By Jonathan Howe
I’m not sure when this trend started, but like many trends, it likely has innocent beginnings. A pastor heard the name of a popular new book, movie, or album, and decided it would be a great sermon series title.
Maybe the pastor thought it was catchy. And maybe it was. Maybe the congregation appreciated the play on words. It’s highly likely.
Then other pastors started imitating the pastor. They started doing the same—taking pop culture references and morphing them into sermon series titles. And things spiraled out of control.
Now, to be fair, there is nothing wrong with a catchy sermon series title. There is nothing wrong with one that’s not catchy, either. But the cute, pop culture-y, pun-tastic sermon series titles really should be rethought, and here are six reasons why:
- Not everyone understands the reference. As mainstream as you may think a TV show or game, or movie is, there will still be a large group in your congregation who simply will not get the reference. A sermon series title I saw recently was based on the wildly popular game, Pokémon Go. However, it was likely lost on senior adults who have no idea what a Pokémon is or where you go to catch them. And for those of us who do, it can seem like a bit of a stretch to be culturally relevant.
- These titles make the Bible seem old or outdated. By stretching to make the Bible relevant, we can sometimes forget that the Bible doesn’t need our help to do so. It’s completely relevant to our lives just the way it is. Your sermon series shouldn’t require a cute pop culture title for your congregation to see the application of the Bible in their everyday lives.
- They sometimes verge on copyright infringement (or at least the appearance of it). I’m obviously not a trademark lawyer, but when you use a company’s registered brand or tagline to promote your product, that’s quite close to stealing (if not actual theft of intellectual property). And do we really want our churches to be known for “baptizing” secular companies and taglines? I know that’s not often the intent, but intent and perception are often two different things. And negative perception can hurt a church and a pastor even if the intent is well-meaning.
- The start of the sermon series often lags well behind the popularity of its inspiration. Because sermon series are often planned in advance, there is a high probability that by the time your pop culture-based series starts, its inspiration is already declining in popularity. Churches already take (often unwarranted) criticism for being behind the times. Cute sermon series titles often reinforce that perception.
- Cute sermon series titles can veil the distinctiveness of Christianity. Do sermon series titles based on pop culture references really communicate “in the world, and not of the world”? You might be able to make a case for it. If so, feel free to do so in the comment section below. But are we really communicating that Christianity is distinct from culture when we are compelled to use culture to market it?
- Cute sermon series titles can obfuscate the message of the actual sermon. Finally, it’s quite possible that by using these titles we are drawing more attention to cute turns of phrase than the Word of God. This is obviously not the case in all instances, but I can see how easy it could be for a pastor to study a text looking more for how it can be molded into a sermon series title than how it can mold listeners more into the shape of Christ.
Again, am I saying you shouldn’t have a memorable sermon series title? No. Am I saying you should avoid all pop culture references in your preaching? No.
Every church is different, and every congregation is different. But I have a strong feeling that if your sermon series titles were based more on the actual biblical text and not on a pop culture reference, your congregation might appreciate that just as much, if not more.