Most viral videos share at least two things in common: “discussability” and “relatability.” So says Video CEO Analyst Brian Shin in Here’s why these 6 videos went viral.

“Discussable” means that it contains something shocking or surprising, which compels viewers to share it with others.

“Relatable” means that it has a deeply human element which we connect with emotionally and want to share with others.

As you read on, “simplicity” also emerges as an important factor; viral videos have a clear structure that’s easy to follow and remember.

That sounds like some helpful criteria for a sermon doesn’t it: ”Discussable,” “relatable,” and “simple.”

Do our sermons prompt discussion? There’s nothing more surprising or shocking than grace! So why do most sermons send people to sleep? Perhaps we’re not preaching grace. Or maybe our sermons answer too many questions, producing passive listeners. Why not pose more questions, leave them unanswered, and challenge hearers to seek their own answers from the Word and from one another?

Do they connect with the heart? Many sermons are not “earthed.” They float above hearers’ intellectual level, or they just don’t sound like “real life.” They may be full of theology, logic, and argumentation, but the emotions remain refrigerated.

Are they as simple in content and structure as possible? I’ve written on this before in A plea for profound simplicity. The most important book I’ve ever read for sermon preparation was William Zinser’s On Writing Well, especially pages 7-23. In fact if I had the choice of choosing two pages from any book, that I wanted every preacher to read it would be pages 10-11 in Zinser’s book where he takes the knife to a manuscript!

“Discussable,” “relatable,” and “simple.”

And who knows, with God’s blessing, maybe “viral” too!

  • Cornell

    Hi David,

    Thanks for these great writing tips. I will definitely apply them to my writing at different points. Yet, I was wondering about some challenges that I would face if I tried to apply them to sermons.

    For instance, if I craft my sermons to prompt more discussions by posing questions (for instance), shouldn’t I also remind myself of the “point” of any sermon? That is; to explain and hold up scripture as light, to correct error and preach Christ. I am afraid of the emergent (or even worse, Rob Bell) danger of promoting skepticism about interpretation.

    These guys who apply such strategies do indeed go viral, but viral may actually be a virus. They may be discussed, but perhaps what we, as the church, need to promote discussion is deliberate discipleship and active ecumenism. There’s just a way that the Truth in a sermon manages to remain unpopular (Matt 7:14). Truth tends to fade the moment it becomes a fad.

    I fully support the “simplicity” and “relatability” tips. They are effective strategies in all forms of communication and do not necessarily require doing a lot of gymnastics in our interpretation. So, I would propose great care in navigating through the “discussion” part of the post. Also, it is one thing to identify traits of a viral sermon. It is a different thing to pursue those traits in our sermons. It betrays a form of pragmatic worldview (though not entirely so) where the popularity of a sermon, rather than its faithfulness to truth, is our aim.

    Thank you for this. And God bless you.

    • David Murray

      Hi Cornell: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Maybe I didn’t explain my point about “discussability.” I don’t mean that we just pose questions and leave people groping in the dark. No, the Word has to be authoritatively preached without any hesitation or uncertainty. What I mean is that we ask thought-provoking and fellowship-provoking questions that challenge the listener to do more than passively receive. For example, in the Scottish Highlands, pastors would often include a question or two in their sermons that would encourage listeners to do further thinking, study, discussion with other Christians. Christians would often gather in one another’s homes after church services to discuss the sermon and especially to discuss these questions. Sometimes they would maybe phone or email other Christian friends and ask their view. That way, the sermon lived on, became “viral” if you will. I hope that clearly distinguishes this practice from the doubt-cultivating approach of Rob Bell.

      I agree with you that it would be wrong to aim for “viral” sermons rather than faithful sermons. However, we want faithful sermons to go viral, don’t we? I don’t think any of these three points need undermine faithfulness.

      • Cornell

        Thanks for that clarification. It was very helpful. Also reveals how our current ways of doing “church” leave a lot to be desired in terms of engaging with the sermon post-Sunday-service. The pulpit is indeed the perfect place from which to upload this viral video of an idea :-).

        Thank you!! Blessed day.

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