By Jonathan Howe
I’m not sure when this trend started, but like many trends, it likely has innocent beginnings. A pastor heard the name of a popular new book, movie, or album, and decided it would be a great sermon series title.
Maybe the pastor thought it was catchy. And maybe it was. Maybe the congregation appreciated the play on words. It’s highly likely.
Then other pastors started imitating the pastor. They started doing the same—taking pop culture references and morphing them into sermon series titles. And things spiraled out of control.
Now, to be fair, there is nothing wrong with a catchy sermon series title. There is nothing wrong with one that’s not catchy, either. But the cute, pop culture-y, pun-tastic sermon series titles really should be rethought, and here are six reasons why:
- Not everyone understands the reference. As mainstream as you may think a TV show or game, or movie is, there will still be a large group in your congregation who simply will not get the reference. A sermon series title I saw recently was based on the wildly popular game, Pokémon Go. However, it was likely lost on senior adults who have no idea what a Pokémon is or where you go to catch them. And for those of us who do, it can seem like a bit of a stretch to be culturally relevant.
- These titles make the Bible seem old or outdated. By stretching to make the Bible relevant, we can sometimes forget that the Bible doesn’t need our help to do so. It’s completely relevant to our lives just the way it is. Your sermon series shouldn’t require a cute pop culture title for your congregation to see the application of the Bible in their everyday lives.
- They sometimes verge on copyright infringement (or at least the appearance of it). I’m obviously not a trademark lawyer, but when you use a company’s registered brand or tagline to promote your product, that’s quite close to stealing (if not actual theft of intellectual property). And do we really want our churches to be known for “baptizing” secular companies and taglines? I know that’s not often the intent, but intent and perception are often two different things. And negative perception can hurt a church and a pastor even if the intent is well-meaning.
- The start of the sermon series often lags well behind the popularity of its inspiration. Because sermon series are often planned in advance, there is a high probability that by the time your pop culture-based series starts, its inspiration is already declining in popularity. Churches already take (often unwarranted) criticism for being behind the times. Cute sermon series titles often reinforce that perception.
- Cute sermon series titles can veil the distinctiveness of Christianity. Do sermon series titles based on pop culture references really communicate “in the world, and not of the world”? You might be able to make a case for it. If so, feel free to do so in the comment section below. But are we really communicating that Christianity is distinct from culture when we are compelled to use culture to market it?
- Cute sermon series titles can obfuscate the message of the actual sermon. Finally, it’s quite possible that by using these titles we are drawing more attention to cute turns of phrase than the Word of God. This is obviously not the case in all instances, but I can see how easy it could be for a pastor to study a text looking more for how it can be molded into a sermon series title than how it can mold listeners more into the shape of Christ.
Again, am I saying you shouldn’t have a memorable sermon series title? No. Am I saying you should avoid all pop culture references in your preaching? No.
Every church is different, and every congregation is different. But I have a strong feeling that if your sermon series titles were based more on the actual biblical text and not on a pop culture reference, your congregation might appreciate that just as much, if not more.
Posted on January 19, 2017
If I see another plaid shirted pastor with skinny cuffed jeans announce another “At the movies series” Im going to puke. I have sat through these and they are frankly embarrasing. Every message should begin and end with the bible not fictional characters cooked up by sinners to rake in money. By the way, i love movies. Its art and entertainment and we can find good sources for the occasional illustration. Paul quoted a secular poet. But its like they are trying to be cool more than relevant.
Theres a famine in the land. Not of food or water but a famine of the Word of the Lord. Stop wasting time drawing life lessons from a raccoon with a laser gun and try looking at people like Samson and David and Peter and of course Jesus. I have sat in churches which if it were a restaurant all i got was high priced silverware, gilded plates, fancy music but when the meal finally gets there its a bean on a plate with a drop of water in my glass.
Totally disagree… Did it a couple of times and especially the youth and young adults find it very interesting… they’re waiting and are curious about the new series I’m going to present.
it totally update the Biblical message… It all depends how you present it, how old and how tuned your congregation is with series/media/news/etc…
If you’re church is consisted of elders you might come back to the traditional way of doing church, if you want to reach out you must be creative and full of creativity, of course, primarily full of the Spirit!
Jonathan, since I’ve replied to other comments, I’m not sure if this will appear to be a reply to the last comment on your article or a reply to you. At any rate, I would like to say I have thought about this topic numerous times. It not an issue I care to grieve about in my church (we have so much heavier things to concentrate on), and I’m not the pastor. I have no control over it.
That said, I agree with each of your points because they have come to mind for me as well. The point you make in #2 is one I have spoken about with my spiritual mentor. When a friend told me (a former) pastor “makes the Bible so relevant,” I wasn’t sure at first why the comment bothered me. You said, “By stretching to make the Bible relevant, we can sometimes forget that the Bible doesn’t need our help to do so. It’s completely relevant to our lives just the way it is.” Yahtzee! A pastor doesn’t MAKE the Bible relevant, he SHOWS US how and why the Bible is relevant.
One thought on church signs. I’m weary of them. I see so few that I believe would draw an unchurched person in. The best one I’ve ever seen is in my fair city. It consistently reads a simple declarative sentence and timeless message: “Jesus Is Lord.”
I’m in a rut. My current series is “Mark.” Tomorrow will be the 54th of 60 parts. Mark was preceded by “Ruth” (12 parts), Colossians (16), and 1 Peter (17). Of course those four series came when I decided to break out of the rut of using the lectionary and drifting to my favorite topics. This is a better rut, but I’m unsure what to follow Mark with. Looking like a Pauline epistle or one of the minor prophets.
I applaud your desire to stay with lessons taken from scripture and, from the sounds of it, preaching through exposition. However, as much as I enjoy studying the Bible (I eat it right up!), 60 weeks with the gospel of Mark would be draining for me in corporate worship. I could only do that in a small group setting or in my daily devoted time.
As far as a future series and since you’re already looking at a Pauline epistle, how about Ephesians? It’s short and could be done in a matter of six weeks (one week for each chapter). In addition to that, teaching this epistle could seem like it was broken into halves as well because the first three chapters speak to who we are and what we’ve been given in Christ. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 tell us how to live according to who we are and what we’ve been given in Christ. Nice segue on Paul’s part, I think.
I’m not a seminary-trained preacher, so perhaps my input doesn’t cut it. But I have this epistle highlighted, underlined, and commented-in-the-margins more than any epistle. I, like Jonathan, don’t believe we need shy away from creativity in sermon series/sermon titles. God made us in his image and he is creative. I guess what I need to ask myself in my own writing is, “This sounds catchy, but is my creativity lending itself to effectiveness?” In the case of preaching on Ephesians, I might consider “Coming to Life & Coming to Live.”
God bless you as you prayerfully prepare messages in order to make disciples.
How does 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 impact our comments? While I don’t disagree with most of the comments and frankly don’t use “snappy titles” Is God more concerned with our titles or the lost? I’m living proof that He works His sovereign will in spite of me or my subpar sermons. If a Star Wars title would bring in someone to hear the gospel I’m all for it.
So, “Victorious Secrets” is out? 🙂
Not much of a secret.
Trademarks are product specific, so unless you’re stepping on the trademark of another church or religious group, its probably not a problem. The clearest example is there is a Cadillac automobile and a Cadillac dog food. Secondly with copyrights and trademarks there is fair use. Education is one of them. So for example when Weird Al Yankovic parodies songs, that is fair use. Or when a professor shows clips of a film in his film class that is fair use.