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robyn mellar-smith: preaching across the stages

Over a recent couple of weeks of summer holiday, I spoke to three people close to me who have been Christ-followers as long or longer than me, but who are now questioning their faith and unsure of the “whole church thing.” Two out of the three still go to church, but sit through the sermon feeling quite “ho-hum” about it all. I suspect I have several people in my congregation like that also – dear people who over the years have faithfully served God, but now find the shape of our services a bit hard to sit through, although they have a strong personal faith. How do we preach to such people?

Only a couple of years out of theological college, I now recognise that one of the most significant papers I completed there was “Faith Development” with Alan Jamieson. This course looked at James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith” and related them to issues of life and church. I wrote an assignment on “Preaching across the Faith Stages”, which was a useful learning exercise, but the best learning has come as I have endeavoured to incorporate that into my week by week preaching, not always successfully I might add!

There is neither the time nor the scope here to do the subject justice, nor am I an expert, but here are three things that have helped me to try and preach the word of God faithfully across the faith stages.

Firstly, for those whose faith is fairly clear-cut and well-defined, have clear structure and clear points that can be taken away and applied, that will strengthen their faith/worldview.

Secondly, for those who are questioning, have some questions in there, some loose ends; maybe show a clip that is loosely connected to the topic and don’t explain it, for them to ponder on and think about connections.

And thirdly, what has most recently been helpful is to have a couple of questions within the sermon itself, where the opportunity is given to talk to a person near them for a few minutes about what I am saying. I actually leave the front for this, to go to talk to a person myself, as I have found that this makes the timing better. (Previously when I stayed waiting at the front, I would start to feel awkward during this time and make it too short.) Several people have commented to me that being able to discuss a topic at the time helps them learn or understand it better, and I have enjoyed hearing how people are interpreting what I’m saying – often very differently than I expect!

I’m still learning and value any discussion on this 🙂

Robyn is a daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, and the pastor of Epuni Baptist Church in Lower Hutt.


  1. Geoff New says:

    Thanks Robyn for the reminder about Fowler’s stages of faith development. Your comments and summary are a superb template for speaking to the different hearers present at the one time. You have caused me to pause and reflect on the fact that my sermons are tending to be, albeit unintentionally, pitched at one kind of listener (stage 4). Thank you! Good work!

  2. Joseph Collins says:

    I like your work Robyn, I was wondering whether you put the questions on the overhead?
    Do you think it wise to have two questions – one a newcomer/christian could feel comfortable engaging in, and another for the longer-termed theologians?

    1. Robyn Mellar-Smith says:

      Thanks guys for your encouragement!

      No, Joseph, I don’t put the questions on overhead although that could work well. I hadn’t thought about the idea of the variation in questions either. That’s an interesting thought. Thanks.

  3. Tim Bulkeley says:

    You can also, at least when preaching “at home” in a smaller church (I can’t see this working at Windsor Park) get the congregation involved in studying the text and so make the whole sermon more openended. We did this at BBC last week, the passage was Eph 4:11-13 and after I had introduced the passage and the idea of people as God’s gifts, I got people to comment on things they noticed (text onscreen in fairly literal translation), then we looked at the text before and after (not onscreen, they had to use their Bibles or “pew” Bibles), and asked how reading that impacted how we understood “our” passage.

    That interactive section was maybe half the total sermon time, so 10 minutes. It does mean being flexible, thinking on your feet, and having some confidence that the Holy Spirit will have turned up this Sunday not only with you, but also with others in the church. Which I think is where most preaching falls down, it fails to trust God to reveal his word to more than one person in a congregation at a time. God like mothers is able to multi-task!

  4. Hi
    At our (Australian Presbyterian) church our senior pastor prepares the small group material for the series he is preaching through. the studies tie in with the material covered on Sunday and while there is a bit of structure to the studies, most small group leaders have the wisdom to roll with tangents that come up, or the questions that arise. As a congregant, I’ve found that it’s a great way to reinforce the message from the sermon, as well as giving people a space with people they feel safe with to throw round questions or issues that came out of the sermon. I don’t know if people who are truly questioning their faith would come to a small group, but it has helped us a bit.

    Another thing we’ve done that I think our pastor stole from mars hill (Seattle) was to have a text message number at the bottom of all the powerpoint slides that you could send in questions during the sermon that he’d address openly at the end of the sermon (they get selected for appropriateness etc.). It might encourage people to stay alert if they think that their “hey – that doesn’t make sense – what about….” moments could get addressed clearly and without undue delay or having to publicly own up to the doubts.

    All the best.

  5. Grant Harris says:

    I do the ‘text in’ thing a few times (although at our evening service it can be a little problematic as someone asked me if they could take my daughter out, and someone else said they liked my shoes!)…but want I really want to do is link it to a Twitter function and have some questions come up on the screen as people Twitter them in – I saw this last year in the US – very impressive I thought! Anyone know how to do it? Yes Tim, hard to interact at Windsor Park, but I give it a whirl from time-to-time; the issues in a larger church is that you have no idea of a lot of the people, so interaction needs to be voluntary, and not forced, particularly as you have people at every stage of a faith journey. Given that Willow Creeks Reveal survey shows that only 25% or people ona average in church are ‘Christ centred’, the challenge for me is trying to convert the converted! I just play with new ideas all the time.

    1. Andrew says:

      Hi Grant
      At our church, the SMS get filtered through one of the other pastors sitting in the sound booth, and the messages are then put up on the screen. I don’t know if the “crank” SMS’s get passed on to the pastor after the service. If a guy lacks the spine to ask you to your face to ask out your daughter, he’d not be the right guy.

      The idea that only 25% of the congregation being christ centred / saved is a worrying one. What would lead to someone who wasn’t saved being under the misapprehension that they were saved if they sat under preaching for years? What does it say about preaching / church in general if, with a captive audience that comes back week after week, there aren’t results?

      For what it’s worth, the use of twitter during the service has had a bit of discussion around the traps by
      Josh Harris:
      Al Mohler

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