Using Creative Themes in Teaching and Ministry

Theming is not important, but it is. The core of teaching in ministry is knowing God’s Word and being consistent in preaching it and obeying it. For the worship and support team around the sermon, they must be good stewards of this information–gathering it, organizing it, and delivering it in a timely and accurate manner. It’s being a trustworthy source and servant. Themes in teaching–naming your sermon series for instance–is not in my top five most important things in ministry.

Theming is this little voice over to the side that whispers into your ear “Hey, wouldn’t all this make more sense if put together in this way?” It’s the part of you that wants to tie everything in a nice package and put a bow on it. It is the mark of the total presentation.

Theming, when taken in the context of what is most important in ministry, is not a big deal. There are other things that have to be functioning well long before you get to theming. Given that most churches communicate so poorly, there are few, if any, churches that should be centrally concerned with theming. A theme in and of itself will not improve poor sermon preparation or poor overall ministry support.

But theming can make a big difference. Okay, it’s a paradox, but deal with it. Theming is like remote control–you could live without it, but who would want to? This thing that can consume and waste time and resources can also help people connect to the Word more readily because it can help communicate on multiple levels. It’s glue. It’s the flying buttress to a cathedral of mediocre ministries. Is this making any sense?

Back up–first, what is theming anyway? Let me put it in context:

  • Message. This is what you want to communicate. It’s the idea, vision, outline, thought, impression, time, date, place–whatever you want the intended audience to know or experience.
  • Content. This is the actual words, images, gestures, smells, sounds, etc. that you use to communicate the message.
  • Environment. This is the context or atmosphere in which the message is delivered.
  • Media. These are the various means by which the content is delivered (sound, video, scent, etc.).
  • Audience. Those who you want to receive, understand and/or act on your message.

Still with me? Great.

Theme is a unifying idea or concept that allows the content, environment and media to work together so the message is retained by the audience. A theme clarify and make more memorable the content, environment and media. A theme is not the message, however. It’s the setting or context in which the message is received.

Themes are most often associated with entertainment because at the heart a theme can be entertaining. But it can also be an effective mechanism for ministry. A theme in and of itself does not have to be entertaining.

When we take a ministry effort, or a sermon series, or an outreach event, and we apply a theme to it, we’re enhancing the experience for the congregation . We could be making it more attractive visually, or easier to understand metaphorically, or more effective in context. A theme could be incredibly simple (“What if the names of the four sermons on prayer this month started with a “P”?) or incredibly complex (“What if people could understand the nature of heaven more fully by interacting live with believers on the other side of the world?”). Themes are not the key thoughts–they’re the “helper ideas”–the ideas that enhance what we are called to preach, teach or convey.

Themes are usually obvious and broad. One reason to theme is to make something instantly recognizable or more memorable. Another is to make a complex concept easier to understand–relating the purpose of the church to a baseball diamond, for instance. Themes are usually simple because they are designed to simplify what they represent.

Themes should also be obvious–you should not hear someone asking, “What is this supposed to be?” Themes should never complicate a message–only clarify it. Themes are often broad in scope. “Just Do It,” for instance. Within a broad theme there is plenty of room for experimentation and variation. Yet a broad theme is easily grasped by the audience.

Good themes require research and detail. Good themes “fit” well with the message they are helping to convey. This is usually not by accident. Thought, research and energy goes into a well-executed theme. We approach theming from the standpoint that people will “get it” from the beginning–that the theme will be effective. Sometimes themes must be tested and refined.

A theme often requires more energy and input to get right than the idea or message itself. The theme must always serve the message–not the other way around. A message that serves the theme in ministry is called a “sugar stick.” It sounds good, but there’s no meat on it. This is an easy and common mistake to make with theming. Outside of ministry, a theme can just make something look good or sound good, and that’s enough. In ministry, it must never compromise the message or it becomes damaging to the cause of Christ.

A bad theme is worse than no theme at all. A church that thinks through its message, organizes its information and presents it in a compelling way will brreak through the clutter of a media-saturated world. Knowing how to communicate well enhances every area of ministry. It’s a benefit far greater than the sum of the parts.

I firmly believe if you are not going to fully develop a theme, even if it’s simple, it’s best not to have one at all. Church preschool ministries are full of really bad wall murals–poor, hand-drawn sketches that while colorful don’t communicate anything useful at all. Our faith is littered with bad sermon titles and corny copies of mainstream advertising (Got Jesus? iServe?). In the past I have been guilty of this laziness myself.

A theme is a powerful ministry tool. Properly used it can enhance communication many-fold. It can help people make an instant connection with a message, and retain it more fully. It can engage their senses and keep their attention longer. At its very best, a theme can motivate and inspire. Which is why I spent so much time writing about theming… even though it isn’t all that important.


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