Preaching to the Unchurched: 3 Adjustments I’ve Made

Ben Mandrell PhotoOur guest blogger today is Ben Mandrell. Ben serves as a church planter with the North American Mission Board in Denver, Colorado. In February, 2015, he and his team launched Storyline Fellowship in the northwest corner of the Mile High City. The vision of Storyline is to become a multiplying center, spawning many churches along the Front Range.  In 2017, a strategic residency program will launch for aspiring planters. If you would like more information on this program, please email

According to Barna, the city of Denver sits at #14 in the most post-Christian places in America. Since my previous 12 years of preaching took place in Tennessee, I had my suspicions that a move to the Mile High City would require shifts in my communication style. My days of preaching to the choir were over. (People out here don’t know what a choir is.)

Of course, one of the most thrilling aspects of church planting is getting to see unchurched people show up—families who tell us upfront, “This is the first time we’ve ever done anything like this!” These “freshman” come in as a clean slate and while it feels exciting and fun to me, the challenge also brings a sense of gravity. How can I include them, inspire confidence in them, avoid insider-talk that alienates them?

Below are 3 small adjustments that seem to be making a difference. I still have a long way to go.

  1. I don’t start with “open your Bible to….” Church people relish those words. A few minds even flash back to the days of Bible drill, and the game is on! An inner sense of confidence floods over them as they flip open to Isaiah. Unchurched people feel awkward. A visiting, unchurched friend told me that one of his more embarrassing moments was watching my 6 year-old son rifle through that strange book to the correct page while he sat there feeling ashamed. As a result of that incident, I now do something I never thought I’d agree to: I tell people to open their Bible or simply follow along on the screens.
  2. I acknowledge the skeptic in the seat. This is a gentle practice, but I strive to say things like, “If you’re new to the Bible, this may be the first time you’ve thought about this,” or “Perhaps you see this issue in a different light, but the Scriptures suggest….”  These moments take mere seconds, but send the message that we like having skeptics in the room and appreciate their presence. This is a safe place to explore faith.
  3. I embrace the culture where I can; oppose it where I must. I’m fairly certain I stole that line from Keller, but the principle has really helped me. People in Denver enjoy talking about their favorite forms of recreation, the latest Broncos headlines, and the unbelievable weather. Anytime I can tell a story in the sermon that illustrates my appreciation for these things, I put change of trust in their pockets. Conversely, it’s those brotherly moments that also create relationship, and grant me the green light to speak out on a controversial issue when the Holy Spirit leads.

I’m sure other church planters figured these things out faster than I, but the learning curve continues in my preaching ministry.  Each week, I explore new ways of sharing the Gospel with the freshman class. It’s more fun than I ever imagined.

What are your thoughts? What have you learned about preaching to the unchurched?  


  • Bill Pitcher says:

    Good advice. Though I serve a long-established church, the area is becoming more unchurched. Some good adjustment strategies here.

  • Eric Price says:

    These are helpful suggestions. Here are two more suggestions I have, based on my own personal experience.

    1. Avoid saying phrases like “You all remember this story…” or “We all know this verse.” When I came to Christ as a teenager, I didn’t know any Bible verses or stories. So when preachers made statements like that, it made me feel like they were not interested in preaching to me and that the church was not interested in teaching people like me who knew so little about the Bible.

    2. Avoid using lots of cross-references. Again, as a new believer, it would often be very difficult for me to find the passage being preached on in my Bible. In one church I attended as a new believer, the preachers would frequently say, “Put your finger there and flip over to [such and such a passage]…” Sometimes, this would happen so much that I would be lost and finally give up because I was unable to keep up with all the page flipping required to listen to the sermon. I think it is generally best to use cross-references sparingly; but if they are being used, having them projected on a screen will help people who are not familiar with the Bible keep up.

  • Just curious, but do you include much apologetics in your sermons? If so how is it received?

  • Ben Mandrell says:

    Roger: I sure do! In many of my sermons, I will begin with information about the miraculous preservation and accuracy of the Scriptures. I try not to assume that everybody in the room finds this book to be “inspired.” Also, with my Biology/Chemistry background (that was my undergraduate work), I am constantly tossing in nuggets about Creationism, Intelligent Design, and evidence for God. These moments are always very well-received, even with our more churched folks who are afraid to ask about these types of issues. Hope this helps!

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