Update: Since this was published I moved to Boston and have had lots of personal experience with the “which church to visit” process. When I’m not guest preaching myself, I’d like to visit area congregations to get to know them better. When considering where to go, do I check sermon titles first? 100%. Why does it matter? Because I’m deciding what to do with my valuable time and given I have options, I want to go where the theme and preacher is most relevant for me and my family. I also know that not all speakers/preachers are of equal skill. No titles, no visit. Out of date titles? Even worse…. ~ Peter
What do you think?
I would agree that listing service themes can easily create a pick and choose mentality. I’ve had colleagues complain that listing sermon topics a month in advance for newsletters can stifle creativity and inspiration. I know ministers who have the year of services roughed out by the end of General Assembly and many many more who figure it out when the newsletter deadline comes around.
I worry when titles have to be submitted before a minister had done the development work on a service. In these cases the titles are empty shells, often lacking inspiration or a decent hook. Whatever you do, don’t let deadly dull service titles lock you into mediocre ideas that don’t inspire you.
Stories vs. Themes
To get around listing themes in advance my minister growing up, the Rev. Thomas Ahlburn, would come up with cryptic titles based on a story he wanted to share. He told me he would hunt for a story from his life or the larger world and commit to using that story in the service. He’d then build a cryptic title – and he meant it to be cryptic — based on the story. Examples: God and Grandma’s Chickens and The Catfish Confessions. He found that he had more wiggle room committing to a story versus a theme. And people love stories.
Relationships & Relevance
I I led a youth group for a total of ten years at my home congregation. Once it was established that the topics we were discussing each week were relevant, the youth stopped asking what was next. When we came to the question “Should we publish a schedule?” then answer was, nope! They said they’d come no matter what and not knowing helped. In this case it was the relationships and the relevance that drove attendance.
We accomplished relevance by having a “relevant topic” brainstorm at the beginning of each year. This entailed having a session when we would crank music and have everyone write topics on index cards. These needed to be related to moral, ethical, spiritual, religious and other life issues, spiritual practices, world religions and all things UU. After writing a handful each we’d collect, shuffle and read. That would spark more ideas. After three rounds we had a great list. After we sorted and prioritized, I led every session with a stack of 200 index cards wrapped with a piece of yarn. The sessions were always based on long standing content from our RE library, but everyone knew that I was working to keep our exploration focused on the issues the group was dealing with.
I’m not an ordained minister and don’t have a congregation of my own to experiment with, though I do think about it a great deal… If I did, I think I might use a process similar to the one described above, only for all ages. You could have all of the classes, groups and ministries of the congregation participate and organize the cards or sticky notes on a wall. Maybe then you could organize them into themes and have these drive sermon series.
Theme Based Ministry
If you like the idea of organizing sermons and ministries by themes, make sure you check out the All Soul’s Tulsa Theme Based Ministry website. The following chart lists their three-year theme cycle. Read more.
|First Year||Second Year||Third Year|
|Love||Prayer (Spiritual Practice)||Evil|
Excellence Trumps Titles
It must be said that a great title on a relevant and meaningful topic probably helps bring people in. But the bottom line is that people attend when the worship and sermons are of the highest quality. Without a doubt excellence trumps titles. If you’re debating whether or not to post your titles, I’d suggest you take a hard look at the quality of your worship. Are you offering 5 star worship? If not, do that first.