Lane Sebring on Elements of Killer Sermons
Coming out of seminary, Lane saw that much of the focus was on having a biblically accurate sermon about the life and teachings of Jesus, but there wasn’t much help for how to best communicate those teachings. Too many people aren’t really hearing the words their pastor is saying so the point of the sermon doesn’t quite hit home. Preaching Donkey started from an idea Lane had on helping pastors learn how to better communicate their messages so that their congregation really hears and absorbs the teachings. The title of Lane’s website, Preaching Donkey, comes from the story of Balaam’s donkey in the book of Numbers, where God spoke through the donkey. Lane says, “If God can speak through a donkey, He can speak through us.” Today Lane is here to share just a few of the things Preaching Donkey encourages for communicating biblical truths today.
- The communicator is always thinking about the listener. // The communicator thinks more about the listener whereas the preacher tends to thinks about the text first, the text second, and the text last. The text is primary and there should be focus on preaching the Word, but also important in preparing and communicating a sermon is considering “who am I talking to?” Without knowing your audience well, it’s difficult to connect with them on a deeper level. Understanding the concerns and challenges of your audience will help you know how best to communicate a biblical message each week that they can put into action.
- Communication is team-driven. // If you’ve used the same method to communicate your message over the years, chances are your “well” is at risk of running dry. At Preaching Donkey, they encourage a preparation method that’s team-driven. Having a team that helps contribute ideas while you prep your sermons will generate fresh content each week. Furthermore, it can help keep the listener in mind as the content is being developed. Together, the team will look at the content of the message or the series, while keeping in mind the objective of the message and desired response of the listeners. By having a team focusing on not only the content, but what you want people to do with the sermon after they hear it, you’re much more likely to achieve the desired goals. “Many times, thinking about the end and the listener is an afterthought. We just push it to the forefront,” Lane says.
- Build a team that works for you. // Some churches have formal teams that meet at a set time each week and work through a rehearsal of the message before weekend services. These teams can consist of pastors with various roles at the church. That may work well in larger churches with bigger staffs, but it doesn’t always work as well for smaller churches. However smaller churches can also use the team method – just in a more informal fashion. The lead pastor can form his own small group of lay leaders or volunteers who have an interest in the message and its communication. These people could meet over coffee or even just chat over email and bounce ideas around. Find a method that works for you and for your church. Most importantly, consistently reach out to your team for honest and specific feedback after weekend services. All of these things will serve to help you deliver weekly sermons that drive the people in your care toward growth and next steps.
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00:34 // Rich introduces Lane Sebring and welcomes him to the show.
01:33 // Lane talks about his background and Preaching Donkey.
02:48 // Lane explains the reasoning behind the name Preaching Donkey.
04:29 // Lane talks about sermon preparation and presentation.
08:00 // Rich and Lane discuss the involvement of preaching teams to support sermon preparation.
09:58 // Lane highlights successful communication styles.
13:47 // Rich and Lane discuss and give examples of the importance of gaining honest and consistent feedback.
19:32 // Rich and Lane discuss rehearsing sermons as part of the preparation process.
21:14 // Lane introduces his book and offers his contact information.
Helpful Tech Tools // Logos Bible Software. Evernote. Feedly. Pocket. Overdrive.
Ministries Following // Life.Church out of Oklahoma City, Craig Groeschel
Influential Book // Leading Change Without Losing It by Carey Nieuwhof
Inspiring Leader // Craig Groeschel
What does he do for fun // Family. Working in the yard. Reading and writing. Travelling to anywhere warm. Netflix.
Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast, my name’s Rich, the host around these parts. I am so glad that you’ve decided to spend some time with us, I know that you’ve got a lot going on and we’re honored that you would take some time out, to spend with us today. I think you’re going to love today’s conversation because we’re talking with the Donkey, Lane Sebring. Welcome to the show Lane.
Lane – Hey, it’s good to be here.
Rich – Lane’s a great leader. I really hope, if you’re listening in today, that you’ll get a chance to plug in with what he’s got going on. He’s got a great name for his site, preachingdonkey.com, really talking to communicators, people who are passionate about communicating the message of Jesus and I think Lane, he’s one of these guys you should be following and paying attention to. He’s got some great practical help, in a lot of ways I feel like Preaching Donkey has a great resonance with some of what we’re doing at unSeminary, obviously not the same, but similar; just trying to help other church leaders out. So Lane, I’m just glad that you’re here today.
Why did you start Preaching Donkey, tell me about that?
Lane – That’s a great question and thanks for having me on the show, I really love your podcast.
Preaching Donkey is a fan of all things unSeminary.
Rich – That’s nice.
Lane – We just love you guys and everything you put out is just really helpful to the church communities, so thank you for that and thanks for having me on the show.
Preaching Donkey started as this idea: When I was in college, in my undergraduate degree I did communications and learned the basic principles of what it takes to connect with human beings.
Then I went to seminary and I learned how to bore everyone with the bible and if you’re in seminary, and I don’t mean that as an insult, I’m just saying, I just saw, coming out of seminary, there was so much emphasis on what is important, absolutely you know, biblical acts of Jesus and accurately walking people through a text and having a basic accurate sermon. But I started to realize that there wasn’t that much of an emphasis on how to clearly communicate those ideas and I just started to write these ideas down and write these things down that I thought, “This might be helpful to look at this from a different angle.”
I’m not the first one to ever do this, but I just started blogging and just started podcasting and we’ve got some people who are connecting with our material. It comes from that idea of, most pastors, when they finish the message, they ask the question, “Did I say all of the words that I needed to say?” Which is not a good question to ask. The better question to ask is, “Did they hear what they needed to hear, so that they can do something with it?”
Rich – That is so good.
Lane – So communication is the primary principle that kind of fuels Preaching Donkey.
Rich – I love it. Why is it called Preaching Donkey?
Lane – Okay, so in Numbers 22 there’s a story, very familiar if you know the Old Testament narratives, of a donkey named Balaam, who God spoke through this donkey and… I’m sorry, Balaam was the man, but his donkey, spoke to him and God used this donkey to communicate a message.
So we just say, at Preaching Donkey, if God can speak through a donkey, he can speak through us, and we find a lot of encouragement in that and we don’t take ourselves too seriously because God used a donkey one time and he may go back to doing that. But right now he uses people.
Rich – When I was a kid, Balaam’s donkey story was one of those that you’d look up because in the King James it said, “Balaam’s Ass,” which was just great.
Lane – Right.
Rich – When you’re a junior high kid, that’s the kind of stuff, that and Song of Solomon is just great stuff to look up.
Lane – Oh yeah. We used to sit in church and just find those versus and it would pass the time.
Rich – Yeah, that’s fantastic. When I was in school, the preaching class I was in, it was like a radical idea at the time, I don’t think it’s a radical idea today, but at the time, our preaching prof. would roll out David Letterman VHS tapes that we’d watch. At the time that was such a radical idea like, “Oh my goodness, we have to look at how people in the culture are communicating.”
Let’s kind of unpack that a little bit, what would you say are some of those ways that maybe the traditional seminary approach to sermon preparation and presentation maybe isn’t covering it, isn’t doing what it needs to do. What are some of those things, that you’ve had in your system, or you encourage in your system, really for communicators?
Lane – Well I think part of it has to do with the communicators always thinking about the listener. Whereas the preacher tends to think about the text first, the text second, the text last. Really the text does come first, the text is primary. We need to be preaching the word and some people have confused Preaching Donkey and our message for being not that, and we are so far away from saying that you shouldn’t preach the word. We’re all about preaching the word and we actually think that preaching the word is so important that it needs to get across.
So communication and preparation of the sermon begins with the idea of, “Who am I talking to?” If I’m speaking to a group of people and I know them and they know me and I can connect with them on this level, then I know what would apply to them, I know what will connect with them, I know what they care about, what they don’t care about. So beginning to think about the listener.
I think also, preparation typically, what you’ve found traditionally is that the pastor would go into a room, like Moses walking up to a mountain right? He would go into a room and he would sit in there for 20 hours, and a lot of pastors would pride themselves on, “It takes me 30 hours a week to prepare. Just me in a room with my books and my bible and my brain and my God. Then I come out and I say, ‘Thus sayeth the Lord’.”
Rich – Right.
Lane – What happens, if you do that week after week, year after year for decades, you really start to draw from a dry well. It’s just you and your thoughts and sure you’re reading things, but you are constantly just giving out of the same thing. So we encourage a preparation method that’s team driven.
If you think about everything we do in churches, especially these days, it’s all team driven. If you’re not working in teams, you’re not doing what you should be doing; equipping people and working in teams. So the preparation process for the sermon actually begins with a team of people that are looking at the same content, the text, looking at the message series, if you teach them series, which obviously we recommend that. Then looking at, what is the objective and desired response for this sermon and for the series as a whole?
So what is an objective, how do we define that? Objectives for a sermon is, what do we want the sermon to do? So if I’m preaching a message and I don’t what I want my sermon to do, then it’s really confusing for me when I go to prepare. So I want to know what the sermon is supposed to do. The desired response is, what are people supposed to do with the sermon, right? So I need to know very clearly, what the sermon does and what people do with it?
So those two things, I feel like, when you’re contrasting it with a more traditional approach, a lot of times, thinking about the end and listener is really, kind of an afterthought and we just say, “Push it to the forefront.”
Rich – Very cool. One thing I’ve noticed, I’ve had the privilege over the years of interacting with some very large churches that have had great impact and one of the interesting things, there is that notion of like the lone pastor that goes up onto the hill, but actually the pattern I’ve seen, pretty consistently in large kind of named brand churches, is preaching is a team sport. They have a group of people around them that are helping with the content; some of that’s staff, some of that’s volunteers. Although at the end of day, they’re the one that’s going to stand up and actually deliver the message, there’s typically a group of people around them.
On that, what are you seeing work? Let’s say it’s maybe a smaller church, a few hundred people, how can they kind of get more people involved in the preparation process, even on the frontend, to get people plugged in on the team side?
Lane – That’s a great question, because that comes a lot when we talk about this and write about it. People will say, “Sure that’s great if you’ve got a staff of a hundred people, you can pull anybody you want. What do you do if you have a church of a hundred people?”
What I say is, an outline, kind of a method in the book that came out May 3rd, about how to build a team informally. Because when we think about a preaching team, it’s this big, heavy, “Okay, does that mean we have to meet…?” Like our preaching team meets every Monday, we meet at 2 o’clock and it’s a set amount of people. Not every team needs to look like that. It could be an informal group of people that you have reached out to and invited them into the mysterious world of sermon preparation, where maybe just at some point during the week, you bounce your ideas around with them over coffee, or you do it over email.
Rich – Yeah.
Lane – I think most pastors would be surprised to find out how many people in their church are actually very intrigued by the content that’s created and when you start to invite people into that, a lot of times what you’ll find is people will say, “Yeah, I have ideas,” and it’s important to reach out to the right people and it’s important to reach out to people that are thoughtful and have the same vision that you do and support the church. But when you find those people, it doesn’t always have to be a meeting in person, once a week.
Rich – That’s a good flag for sure.
Lane – Yeah.
Rich – And even passing ideas around on email or like, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing a thing in the summertime on the Book of John, but I’m kind of stuck on it. This is what I’m wrestling with. What do you think?” Finding that group of people, whether it’s, like you say, formal or informal.
On the delivery side, there was a time when compelling communication was standing behind a very large wood lectern and screaming at the top of your lungs, that’s changed. What are you seeing on that front, from a Preaching Donkey point of view? What are you seeing, on a delivery point of view, that maybe people could be thinking about?
Lane – I think one of the recent interviews that you did, I think back in April, where you had a guy talking about teams and he was mentioning, just even your volunteer teams, they’re not thinking about church until 9am Sunday morning.
Rich – If you’re lucky.
Lane – You’re thinking about it 7 days a week. They think about it at 9am and they’ve got to be there at 9:15.
Rich – Yeah.
Lane – And they’re volunteers, they’re the ones who are actually in the trenches doing ministry.
So if you think about the entire congregation on a Sunday morning or a Saturday night or wherever you meet, most people are walking in there and they’re thinking about anything and everything other than your sermon. Where most pastors get it wrong is, because they’re so excited, we spend a whole week or 2 or 3, for Andy Stanley you’re 3 weeks ahead, so he’s been thinking about his message for 3 weeks.
Rich – Yeah.
Lane – We spend all this time thinking about this material that’s about to just burst out of us, and we have to really think, “Are the people there yet?” And the reality is, some are, most aren’t. So it’s really your job to create interest.
So with a little bit of knowledge of how people receive information and make decisions, I think a preacher can really affect the hearts and minds of the listeners.
One of the principles that we outline in the book is, getting people to care before they know. Getting people to care before they know. A lot of pastors come out with the knowledge, right? That’s where we get the old adage, 3 points and a poem; make the points, give a poem. The points are supposed to be the information that they, “Oh yes, that’s true.” Then the poem is supposed to be the thing that really moves their heart and then you go on from there.
The problem with that method, and that’s kind of an old way of doing it, not wrong or right, it’s just one of the methods, but Aristotle’s theory of communication suggests that there are basically 3 ways that people connect with a message. There needs to be ethos, pathos and logos.
So ethos is the credibility of the speaker. So they have to trust you, they have to know that you have a trustworthy message. Then pathos, you have to move them on an emotional level. Then logos, it has to make sense logically and it has to be something that connects with their mind.
So a lot of times, pastors have the ethos, because maybe it’s their church and they know them. So then it’s down to pathos and logos, but a lot of pastors will hit the logos really hard, “Here are the points. Here are the facts. Here’s the propositional truth. Here’s the text, the text, the text.”
Rich – “Here’s the sticky statement.”
Lane – Right and then at the end of it they say, “Okay, how can we get people to care about this?” and that’s inverted.
Darlene Price wrote a great book called, Well Said! She outlines how, basically the way humans make decisions and psychology and a lot of research backs this up, is most people make decisions on emotions first and then they have the facts. They get the facts later.
So for example, if you go to a car dealership, the car dealer’s not going to walk up to you and say, “Hey, the payments on this are $399 a month, over 72 months and you could do it because the interest rate’s really low.” He’s not going to get there.
Rich – Right.
Lane – What he’s going to do is, he’s going to say, “Wow, you would look great in that car wouldn’t you? That car would look great on you. You would make the road shine with that car. Can you imagine…?” Then once you’re emotionally connected, then we’re going to sit down and talk about financing, but right now, I need to get you emotionally invested in this car.
So as a communicator, you have to, Andy Stanley calls it building tension, in his kind of gold standard book, Communicating for a Change. He talks about it as building tension, you have to get people to care before they’re interested in knowing what you have to say.
Rich – Very cool, very cool. As we continue on, the backend, after a message happens, what are church leaders dong to ensure that it’s actually making an impact? Part of what I love that you’re pushing us here, is to think through, let’s start with, “Is it making an impact on our people?” What are church leaders doing or what should we be doing to kind of gain feedback about our messages?
Lane – Like anything else, you just have to get honest and regular and consistent feedback.
Rich – Right.
Lane: I think this is especially difficult for a lot of senior pastors, because most people around you work for you and if you don’t really set up a culture where they know that you are okay receiving feedback, even if it’s a critique, then you’re just never going to hear it.
The feedback you get from your congregation can be helpful, but a lot of times what we talk about at Preaching Donkey is, positive feedback is usually very general, “Hey great sermon.” Means nothing, kind of encouraging, but doesn’t really help you. Negative feedback is usually pretty specific, “Your sermon was so awful, I wanted to die,” or, “What you said here was so bad I cringed and I hated you for it.” So not helpful either and kind of discouraging.
So there is something in the middle to get honest and reliable feedback. This is where you preaching team comes into play. At our preaching team meetings, we do a fair amount of evaluation of the previous week’s sermon. We seek feedback in every possible way. One of the things I teach pastors to do is, if someone comes up to you after a sermon and it’s not going to be awkward and they say, “Hey, your sermon really touched me,” most pastors say, “Thank you. It was God, it was God.” Then they move on and they never ask, “Why?”
It’s so helpful, in that moment when someone has really been moved by your sermon, if it’s not going to be uncomfortable, just say, “Can you just tell me what about it? What was helpful?” And a lot of times people will share, “Well when you said this, it just impacted me in this way,” and if you get enough of those conversations, you start to realize what works and what doesn’t.
Then the same is true, if somebody walks up and says, “Your sermon, I just felt like it was bad,” or whatever, “Okay, well help me understand. What made that negative impact on you?”
Rich – Yes.
Lane – Anyway, consistent feedback is really helpful.
Rich – Absolutely. In our church we have a thing we call, Thursday Night Gospel Hour. It’s kind of a tongue in cheek name because it’s never just an hour, but what we do is, whoever’s preaching this weekend…
So this is led by our lead guy, Tim Lucas, a great preacher, a great communicator. Every week he preaches the entire message for a small group of us. There’s kind of a consistent core, there’s our secondary communicator, there’s myself, there’s at least one person from our creating graphics design department and then it may rotate, other people may come through. He full on preaches it, he preaches it as if there’s a thousand people in the room. So he delivers it as is.
We do a lot of props, he does a lot of like, he uses stuff on stage. Part of it is, he wants to make sure that that all works out, just even physically, but the amazing thing about it, he’s an accomplished communicator, we then literally go, page by page, he preaches from a manuscript. Then literally, after we give kind of overall feedback and then go page by page on… and some of it is big stuff.
This happened a couple of weeks ago, where it was like, “Tim you’re preaching two different messages here. You’ve got this whole thing and that whole thing, you need to get rid of one of them, pick one or the other, you don’t need to do both.” Or some of it is literally just like, “When you said that, that makes you sound really old,” or like, “You keep using ‘90s TV references. Seinfeld’s been off the air for 20 years, stop talking about Seinfeld.”
The amazing thing, as a person who gets the privilege of giving that feedback, I’m always like, “Man that says a lot that he’s open to that kind of feedback, that he’s willing to take that.”
Lane – It does.
Rich – But you know what, I see it, it makes him a better communicator and as a person who’s been on the receiving end of that, when I’ve preached and had that feedback, it’s invaluable, because you get inside your message and you can’t get any perspective on it.
Lane – That’s one of the coolest ideas I’ve heard in a long time. I love that, I think that’s fantastic; a Thursday night pre-sermon. That’s brilliant. Do you guys do Saturday night?
Rich – Sunday morning. At this point we don’t do any Saturday night. I don’t know anyone that does it as robust as us. We bump into other church leaders, where they talk about like after their first service, they have a group of people that will come in group room and talk through it.
Lane – Yeah.
Rich – I’m always like, “Why wait until then?” So you’ve just punished your first service, why not do it ahead of time of that?
Now I think a big part of that, the point I was trying to make is to open up senior leaders and communicators, to be open to that feedback and open to that evaluation is important as you look to the future in your communication.
Lane – I think in your situation, he probably led the way in that.
Rich – Absolutely important.
Lane – Senior pastors need to take a step and lead the way.
Rich – Yeah absolutely. The only reason why we do it is because he set it up. Now what has happened, the interesting thing that’s happened is, over the years, because we use that every time a campus pastor speaks, if a youth guy gets up and speaks, they all go through it. We now have an approach, a system of preaching. Like we have benchmarks for what we’re trying to accomplish through it and that’s because he’s had to articulate it over the years, but it’s now replicateable. It’s now able to say, “Hey this is when you do a message at our church, this is what it’s going to look like.” I’m talking too much.
Lane – No, I love that because of the consistency. One of the things we talk about at Preaching Donkey is having a schedule and I know benchmarks for what you want to accomplish is a little bit different, but if you know on Monday what has to be done, and on Tuesday what has to be done in the rehearsal…
Rich – Yeah, right.
Lane – So Thursday night you guys do the rehearsal. I rehearse my sermons on Thursday afternoon, I do it to an empty room and you’ve got my head spinning because I really should do it to a full room or to at least 5 or 6 people. But I want to say one thing really quick if we have time about rehearsing.
Rich – Yeah.
Lane – Your worship leader and your worship team is going to rehearse the same song 57 times, right?
Rich – That’s a very good point.
Lane – A song that someone else wrote and they’ve done 5 times already and they’re going to replicate that process week after week after week. Why? When they get up they want to know exactly what to expect, they want to be able to deliver that song dynamically and impactfully.
Pastors, what will happen is they’ll say, “Well I’ve been preaching for a long time, I know what I’m doing,” and they write it and they just get up and they go and I want to know exactly what to expect.
Rich – Yeah.
Lane – And I want to hear myself say it, because a lot of times I’ll hear it and I’ll go, “That is not what I intended for it to sound like,” or it transitions. A lot of things get lost in transition from A to B there’s non sequiturs, and you can clean a lot of that up in rehearsal.
So I recommend to everyone, even if you can’t set up a team like that yet, get in an empty room, as awkward at it is, take your notes, take your PowerPoint, whatever you use, and preach as if there’s a thousand people in the room.
Rich – Absolutely, that’s good. I think a few months ago, there was that gaff that Andy Stanley had, where he was kind of making fun at small churches and all that, which I’m like, I haven’t said this on the show, I’m like, “Ps people, give him a break. Come on, he’s a huge supporter of all kinds of churches and has one misstep in a message and people jump all over him.”
Lane – Right.
Rich – But it’s interesting, the way I chalked that up to was, there’s a guy who doesn’t do the kind of rehearsal thing, he’s speaking from points, gets up there and your mind gets going and things come out of your mouth.
Lane – Right.
Rich – And when you’re Andy Stanley, who none of us are, as gifted as he is, you can get away with it, but none of us are that.
Before we move on with the rest of the episode, anything else you want to share?
Lane – Well I just want to share with your listeners if I could?
Rich – Yes.
Lane – I’ve got a book, it came out May 3rd. It’s called Preaching Killer Sermons; how to create and delivery messages that captivate and inspire.
Rich – Love it.
Lane – So a lot of the principles that we outlined in the show today are laid out in that book.
You can also find us at @PreachingDonkey on Twitter. On Facebook Preaching Donkey and preachingdonkey.com.
I also just want to say, one of the things that happens when you start talking about preaching is people say, “Well, is that the only thing there is. Do you think that’s all there is in church?” And I’ll just say, “I love leading. I love everything about the local church. I love leaders. I love pastors.”
So as there’s been this needed emphasis on leadership and it’s everywhere, I wanted to kind of raise the awareness of our preaching and say, “Let’s not forget our purpose here, to really deliver a message. The most important message in the world.”