Sermon Titles – To Post or Not to Post?

 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  Out of date titles?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

Over on the Ten Minutes or Less blog Michael Durall states that “Listing sermon titles is a lose-lose situation all around.

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.

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.

21 thoughts on “Sermon Titles – To Post or Not to Post?

  1. I loved Tom Ahlburn’s sermons as a youth. I say the cryptic story is the way to go. Good, meaningful stories are the best part of a sermon for me. I laugh and cry and feel like a different person after hearing a good story.
    I go to service nearly every week, but I do know people who pick and choose based on the newsletter. Even going with a theme-based plan, people might miss a good service because they think they don’t want to hear about death, say, or prayer.
    The only thing is, if you are going to be cryptic, the sermons better be good.

  2. In the church I grew up in, we didn’t know what the sermon was going to be about until the minister told us when he started preaching on Sunday morning. I miss that.

    I think that announcing anything about the service other than the time service starts makes church too much like entertainment. Don’t get me wrong, I think church should be entertaining–in that one should be able to get something from it every time you go–but to list sermon titles or themes just plays into the modern consumer culture of ‘if it doesn’t relate to me personally’ then it’s not worth it.

    That’s not what church is supposed to be about. Ok…so maybe the sermon that day wasn’t your cup of tea…fine…but maybe your presence at service that day was what somebody else needed. Isn’t that what a covenantal community is supposed to be about?

    sorry…this is just one of my pet peeves with UUs.

  3. We’ve tried both approaches and, based on our congregation’s preference, we decided to continue listing a theme. (We do so in our newsletter, our website, and our Facebook page.)

    But we’ve also shared during a few services that we should “Come Anyway” regardless of the theme or topic since, often times, sermons take a different path leading to exciting and different places that are even better than expected!

    Come anyway. The church needs you. You are, in fact, the church!

  4. I’m a member of our communication committee, and I tweet our sermon topics on Thursdays because a church member has asked me to do it. When I don’t, he reminds me. As far as I am concerned, this means that we have made a connection, and I am helping him (and possible other less vocal people) out. That is what my committee is designed to do.

    People have a lot of reasons for missing services. I leave that up to them. Since we podcast all our sermons, theoretically no one has to come to the service at all. We certainly haven’t seen a drop in attendance since we started podcasting. If I can help to make sure that member can hear a sermon they want to hear, whether it’s live or by podcast, then I think that is a win-win situation.

  5. Listing sermon topics isn’t for people who come to church all the time, it’s to encourage newcomers to overcome the normal barriers to attending a church the first few times in order to come to a service where they are likely to find that week’s topic particularly relevant.

    Listing sermon topics a month in advance is also very useful at the large church, where ministry and music teams want to plan excellence and coherence– last minute schtick doesn’t cut it.

    Monthly themes promote coherency across all program aspects of the church, particularly enabling adult worship and children’s religious education coherency, which is often lacking.

    The blogger you reference is a smart guy with a lot of provocative ideas, but he isn’t a parish minister, so I”m just going to have to disagree with him on this particular issue.

    Daniel O’Connell
    Senior Minister
    First UU Church of Houston, Texas

    1. Great point, Daniel. And I’m sure you do a lot more than share service themes a month in advance. I suspect you have a a whole different mindset. Let me know if you ever want to write a post about your approach to worship planning.

  6. At one UU church, they list nothing about the service except who is preaching that day. That bugs me even more.

    I used to live across from a UU church (not the one I serve) and admit that the topic could either draw me in or keep me away. But then, I didn’t belong there and knew few members. If it were my church, I think I would just come for the community. I’m not sure if the moral of this story is “post titles” or “don’t post titles.”

    I think the most important point is what you say, Peter–preachers, don’t be restricted by what you put in the newsletter. If the sermon takes an unexpected turn that doesn’t match the title or the blurb, go with the unexpected turn.

  7. I have to respectfully disagree with Daniel. I think that by publishing sermon titles ahead of time, that action encourages people–visitor, member, friend, Satan–to pick and choose; to have it in their mind that just because a sermon title doesn’t float their boat, that there is no use in going to church that day. Nobody–visitor, member, friend, Satan–can know what might be applicable/relevant in their life until they are exposed to it. So why are we encouraging people to treat going to church like going to the movies? Isn’t church different? Or maybe the question should be…isn’t church supposed to be different?

    If the church is really about transformation–changing real lives–then why wouldn’t we confront people on the things that they bring in from the outside world and expect the church to cater to?

    just a thought.

  8. My mind has been changing on this topic over the years, and I am really appreciative of Daniel for articulating some of my most recent thoughts.

    Let me say from the outset that I have held strong opinions on both sides of this fence, so I am sympathetic to all angles from which this topic can be approached. I used to feel very strongly that it was best not to publish anything about a sermon in advance. My reasoning was basically what Kim Hampton stated here and what Michael Durall has argued (actually, I think he talked about this in _The Almost Church_ as well, which may have been when I started to form an opinion). I also am appreciative of the flexibility afforded when sermon topics are not published in advance. Certainly, there is volumes to be said for making room to be engaged and responsive to the world and to the congregation.

    I don’t disagree with anything Kim stated, but my conclusions have shifted. This change was not caused by logistical considerations, but seeds of change may have been planted by these considerations. As a religious educator, I have come to believe in the power of some coordination of themes among program staff people. That is part of *family ministry*. I have worked with a minister who planned things out generally by year, and later more specifically month-by-month, as well as a minister who planned nearly everything from week to week.

    The faith development ministries were enhanced in the former case because my ability — as a religious educator — to chart an educational ministry that worked in tandem with the preaching ministry was much greater. I have found that most religious educators by necessity plan by the year. Necessity, in this case, is the result of the number of people involved in leadership of the faith development ministries, which usually is greater than the number involved in the leadership of worship (say, 30-60 in an “average” sized congregation). Thus I have come to believe that there is a lot of power in plotting things out for the coming year over the spring or early summer, before perhaps even curriculum selection for children’s church school classes. What I have found is that when sermon titles don’t have to be published in advance, these plans are rarely made.

    But that has only been a seed for change. After all, while I have found that plans generally are not made unless they have to be published, it is *possible* to make plans that are not published. What has pushed me firmly into the “publish the sermon topics” camp has been my preparations to leave my professional work for several years to attend graduate school. Because for the first time in about ten years I am searching for a church in which to simply be a congregant, I am looking at things differently. My compassion for the seeker has been heightened.

    Daniel captured it perfectly: “Listing sermon topics isn’t for people who come to church all the time, it’s to encourage newcomers to overcome the normal barriers to attending a church the first few times in order to come to a service where they are likely to find that week’s topic particularly relevant.”

    When I am looking at churches to attend, there are some barriers…even as someone who has spent my whole life in the church, including all of my professional years. For the average seeker I imagine the number of barriers is even higher. When I am seeking a congregation to attend, one of the ways that my anxiety around not knowing what to expect can be reduced is by knowing the topic of the day. I didn’t care so much about this for the brief year or so that I attended a Methodist church. But in the UU tradition, our topics vary soooooo widely. Once in, I am in, and I will attend faithfully week after week (in no way do I see church as entertainment), but when I am still seeking a church for my family, I’ve discovered that not knowing is a barrier to getting in the door for the first time.

    Also, over Thanksgiving weekend my family was out of town visiting relatives. My kids and I decided to go to church together on Sunday. We looked around at the websites of area UU churches. I couldn’t get comfortable with the idea of walking in with no idea of what to expect. So we looked at only those churches that listed sermon topics, which narrowed our choices from five to two. One of those churches had listed that the sermon for that Sunday was going to be about the Tennesee church shooting and a school shooting. I am so thankful I was able to opt out of that, not because I was avoiding the topic, but because I was going to have my kids with me, and I didn’t know whether they would get cold feet about going to Church School. If they had, I would have been stuck with them attending service with me, and being only four and five, my parental belief is that they are too young to be hearing a sermon on shootings in schools and churches.

    As it turned out, the other church had a perfectly kid-friendly sermon, which was helpful because we got really lost and arrived an embarrasing 25 minutes late. I felt it was too late to send them to Church School. We did our best to quietly arrive, get seated in the sanctuary, and have a Sunday worship experience. I am so glad I didn’t have to worry about my kids having nightmares later on as a result.

    This is one of those issues about which if theory was the only thing that counted, I might end up on one side of the fence, but because there are realities that tinker with the theories, I end up on the other side of the fence.

  9. I’m an active listener best when I have more information beforehand about a subject. An interesting experiment might be not only to release the sermon title beforehand, but to release the sermon itself beforehand!

    Let people read it, chew on it, debate internally the merits – and demerits – of the talk. To raise doubts. To cheer! And then field questions / comments!

    1. Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comment. I’ve been thinking it would be engaging to record a quickie video from the minister’s study and post online early in the week saying “Hey, this week our service is about such and such and I’ll be exploring this concept.” And to then invite people to share stories and ideas related to it. Use social media to engage people with the topic in advance and have the sermon follow a Facebook, Twitter, Blog based conversation. You could also do the same, but monthly. I preach regularly but not at the same congregation which makes this hard to implement. But maybe I should try it. I like to try and practice what I preach, especially given that I’m not an congregationally ordained, called and UUA fellowship minister. Anyone know of a congregation doing Youtube teaser videos?

  10. I don’t see any problem with posting service themes ahead of time. My church does this, and I haven’t ever heard any complaints. As a congregant, it sometimes encourages me to attend church on a week I may otherwise have skipped. As chair of Publicity, and editor of our newsletters, I’ve never received any negative feedback – from congregants or minister – or any discussion, even. Prior to reading this article, it would never have occurred to me *not* to publicize them.

  11. I think we need to separate out the question “should we post sermon titles” from related questions raised by Masasa:

    Should we map out service themes months in advance? Answer: yes.
    Should we coordinate worship with RE and other programs? Answer: yes.
    Should we be flexible about the topics, changing them up until the last minute if events in the world or the congregation demand it? Answer: yes.

    None of these implies we should or shouldn’t post the topics. Gosh, at our church, the Sunday after the Knoxville church shootings was the last Sunday for a minister who’d been serving us halftime for a year. Naturally, his posted topic had to do with his departure. He did exactly what he ought to do and addressed the shooting (well done, Kurt!).

  12. I was long-winded. But I don’t think my points were tangential. In short, I think publication often proves to be the most effective motivator for mapping out services in advance and coordinating with RE and other programs.

    I also think doing so is a way to minister to the seeker trying to get past the initial and normal barriers to attending a church for the first time. Not to mention that it can be helpful for others, such as those anticipating being stuck in service with young children.

    Unfortunately the drawback is a little less flexibility in responding to our world. Sure, we can change the service, and I think he majority of ministers do when it comes to the big stuff. But I’ve seen it both ways, and I think the potential for responsiveness is higher without posted titles.

    I wish there was some way to delete my initial over-tired, slap happy rambling and leave it at this :-).

  13. Before coming back here to respond, I decided to take a tour around all the black church websites that I could think of. And none of them–from the smallest to the largest–published sermon titles. What you get told is the times for Sunday School and Worship. And entire pages devoted to the ministries and community services of the church.

    Granted, I know that black churches are different in some fundamental ways. But come on, give a sista a break. What causes churches to grow hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. Growth happens because of word-of-mouth and that’s something that UU churches don’t do well.

    How many UU churches have what is called “Family and Friends Day” at their churches? How many of them have “Ushers Day” or “Choir Day” or “Pastor’s Anniversary” or “Deacon’s Day” (and so on)–days that celebrate the various ministries of the church?

    How come the local grocery store knew when I moved into my apartment and sent me a postcard welcoming me to the city but neither of the 2 UU churches did? (assume that I wasn’t the intern at one of the two) It wouldn’t take much to go and find out who’s moved into your area every 6-8 weeks or so. Mega-churches do it; why can’t UU churches do it?

    Of course visitors to UU churches experience barriers…we put them up! Actin’ as if we’re scared of what they might bring to us.

    Start developing the ministries of your church and you won’t have to publish sermon titles…word-of-mouth will bring visitors in.

  14. Wow, obviously a good topic.

    In the UK, I’m not aware of any church (of any denomination) who publishes sermons ahead of time. Although Dublin Unitarian Church does have them on a poster outside the church (on a busy street) and gets them published in a newspaper. And I know that has attracted people.

    Although I do plan ahead quite a lot with my sermon themes (I’m pretty much planned up to Easter now) I don’t publish sermon titles. I suppose my primary reason for this is that I have a much more sacramental view of worship. I don’t think “worship” is synonymous with “sermon.” My sermon might be about something but I don’t think that means the worship is about that. I think the worship is always about the same thing – connecting with the Divine. I don’t think the purpose of worship is primarily rational or educational – it’s primarily mystical and transformational. Worship is not about exploring a topic, worship is about, well, worship. Or to put it another way worship is not about what I have to say, worship is about what God has to say. And God don’t need to say that much.

    1. Yes! I have much the same view of worship as Stephen. It ain’t about the sermon, a usually univocal event in a hopefully polyvocal setting, it’s about all the voices sharing, sacramentally, in the experience of grace. Privileging the sermon is rather like saying that what is important in the encyclopedia is in the volume L-M.

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