Why Lifting Pop-Culture Themes for Sermons Isn’t Effective

The contemporary church in North America has taken the practice of themed sermon series as a central element of sermon planning and promotion. Often these themes are derived from the marketplace, versus original themes created by the pastor or worship planning team. For example, we will take the popular Apple iPod commercials and turn it into the “iPray” teaching series, complete with similar design and graphics. Or we will name a series after a popular movie or television show, like “Lost” or “Friends”.

I hesitate to speak strongly against this practice, because in truth I am guilty of participation in this on occasion. The reason behind this liberal borrowing of content is usually that we believe it will help us communicate more clearly and creatively, and help the congregation capture and retain more of the teaching. Additionally, it serves as a promotional mechanism that we expect will draw people to the church through intriguing themes and ideas.

Instead, let me suggest this thinking is flawed, and the practice is actually not helpful at best, and unethical at worst. Let me explain:

It’s often cheap. When I am in the middle of a planning circle looking at preaching themes built on pop culture, I admit some satisfaction at the apparent cleverness of the exercise. On reflection though, I put myself in the seat of a person seeing this theme from the outside. And more often than not, it’s just cheesy. It’s unimpressive, unoriginal, and unattractive. Take a quick, unscientific poll of members and guests as to their opinion of whether a pop-culture theme is effective and you may be surprised to learn the audience is savvy to culture and unmoved by cheap rip-offs.

It’s often constraining. We often don’t realize that these marketplace themes come with baggage and ideas that we may, in fact, not want to communicate. A television show like “Lost” is a great example. Let’s say we’re doing a series on the spiritual state of those far from God. Well, “Lost” sounds like a perfect fit for a title. Yet the show has many spiritual themes including supernatural elements, plot lines including murder and violence, and many fans who think the show was actually a metaphor for purgatory.

Now, do we really want to attach all that baggage to our sermon series? Because we are. When we use a pop culture theme, we are doing it to connect with those who are fans or knowledgeable about that theme. We call the series “Lost” because we think we’ll attract those familiar with “Lost”. The problem is, that familiarity means they connect the teaching first to the TV show and not to God’s Word. There’s an easy test for this—wait a year after your pop-culture themed series and ask your congregation what the main points of the “Lost” series was. You’re in for an eye-opening reply.

Original themes and ideas that enter our minds unhindered are simply more memorable. And because there is no pop-culture baggage, we can attach our own desired teaching and principles to the theme. So instead of the “Lost” series, if we were to call it the “How Far” series, or the “Unreached” series, we’re creating a stronger connection between our teaching on those far from God and the theme. Original ideas, even less creative ones, are nearly always stronger and more effective.

It’s often criminal. In no other professional circle would anyone take the ideas of another and adjust them to suit their own purposes. This is either called plagiarism or outright theft. The difference in the non-profit realm is that churches are not making money off of the ideas, and so have largely gone untouched by copyright and trademark holders. But make no mistake, when we use pop-culture themes invented by others, we are taking their ideas. Worship ministries would not perform music without proper licensing, yet the climactic element of the worship service, the preaching, often steps over this legal boundary. We must be honest about this practice and ask ourselves if it is a Christ-honoring way to handle intellectual property.

What about Pastors Edge messages? Clearly we are granting permission and encouraging your use of this material by offering it on this website. That’s very different from taking someone else’s ideas without permission. In fact, we encourage you to take the materials here and make them your own. Our purpose is to further the Gospel and help pastors creatively teach the Word.

What’s the alternative? Be fresh, be original, be simple, be yourself. Are you saying that it’s better to name a teaching series, “Prayer” instead of “iPray?” Yes, that’s exactly what I am saying. Here at Pastors Edge, you’ll see several series with titles that come from a pop-culture mindset. We strive to make them original. This has included re-naming and re-theming some of the series and individual message that are available here as our own congregation moves away from this pop-culture thinking. Within the sermons there are cultural and pop-culture references–that’s natural, and it’s always a balancing act as the pastor must weigh the benefit of cultural references against the cost.

God’s Word is a powerful, living story. It deserves more than pop-culture icing. In the quest to make the Gospel known to as many people as possible, I believe we’ve taking a bit of tangent with pop-culture theming. The motive was pure, but the execution skewed. There is nothing like the Bible, and nothing else like the Gospel. It deserves to be set apart with clear, original and creative themes to reinforce its message in our media-rich culture.


Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.