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The Reverse Sermon

I was talking to a chaplain back in 2015, Steve Griffin, about his issue of getting "butts in seats" in terms of getting voluntary participation for events he and other partners hosted for the sake of military personnel particularly to support their spiritual and morale needs. Truth be told, he wasn't the only person struggling with this, its a well known pain point for almost all of the Christian faith based non-profits and chaplains I have served together with in the military community.

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In a previous blog post "Faith Can Be a Game Changer to Unit Combat Readiness" that I wrote last week, I mentioned how as a young midshipman preparing for a career as a military officer, I struggled to answer a few life changing questions:

1) “Is it ok for me to kill another human in war?”

2) Where do I go when I die?

3) Is there a God, and if I can know Him, what does He want me to do with my life?

These are pretty fundamental questions that a lot of people before me have asked as well to include men like Sergeant Alvin York, World War I Medal of Honor Recipient. Alvin at one point was considering becoming a conscientious objector to serving overseas in World War I as he had become a Christian and felt that he couldn't in good conscience kill another man because it conflicted what he knew about his faith at the time. His Commanding Officer knew the Bible on that issue better and encouraged Alvin to take time off and study the Bible better before coming back to make his final decision. During that time, Alvin realized that his faith in Christ and military service was not incompatible and he ended up going downrange to serve in the US Army during World War I. While serving in the 82nd Infantry Division, he captured a total of 132 German soldiers after taking out multiple machine gun nests based on his expert marksmanship skills. I wonder what would have happened that day if Alvin had decided not to press into knowing his faith better. Might there have been a significant battlefield loss and a lot of Americans killed? Who knows. What we can tell though was the encouragement of Alvin's leadership to understand his faith better made a tangible impact on the battlefield. Furthermore, military men and women in a combat situation often face the stark reality of having to be courageous in the face of death. There are various ways to overcome it, but one thing is for sure, one must have a sense of a greater purpose than themselves and have contemplated their own death if they are going to truly live. In the mini-series following the story of soldiers of the 101st Airborne on the European Battlefield of WWII, "Band of Brothers", one of the soldiers asks his Lieutenant what gives him courage to do bold but brave tasks in the face of mortal danger. The Lieuteanant responds with something to the effect of "you must consider yourself dead" alluding to the fact that if you are prepared to face death, then you can more courageously live life and hope for an outcome that hopefully doesn't end in death, but if it does, you're ready for it.

Issues like this are reasons why chaplains, pastors, and other religious leaders exist, to help everyday people and particular for the group I am addressing, military individuals, prepare to face very difficult life circumstances. The hard part though is getting people during a time of peace to bring themselves around to listening to a message voluntarily that will help them with that particularly from a faith perspective. I have seen though that chaplains and spiritual leaders can become more relevant and see a greater audience through some techniques I have practiced and found work which I'll define as the "Reverse Sermon".

I come from a Christian faith standpoint so all of my experience in terms of religious participation in divine services both as a participant or leader is coming from that standpoint with the exception of attending a synagogue and subsequent Bar Mitzvah in support of some close Jewish friends I have. So that is the perspective I'm going to share which I believe could benefit my fellow Christians who are chaplains or ministry leaders in general, particularly to the military community, but it could also have a benefit to other religious grops as well. When I listen to most sermons or during a few various occasions where I have been invited to speak myself, typically the message is a interwoven message of stories, life application principles, and applicable scriptures that are spoken about to provide authority to the message. Nothing wrong here and there are obviously very gifted leaders who have done this forever. However, the particular issue maybe for any group but particularly in the military is that you are either forced to only speak from a secular standpoint or only speak about faith matters from jump street in a publicized divine service. For the first setting, chaplains can work with their command leadership to speak at a mandated session for everybody in their unit to give some generic words of wisdom. However, to start preaching to an audience in this context would be inappropriate and will likely land them and their unit leadership in trouble. For the second setting, this is a typical setting on most Sunday mornings in chapel services and church services that I've seen, but here the problem is garnering interest in people to drag themselves out of bed or whatever else fun thing they have going on to listen to a message that would help them out with life and connection to the divine. Even on major religious holidays like Christmas, Ash Wednesday, and Easter, I have noticed particularly in my last command that very few individuals took the opportunity to attend these pretty important services even when given the opportunity to do so even though by demographic a good majority of service members will subscribe to some type of Christian faith background. I have learned and been able to practice a combined approach however that blends the pros of both settings and mitigates the negative aspects of both. I would like to share this approach particularly for chaplains and non-profit religious leaders who serve the military although I believe even civilian leaders can benefit from this approach in terms of better engaging their entire community. I am calling this approach the "Reverse Sermon" which I'll explain below.

Overview of the "Reverse Sermon"

The idea here of the Reverse Sermon is to first have a good pulse on the community you serve and know what type of deep questions they have much like a good marketing professional would do. You have to know your audience well. This can be as simple as just going around and asking questions or considering themes of problems that you are facing in your unit. Next, you will want to think of what stories and life lessons you can use to connect with your target audience to address these issues. Then, you will want to come up with a generic solution to this issue but hold back a deeper faith based solution to the end of your message. By splitting your message into two components, you bring about the opportunity to have everybody in your community listen to the first part without feeling put off by the religious material. This brings in the pro of having a big audience to listen to what you have to say without going through painful and often fruitless traditional marketing techniques like putting fliers up, sending emails out, etc. Following this particular part of your message, you then give a disclaimer that you are going to provide the audience an optional opportunity to listen more to the message from a faith based perspective highlighting what faith tradition that is going to be. For military chaplains or speakers presenting on behalf of chaplains and their unit leaders, you will want to mention that the next part of the program is part of the "Command Religious Program" which is an official part of military unit programs to ensure that service members get an opportunity to practice their faith in light of the challenges that military service brings.

For those who don't want to participate, they will be given an opportunity to either leave or participate in another motivational training opportunity that presents an alternative solution to the problem you addressed in the first place. This approach I will admit is very unconventional, but it ensures that you gain an opportunity to first engage and build a relationship with an audience and then allow them the choice to choose to listen to you or not. I have personally seen this approach bear much fruit particularly in the military community although I wonder if the approach was used more in civilian churches if attendance would be higher from the get go. I believe that church participants would be more likely to invite friends to divine services or share video messages on their social media or through email if this were the case because it would overcome awkwardness more easily.

I also have come to notice that people like to watch TED Talks or motivational speakers like Tony Robbins to handle life. In the veteran community one thought leader I have come to respect is Jocko Willink, a retired Navy SEAL who garners in the tens to hundreds of thousands of viewers on his Podcast and YouTube channel. I also study highly influential pastors like Miles McPherson, an African American pastor and former NFL football player who oversees a large multi-racial congregation in San Diego, Steve Furtick, a pastor who founded Elevation Church located primarily in North Carolina whose podcast reaches globally, and Steve Robinson, a pastor in Metarie, LA who oversees Church of the King. Something I've noticed about all of these leaders both from a faith based and non-faith based is that they tell incredible stories that really connect to the heart of their target audience in terms of solving real life problems much like successful marketing professionals do in sales. Studying the Bible you will notice that the most influential leaders like Jesus, Paul of Tarsus, Peter, etc. all were able to connect in some form or fashion to the heart of everyday people and their problems and then provide practical solutions. What this has led me to conclude is that in order to get a message across to a wide audience, one must be able to emphathize (literally see through the eyes of their audience), relate to their struggles, but then provide practical solutions that can be implemented in real life if there is to be any fruit. I have also been studying marketing techniques and notice there is a theme of providing content that resonates with your target audience followed up by a presentation of a problem which is then worsened in a manner that can be related to followed up finally be a solution which the target audience can take action on.

I am personally on a journey to master communication as a leader in general and also one who wants to help others understand how faith based principles at work in my life can help them particularly from a military context. If a chaplain or religious ministry leader particularly who is working in the military context was to adopt an approach of studying their target audience, come up with stories that relate to them, and then provide an optional faith based solution after engaging with them first to build credibility, I believe the impact on service members in terms of developing a greater level of divine connection that will enable them to overcome adversity and face bravely the crucible of combat would be much higher. I am so passionate about this that I even came up with a free resource called the "Unit Total Fitness Accelerator" which not only helps articulate the technique I mentioned above in a "follow the leader" step by step method, but also enables chaplains and ministry leaders an opportunity to better understand how to multiply their influence with volunteers and other military leaders. To gain access to this resource, go here to get your copy of the "Unit Total Fitness Accelerator". Let me know how it works for you. Until then stay fit for the fight and life!

Chris Reardon