Communicating for a Change, by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones, Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2006. 196 pages.
Andy Stanley is the founder of North Point Ministries and senior pastor of North Point Community Church, Buckhead Church, and Browns Bridge Community Church. Stanley is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and has authored other works such as Visioneering, The Best Question Ever, How Good Is Good Enough, Next Generation Leader, and It Came from Within.
Lane Jones is the campus director of Browns Bridge Community Church, a North Point Ministries campus. Lane is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and is co-author of Seven Practices of Effective Ministries.
In chapter one of our familiar Preach the Word, professors Balge and Gerlach list five points every sermon should ideally accomplish. Point five is “Preach Clear, Coherent, Goal-oriented Sermons” (4). They explain, “A sermon is intended to make a point, one specific and clearly defined point, relevant to the lives of God’s people” (12). Communicating for a Change is also a book about preaching and it treads similar territory. Andy Stanley’s guiding principle in preaching is, “to take one simple truth and lodge it in the heart of the listener” (12). The purpose of the book flows from this principle. The author intends to help pastors in the “process of engaging and inspiring an audience with one solitary idea” (13).
Stanley’s partnership with Jones is reflected most clearly in the book’s two-part division. Part one, entitled “How’s My Preaching,” is Jones’ ten-chapter parable of a “pastor (Ray) who knew he needed to upgrade his communication skills but didn’t know where to turn for help” (12). Help comes in the form of Will Graham, over-the-road trucker and preacher extraordinaire. With its memorable trucker anecdotes and superficial objection answers, part one serves as a simple, yet entertaining entry to part two’s more in-depth explanation and application.
Part two, entitled “Communicating for a Change,” relates Stanley’s seven “imperatives” for preaching that effects “life-change.” Stanley assumes his “imperatives” do that more effectively than any other method because they frame sermon preparation and preaching primarily around the life of the believer (88-89). Each chapter includes practical applications and illustrations of its “imperative.” A brief summary of each “imperative” follows:
- Determine Your Goal – The goal one wants to reach ought to shape the approach one takes in communicating (93). Stanley’s chosen goal is “life change.” He wants his listeners, “to do something different instead of just think about it” (95). To accomplish the goal one must answer why the message matters to the listeners and what the listeners ought to do.
- Pick a Point – The message needs one central idea. Get there by digging into Scripture until you find it, then build every part of your message to serve that point only, and make it stick (e.g. give it a memorable theme like, “To understand why, submit and apply”).
- Create a Map – The practical centerpiece of Stanley’s advice, this is an outlining method “built around the communicator’s relationship with the audience” (119). Stanley commends this method because it makes application the context of the entire message rather than just a point “tacked on” (125). The five outline points are: ME – draws the preacher’s connection to the malady; WE – includes the listeners into the malady’s tension; GOD – resolves the tension with God’s thoughts in Scripture; YOU – applies God’s thoughts to audience groups; WE – “imagine[s] what the church…would be like if Christians everywhere embraced your one idea” (129).
- Internalize the Message – Internalize and “own” your message by breaking it down into memorable chunks (e.g. Introduction—Tension—Text—Visual—Application—Conclusion). Do this until you can keep it in your head and spill it out as naturally and authentically as if you were telling your own vacation story.
- Engage Your Audience – “Presentation matters. A lot” (146). Specifically, manufacture interest by posing a question or drawing the audience into a problem they need resolved. Sermon information must consider the listeners’ “felt needs” and address them with God’s Word. Included are a few practical points (e.g. speaking speed, use of visuals, etc.).
- Find Your Voice – Be authentically you because that engages people. Be the best communicator you can possibly be. Don’t make excuses. Adjust your style and methods based on what works in changing lives and what works to help you do that.
- Start All Over – Pray to God throughout preparation and presentation. When you get stuck, pray more and ask yourself five questions: 1) What do they need to know? 2) Why do they need to know it? 3) What do they need to do? 4) Why do they need to do it? 5) What can I do to help them remember?
In “Communicating for a Change,” Stanley clearly presents what he claims: a method by which he feels “life-change” can be accomplished. However, at times he uses weak caricatures to highlight his own points. For example, in the transition between parts one and two, Stanley asks, “Will you consider letting go of your alliterations and acrostics and three point outlines and talk to people in terms they understand” (89)? In similar, unfair oversimplifications, he basically says, “If you’re really committed to communicating, you’ll use my method.” In truth, anything becomes old and tired when used poorly or too often – Stanley’s method the same.
And yet, the book practices what it preaches. It is filled with practical insights and illustrations that engage the reader. For instance, in chapter three, trucker Will illustrates picking a point with the concept of driving to a specific address: “Can you, in a few short words—like 1221 Eleventh Avenue—eliminate all the other possible places my mind can wander over the next thirty minutes” (39)? One especially helpful portion might be the outline in “imperative” three, “Create a Map.” The format itself forces the writer to engage the congregation in the main idea of the text because it’s built around their experience. Specifically, it begins with two sections that relate the audience to the malady (ME, WE). It provides opportunity to be very straightforward in what God says about the problem (GOD). And it gives ample room for expressing the joy of sanctified life on the basis of God’s Word (YOU, WE).
At the same time, the outline does present a few points the reader ought to ponder. The preacher will take care in structuring such a message around the listeners’ experience so that Scripture is still the main course. Readers also ought to watch out for the way Stanley’s method addresses sanctification. In the WE section, Stanley expresses sanctification with troubling phrases like this: “Imagine a church where ‘love one another’ was the theme rather than a memory verse for children. Imagine a community…where husbands really loved their wives like Christ loved the church” (129). It is hard to imagine any congregation member receiving these as anything other than a re-application of the law as mirror. These point the believer to real failures or imagined results for motivation in sanctification. The gospel preacher ought not point believers to themselves for motivation. This is more law (despair or delusion). God moves believers with his love and reminds them of it so that they love even when the results aren’t measurable. The gospel preacher does the same. And, in like manner, there are a few other denominationally predictable items around which the reader will tread with care: hints of prayer as a means of grace, the sticky issue of “felt needs” vs. the troubles of sin listeners feel, the balance between being an engaging presenter and a gospel proclaimer, etc.
In general, Stanley encourages readers to analyze their preaching to make sure they are honest with themselves in pursuing excellence in reaching their hearers and touching their hearts with the gospel. The main thought to carry away might be: to do everything we can to clearly communicate one, simple truth from God’s Word to the hearts of God’s people so that they see their sin, their Savior, and their sanctified opportunities. This sort of encouragement we gladly receive.
Overall, Stanley’s point has merit and the book is eminently practical. His strength is in the many encouraging reminders and bits of advice for structuring a memorable sermon. The book is littered with a few straw men and is directed primarily at a time-window larger than most WELS pulpits allow. There are also some expected, non-denominational theology missteps. That said, the careful reader can still benefit from Stanley’s advice. At the very least, the author provides another tool in the sermon toolbox: another way to structure some of the many messages he will deliver. For that and his other practical reminders, Communicating for a Change is a worthwhile read.