7 Essential Preaching Skills to Reach a Post-Christian Audience

The authentic gospel message will never change. But the methods and approaches have to if you’re going to connect with post-modern, post-Christian people.

As you know, everything is changing, and that includes preaching.

Many Western nations have become post-Christian over the last century: Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand just to name a few.

America has been a holdout—until recently.

While the subject deserves a separate post, you can make a strong argument that America accelerated its journey to becoming a thoroughly post-Christian culture over the course of the pandemic. So much has changed since 2020, and by all accounts, about 30–50% of former regular church attenders simply decided to not come back.

Over the last few years, there’s been a fresh exodus of people giving up on the American church, and my guess is that the landscape has permanently changed.

Churches that are growing again and growing from new growth, rather than seeing wave after wave of former attenders return.

This means that America has in all likelihood entered its post-Christian era.

That changes so much. And one of the most important things it changes is how to preach effectively.

The authentic gospel message isn’t at stake. That will never change. But the methods and approaches have to if you’re going to connect with post-modern, post-Christian people.

Here are seven skills you’ll need to preach effectively in a post-Christian era.

Skill 1: The ability to speak to truly unchurched people

One of the secrets of the US church over the last few decades—even large, growing churches—is that many new church attendees weren’t really unchurched people.

One of the secrets of the US church over the last few decades—even large, growing churches—is that many new church attendees weren’t really unchurched people.

Instead, what happened was that larger churches and growing churches grew as a result of “consolidation” rather than truly reaching a lot of unchurched people.

The consolidation trend has meant the churches that are growing and picking up people from churches that aren’t growing. Sure, they’re reaching some unchurched people. But a lot of growth has been transfer growth.

What’s the implication for preaching you ask?

Well, many pastors haven’t truly learned to preach to unchurched people yet. It’s a skill many of us have yet to develop.

In this interviewNew York Times best-selling author Adam Grant and I discuss how to reinvent preaching to engage a truly unchurched audience using the principles he’s developed on how to encourage people to be open to new ideas (and belief systems).

One of the key skills is to deliver what people need to know in the context of what people 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 becomes 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.

I called the series Save and Delete. And, in it, I dangled this question in front of people: Can you delete certain people from your life?

Discerning what people want to know and using that to connect with what people need to know will become an essential skill for preachers who reach the next generation.

Skill 2: Doing deeper research to prepare for skeptics

A few decades ago, the preacher was typically one of the most highly educated members of a congregation, and certainly the most highly educated in theology.

The internet has changed so much.

While preachers might still have the advantage of a four-year deep dive into everything from biblical exegesis to systematic theology, the ability of a congregation to challenge a preacher’s ideas has soared thanks to technology.

Any time you seek to “pronounce” on a subject, you now face an audience of skeptics and fact-checkers who will quickly Google anything you say, from observations on theology to anything you comment on in the culture.

From Outreach Magazine  The Role of Preaching in Church Planting

The challenge, of course, is that technology gives people access to information but not access to wisdom or discernment. But it doesn’t stop them from either challenging you or dismissing you.

Think about this: Sometimes you hear about their disagreement. But sometimes you don’t. They slip out the back door without saying a word or turn off the live stream never to return. And you never hear a thing about it.

The point?

Writing a message of half-digested thoughts on a Saturday to deliver it on a Sunday has never been a great idea. But today it’s preaching suicide. It’s only a matter of time until you say something that blows up in your face.

Doing better research for your messages is more important than ever. Writing a message of half-digested thoughts on a Saturday to deliver it on a Sunday has never been a great idea. But today it’s preaching suicide. It’s only a matter of time until you say something that blows up in your face.

Your audience has done their homework. You’ll need to as well.

A few things can help with this.

First, consider preaching fewer weekends a year so you can better prepare for when you do preaching.

Second, make study a life habit rather than simply something you do to prepare for Sunday. The best preachers I know read voraciously, listen to numerous podcasts, and are always processing biblical and cultural ideas with friends and colleagues.

The future probably belongs to those who are willing to do the same.

Change is inevitable. Irrelevance isn’t.

But the reality is that far too many churches aren’t changing quickly enough.

That’s why I’m hosting the Church Disruption Summit. It’s a free value-packed event where we’ll dissect the 7 Disruptive Church Trends That Will Define the Church of 2032 and get equipped with a framework to lead change.

Skill 3: Develop the ability to speak without using notes

It’s easy to roll your eyes at the idea that you need to ditch your notes as a preacher to speak to unchurched people. But hear me out.

The church’s reputation has suffered massively in the last few years. Two challenges in particular surface: Pastors are seen as not trustworthy (sadly, for good reason) and as being irrelevant. And irrelevant often means boring.

Being able to speak without using notes gives you a powerful advantage for at least five reasons:

  • People will believe you more.
  • You’ll make eye contact.
  • Your body language will be more natural.
  • You’ll be more vulnerable
  • You’ll own your material because you’ll prepare much more thoroughly.

If you’re glued to your notes while you’re preaching, you end up looking like a politician who’s reading from a prepared statement. And, as a result, people won’t believe you as deeply.

Preaching without notes doesn’t mean you’re not prepared. It actually requires a deeper level of preparation. And you’ll own your message.

If you want to learn more about how you can transform your next preaching series into your best one ever, check out The Art of Preaching Course with me and Mark Clark.

Skill 4: Stay Humble

I’m not sure that humility is a skill, but it’s definitely a learnable behavior. Humble is a habit.

All of that is a good thing because over-confidence and arrogance are a turn-off to Generation Z. And far too many preachers come across as arrogant—even if that arrogance is masking deep insecurity.

Loud, triumphant, arrogant preaching might draw you a crowd for a moment. But it will get you an older, churched crowd while the younger generation walks away.

Skill 5: The willingness to produce evergreen content

Churches still operate like cable TV in the 1980s—tune in live or you don’t count. The culture operates like Netflix and YouTube—watch anytime. We’re ready for you.

Thanks to technology, more people are likely to watch your message months or years after you deliver it than will watch it when you deliver it.

Preachers still get really excited about Sunday and encourage everyone ‘not to miss it,’ and I understand that. But, in reality, we live in a time-shift culture.

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Not only will the people in your church often want to watch a message after it’s been delivered, but the community you’re trying to reach will only discover a message after you’ve delivered it.

That’s why preaching evergreen content matters so much. Instead of welcoming people to the service, talking about the weather or last night’s game, or referencing something that happened in the news ‘this week,’ create messages that aren’t time-stamped.

The content you produced last year on trust, the series you did on the Psalms, or the message you preached on porn and addiction is still relevant today. People woke up today with questions about God, trust, addictions, and everything else you touched on. If you preach it assuming people will watch it months or years later, you’ll be far ahead of most preachers.

Churches still operate like cable TV in the 1980s—tune in live or you don’t count.

The culture operates like Netflix and YouTube—watch anytime. We’re ready for you.

Thanks to on-demand video, what you preached last year is as important as what you’re preaching next weekend. In fact, it might be more important.

Preach every sermon with the realization that its biggest impact might happen long after you preach it.

Skill 6: The ability to preach directly to the camera

Ironically, preachers, the better you get at speaking to a camera, the more people you’re likely to have join you in the room.

Live worship services will always be an important part of the Christian experience.

But this reality is also true: In the future, more people will access your message through the lens of a camera than through a chair in the auditorium.

Add to that the fact that you’ll be posting videos to Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and other social media, and the skill of learning how to speak directly to the camera is increasingly important.

Speaking to the camera matters as much as speaking to the room. And, ironically preachers, the better you get at speaking to a camera, the more people you’re likely to have in the room.

Skill 7: Being Clear. Really, Clear.

Way too often people sit through a 45-minute message and then, an hour later, find themselves completely unable to recall a single point that was made.

In a culture that is increasingly becoming post-Christian, clarity is your friend, not your enemy.

The last thing I want is for someone to walk away from the Gospel because they didn’t even hear it. So be clear.

Unchurched people want to understand what they’ve heard when they show up.

Yet way too often people sit through a 45-minute message and then, an hour later, find themselves completely unable to recall a single point that was made.

What we experienced was a rambling message filled with obscure references and void of application to real life.

But because we don’t know what to call that, we too often call that style of preaching ‘deep.’  It’s not deep. It’s confusing.

The challenge is that a lot of ‘mature’ Christians and preachers mistake ‘clear’ for ‘watered-down.’

Does watered-down preaching exist? Sure it does. But clear preaching is not inherently watered-down preaching. It’s just clear.

But being clear when you preach doesn’t mean you’re Gospel-light. Clear preaching is not inherently watered-down preaching. It’s just clear.

As any preacher will tell you, it takes far more skill and hard work to be clear than it does to be confusing.

Starting your message early, working through conflicting ideas, and distilling your thoughts to their clearest, most comprehensible form is an essential skill for reaching unchurched people.

Taking the time you need to take to be clear is an investment that will pay off again and again.

These are just seven of the skills it will take to start preaching effectively in post-Christian America. The good news is that when preachers take them seriously, we’ll start to see the mission move forward.