The Kobayashi Maru of Sunday Sermons

Are you a Star Trek fan? If not, perhaps you’re not familiar with the term Kobayashi Maru.

The Kobayashi Maru is a training exercise in the fictional Start Trek universe designed to test the character of Starfleet Academy cadets in a no-win scenario.

What does that have to do with Sunday sermons?

I admire and respect senior pastors and teaching pastors who carry the weight of communicating to such a diverse crowd on Sunday mornings.

It doesn’t really matter if it’s 80 people, 800 people or 8,000.

It’s nearly impossible to teach in such a way to reach the entire congregation right where they live.

Consider this list:

  1. The generational differences
  2. The cultural and ethnic diversity
  3. The varying levels of spiritual maturity
  4. The theological differences
  5. The individual life situations

This can feel like a no-win situation, but courageous communicators go for it every Sunday and make it work.

But there is ONE factor that in my observation appears like the un-winnable situation.

For more than 30 years I’ve heard this phrase from church attendees all over the country: “The sermon isn’t deep enough.”

The right amount of “depth” is the Kobayashi Maru of any Sunday morning sermon.  

  • Too deep for who?
  • Not deep enough for who?
  • What is “deep?”
  • What is the purpose of depth?

These questions are part of the Kobayashi Maru scenario.

4 ways to beat the Kobayashi Maru, without cheating!

1) Pick a lane and stay in it.

You can’t let 80 or 800 or 8,000 people vote on this. You’ll go crazy trying to make everyone happy. And yet people have a right to their own opinions.

The communication lane you choose will entirely define the ministry of your church.

What is your aim?

Do you aim toward the evangelistic side? Do you want to lean more toward those that are far from God? That may contain a little less depth. However, keep in mind, there is absolutely nothing shallow about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If your aim leans toward discipleship and mature believers then lean into that direction, but do it with intentionality. Know what your end goal is.

I don’t recommend that you go for the best of both worlds, attempting to land right smack in the middle with hopes of hitting both sides just perfectly.

When you try to straddle the middle, your teaching lacks the edge that makes it stand out, and you may risk missing nearly everyone.

2) Define depth with intentionality.

Let’s go back to the idea that the Gospel is not shallow, it is simple but contains great depth and strength. That’s a great place to start your thinking about intentional depth.

Nearly any trained Bible teacher can quickly plummet the great depths of theological truth to the utter confusion of most listeners. I think we can agree that is not helpful.

On the other hand, the congregation deserves a carefully thought through, biblical, and insightful message that challenges and encourages them to a practical response.

How do you define depth while you build your sermon?

  • Do you define depth according to your theological training or the needs of the people?
  • Do you take the time to dig out the deeper insights, but translate them into a language that all can absorb?

Here’s one practical example of how you might define depth in a Sunday message:

“Provide enough meat that they need to chew on it, but not so much that they choke on it.”

But be careful with that definition, you might be tempted to think that’s an “in the middle, I can reach everyone” approach. It’s not. It still requires you to wrestle down point #1 above.

It’s also important to gain alignment and agreement with your key staff and leaders, such as your board. Talk about this together, get agreement as a team.

3) Trust the Holy Spirit to make up the difference.

I’m not a senior pastor but I’ve preached several hundred sermons over more than a 30-year time span.

My experience is that the Holy Spirit communicates what needs to be said, and it often has nothing to do with what was in my notes!

I love it when someone says to me: “Here’s what I got from your message,” and I didn’t say anything like that!” That’s communication in the supernatural zone where we all want to be.

The Holy Spirit can fill in the gaps! That doesn’t negate, however, the need for intentionality along with much prayer and preparation. But it does remind us that the Word of God brings with it the supernatural, live and real-time, reality of God’s power.

12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

Hebrews 4:12

16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  II Tim 3:16-17

Scripture is your best asset!

4) Pray and lead toward a fresh perspective for your more mature Christians.

My hunch is that some of your more faithful and mature Christians are also the ones who might tell you the sermon isn’t deep enough.

I know that can be frustrating to you. But you can’t ignore it. Believe it or not, it’s not enough to pick your lane, define depth and trust the Holy Spirit. It’s very close to enough, but there is one more piece.

In most cases, a fresh perspective is the best approach.

Here’s a fresh perspective for a Christian who is growing in maturity (you will have to give your own definition to maturity):

Assuming the sermon is a biblically based message, regardless of the level of depth, the mature Christian will possess the passion to look for the insights, listen for God’s voice, and act upon what they hear. The mature Christian finds their own depth.

Then after the message, they have the ability to dig out any extra depth they are looking for on their own.

If you slowly add this principle to your overall discipleship and leadership, it’s possible to move your congregation to a new place.

I know this process is never done, and in fact, it’s always coming undone. But then again, that’s why you write another message for next Sunday.

4 thoughts on “The Kobayashi Maru of Sunday Sermons”

  1. we must aim to develop mature Christians and that is a very big challenge for any senior pastor.
    in my experience, I challenge my congregation and they respond with deep questions or theological discussions. It takes time to see the results but it’s worth it. a very important point is to trust the Spirit guidance, sometimes we tend to forget about that in the Seminary.
    excellent article

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