The Moment and the Message
Creating memorable and meaningful worship services, especially during the holidays
I clearly remember my first sermon. As a 16-year-old just getting my feet wet in ministry, I was a ball of nervous energy. I was excited to receive a chance to share from my heart — and scared I would mess it all up. I spent weeks preparing, writing and going over my notes.
The result was a message that trailed at times but perhaps hit a note once or twice. The most jarring part was my lack of a conclusion. I reached the end of my notes and said, “Well, that’s about it.” Afterward, my youth pastor congratulated me and offered some advice. (He was also an English teacher, so he knew a thing or two about communication.)
“Most of my students fail to include a conclusion to their speeches,” he said gently.
That stuck with me.
In the years since, I’ve focused a lot of energy on ending messages well. I know I’m not alone. I’ve attended meetings where we spent nearly an hour discussing the last five minutes of a sermon. Some preachers see the conclusion as the most important part of a sermon.
The prevailing thought is that listeners are most likely to remember the last thing you say.
While neglecting the conclusion isn’t a good idea, I now realize it’s not necessarily the most crucial part of the message.
There are other opportunities to make your sermon memorable and meaningful. Instead of thinking about sermons in terms of outlines — three points and a conclusion — why not approach them as a series of moments?
Take a Moment
Think back to last Christmas. What do you remember most? It might be a special gift you gave or received, a great meal, or just the time you spent with family. The long lines on Black Friday and the cleanup after the kids ripped open their packages probably aren’t the first things that come to mind. Your takeaway was likely the moments in the middle.
The memories we make are selective. After that holiday, you won’t remember the dull moments. You’ll think back on the exciting ones. This is how our memories work to make meaningful experiences.
Chip and Dan Heath capture this idea in their book The Power of Moments. They write about how companies and leaders use moments to engage their staff, enhance their customer experience, and encourage real change. They define a moment as “a short experience that is both memorable and meaningful.”
Your entire weekend worship service should include memorable and meaningful aspects. Meaningful in the sense that your attendees will have opportunities to encounter God. Memorable in the sense they will leave with something that will encourage and challenge them the rest of the week.
And what better time of year to make meaningful and memorable moments than Christmas?
You have limited time during a Christmas service to reach those first-time visitors. Harness the power of moments to make it count.
In their research, the Heaths found that most people do not remember the beginning or end of an event. They seem to filter out mundane occurrences. We remember the things that define the experience as a whole. If you have a good dinner, you might recall one specific bite of medium rare steak.
Moments can enhance meaning. How people feel about an event depends on the moments they encounter along the way. Sometimes it’s just one moment. Without moments that stand out, the memory is formless. In other words, there is no real meaning to it. It’s like remembering a work day last week when nothing of note happened. You know you went to the office, had lunch, had a conversation or two, but nothing really left a defining impression.
Thinking in Moments
When we lack focus in our church gatherings, the entire service can be directionless. But when we think in moments, we can focus efforts in a specific direction and create an experience that will spark life-change. This leads to worship services that are both memorable and meaningful. Let’s consider how to do that with your upcoming Christmas services.
Andy Stanley teaches a focused direction of sermons in his book Communicating for a Change. Instead of multiple points with different applications and various ideas, choose one idea and shape the entire sermon to fit it.
Craig Groeschel likewise advocates for a defining purpose behind each sermon. He suggests asking three questions: What do I want people to know? What do I want them to do? How do I want them to feel? This helps develop one clear main idea.
Once you have a singular point for your Christmas message, begin shaping the moment or moments of the message and the entire service around that idea. Without a clearly defined point, you will simply build moments that are creative for creativity’s sake. You may attract attention, but where is it focused?
After deciding on the one main point to build a moment or moments around, start thinking in moments. This requires some creativity and collaboration. Getting team members on the same page is crucial.
But what does it really mean to think in terms of moments? The Heaths point out four elements that define the power of moments: elevation, insight, pride and connection. Use any — or all — of these when planning out the moments of your worship service and message.
Elevation is a deep feeling of delight that rises above the ordinary. Receiving a Christmas card from an old friend or unpacking an heirloom ornament your grandmother gave you could spark a sense of elevation. How can you make your service similarly special?
When we gain new knowledge of ourselves or the world around us, that’s insight. It may be accompanied by an inspirational quote or story. It can also produce meaningful action.
When you experience great achievement, you are surely filled with pride. You might remember or even relive those moments by looking at an old ribbon or trophy from a first-place finish, a report card with all A’s, or even a thank you note from a church member.
Connection may be the most powerful element. When we share these experiences together, it heightens both appreciation and reflection. That’s why holidays are so difficult for those who have no family. And it’s also why creating a service that involves connecting with others is so important.
This article zeroes in on how the power of moments can be utilized in preaching at Christmas, but it’s important to realize moments can be used in other areas of ministry as well. Think about these four elements and how they can be implemented throughout your church. You might just find a greater response from your people as you think in moments each time.
Messages and Moments
How do we use moments in our preaching? How do we think in moments? I believe the best way is to process the service and sermon systematically. As you walk through the service, find ways that using a moment will strike the most memorable and meaningful note.
When you consider it in order, you’ll find three areas where thinking in moments has an impact on your message. First, your sermon is a moment in the worship service as a whole, and can be thought of as the moment. Second, your sermon should include at least one moment. Third, your sermon should be leading to a single moment of response at the conclusion.
Creating a moment or moments in your Christmas message is not about putting on a show. It’s about preaching to a point.
Let’s look at each of these. As you read, consider your next sermon or worship service and how thinking in moments can make it that much better.
A sermon is the moment of the worship service. As the lead communicator, it is easy to suggest that the message is the moment each worship service builds toward. That comes from a commitment to preach the gospel to those who would hear (Romans 10:14). On the other hand, what does that say about every other part of the service or ministry in your church?
One day I was speaking with the small groups pastor at the church where I was working. I off-handedly mentioned something I had heard our senior pastor say — that the weekend sermon was the major focus of the whole service. In fact, in his view, it was the culmination of an entire week’s worth of work. Our small groups pastor begged to differ.
I understood the small groups pastor’s point of view. After all, when you have so many different ministries in church vying for attention, it seems discouraging or counterproductive to assign any of them a secondary place. However, there is something central to the preaching of the gospel in our churches.
If our goal is spiritual formation, bringing people into closer relationship with God, then how can we make the most of each worship service? Dr. Stephanie Nance, adult spiritual formation pastor at Chapel Springs Church (Assemblies of God) in Bristow, Virginia, suggests we can have both diverse ministries and a focus on preaching.
“In a worship service, people should sense they’ve stepped into something moving them somewhere from where they are,” she says.
That’s where thinking in moments comes into play.
“People are often vulnerable before God and willing to move, so we must give much care to the process,” Nance says.
Using your sermon as a place for such moments can produce that desired movement. That’s why it’s so critical to not assume a sermon during a Christmas service is just filler. It can become the moment of transformation for anyone listening.
“God’s Word continues to form, shaping and bringing forth people into what He is calling them to become through and in Christ,” she says.
And it’s the sermon that echoes the very words of God. The sermon itself may be the most instrumental moment you can create each week.
However, we need to temper our enthusiasm somewhat. Nance points out that focusing too much attention on the message may not be wrong, but it is limiting. She suggests that while preaching may have a prominent place, it should also be seen as one movement among others in any given worship service. All of these parts should flow well together.
It’s not just about creating a moment through a sermon. It’s about creating an atmosphere involving multiple ministry areas to bring your people to that moment.
When everyone is on the same page with one idea each week, your team works together, not separately. Your worship team can select songs that lead to that one idea. Your children’s ministries can line up their teaching with yours. Even your ushers have a role to play, making sure to limit distractions during that crucial moment in the message. When everyone works together, something incredible happens.
A sermon should include at least one moment. Within the sermon itself, there will be multiple opportunities to create moments. You might obviously think of illustrations, but it can just as easily include a well-worded phrase, an object lesson or even a video.
When pastors think about creating moments, humor often comes to mind. In theater, it’s known as comic relief. Essentially, during a drama, one character will say something humorous to elicit laughs and give the audience a break from the seriousness. The same goes for sermons. Comedy in a message can grab your congregation’s attention, lower their guard and prepare them for a response later.
Jeremy Johnson, lead pastor of North Point Church (AG) in Springfield, Missouri, is known for his wit. Creating funny moments in a sermon comes naturally to him. Whether it’s a well-placed joke or an engaging onstage illustration, he has a knack for drawing people in.
“I’m wired weird,” Johnson says. “I don’t know if I’m funny, but I probably am quite a bit different.”
Being different can lead to memorable moments. But it’s not always about being funny. Creating a moment or moments in your Christmas message is not about putting on a show. It’s about preaching to a point.
“Funny is an emotional part,” Johnson says. “Any call to action should stir the emotions. For me, it’s less scripted. It’s not, start funny and end serious; it’s to communicate a point. And communicate it with passion. If we can feel it, we can follow it.”
Those moments are not only memorable, they are meaningful. Because they lead to a call to action.
A sermon leads to a single moment of response. Finally, your message should lead someone to a moment, a point of decision. It’s also known as a call to action. But what exactly are we asking them to act on?
Oaks Church in the Dallas area mixes the moment of decision with discipleship pathways. As Executive Pastor Mark Brewer explains, discipleship is the central focus of all they do. It just follows that a sermon would build to a moment that creates discipleship.
“The No. 1 responsibility of each staff position is to make disciples,” Brewer says.
That includes the person delivering the message. But how well has the American church been at doing that? Not well, according to Brewer.
“In Matthew 28, Jesus gave us our orders,” Brewer says. “The Western church got the teaching part down. We’ve never been better from the pulpit, online and podcasts.”
However, making disciples begins with creating relationships. You can’t lead someone you don’t know. So getting people connected becomes a moment Oaks Church builds toward each week.
The moment of the message goes like this: Each sermon concludes with a clear explanation of the gospel. Rather than asking people to raise a hand to say a prayer, though, the preacher asks each person in the church to turn to a neighbor and ask whether he or she needs to make a decision that day. This is intentionally creating a moment each week — a decisive event that is hard to ignore.
The moment doesn’t end there. Remember, the moment is not about saying a prayer. It’s about leading toward discipleship. If the neighbor agrees he or she needs to make a decision that day, the two of them come forward together. They pray together. They then begin a discipleship program together, working through the basics of the Christian faith together.
It’s a large task. But it is meaningful and memorable for so many! Think about the impact of coming forward with someone else and then starting a discipleship relationship together. That’s a life-changing moment. And it’s all possible because of staff members who are on the same page, a pastor who is willing to be bold about it, and a congregation willing to be challenged.
Moments in and around your message can change the course of history for so many — from an inspiring quote to a call of repentance, from a funny illustration to an on-ramp to discipleship. The next message you preach can contain a moment that affects many. How will you harness the power of that moment?
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 edition of Influence magazine.