How to Design a Message Series for Unchurched People

Carey Nieuwhof: Can you preach to a room full of churched people and unchurched people at the same time?

Can you craft a message series for unchurched people and still be faithful to scripture?


Can you preach to a room full of churched people and unchurched people at the same time with the same message and help them both take a step in their faith?

Without a doubt, yes.

The question is how.

While a short article can’t exhaust the subject, let’s get started and tackle the biggest issues in creating a message series that connects with unchurched people: angle. 

Preaching to unchurched people is not about watering down content, preaching ‘baby’ sermons or avoiding hard subjects.

It’s really all about the angle you take on a subject.

Let me give you a recent example.

I wanted to preach through a biblical book recently, and I picked Esther.

I could have called the series Esther. But that would have been, well, interesting to people who like the book of Esther.

So after thinking it through, I called it “Your Big Moment”. After all, that’s what happened to Esther (and Mordecai, and Haman) – she had her big moment, when she least expected it. Because people can relate to wondering about whether or when their big moment will come, we found an angle that worked for churched and unchurched people. And I managed to cover the story of Esther in the process.

The problem with most message series is that they are focused on what the speaker wants to say, not what the listener wants to hear. If you only want to reach Christians, that’s a great strategy.

If you want to engage unchurched people, in my view, it’s a terrible strategy.

So where can you get ideas to find the angle? Obviously, you should talk to unchurched people … but in addition to that, here are five ways you can stay on top of what people in your culture and community are thinking about:

1. The Amazon Top 100 List.

Check out the Top 100 of 2016 to see what your neighbors are already thinking about. Finding six books on eternity and near-death experiences on the list one year caused me to create a seven-part series called “Afterlife.” The series resonated deeply because so many unchurched people were already investigating the issue on their own.

2. Movies.

This doesn’t mean you have to do an “At the Movies” series, but it does mean what people are watching gives you a clue as to what they are thinking. Horror movies are perennially popular. I really don’t like horror movies personally, but in crafting a series for 2014 on evil, I’m going to make sure we cover our culture’s ambiguous attitude toward evil: on the one hand we dismiss it, on the other hand we simply can’t.

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3. Media Coverage.

The media covers certain issues again and again. One of them, for example, is financial uncertainty. If you’re talking about money, for example, research stories that talk about how financial uncertainty impacts average families daily. Household debt levels, being underwater on a mortgage, have expensive car payments and saving too little for retirement are issues that people are struggling with right now. Provide solutions and talk about it biblically.

4. Google Trends.

I learned about this Google feature from Rich Birch (so many helpful insights and tips on his blog and new podcast). With Google Trends, at any moment, you can see what people are searching for on Google. That will get your mind racing.

5. Magazines.

Next time you’re at the supermarket, scan the headlines of the magazines by the checkout. Again, you may not want to do a series on 101 sex tips, but when we did a series on sex a few years ago, it led me to call one of our message “Sex Tricks”. Interesting, isn’t it? In the end, it was all about how sex tricks us when we remove it from the context of marriage. The subjects these magazines cover again and again connect with people and give you clues into what’s on their mind.

Once you have started to get a sense of the what’s going on around you, there are five things to consider as you draft the series:

1. Frame what people NEED to know within the context of what they WANT to know.

There’s what people want to know. That can easily drive a topical series on issues like suffering, relationships and even creating a better life. But then there’s what people need to know, like specific teachings, doctrines and even sections of scripture. That’s where the angle become everything. For example, when I read through Psalm 101, I knew I wanted to preach it. But how do you angle a Psalm? The psalm is all about how David crafted a life of integrity and how he deleted certain influences from his life while saving others. We called the series “Save and Delete” and dangled this question in front of people: can you delete certain people from your life?

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2. Look for people issues.

Churched and unchurched people struggle with pretty much the same things. They have relational issues, financial issues, personal doubts, health concerns and insecurities. They feel like God is more distant than he needs to be. They struggle at work. And when they’re incredibly successful, they struggle with thinking there has to be something more. When you connect on those issues, you connect with everyone. Christian and otherwise.

3. Don’t be trendy, just be relevant.

If you talk about the current NFL season a lot or title a series after what’s #1 at the box office today, your series has a tiny shelf life. It will go stale within weeks or months. But let the trends point you to the ongoing issues underneath. Every #1 romantic comedy points you to the underlying tensions of love and relationships. Angle the series from that perspective and you will always have an audience.

4. Cover only one issue with each message.

Don’t do need a 3 point or 30 point message. Do a single point message (more on that later this week). Reduce each week to a single point and make most of your series 3-8 weeks. Less than 3 weeks is not really a series. More than 8 weeks and you’ll lose people’s attention. Covering one main idea per week makes a series far more memorable. As is often said, the person who makes three points in a talk makes no points.

5. Title it with the invitation in mind.

This one’s key. If you title your series “5 Signs You’re an Emotional Disaster,” how on earth is someone who attends your church going to invite his friend to it? So we called a series on love “Like It or Love It” and wrote it up this way:

What do you mean when you say you love someone? What should you mean? You say you love chicken wings, but you also love her. Can one emotion cover both situations? Where’s the line between liking and loving? We’ll explore Christianity’s radical teachings about love in a way that can change what you like, what you love, and how you live.

So much easier to invite your friends to.

I hope these are helpful.