Jesus and the difference it makes for us

If we fail to do so, we will unwittingly present a watered-down

gospel that leaves everything "as-is." William Willimon, a United
Methodist Bishop in Alabama, points this out. In his book, The
Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, he insists, "As
Christians, as the church, we have demanded so little....We have
transformed the faith into an insipid soufflé' with all air and no
nourishment, a sweet placebo which cures nothing because it
challenges no one....This dull, domesticated, impotent version of
the faith is a heresy which mocks the Christianity for which people
once bled" (p. 59).
Elements of a STICKY Sermon: Yearning

For this element, I have in mind the delivery

of the sermon. The light-hearted flippancy
that characterizes many sermons today
does little to cause people to take inventory
of their lives (the whole integration of
thoughts and actions related to vocation,
occupation, recreation, relationships, and
finances) and realign them with the dream
of God.

Our time is one of increased "spirituality" in which the humanistic

arrogance of modernity, which sought to pave concrete over all
mystery and grandeur (except for that which pointed to our own
assumed excellencies), is giving way to an increased awareness
that human beings are more than the sum total of our biological
parts. The upshot of this, though, is that people are grasping on to
anything that has even the scene of "the divine."

Therefore, the present eagerness of people to embrace

spirituality must be matched by an equally authentic
earnestness of the preacher, by which he asserts what the
Christian message is, why it matters, and how it makes

Charles Spurgeon, known as the "Prince of Preachers" in 19th

century London, once told his ministry students, "If I were asked -
What in a Christian minister is the most essential quality for
securing success in winning souls for Christ? I should reply,
'earnestness': and if I were asked a second or third time, I should
not vary the answer, for personal observation drives to the
conclusion that, as a rule, real success is proportionate to the
preacher's earnestness" (Lectures to My Students, 305).

John Piper, who embodies this idea, echoes the words of

Spurgeon. He writes, "I want to give as strong a conviction as
words can convey that the work of preaching is to be done in
blood-earnestness" (The Supremacy of God in Preaching, 54).

What he calls "blood-earnestness," he later brands as "gravity."

What's all this talk about blood, earnestness, and gravity?

Piper explains, "Intensity of feeling, the weight of argument, a

deep and pervading solemnity of mind, a savor of the power of
godliness, fervency of spirit, zeal for God - these are the marks of
the 'gravity of preaching'" (Ibid., 54). This is also what I have in
mind when I say "yearning."

This yearning for God to be glorified through the joyous obedience

of his people was a hallmark of sticky preaching in the bygone era
of the 17th and 18th centuries.

There's a story in circulation of a man who comes across David

Hume, the 18th century philosopher, on the street one day in
London. The man asked Hume where he was headed. Hume
replied that he was going to hear George Whitefield preach. "But
surely," his acquaintance asked, "you don't believe what
Whitefield preaches, do you?" "No, I don't, " answered Hume, "but
he does" (John Stott, Between Two Worlds, 269-270).

There is a direct connection between the conveyance of

sincere passion and deep thought and sermons that resonate
with people, draw them in, and keep them engaged.
There are many people among us whose lives consist of moving
from one amusement to the next - paying, playing, and paying
some more. For those who recognize that such a strategy for life
offers a truncated version of lasting joy, an encounter with a
message of love, restoration, and hope that calls them to
something greater than themselves will be a welcome off-ramp
back to "the land of the living."

People do not respond in meaningful ways to bare facts or trite

slogans. Bare facts rarely make their way into the heart, and trite
slogans rarely hold up in the face of trials. Instead, people
respond when thoughtful arguments for truth are delivered
with sincere passion and nuanced clarity, and supplemented
with a life of humble authenticity to match.

The people of God assemble to hear a holy utterance that

reshapes life for some, and reaffirms life for others. The thing they
are not there to hear is a comedy routine full of meaningless one-

So, as a pastor, you must use the sermon as an opportunity to

plead and call for people to believe, become, and do that which
brings honor and glory to God. To do anything less is to waste
your breath and their time.