Crafting a Captivating Sermon for an Apathetic Culture – Aim at the Heart

This post is taken from a talk John gave at the Sojourn Network Leaders’ Summit entitled, “Preaching to the Secular Mind.” You can listen to it here.

Several other pastors in New York City and I were meeting to discuss our expulsion from using public schools as gathering spaces. Interpreting the move as hostility, we had come together to pray, plan, and talk out a response. The trouble is, what we were viewing as hostility was actually apathy.

The very act of using Scripture to expose the root of behavior, longing, and desire is transformative.

Apathy is not as sexy as hostility because hostility means you matter. It was a humbling moment for us to recognize that it wasn’t so much that the mayor thought about the church and how he's going to crush it — we just don't matter to the mayor or our neighbors.

This apathy leaches into our congregations. Rather than plan a Sunday around going to church, many make their plans and then fit church in, or abandon it altogether. How do you engage with a culture that has ceased to care?

Understand the Inner Workings of the Listener

If the big assumption about the nature of Scripture is that it's inspired by and is the authority of God, the nature of our sermons should not just match but serve that nature. Our preaching should serve what the Bible does and what it aims for.


Two words Augustine uses for what the Bible does and what it aims for are: interiority and temporality. Interiority has to do with the interior parts, the desires and longings of the soul, "that which is most congenial to the communion with God" (Augustine). In other words, the nature of Scripture is not just aiming at modifying behavior and life, it's aiming at the desires, motivations, what's going on under the hood.

The temporality nature of Scripture is where the purposes of God are brought to bear upon our personal experiences within time (Augustine). The nature of Scripture is a narrative; it tells us where the world is going; it has a telos to it. It's not just explaining and commanding and words of wisdom, but it's going somewhere from creation to consummation.

The interiority and temporality become a narrative of a person’s life over time. Augustine says, "Life is a journey traveled by affections." In other words, if you are pastoring or leading a church that is full of materialistic people, your people did not learn materialistic habits by reading a tract on a materialistic life. They were formed into materialistic people by how they spent their money and what they got for it over time.

The Transformative Power of Scripture

The power of transformation is found in the inner teacher, the Spirit. When you aim at the heart and the desires of the person, you're cooperating with the Spirit, who holds up a mirror to the listener and says, "Here's the truth of Scripture, and here's where it conflicts with your heart." He exposes their desires and compares them to God's desires. The very act of using Scripture to expose the root of behavior, longing, and desire is transformative.

Your hopes, desires, and dreams are shaped by life, experiences, and habits. Everyone who comes and sits in your service has a dream for their life. They all have a vision of a “good life”. Your job, as a teacher of the Bible, is to expose how that conflicts with the Bible's vision of a good life.

Be a Good Storyteller

Our preaching should create anticipation in people as they're listening. Nancy Duarte has a good book, a couple articles, and a Ted Talk. She says:

After studying hundreds of speeches, I found the most effective presenters use the same technique as great storytellers by reminding people of the status quo and then revealing the path to a better way. They set up a conflict that needs to be resolved. That tension helps them persuade the audience to adopt a new mindset or behave differently. To move from what is to what could be.

We can use the power of the Spirit and Scripture to keep attention, create anticipation, persuade, and transform. Preaching is not storytelling, but she's outlining the structure of storytelling which creates tension and anticipation in listeners, and in some ways, that gets people to begin listening with more than just their ears, they begin to look and listen with the eyes and ears of their heart.

Resolve Conflict with Scripture

If you’re aiming at the desires of the heart, you’re framing your sermon around identifying how what you long for, what you crave, and how its intention with the truth of Scripture, which creates tension and anticipation, resolves. This is a vision of what is and why your desires never satisfy you. Here's the desires of Scripture and what satisfies.

You have a lot of tools within every text to get there. Every text has allusions to other parts of Scripture that might resolve it. Use everything the Bible gives you, but don't try to do more than what the text does. Serve the text and show how the heart is in conflict with the truth of Scripture, and how Scripture resolves the tension in order to show what could be. Do that in a way that sets you up to give a vision of bliss where all the desires and satisfactions are fulfilled through repentance, grace, Christ, and the hope of heaven.

You’re communicating what your life is without this truth and what it could be if this truth was realized. It not only identifies the conflict between your heart and the truth of Scripture and resolves them, but it also shows the purposes of God for your desires or God's end for them. It's showing the good life.

Awaken from Slumber

You have a church full of people who have a vision of bliss, “If I had this kind of money, this kind of job, this kind of marriage, this kind of kids, this kind of family…” that's in conflict with God's vision of bliss. Biblical preaching that serves the nature of Scripture aims at both the taste buds of the heart and the dreams for the future.

You have a church full of people who have a vision of bliss that’s in conflict with God’s vision of bliss.

This kind of preaching provokes worship and enjoyment. You not only give knowledge about salvation by grace alone, but arouse gladness and pleasure in it. Aiming at the heart is a kind of awakening from slumber. When we have less than fulfilling pleasures, it puts us to sleep. If you have a bunch of people who day in and day out find satisfaction in less than fulfilling pleasures, they're very sleepy because they aren’t awakened to joy, pleasure, and life. In preaching you have all the tools to awaken them to pleasure and fullness. They've been looking at it in money, their job, sex, and their relationships. They seek it when they look at themselves in the mirror all day at the gym while they're doing squats, and they're not finding it. But you have a heavenly bliss and real pleasure to give them every week. You have things in your ability and toolbelt to arouse pleasure in worship, so aim at it.

Preaching to the heart is the act of inflaming real pleasure in the hearts of hearers. C.S. Lewis’, famous quote from The Weight of Glory says:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located in will betray us if we trust in them. These things, the beauty, the memory of our past, are good images of what we really desire. But if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols breaking the hearts of their worshipers, for they are not the thing itself. They are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard. News from a country, which we have not visited. Do you think I'm trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am, but remember your fairytales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest of spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment.

Expository preaching that serves the nature of Scripture functions like a spell being cast to break the enchantment of sin in our hearts. Your preaching should break enchantments. The best way to begin is to find pleasure in that truth yourself.

Captivate in Godliness

Reading good literature, good poetry, good books are just helpful. It's like seasoning on meat. Literature has a way of exposing unfulfilled longing better than we do oftentimes. Reading for Preaching by Cornelius Plantinga is a book that has helped me read better. He shows how good novels, poetry, and journalism give us aids in talking about sin, pleasure, heaven, and human longings.

The second thing is godliness. If a preacher preaches from a life of delighting in the presence of God and the truth of grace, he will always have something to say. He will have something for the taste buds of the hearts of his people. Someone once said, "A pastor who is godly will always be interesting." It doesn't mean an interesting pastor is always godly, but I do think godly people are always interesting.

Produce a good structured sermon, produce interesting sermons, read good books, have something to say, but be godly. Have a good prayer life. If you have been able to warm the coals of your heart, you can start fires in the hearts of other people. If you have nothing to give them, you won't have anything interesting to say.

John Starke is pastor of preaching at Apostles Church, a Sojourn Network church in New York City and co-editor of One God in Three Persons (Crossway, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter.