Omaha clergy embrace new ways, like the Eagles, to captivate congregations

February 20, 2014

By Michael O'Connor / World-Herald staff writer  -

A church band played the Eagles' song “Desperado” while pastor Bruce Davis preached on a winter morning.

Davis tied the song's lyrics — “You better let somebody love you, before it's too late” — to God's love for all people. The Omaha pastor regularly weaves pop music into his sermons at St. Andrew's United Methodist Church to make his preaching more engaging.

Local clergy say it's more important than ever to deliver sermons that not just share God's message but capture people's attention and hearts.

“If it's not engaging, they will check out,” said Mark Ashton, lead pastor at Omaha's Christ Community Church.

Drawing people into the pews can be challenging these days. Roughly 3 in 10 U.S. adults say they never or seldom attend worship services, according to the Pew Research Center. Plus, the center's polling shows that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to rapidly grow, and particularly among young people.

Local clergy emphasize they aren't trying to entertain or water down God's word, but rather deliver a spiritual message that captivates their congregation — not put it to sleep.

Sermons at some churches are multimedia, peppered with clips from popular movies and songs that connect with Gospel messages. Clergy are also tapping social media, with a pastor at one Omaha church planning to connect with the congregation on Twitter while delivering the sermon.

Some clergy are even ditching the pulpit. One Omaha rabbi now delivers his sermon in a talk-show format complete with a monologue and desk.

Catholic priests and other clergy whose formats are more traditional say building a sermon with vivid words or a story from the news helps make it relevant and engaging.

Even Pope Francis weighed in on the topic last fall when he issued a blueprint for his papacy. The pope reminded priests that they must offer a powerful and engaging homily because it is the “touchstone for judging a pastor's closeness and ability to communicate to his people.”

At a service in January, Davis tied his sermon to the music of the Eagles. As the church band played covers of “Hotel California” and other hits, photos of the Eagles, Richard Nixon and other images from the 1970s flashed on huge twin screens behind the altar.

Davis linked Gospel messages to the group's lyrics. For example, the biblical point about facing the consequences of our actions is a theme of the Eagles song “Lyin' Eyes.”

Some churches show movie clips to make similar connections.

On Christmas morning at Omaha's King of Kings Lutheran Church, associate pastor Dan Weber showed a short clip from “Toy Story 3.”

Weber used the scene in which Woody and other toys are saved from getting toasted in an incinerator to illustrate a point about the salvation delivered by the birth of Jesus.

Weber's church also taps social media. This month, he and another pastor will use an iPad and Twitter during their sermons to respond to comments from the congregation.

Meredith Garwood, a 28-year-old member of King of Kings, said use of social media, video and pictures is particularly helpful in connecting with young people like her who have grown up with technology.

“It resonates,” she said.

At Omaha's Beth Israel Synagogue, Rabbi Jonathan Gross abandoned the pulpit this fall and launched a talk-show format, with a set that includes a desk and a backdrop of the Omaha skyline. The show is called “Good Shabbos Nebraska,” a reference to the Yiddish term for the Jewish sabbath.

Gross delivers a short “monologue” outlining the Torah message of the week. Then he interviews local and internationally known Jewish speakers on topics connected to the message.

Before the new format, the synagogue drew about 75 people to the weekly service. Now it's attracting more than 100.

Gross said that even though he's offering something new, the heart of the service remains scripture and prayers.

Clergy, such as the Rev. Selwyn Bachus of Omaha's Salem Baptist Church, agree that the word of God is the foundation of any good sermon.

Ashton's sermons at Christ Community Church sometimes incorporate Power Point presentations, pictures and video, but he said the message from scripture remains the heart of his preaching.

The Rev. Tom Neitzke, a Jesuit priest who celebrates Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, said anecdotes, stories from the news and humor can help make the Gospel relevant.

It's important to have a sense of what's on people's minds, whether it's a tragedy or something as simple as the weather, said Neitzke, president of Omaha's Jesuit Academy.

The key for a preacher, he said, is making sure the congregation knows you are part of them.

“We walk together,” he said.

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