I hate to admit it, but there are plenty of times I sit in church on Sundays and don’t enjoy the sermon. It’s not always that the preaching is not good, however. I may just be in a funk. Or more likely, I know enough that I don’t need to just sit there passively and listen, I need to be DOING something – volunteering, serving, or preaching myself. Christianity ought to be primarily participatory, not merely passive learning.
1. What to avoid when preaching
There are plenty of common errors to avoid when preaching. Here’s the tactics I have suffered (or committed!)
1.1. Preaching too long
In my experience, an effective and informative sermon should be about 20-35 minutes long and no longer. After that, I think attention and effectiveness start to wane. Admittedly, you need to preach long enough to do justice to the text,3 but if you need much more time, perhaps you need to adjust your scope better or create a series.
While guest preaching in a church several years ago I asked the senior pastor how long I should preach. He replied, “Five minutes shorter than you think.” (Tim Challies) 4
Some preachers view the length of the sermon as a sign of theological depth and academic rigor, and may appeal to the long sermons delivered by the greats like Jonathan Edwards, but in general, this is a mistake.5
1.2 Misapplication of scripture
Many times, lazy preachers will attempt a valid point, but support it using a scripture that does not teach the point at all, though it may seem so on the surface. I remember one Bible teacher discussing her fear of flying, and how she found comfort in the following passage, assuming it meant that God would bring her down safely:
Though you soar like the eagle and make your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down,” declares the LORD. (Obadiah 1:4 NIV)
Later, she found out that what it really meant was something more like:
But even if you soar as high as eagles and build your nest among the stars, I will bring you crashing down,” says the LORD (Obadiah 1:4 NLT)
She quipped, “God even knew what version of the Bible I had with me!” Of course, God does promise some level of protection, and he can speak through any methods he wants, even a misunderstood scripture, but He is not beholden to our misunderstanding of truth or scripture.
The great teacher and preacher Chuck Swindoll once taught on the subject of staying faithful to the meaning of the text using this analogy (my paraphrase):
All scripture has specific intended meaning. The lazy preacher is like the workman who has to polish a tarnished brass railing. He may give it a couple of rubs, consider the shine sufficient, and consider his work done. The worthwhile preacher is like a good workman, who will apply effort until the true beauty and color of the brass shine through brilliantly. The intended meaning of a scripture rightly divined shines through with power.
1.3 Too many memory devices
I love memory devices – such as when all of my points start with the same letter (thank you Warren Wiersbe and Adrian Rogers), such as the three C’s for navigating moral gray areas based on Romans 14. Or mnemonics like ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication).
There are also wordplays based on very similar words that make a distinction clear, such as
- it’s God IN us, not God IS us
- it’s not just sins of COMISSION, but OMISSION
- it’s eternal PUNISHMENT, not PUNISHING
- it’s “not MANY” rich will be saved, not “not ANY” 6
- God made Adam and EVE, not Adam and STEVE
Ok, that last one is provocative, and sometimes these distinctions can be overly trite or kitschy, but they can be useful. My favorite play on words is the one written by Paul arguing against those who demanded Jewish circumcision for Gentile Christians (Galatians 5:12 NASB):
I wish that those who are troubling (anastatoō) you would even emasculate (apokoptō) themselves.
I suspect that this kind of rhymes in Greek, and Paul’s biting satire is not to be missed.
But my warning is, don’t use too many devices or people won’t remember them – unless you provide a memory device for your memory devices ;)
1.4 Too many points and unclear progress of ideas
A good sermon has a clear progression of ideas, and should be bound to the limit of the number of points people can keep in their mind (3-5). This article, for instance, has more points than a good sermon ought to have. But of course, this is not a sermon. And I could use an outline like this in a sermon IF I emphasized the main two points, and perhaps use mnemonics or one of the other tools to make the secondary points memorable. But you get the idea – people need a simple outline upon which to hang the details.
1.5 No clear call to action
In online marketing terms, you want users to take an action, usually click on your link. This desired action should be clear, like on a big central button! And preaching is similar – the goal is to transform thinking, but also to move people to action. But without a clear path of action, people are much less likely to experience life-change as part of the preaching. This brings up the differences between preaching (motivation) and teaching (information). This is discussed below in Section 2.
1.6 Too much emphasis on Greek or Hebrew words
I have a confession to make – even though I have a Master’s Degree in Theology, I have avoided learning Biblical Hebrew and Greek. Why? Not because it is unimportant in translation, but because the primary role of the pastor is not translation, but exegesis and application. Reading the original manuscripts is less important in exposition, practical theology, and reasoned inquiry into the scriptures.
Additionally the investment of time necessary to make any kind of meaningful dent in understanding the nuances of the original manuscripts and translation is significant, and any advantages gained from a simple understanding of the the original languages are probably not worth the relative time invested. Quite honestly, with almost 100 English Bible translations available, most with incredible and deep scholarship behind them, it’s a much better use of time for most pastors to consult the experts, or occasionally use an interlinear resource like Blue Letter Bible to do word research (as I did for apokoptō above).
Again, like having too many points or memory devices, too many original language references may give the appearance of scholarship, but they may be unhelpful in clearly communicating the message.
2. Best practices for sermonizing
Now that we know what NOT to do, how about some positive advice?
2.1 Balance the practical with the conceptual
There’s a humorous saying about the distinction between teaching and preaching:
Q: What’s the difference between teaching and preaching?
A: One is telling, the other is yelling.
The truth here is that teaching is instructional, preaching is motivational. And in any good sermon, we are aiming to change minds and hearts, balancing renewal of the mind with encouragement and hope for the heart.
2.2 Repeat the scriptures aloud
The words of scripture are more than fodder for the mind and heart – they are life-giving and transformational to the spirit. They have the power to create faith and enlighten the understanding.
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 NIV)
Our tendency as preachers is to read through scripture quickly because it is so familiar to us. But in reality, we need to slow down to savor it and soak it in each time – it can speak to us anew of we don’t speed past it. We can also use one of the techniques from the devotional method of Lectio Divina, that of repeating the scripture, emphasizing different words each time to suss out additional meanings.
2.3 Use the “one thing” plumb line
One book on preaching that has impacted me more than most is Andy Stanley’s Communicating for a Change. One of the principles outlined in the book is that of the A line (as of cord) that has at one end a weight (such as a plumb bob) and is used especially to determine verticality. More principle. To prevent bloating your sermons with unnecessary information, you can use the guide of these two A line (as of cord) that has at one end a weight (such as a plumb bob) and is used especially to determine verticality. More questions to keep you focused. To minimize irrelevant information when writing and delivering your sermon, ask yourself:
1. What is the one concept I want them to learn?
2. What is the one action I want them to take?
Again, repetition will help reinforce these goals.
2.4 Use the relational-model outline
A second powerful rubric from Stanley’s book is what I call the Relational Preaching Outline. It includes five parts:
- Me: Start with a personal anecdote or story, or explain how you have related to the topic.
- We: Expose our common problem to be addressed.
- God: What do the scriptures say on the topic? What solutions do they offer?
- You: Personal challenge – how will you respond? What action should be taken?
- We: Paint a motivating vision of what we can become, both individually and as a community, if we choose to respond to God’s wisdom and the call to action.
2.5 Include a sidebar
This is one of my favorite communication tools. In a short 25 minute sermon, there are always deeper questions or objections that exist, and we need to admit that any spiritual topic has deeper concerns. For the newer Christian, this can comfort them that you are not being overly simplistic, and that there is a secure root of thinking behind your teaching. For the more experienced Christian, this keeps them from being bored by the basics, and can provide meat for them to chew on. It also spurs them to deeper thinking in their own walk.
Essentially, I like to display the outline of my talk, and show that we are taking a sidebar, but will return to the outline. This means they don’t have to track this as part of the backbone of our progression.
2.6 Reiterate the goals of the Christian life
One of the weaknesses of our western, reason-based approach to life is that Christianity has become a religion of education and information, and not one of participation and personal transformation. With that in mind, I like to weave in the following goals of the Christian life, and typically return to them in my closing.
2.6.1 Conscious contact with God
Developing a regular, personal relationship with God, who is partially hidden to us, is not easy. Yet, it is the core of the Christian faith. Christianity is not primarily about living a successful, happy life, nor about becoming wise, or even becoming good. Those are all secondary results, but the primary result is to experience and know the ultimate good, the God of love. Without this, our faith is superficial.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23 ESV)
2.6.2 A journey towards service, love, maturity and peace
The goal of the Christian life is not merely getting to heaven through believing in Christ, but finding our place in his work, and becoming people of maturity along the way – this process of seeking God and his will, and being transformed into Christ-likeness, is called sanctification.
The end result that we are aiming for, via our personal relationship with and obedience to God, is to experience the peace and power that spiritual maturity brings. Everyone you meet is on a life journey, but we want to serve them in finding and pursuing their journey towards God.
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (NASB 95)
My consistent reminder in preaching is that God wants to know you and love you, but he also has planned “good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10) That journey of becoming good and doing good is the call for every Christian. There are people that need OUR effort and love.
Preaching is an art. To do it well, it takes practice, personal transparency, actual concern for others, character, actual personal pursuit of God, and the anointing which comes only from time alone with God.
It also takes skills and tools like those listed here. There are probably many others things that could be added to these lists. But these are my contribution. Enjoy.
- How Long Should a Sermon Be? (9marks.org)
- The Digital Pulpit: A Nationwide Analysis of Online Sermons (pewresearch.org)
- How Long Should a Sermon Be? (tms.edu)
- Why Pastors Should Consider Preaching (At Least) 5 Minutes Shorter (thegospelcoalition.org)
- 6 REASONS I’M NOT A FAN OF LONGER SERMONS (chucklawless.com)
- Saved by the letter “m” (thegospelcoalition.org)