Most Popular Message SeriesMonday, August 29, 2016
I was recently informed of the (current) bestselling, most listened to series given at Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck), where I have the privilege of serving as Senior Pastor.
And Senior Communicator, I might add.
The person who provided me with this information, the director of our Grounds ministry (our bookstore/cafes at each campus), asked if I might consider writing about why I think they struck such a chord with listeners. I can honestly say such an idea never occurred to me for a blog, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.
For two reasons:
One, I thought it might serve others. I know I would want to know which series of various churches seemed to be the most popular. That would help inform my own thinking as I prepped future series at Meck. I would also want to listen to the series to hear what was being said, and how, so that I could learn from it all that I could.
But second, I sensed it would be an important exercise in terms of feedback. Why these series? What was done (apparently) right in terms of topic and delivery, conception and title, packaging and teaching, study and exposition?
I’m glad I did.
So here are the series, a quick synopsis of their subject matter, and a brief word as to why I think they resonated so deeply:
1. Becoming a Difference Maker
This was a series designed to kick off a new calendar year. Its premise was simple: how to make your one and only life count. I recall opening with a story about a man who, on New Year’s Day, wrote that he was more than willing to die “except that he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived.” Those words resonate with a great many people. Twenty-two years later, interestingly also on New Year’s Day, that same man’s hand signed the Emancipation Proclamation, giving freedom to millions.
Yes, it was Abraham Lincoln.
The series then went on to explore the four areas the Bible elevates as being the most important for making a difference with our lives: our gifts/vocation, being an ambassador for the message of Christ to others, the stewardship of our resources, and prayer.
Part of the power of the series was its timing - given during a season when many wish to make resolutions for change. But it’s clearly something more than that as it continues to be a popular series. On a deeper level, this series spoke to the visceral desire to have our lives matter, and the practical nature of each and every investment we make. Rather than simply do more, it led people to be more, and then have what they do flow from that “being.” In other words, the series was strategic in terms of timing (the start of a new year), spoke to one of our deepest yearnings (significance), and went beyond trivial suggestions to real substance.
Perhaps the greatest critique of the Christian faith in our current day is that we are judgmental. People who have tasted the church and left, or even those who look at it from afar and want nothing to do with it, express the same sentiment: “You are judgmental and I want nothing to do with that.” This series took this on with full throat, owning the many sins of the Christian community against those outside of it, and how completely the Bible denounces judging others. It opened with a powerful video that, when I first saw it, prompted the entire series. (Click here to view the video.)
This led into the power of the Bible’s portrayal of God as the God of grace. And equally important was the conversation about the importance of pairing truth with grace, which is something continually modeled for us in the life of Jesus. The series ended with a look at what some have called “the bait of Satan,” which is our culture’s current preoccupation with taking offense to virtually anything and everything.
Why the popularity of this series? One reason is that it openly gave a voice to the thoughts and feelings of those in our world toward the Christian faith – whether those outside the faith or inside of it. Naming the elephant in the room is always powerful. Second, it portrayed the most unique idea of the Christian faith, which is (I would argue) grace. Third, it served as a compelling apologetic for the Christian faith in a post-Christian world. The study and use of apologetics has historically been toward offering “proof” for the Christian faith of an evidential manner. Important as this is, the growing need is to address issues such as judgmentalism with the same sinew.
3. How to Bible
This series introduced the Bible to those less familiar with it (which is the vast majority of the Western world). There is an innate attraction to something culturally “large” yet largely unknown. This is, of course, the place of the Bible in the minds of many. The series began with an orientation to the Bible as a whole, followed by how to read it, how to apply it, and then two additional weeks on how to believe it (once you’ve read it).
Like many Meck series, this was introducing the Christian faith to a post-Christian world. We talk about the Bible, preach from the Bible, argue for the Bible, but seldom take the time to help people know how to Bible. When we do, it’s eagerly embraced. And not just from those exploring the Christian faith but also from those who have long considered themselves to be Christ followers. The series was the quintessential blending of explanation and apologetics. Meaning, it first explained for those listening to understand, and then made the case for what was (hopefully) now understood. This is a one-two punch that is desperately needed.
4. The Underprotective Parent
The idea behind this series was a burning conviction that a seismic cultural shift has taken place - from parents tending to be hovering over their children (hence the term “helicopter parents”), to being hands-off in ways that are highly dangerous. The “underprotective” dynamic within parenting specifically related to such things as their child’s friends, exposure to media, and spiritual upbringing. The challenge of the series was to be much more involved as a parent in critical areas of childish immaturity: specifically, be informed, involved, and in charge.
I remember the electricity in the air when I delivered this series. What I was conveying was not only wildly counter-cultural, but spoke to the deepest anxieties of any parent: “Am I doing the right thing by going along with what other parents are doing?” – or the opposite – “Am I doing the right thing by not going along with what they are doing?” It also seemed to tap into a wide swath of parents who had a deep sense of what the right thing to do was in a given situation but, due to cultural pressure, lacked the confidence to pursue it.
5. Significant Other
As the title would suggest, “Significant Other” was a look at intimate relationships between men and women from dating to marriage. The series actually journeyed through the evolution of a relationship. It began with a look at intimacy itself and then journeyed into the levels of intimacy, when sex should come into play, and the role and place of marriage.
The appeal of this series was vintage Meck; meaning, how strongly it was tailored (as all of our series are) toward those outside of the church. It assumed nothing of a Christian ethic, much less sensibility. It simply walked through the stages of relationship, what each stage holds, and how each stage could be diminished. An honest conversation about things like sex and commitment, children and marriage, was pursued throughout the series in the context of a culture with a very different set of values than those the Bible would propose. As I find myself doing regularly, a case for the Bible’s position was being made in a way that attempted to connect with those who live in a world very much opposed to it.
And this may be the “secret sauce” for all of Meck’s talks. Namely, who they were written for. What does it take to truly stand on Mars Hill as the apostle Paul did in Acts 17 and contend for the gospel in a decisively non-Christian culture? It’s easy to speak to the already convinced, giving them an emotional pep rally or an intellectual stimulus. It’s more difficult – much more, I might add – to speak to the questions and issues of the day in a way that simultaneously deepens a Believer’s faith and knowledge toward mission and reaches those far from God for that mission.
These five series were apparently particularly indicative of the many others like them that – by God’s grace – seemed to do just that. As a result, they were passed on by those who heard them to others.
May they serve you in some small way as well.
James Emery White
All five of these series are available as MP3 audio files or PDF manuscripts at ChurchAndCulture.org. You will find them gathered at the top of the Message Downloads page.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.