ON PREACHING: Bullet, not buckshot.
After church one Sunday as a young boy, my professor, Haddon Robinson, thought, “He preached for an hour and it seemed like twenty minutes; others preach for twenty minutes and it seems like an hour. I wonder what the difference is?”
What do you think makes the difference? Alongside the work of the Holy Spirit, I think it has a lot to do with knowing exactly what you’re trying to say, and, of course, the source of the ideas you’re saying.
If a sermon is archery, you want the arrow to hit the bull’s-eye. If golf, you want to hit it straight down the fairway, on the green, near the pin. In other words, a good sermon hits the mark! A good sermon has a big idea.
Haddon was thus fond of saying, “A mist in the pulpit creates a fog in the pew.”
Every good act of communication has a central idea. Movies do. Poems, songs, and plays do. Every well-written piece of literature is trying to communicate something, some specific idea. Good sermons are no exception.
A good sermon simply unfolds the big ideas of scripture, for every scriptural passage is trying to say something specific. When Paul writes a letter, he is communicating ideas. David’s Psalms, the Gospel witnesses, the Israelite prophets do the same. Every unique part of scripture is written with a “big idea” in mind.
Bible-based preaching discovers these biblical “big ideas,” using the sermon to deliver them. As a biblical preacher, you do not preach your ideas, but ideas straight from the biblical text. When you hear a great biblical sermon, you’re invited inside and guided through a great biblical text. Years later, it’s ok if you forgot the name of the preacher as long as you remember (and live) the unique idea of the text.
But before we discuss the big ideas of the scriptural texts, let’s step back and talk about the nature of ideas and how we form them in daily life. Everyday ideas follow four steps:
1. Everybody starts with a topic. The topic is usually a one-word concept. Your mind always starts with a concept. It’s a broad concept you’ll want to shape into a concise statement.
EXAMPLE Let’s say your topic is “airplane.” Airplane is not an idea, but a topic that will help you form an idea. If you say, “Airplane” to me, I will be confused for you haven’t communicated anything about the airplane; you’ve just given me a lone topic. You’ve only started; you need more information in order to form an idea.
2. You pick the subject. To begin shaping your topic into a subject, you must decide how you want to talk about that topic. What kind of questions are you asking about the topic? What aspect of the topic do you want to talk about? You turn a topic into a subject by deciding how you are going to talk about it.
EXAMPLE If airplane is our subject, what can we ask about airplane? What are the questions about the topic that you want to know? For example: What kind of airplane is it? How is it used? Who owns the airplane? Where is it located?
You get the idea: you ask lots of questions about the topic in order to determine a subject. Each one of these questions, when answered, will help you produce a unique independent idea.
3. You add the complement. The subject demands a complement in the same way a question demands an answer. Together, they are complete. We call it a complement because it completes the subject. A subject is half of an idea; a subject completed by a complement is a whole idea.
EXAMPLE So, let’s complete all the questions we asked about airplane: What kind of airplane is it? (Cessna) How is it used? (Crop dusting) Who owns the airplane? (Pastor Jim from Tulare) Where is it located? (Parked behind the church building)
4. Bring together the subject and complement, forming the big idea. If you join the subject/question with the complement/answer, you will have a complete independent idea.
EXAMPLE Using our “airplane” example above, we can state four independent “big ideas”: (1) The airplane is a Cessna. (2) The airplane is used to dust crops. (3) Pastor Jim from Tulare owns the airplane. (4) He stores the airplane behind the church building.
Got it? Start with a topic. Find the subject. Complement the subject. Form the big idea.
Now then, how do we find the big idea of a given biblical text? You will use the same principles discussed above, except you are not picking the nature of the ideas, just interpreting what the original author and the Holy Spirit already wrote. Here are the same four steps (with an additional pre-step):
PRE-STEP: Select the preaching portion (the passage). In proper literary context, you must select a portion of text (X number of verses) consistent with the logic and structure of the writer’s intention, seeking to find a reasonably coherent unit of thought. It can be one verse, one paragraph, one chapter, or, even at times, one book. The size is not the issue; the unity and coherence of the passage is.
EXAMPLE I will choose 1 Corinthians 13, a familiar passage of scripture you certainly know well. Although it is in the greater context of chapters 12-14 and a discussion regarding spiritual gifts, it has a clear beginning and ending and represents a logical preaching portion with a clear big idea.
1. Determine the topic of the passage. Remember, the topic of the passage is not the big idea but the one-word concept of the passage.
EXAMPLE In 1 Corinthians 13, the topic is pretty obvious; it is love. Although “love” is pretty special, it is not an idea. It’s a topic––a concept that needs to be shaped into an idea.
2. Determine the subject of the passage. Every biblical writer is writing with a question in mind. This is how all human beings write. We answer questions when we form ideas, obvious or not. In terms of the Bible, the Holy Spirit guided the ancient questions of the author and He will help you find them in the text. As you study your preaching portion, understanding the original author’s intent, you will seek to find the question propelling the text.
EXAMPLE In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is asking and answering a question. In the midst of a discussion about spiritual gifts (chapters 12 and 14), Paul is wrestling with the highest priorities in the kingdom of God. The Corinthians have made spiritual gifts, especially speaking in the tongues, the highest priority of their expression of faith. Paul takes a whole chapter (13) to refute these religious actions. Looking at the Christian life and what we are called to do, Paul is asking: What kind of life do you have without love?
3. Determine the complement of the passage. After identifying the subject (the overall question of the author), complete it with the complement (the answer the author provides). Remember, just as a question demands an answer, a subject demands a complement.
EXAMPLE If the subject (question) is: What kind of life do you have without love? The complement (answer) is: A life without meaning.
4. Bring together the subject and complement, forming the big idea. If you join the biblical author’s subject/question with his complement/answer, you will have the big idea of the preaching portion (passage). This is what you preach. It becomes the unifying idea of your sermon. Every part of your sermon from beginning to end is about this idea, for this idea is the point of the passage. A biblical sermon’s big idea is not created by the preacher, but extracted from the biblical text.
EXAMPLE Subject: What kind of life do you have without love? Complement: A life without meaning. Big idea: Life without love is a life without meaning. Everything Paul says in every verse of chapter 13 supports this big idea. It represents the whole and it represents the parts. This is what you preach through for it is what the Bible is saying. All your illustrations, all your main points, even your introduction and conclusion, are derived from and congruent with this big idea.
The Bible was written as a collection of ideas. Biblical sermons are not opportunities for a preacher to create his or her own ideas (that would be a speech or something else), but the honored privilege of sharing the Bible’s unique and specific big ideas, inspired by the Holy Spirit, written by an ancient author, studied by a modern preacher, and delivered to a congregation needing to hear from God.
The simple strategy to good biblical preaching is, then, to discover and preach the big ideas of the Bible. Think about the freedom that gives you as a preacher, for next Sunday you do not have to figure out what to say, you just have to say what the text is already saying. Say one thing. Say it well. Say it based in the authority of God’s Word.
In so doing, not only will your sermons be rooted in Holy Scripture, but your hour will seem like twenty minutes, and even better, your half hour will seem like five!by Pastor Doug
Where Do You Start?
What are you preaching this week?
You’ve got to start somewhere. Every week, a blank page is staring you down. Do you start with the question or the text?
If you start with the question, you are choosing the topic of your sermon, looking to the Bible for the answer. This is topical preaching. However, if you start with the text, you are letting God’s Word both ask and answer the question. This is expository preaching.
Every sound preacher wants to turn a blank page into a life-changing worship experience with the Eternal God, but first, you’ve got to start somewhere.
Throughout the calendar year, a biblical pulpit will start in both places, for both are appropriate origins for the various situations inside the church. Topical preaching is often correct for the occasion; however, over the long haul, the pulpit which predominately starts with the text is both healthier and, surprisingly enough, easier. Pragmatically, it is the most efficient mode for preparation. Idealistically, it is a superior form of preaching. I know; I’ve done it both ways and I’ve learned my lessons on the job––with the grace of a patient congregation. Let me explain:
I’ve been the lead pastor of North Hills Church in Brea, CA for over 18 years, trying to preach something new to the same congregation every Sunday. For the first seven years, I preached topically—series based upon the “felt need” questions of life. I’d ask questions that were relevant and try my best to give creative answers. I hustled each week, working hard to come up with new information. Then, I changed.
Consequently, for the last eleven years, I’ve been committed to expository preaching, working through one book of the Bible at a time. I’ve tackled books in both Testaments, covering every verse within—from the first to the last. It has changed everything about my pulpit ministry and I think, if you are open-minded to the challenge, it’ll change you, too.
1. No wondering what’s next. If you preach topically, you will spend a chunk of time trying to figure out what you’re going to say each week. It’s hard work, week after week, to be responsible with the content of a sermon. Topical preaching is a commitment to start over every single week. When you preach through a book in the Bible, for example, you just preach what’s next. When I took a year to preach through the Psalms (and I only made it to Psalm 40, knowing some day I will return to the finish the other 110), I always knew where I’d be next week: the next Psalm.
2. Less time in preparation. Preaching from the same book saves prep time. For example, I just finished 19 months in the book of Romans, preaching one pericope (unit of thought) at a time. The hours I spent preparing to preach chapter 1 made preaching chapter 2 a bit easier, and so on. By the time I got to the great “therefores” in the first verses of chapters 5, 8, and 12, I was fully prepared for what the therefore was there for! It’s like this: last month’s preparation assists next month’s preparation. It’s amazing how much easier it really is! Biblical preaching is all about context, and a commitment to a thorough exploration of one book makes more sense than a weekly plunge into a new context.
3. No accusations of heavy-handedness. When you preach through a book in the Bible—just preaching what’s next—you will never be accused of choosing a topic because of a situation in the church. I am always amazed at how God’s Word in its given order seems to be timed with perfection for our church. This leaves the responsibility upon God to deal with the difficult issues that crop up in the local church. Surely, His Word can be trusted to say what needs to be said even before I know what it is. The expository preacher leaves the coordination of the future Wisdom of God in the hands of the Holy Spirit.
4. A sense of accomplishment. People want a sense of completion. When you thoroughly handle a book in the Bible—going slow enough to give it justice, fast enough to grapple with a unit of thought each week—you create anticipation in the beginning of such a series and admiration at the end of the same. Everybody, including the preacher, likes to see something all the way through. Rather than jumping all over the Bible week after week, plant some roots in one book and see it from beginning to end. Modern believers will appreciate the biblical roots you will give them. They will understand the individual verses within the larger context of the book. They will appreciate biblical achievement.
1. Keeps you talking about God: When you let the text dictate your sermon topic, your preaching will be more “Theo-centric” and less “anthro-centric.” Many pulpits in America today are man-centered, self-help propagators, using scripture to validate what the preacher decides to say; but, when scripture sets your content, you allow God to raise the questions as well as supply the answers. Guess what? He does not waste the pages of scripture on man-sized solutions to our God-sized problems. (God knows there are whole sections for this genre in your local bookstore.) He demands you look to Him for answers. The text will always remind you how God’s ways are always better than man’s ways.
2. Leads to better exegesis: When you start with the text, you will tend toward exegesis not eisogesis. By preaching through a book, your mind is already rooted in context, not textual isolation. Exegesis bows to the idea of the original author writing to the original audience, which, once understood, can always be applied to our modern fixes. Expository preaching demands sound exegesis. Unfortunately, topical preaching often does not. Although sound preachers will handle the text correctly in a topical sermon, expository preaching, by definition, forces you to do so. It is the only option, for the expositor does not use the text to support his or her ideas, but declares the text is the idea you preach!
3. Enables you to say, “Thus saith the Lord!” When you begin with the text, you can have a confidence in the trustworthiness of scripture. The Bible is written really well! As is, it always says it better than we can. After all, they are God’s words. Thus, when you read scripture, grasp it, wrestle with it, and study it, you must understand something vital: God is talking! Your goal is not to give them a sermon. Your goal is to give them God’s words—words that modern hearts are desperate to hear. When you take the time to carefully expose the text to your audience, you will then be able to say, “Thus saith the Lord!” Afterwards, in the lobby, you can take all the compliments you get and give the credit directly to God, for you were only borrowing his original thoughts, not squandering their time with yours.
4. You will preach the full counsel of God. When you walk through book after book in the Bible, intertwining the Old and New Testaments, you will demonstrate to your congregation you are committed to the entire Bible, not just the familiar or favorite parts. Studies have shown that most people in the pews know little about the Bible; they are biblically illiterate. Biblical preachers welcome the challenge to take them through virgin terrain, introducing them to brand new words of God, not giving them the same words over and over again.
Many years ago, I was on a plane having a conversation with a New Age man. He told me he liked most of what Jesus said, but not all of it. I said, “You cannot say that! You have to take the whole message.” He said, “Why? You don’t. You pick and choose what you want to preach. Do you really preach everything that’s in the Bible?” He was right. I was convicted.
Since, without skipping any of the difficult portions within, I have thoroughly covered in this order: Psalms 1-40*, Luke, Habakkuk, Ephesians, Genesis, Revelation, John, Judges, Ruth, and Romans. It’s taken me 11 years to get through these 9.27* books. While I would love to finish all 66 books, I am in no hurry to rush through what is sacred. There is so much God wants to say.
So, I repeat: although it is occasionally appropriate for us to preach topically, over the long haul, the pulpit which predominately starts with the text is both superior and easier.
When it comes to preaching, you will need to do what God tells you to do. However, I hope I’ve challenged your pulpit ministry, for there is so much God wants to say to you and to your church.
He’d love the ongoing opportunity to fill your blank page with His words of life.by Pastor Doug
Preaching by the Numbers
It may seem odd, but I love both cooking and home improvement shows. I am keen on a both spatulas and hammers. The experts on these shows teach me how to make it happen. It’s fascinating to think I really can make the six-layer chocolate cake moments after installing a skylight in the living room! It’s fun to see the process unfold, step by step.
Is it possible to have the same enthusiasm about preparing a sermon?
Sure it is, for preaching has a unique sequence, too. There are practical steps you will want to follow in sermon preparation. From the time you open your Bible, say, on Tuesday to the time you deliver the sermon on Sunday, sermon preparation has a path you’ll want to utilize each week.
Thus, let us walk through the process––a practical process that will help you be thoroughly prepared for your next sermon. At first, this process might seem overwhelming, but, be assured, it is very doable. You can make it happen. These are sensible steps that’ll add zest to your preaching.
Before we go step-by-step, let me address the supernatural side of sermon preparation: prayer, self-examination, confession, the need to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, and such. These actions undergird the science of sermon craft, which without the presence of God, might as well be a guide for how to write an instruction manual for your new lawnmower. God speaks to humanity, and pastors get the chance to tell all about it from a pulpit. To be entrusted with such an honor is enough to keep you on your knees before Him. We do our part and diligently prepare a sermon, but we dare not leave out God. Through Him, we can do it. Without Him, we cannot. It really is that simple.
1. TEXT: Select the passage.
What Biblical text am I using in my sermon?
You always start with the Bible. In proper literary context, you select a portion of text (X number of verses) consistent with the logic and structure of the writer’s intention, seeking to find a reasonably coherent unit of thought. It can be one verse, one paragraph, one chapter, or, even at times, one book. The size is not the issue; the unity and coherence of the passage is.
Because each genre in the Bible is unique, they all require special consideration. For example, an epistle is usually organized in paragraphs based upon units of thought. Note how the author moves from one topic to another. Handle each unit as a separate sermon.
Conversely, a narrative passage follows a plot line and you would not want to preach just a paragraph of the story. You would tell the story in full. In longer stories in scripture (e.g., the Abraham narrative) pay attention to how the story shifts location and time to find where one part of the story ends and the other starts anew. Handle each new “scene” (unit) as a separate sermon.
Poetic passages, like the Psalms, are grouped by stanzas. Whereas you might want to preach a single stanza, you are, generally, safe to preach the entire Psalm. (Psalm 119, however, might take more than one sermon!) Preach each poetic unit as a separate sermon.
As a general rule, applying to all genres, choose a unit of Biblical thought (with a clear start and finish) as the text for your sermon.
2. RESEARCH: Study the passage and gather your notes.
What can I learn about this text?
The primary goal of research is to find context. Every unit of thought fits into a larger context. In a paperback novel, for example, we would treat chapter 8 as part of the whole story. In the same way, each preaching unit is part of a larger context within a wider framework of scripture. For example, a single “word” cannot be pulled out of its rooted connection to its sentence, its paragraph, its chapter, and so on.
Before you turn to research tools, read the passage and interact with what you hear. Consider reading it out loud, for words leap off the page in a different kind of way when you hear it and see it. Do so with a pen in hand, making notes, asking questions, trying to discern what you do and do not understand. Upon doing so, your research will be more meaningful.
After you’ve spent adequate time reading the text, consider using the following tools: lexicons, concordances, Bible dictionaries, and commentaries. Gather notes about your text. (Personally, I print out multiple copies of my passage each week on a white piece of paper with wide margins on both sides. I use this paper to take all my notes as I interact with the words of the text––circling key thoughts, drawing connections, underlining key words, and making lots of notes in the margins. I try to be as high tech as possible, but at this stage of my preparation, there is nothing better than real paper and real ink!)
After gathering many pages of notes, you should have a good handle on the context of the passage, ready to move onward in your preparation.
3. BIG IDEA: Discover the exegetical idea.
What is the big idea?
The Bible was written as a collection of ideas. Each unit of thought (preaching passage) has a distinctive idea. Biblical sermons are opportunities to share the Bible’s unique and specific big ideas, inspired by the Holy Spirit and written by an ancient author.
To determine the main idea of the Biblical text you’ve selected, you’ll need to ask the following four questions. (I’ll use Psalm 1 as an example.)
A. What is the topic of the passage? The topic of the passage is not the big idea but the one or two word concept of the passage. (Topic of Psalm 1: God’s paths.)
B. What is the subject of the passage? Every biblical writer is writing with a question in mind. This is how all human beings write. We answer questions when we form ideas, obvious or not. In terms of the Bible, the Holy Spirit guided the ancient questions of the author and He will help you find them in the text. As you study your preaching portion, understanding the original author’s intent, you will seek to find the question propelling the text. (Subject of Psalm 1: Where do God’s paths lead?)
C. What is the complement of the passage? After identifying the subject (the overall question of the author), complete it with the complement (the answer the author provides). Remember, just as a question demands an answer, a subject demands a complement. (Complement of Psalm 1: They lead to wisdom and life.)
D. What is the big idea of the passage? If you join the biblical author’s subject/question with his complement/answer, you will have the big idea of the preaching portion (passage). This is what you preach. It becomes the unifying idea of your sermon. Every part of your sermon from beginning to end is about this idea, for this idea is the point of the passage. A biblical sermon’s big idea is not created by the preacher, but extracted from the biblical text. (Big Idea of Psalm 1: God’s paths lead to wisdom and life.)
4. ANALYSIS: Analyze the exegetical idea.
How can I analyze my big idea?
Now that you have a big idea, there are only four things you can do with it: restate, explain, prove, or apply it. That’s it. There are no other options. Analyzing your big idea will propel the rest of your preparation. Ask, then, the following four analyzing questions. (Psalm 1 big idea: God’s paths lead to wisdom and life.)
• Restatement: Does it need to be restated? (Not really.)
• Explanation: What does it mean? Does this concept, or parts of it, need explanation? (Explain key concepts: God’s paths, wisdom, and life.)
• Proof: Is it true? Can I prove this is true? (Can you show examples or testimonies where this has proven true? Is it always true? Immediately? Eventually? Be careful to think this all the way through.)
• Application: So what? What difference does it make? (If somebody is ready to walk on God’s path, how do they do it? How will that look at work? At home? In tough times? In easy times? Etc.)
Because we want our hearers to be doers of the Word, we want them to apply it. (So what?) But they will not apply it if they do not believe it. (Is it true?) Furthermore, they will not believe it if they do not understand it. (What does it mean?)
Here is the intriguing challenge of preaching: if they understand it, then they can believe it; and if they believe it, then they can apply it. Our goal, subsequently, is to remove all the roadblocks keeping them from being doers of the Word, allowing them to know and experience scripture in word and deed.
5. IDEA: Formulate the homiletical idea.
What is the simplest way to state my big idea?
Now that you have more clarity about your big idea because you have taken the time to analyze it, you are ready to say it in a way that is lean and concise. This tight reshaping will be your “homiletical idea” in about 15 words or less. It’ll be simple, forceful and memorable. You will want to use concrete language––language that is familiar to your listeners.
Bottom line: you need a big idea that places the cookies on the bottom shelf. Your commitment to the truths of the text will not be compromised, but the language you use to describe it needs to be accessible by all. Consider the following questions:
• How can I state it for the ear?
• Can it be easily grasped when heard only once?
• Is it stated in positive, not negative language?
• Is it relevant to contemporary culture?
• Do I need to remove any religious verbiage?
In the end, you will want a sentence you can take to the pulpit that summarizes the big idea of the text, stated so your listeners can sense you are talking to them about them.
Is your idea clear in your head? For example, if you were abruptly awakened on a Saturday night, shaken by both shoulders, and asked what you’re preaching about, would you be able to sit straight up in your bed and state your big idea with limited hesitation? In other words, if you know what you’re saying before you get to the pulpit, there’s a much great probability your congregation will know what you’re saying when you’re in the pulpit.
(Psalm 1: “God’s paths lead to wisdom and life” is already concise, but can become “Walk this way and it’ll pay!”)
6. PURPOSE: Determine the sermon’s purpose.
What is the purpose of this sermon?
“Purpose” is a hot word in church leadership. It’s a good word, and the same principles apply to preaching. Understanding the function and purpose of a sermon will only make the sermon more meaningful—to deliver and hear.
In the same way we might identify the purpose of any given object (e.g., a cell phone), we need to identify the sermon purpose. Consider, as an aid to do so, the following questions:
• Why am I preaching this?
• When I finish preaching this sermon, what will the people be able to do?
• What beliefs, attitudes, actions, or values should change as a result of hearing this sermon?
In order to write a well-stated sermon purpose statement, you will also need to ask:
• Why did the author write this passage?
• What effect did he want it to have on his original audience?
• Why was it included in the Bible?
Prayerfully submit this quest to the Holy Spirit, discerning what God desires to accomplish through your sermon in the lives of your listeners. This purpose becomes, consequently, the goal of your sermon. This goal can be described as new knowledge, fresh insight, changed attitude, or acquired skill. Write your goal in a way that ensures evaluation, giving you the ability to determine success.
(Goal for Psalm 1: Listeners should be convinced that following God’s ways is not only the right thing to do, but the smartest thing to do.)
7. SHAPE: Choose the sermon shape.
What is the appropriate shape of the sermon?
Simply put, there are deductive and inductive sermons. A deductive sermon places the big idea at the beginning of the sermon; an inductive sermon places it at the end. The deductive sermon tells you up-front where the sermon is going; the inductive sermon keeps you guessing. A third option is a deductive/inductive sermon, placing the big idea in the middle.
Which shape should you use? Consider the shape of your purpose statement:
A. If the purpose of your sermon is to inform, your sermon’s form should favor explanation (deductive).
B. If the purpose is to persuade, your sermon’s form will lead the hearer to come to your conclusion on their own terms (inductive).
C. If the purpose is to inform and persuade, your sermon’s form will draw the listener in (through induction) and, then, explain (through deduction).
Although I preach deductive and inductive sermons from time to time, I primarily preach inductive/deductive sermons, shaping my sermon by both forms. This gives me (and the listeners) the best of both worlds.
8. OUTLINE: Outline the sermon.
What is the appropriate structure of the sermon?
Now that you’ve wrestled with your sermon’s purpose and shape, you are ready to write an outline. Your outline will be shaped in turn by the text, for the goal of expository preaching is to “expose” the text. The big idea is the main idea of the text; the outline is all the things the author of the text is saying about the big idea (or, as we often say, the points).
A good outline is important for the listener and the preacher. It helps the listener follow the preacher’s flow of thought. It helps the preacher have a flow of thought. A good sermon, based upon a good outline, has unity, order and progress. The work of writing an outline has incredible benefits:
• It heightens a sense of unity because it forces the preacher to view the sermon as a whole, not as “parts.”
• It crystallizes the order of ideas, making sure the listener will be given them in the appropriate sequence.
• It exposes the places in the outline requiring additional illustrations to aptly develop each point.
It’s hard to see all of this without writing it down and going through it with a perceptive eye, realizing this outline is the skeleton of your living sermon. Bones, in your own body, are not seen but are critical (image you without them!) to your overall function. So it is with an outline. It gives you the chance to see where the sermon is going and how it’s going to get there.
9. ILLUSTRATIONS: Fill in the sermon outline.
How can I illustrate this sermon?
If the outline is the skeleton of the sermon, then the illustrations are the flesh. Good illustrations (stories, examples, explanations, analogies, restatements, quotations, statistics, and so on) helping reinforce the big idea of the text, allowing the listeners tangible, concrete ways to obey scripture.
Effective illustrations connect the scriptural idea to the audience’s personal experience. They demonstrate something, arousing attention and stirring the emotions. They establish rapport, show care, and create sympathy.
They must be realistic, understandable, and believable. In other words: they must be true. They must be authentic, allowing the preacher to identify with the needs of the audience, coming alongside, not down on, the congregation.
This is why modern listeners love transparency, for the best stories are personal stories, especially stories that do not make the preacher the hero in every way possible! Although personal illustrations cannot be the only kind of illustrations you use (sometimes it’s not good to talk so much about you), brand new stories from your week are always your best source of fresh inspiration. The more personal, the more powerful.
Wherever and however you find illustrations, use them to show your listeners what the truth of the text looks like. Tell stories that turn their ears into eyes. Model the healthy biblical action into the plot of your illustration. Show them; don’t just tell them.
10. BOOKENDS: Prepare the introduction and conclusion.
How do I introduce and conclude this sermon?
Now that you know where you are going and what you are attempting to do with the text, then (and only then) write the introduction and conclusion. The temptation will be to write them first, but wait till you know what you’re introducing and concluding. Again, the introduction and conclusion are tools that serve the body of the sermon, which serves the text. They open and close the curtain for the main act—the exposition of the Biblical text.
In the introduction, listeners decide whether or not they will continue to listen. If the introduction is fuzzy, the listener will be confused the rest of the way. A good introduction will appeal to three important features of the listener:
• Ears––arresting attention and arousing curiosity.
• Heart––Exposing need and linking it to the listeners.
• Head–Introducing the topic of the sermon.
Likewise, the conclusion bookends the sermon, giving the congregation another view of the main idea, entire and complete, driving it home, giving the listener a final reminder of the truth proclaimed in the Biblical text. There are many shapes for a good conclusion, but the safest shape is a summary reinforcement, helping you to land the plane without circling the airport. You should always attempt to stop talking before your congregation stops listening.
11. MANUSCRIPT: Write the manuscript.
How can I write it all down in full completion?
By now, you should have various pages of notes. Much of your content is either in outline form or bulleted segments within the outline. Bring everything you have together and write out the entire sermon in full sentences and in full paragraphs. The process of doing so will not only complete the sermon on paper, but help you think about each concept all the way through. The discipline of having to write it out has saved me from a half-baked story or concept more than once.
For me, I open up my computer and type in a 14-point font, on a single-spaced word document. When it is time for a new paragraph, I start one. I indent my illustrations. I put all scriptural passages in red and all direct quotations (letters, emails, quotes, etc.) in blue. This is what works for me.
Each page equals about 4-5 minutes of time. If I am trying to speak 30-35 minutes, I need to keep my manuscript to 7 or 8 pages. If I have 10 or more pages, I will go too long, regretting my inability to be a disciplined editor.
The manuscript, in other words, forces you to think through all of these issues. The discipline of putting it all on paper just makes you better prepared for the delivery. It exposes your sermon’s strengths and weaknesses. It becomes visible evidence you are (or are not) ready to preach.
12. REHEARSAL: Practice the sermon.
How can I practice this sermon?
Although I write the sermon out word for word, I do not take my manuscript to the pulpit. Instead, I use it to prepare for the sermon.
I begin my rehearsal by reading it over and over again, making sure I have said everything the way God wanted me to say it. I look for fuzzy and weak transitions. Sometimes, when I am properly prepared ahead of time, I put my manuscript down for a season and come back to it when my head is clear. The time away and the return to what I’ve written brings new insight—both what needs to be deleted and what needs to be added. I make the necessary edits and I read it all over again.
Then, I turn it over and try to walk through the contents from my memory. Each movement of the sermon’s logic should naturally flow into the next movement. Usually, when I cannot remember what comes next, it’s because there’s a flaw in the logic and my connection needs to be adjusted. If I can reduce my sermon down to a series of key words or visuals, I can go to the pulpit with limited (or no) notes.
What I may lose in content by not preaching from my notes, I will gain in contact. Since the vast majority of human communication (as much as 90%) is non-verbal (non-manuscript), it is best to minimize the amount of time you spend in the pulpit looking at your notes or reading your manuscript. Eye contact is vital—the more you have, the more effective you’ll be. Your body language and how you speak are also vital to your effectiveness. Consider practicing your sermon in front of a mirror or a video camera. Watch yourself and see what your congregation sees. Practice your vocal skills.
This is why I leave my manuscript behind. I cannot be effective without preparing it, for it forces me to think through every thought. Subsequently, I cannot be effective by taking it to the pulpit, for I need to connect with the congregation as one who is right alongside them, walking through the life-changing, holy words of a Living God!
I recently heard Chuck Swindoll speak to a group of pastors. He told us the last sound he wants to hear, when he leaves this earth to meet his Savior, is the sound of his head hitting the pulpit. He wants to go out preaching the Word! I love this kind of fervor!
Although sermon preparation and delivery are not easy tasks, and it does seem more fun at times to cook or do a home improvement project, the assignment to preach and the grace and power to pull it off week after week is the highest honor God can possibly give the pastor of the local church. I know the cost. I know the sacrifice to do so with excellence and authority. I get it; I do it every week just like you. It’s hard work.
With that said, it is also a tremendous blessing to spend time each week with words that are eternal, provided directly by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is quite fulfilling to spend your days helping people meet a God who speaks directly to their hearts through His Word. Furthermore, He uses the humble, contrite, open-handed willingness of a local pastor like you and me. This trust is more than enough for me, for I can do it, through His strength, a bit better than last week. So can you.
Until we hear the sound of our heads hitting the pulpit.
For a thorough guide through sermon preparation, consider the following textbooks, authors whom influenced much of what I know about preaching:
Robinson, Haddon W. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001.
Sunukjian, Donald R. Invitation to Biblical Preaching: Proclaiming Truth with Clarity and Relevance. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2007.
Chapell, Bryan. Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005.
Before You Crack Open The Commentaries
Spend time meditating on God’s Word, reading the text over and over again.
Learn how to talk to your Bible. When you read a text, ask, “What is the point?” Then ask, “Where are the pictures and how do both fit together?” Ask questions of the principle characters. Ask questions of the bystanders who saw it happening. Ask about the setting. Ponder the weather, the time of day, the proximity of the setting, the tone of the voice and anything else helping you to see the written text as a thriving, living account of life.
Look at the Bible as a big picture book. The Bible is an illustrated book, using imagery to reveal God’s truth. Bible words are often picture words. After reading a passage and clearly understanding its original intent, ask yourself, “What does that look like?” Hold on to those images. They can become the foundation of an engaging and descriptive sermon.
Look at the world around you. Seeing the world around you helps you see God’s truth. Read the Bible and the newspaper with your eyes wide open. Ask yourself how the events and the sights of the day expound or express the text. If you ask God to reveal Himself, He will use the Word to come alongside your daily experiences and speak into your life. If you pay attention to those opportunities, discernment and perception will facilitate your explanation of the text, even the most difficult passages.
Making the Most of Your Study Time
Consider the following ideas, making the most of your study time, upgrading your current resources:
Form a Sermon Study Group. Find a group of perceptive parishioners who love to explore God’s Word and meet with them weekly. Let them help you. Expect them to come prepared to do so. Farm out assignments. Although they need to allow you the space to hear how God wants you to preach the sermon, come with an open mind and listen to how God is speaking through them. Pray over your time together.
Feed a local Bible scholar or retired pastor. I spent a whole year of Wednesdays eating breakfast with a local New Testament scholar discussing the week’s text from Ephesians. I bought his bacon and eggs; he told me everything he knew about the passage. It was a great use of church funds, for it upgraded my preaching and I made a life-long friend.
Many churches; one text. Rather than going alone each week, consider studying the text with some of your ministerial friends from other Bible-based churches. What if several churches in the same community preached from the same text each weekend? What if those pastors shared their insights and research with each other on a designated day each week, swapping notes, forming outlines and sharing personal insights? As you walk together through sermon preparation and evaluation, this could be a huge leap forward in local Christian unity, tearing down walls of divisive competition.by Pastor Doug
I’ve asked it much like you: Why is a movie often more interesting than a sermon? Why am I willing to sit through a 2-hour B-movie yet struggle to sit through a 30-minute sermon?
Biblical sermons are built on God’s eternal Word. They are all about God. They ought to be amazing!
So, how can a movie be more interesting than a sermon?
Could it be this simple: visuals are just more interesting than abstract theories? Interesting sermons, like a movie, are visual sermons. Boring sermons are not. They are––and I’ve preached them just like you––a traffic jam of propositional truths, abstract concepts, and invisible theories. In other words, they are boring because they can’t be seen.
Our own mothers, usually big fans, might even be found sleeping!
Since no preacher I know sets out to be a boring preacher, what can we do to make our sermons more compelling and visual––more like watching a movie––especially with the hopes we communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a visual generation who needs to hear it?
Here is what effective preachers have discovered: be more visual and be less abstract.
Clarification of abstract biblical truths is vital! The appealing preacher takes a “propositional” truth and makes it visual—a movie that remains true to the scripture while relevant to the audience.
VISUALS IN THE TEXT: In light of the biblical main idea, determine which aspects of the text are already visual. Most texts have more visuals than you might first recognize. Look for them, committing to see only what is authentically in the text.
Let’s use Psalm 1 as an example. The psalm is filled with visuals. Let’s pick one and develop it. Take a look at verse 3. What do God’s paths—the paths that wisely lead to life—look like? The Psalmist answers his own question with a simile. The blessed man, he says, “is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.”
So, we have one visual of that blessed man: a vigorous, growing tree. With this, we visualize the biblical truth. We are ready to describe with our words what we see in our minds.
The visual (tree) is a tangible representative of the text’s main idea, but it needs to be enhanced. Although we understand the basic nature of a tree, we need to know more about this tree, using concrete language to describe what we see so the audience can see it too.
Concrete words add dimension, are specific, exact, and explicit. They are tangible. These kinds of precise nouns and active verbs add specificity and appeal to our experience. They bring something blurry into focus. They help us see the tree’s height, colors, age, width, type, and anything else that brings this great visual alive. Describe how you see this tree. Everybody in your congregation knows about trees, so help them to see the one you see.
Why take the time to describe the tree? Because the Psalmist uses a tree to describe the wise, righteous man, knowing his audience will better understand the invisible, abstract concept (wisdom and righteousness) with a visible, tangible image (a tree). The preacher’s job, then, is to illuminate this visual, connecting the audience with the text.
But, who wants to come to church and just hear a sermon about a tree?
Therefore, don’t forget the tree is an illustration about the real topic: a wise and righteous person. After taking the time to give the tree expanded visual depth, consider what this simile (the tree) is saying about people. How does the single mom on the second row apply this visual in her life? What’s her teenage son supposed to do with this tree? Ask questions about the simile:
How can I be like a tree planted by streams of water?
What story helps her bear fruit in season?
How can he have leaves that do not wither?
What about life in your unique community answers these questions with visuals? Are there stories of others you know—full of visuals—that answer these questions? While you are describing what this looks like, show, in high definition, how ordinary people apply these biblical truths in everyday life.
APPLICATION: Susan Jones reminds me of the ficus tree in our backyard. It’s so tall, you can spot it throughout the neighborhood. Ever-green, it protects our house from the heat of the day. When the kids were small, we built a tree house, etc…
I’ve watched Susan tower above her circumstances: as a single mom, she’s raised her kids to love Jesus. Always aware of their unique struggles, she taught them the scriptures and asked them challenging questions, shading them from harm, etc…
VISUALS NOT IN THE TEXT: Psalm 1:2, for example, says something important but does so propositionally, without a visual: “But his delight is in the law of the Lord.” This needs to be seen, too, for it is an important part of the text. What does this look like? How can you describe this aspect of righteousness? What would he or she look like some 3000 years ago? What would they look like today? How can you help your audience see this person, complete with actions that live out the meaning of this verse? If you do not make this verse a visual story, you will lose the impact of what is being said. Take it from an invisible concept and make it a visual memory!
APPLICATION: When I think of verse 2, it’s hard not to think of my father-in-law, John. He “delights” in God’s Word. When he talks about the Bible, his face lights up. It’s not a chore for him to read God’s Word each day; you can tell he loves it. His conversations about life are always full of scripture. Recently, when faced with a family crisis, he…
STORYBOARD YOUR SERMON. As you go through Psalm 1 and do this over and over again, collect all the biblical visuals and string them together, queuing up a walk through the text that is a visual candy store. These vivid pictures in your mind (they are all about explaining the text) become your sermon on Psalm 1. You are able to describe the Psalm well, engaging the audience to see with their “ears.” If they can see it, they can retain it. If they can retain it, they can apply it. If they can apply it, they can walk in righteousness.
Visuals are easy to remember. Concepts, propositions and sentences are difficult to recall without memorization, for they exist invisibly. However, a visual story or image does not. You can talk about it because you see it.
If you can see it and you do the thorough job of describing what you see to others, then the audience will see it as well as the “reels of the movie” begin to roll. This is why turning truth into a picture is so effective. It assists you, giving you the ability to store the entire sermon in the film room of your head, not reliant upon notes. It assists the audience, giving them the truth they can see with their ears, allowing the Holy Spirit to transform their hearts.
Hollywood filmmakers “storyboard” their movies, arranging the scenes in a series of visuals that sequentially display the plotline. Each storyboard is a visual setting of the scene to be filmed. This storyboard outline of the entire film tells the story, giving the basic structure of the plot. Likewise, taking each “visual preaching point” within the sermon and reducing it to one “storyboard visual” enables the sermon to be captured on the film inside your head.
The complete collection of these storyboarded scenes, spliced together with skillful segues, comprise your entire sermon in film fashion. As you proceed through the movements of your sermon, you see the entire sermon visually. If you can see it, so will they. If you cannot, your sermon might be headed down Boring Boulevard, a place where Good News ought not reside.
Jesus knew the secret to good preaching, for he was never boring. His sermons, much like his Bible, the Old Testament, were full of visuals: parables, metaphors, similes, quoted dialogue and stories. He was a great preacher.
After all, his sermons were, and still are, box office hits!by Pastor Doug
One Size Fits All?
Who’s better: you or me?
Recently it occurred to me, although we believe in the same doctrine, we don’t believe in the same methods, especially when it comes to preaching.
Of course, I think the way I do it is the best way. So do you, right? Somehow we think our style of preaching is better than another style of preaching, finding allies whenever we can. Funny thing we do: measuring each other based upon our own biased and elevated preferential viewpoints.
All of this begged the question: is there a right way and a wrong way? Yes and yes, for when it comes to preaching God’s Word, some things are up for grabs (and God allows you to choose what works for you) and some things can never be.
Here are the negotiable items. You are free to pick what works for you:
Local use of the English language. If you have a crowd that prefers the faster pace of the Northeast, speak faster. If you have a congregation that really likes folks who drop their g’s and slow it…waaaay…down, do so. If you have a church that needs surfer talk, do it, dude! If you have a sanctuary full of PhD’s who adore preachers who never end their sentences with a preposition, don’t tell them where it’s at. However you and your folks communicate, do it unto the Lord, but don’t think the other guy is any less God’s instrument because he does it in a way you do not. Leave room for local dialect. Know your folks and preach like they talk, for God, by the way, does not have a preferred version of English. He hears the heart.
Volume of the speaker. Shouting doesn’t always mean passion and holiness. It can, but it can also just be learned behavior. Using your library voice in the pulpit does not always equal special sensitivity. Whether you shout and pace the stage or speak softly and stay behind the pulpit, it probably has a lot to do with your mentoring, not your spirituality. I’ve been told, for example, to preach in the same voice I use to order a hamburger. Thus, I speak conversationally, but this does not make me better than anyone else, just comfortable in my style, hoping to be used by the Holy Spirit to point listeners to Jesus.
Preaching styles. Some preachers are dramatic, using large gestures and lots of secondary voices to tell their stories. Some are bit more subdued, relying upon word choice to relay their take on biblical matters. Some are funny; some are dry and witty. Some are compassionate, often led to tears. Some preach like a motivational coach speaking to his team before kickoff. All of these methods are right, as long as the technique helps the audience understand the scripture, “fleshing out” an eternal truth. Your way is not better than my way. God uses all of us.
Other options. Your choice to use the King James, the NIV, or the Message is a reflection of your preference, not God’s. Your choice to preach in a full suit and tie, an un-tucked shirt and a pair of jeans, or a pair of shorts and sandals is not about right or wrong, but about your own indigenous culture. You’ll probably attract people like you. You can use props, PowerPoint, three points, or fill-in-the-blank handouts. You can preach while the organ is playing; you can show movie clips. All are choices you make and offer to God as a sacrifice of praise.
On the other hand, here are the non-negotiable items. In these matters, you are not free to pick what works for you:
Telling the truth. It ought to go without saying, but preachers need to tell the truth, especially when their content is a reflection of a God of integrity, incapable of dishonest speech. However, every preacher knows about the temptation to make the story a bit better than it really is. Therefore, for the most part, I try to tell stories that happened to me sometime in the last seven days (since the previous weekend). Why? (1) They are current. (2) I’ve never told it before (obviously!) (3) They are local and, thus, relevant. (4) Most importantly, they are true. (It’s more difficult to stretch the truth in a week’s time.)
Lifestyle of the Preacher. It can never be ok to live one way in the pulpit and another way out of it. It matters what you do with you heart outside the space of public performance. God cares as much about your preparation time (which happens not only in the study, but the kitchen, the bedroom, the television room, the sports’ field, the gas station, the…you name it…you are preparing for the pulpit wherever you are!) as He does the preaching time in any given church service. You preach what you are, not you are what you preach.
However you preach, it ought to be an act of worship unto God, not a cover-up to what’s really going on inside. The pastor who lives what he or she preaches and gives their all to what they do delights the heart of our Heavenly Father, even if you never hear about them here on earth. They are people who live in God’s favor. It matters how you live. With God. With others. It matters with you!
Basis of the Sermon. I recently heard a “sermon” based upon a leadership story from the past. All three points came from the historic account. The big idea was based upon the military commander at the center of the story. Although scripture texts were used to illustrate the points of the…um…speech, they were clearly not necessary because the genesis of the thoughts were not scripture but self-help leadership principles.
A sermon must be, without compromise, based solely upon the ideas of scripture. The main point of the sermon ought to be the main point of the biblical text. Anything less is an unfortunate use of holy, sacred time. Pulpits in America do not need better, flashier ideas; what they need is an unashamed abandonment to the ideas of Holy Scripture, which, by the way, is a record of God talking to humanity––then and now. Don’t get me wrong, I like history and leadership principles just like you, but not in lieu of a preacher who faithfully unfolds God’s Words––not your’s or mine––every pulpit chance he or she gets!
God cares about the issues of the heart. He can do more with a bad sermon and a good heart than a good sermon and a bad heart.
I remind us: He uses us, but does not depend upon us, which is why it’s not good to even ask the question whose sermon was better––yours or mine, for only God knows what’s really going on and only He knows what He’s doing with all we offer to Him.
So, who is better? You are. I am. We are.
He is.by Pastor Doug
Creative Sermon Change-Ups
The Bible is a compelling book!
More good news: if you are preaching through that Bible week after week, you ought to be a compelling preacher!
Best news of all: if this is true, God’s Word ought to come alive in your congregation, causing the folks in the pew to fall in love with what He says.
That’s right, biblical preaching can be…well…exciting!
So, why does expository preaching often get a bad rep, frequently associated with monotone lectures about ancient civilizations and antiquated languages?
Could it be the deficiency of the presentation, not the content? Are there ways to spice up your preaching and keep your folks intrigued––even though they listen to you preach week after week?
Let me use a baseball metaphor and call them “change-up pitches.” These sermon templates give you some new creative ways to say the same things, mixing up your predictable “fast ball” with freshness.
So, once you establish the sermon content of a biblical text, there are thousands of—actually infinite—ways you can communicate it to your audience. You will not exhaust God’s creative power in you nor will you run out of things to say about His imaginative Word. Expository preaching can only be boring because creativity has been sidelined. However, preaching that “exposes” the biblical idea of the text, at its best, ought to be compelling and life-changing. It should be anything but boring!
Here are some creative sermon forms. Consider trying them someday soon:
First-Person Narrative Sermon (biblical character). Consider saying the same things you’d say as the preacher, but through the voice of another “character.” Rather than the anticipated sermon on Psalm 23, come out and preach the sermon as young David, the original author. Or, be a person from the church in Rome and tell your congregation about an important letter that just arrived from an apostle named Paul. The list of possibilities are endless: consider telling the story of Goliath from the giant’s point of view; the parable of the prodigal from the servant’s point of view; the crucifixion of Christ from the point of view of a person in Herod’s mob. You get the picture: be creative and make God’s Word come alive. Your church will forgive you if you are not an accomplished thespian. In fact, they will be glad you care enough to be creative in your preaching.
First-Person Narrative Sermon (modern character). Another creative angle is to preach the sermon through the eyes and experience of a modern person. Consider approaching and speaking about the text as a college student, a kid, an elderly man, an executive, or a gang member. I once did a Christmas message about the role of the shepherds from the perspective of a night custodian, complete with mop and bucket. As I was “watching over my floors by night,” I verbally pondered what it must have been like to have my nocturnal work interrupted by the gift of heavenly beings announcing the birth of Christ. All the points I would have made in a sermon about Luke 2:8-20 were made while holding a mop in my hands.
Interview Sermon. If you are preaching through Romans 4 and Paul is referencing the story of Abraham, consider taking on the role of Paul and interview another person in your church who will take on the role of Abraham. Sit down at a table and break some Jewish bread while walking through the main points of this chapter. Turn Paul’s propositional points into questions Abraham can answer with the depth of his story from Genesis. Once I recruited another preacher, Carl, to be Simeon, as told in Luke 2:21-40. I put him in a wheelchair and visited him at the nursing home. I took the role of a newspaper reporter trying to find out what it must have been like to see the baby in the temple.
Interactive Sermon. One year, I preached through the book of Revelation. When we got to chapter 4 (a description of heavenly worship), I decided to use various forms of media (music, video, responsive reading, instrumental solo, etc.) to preach the sermon. Earlier in the week, I coordinated with the musicians to turn the entire service into the sermon—both Word and music (i.e., the sounds of heaven). We started with all the church housekeeping issues and explained the rest of the service (all but those first 7-8 minutes) would be the sermon. Rather than just talk about what happens around the throne of God, we did it. Experientially. We worshipped like they worship in heaven. Some say it was their favorite sermon ever!
Video Shoot Sermon. Consider preaching off-site earlier in the week in a setting that would add context to your message. Record it on video and show it in lieu of your typical sermon. For example, record your sermon at a mortuary or a cemetery if your text is from I Corinthians 15. Or, go to a vineyard if you are preaching out of John 15:1-17. Or, you might want to go to the local high school stadium if you are preaching out of Hebrews 12:1-3. Today’s audience is used to receiving important information from video screens; they will appreciate the hard work you put into your message earlier in the week. Here’s an ongoing benefit: if your setting is a local landmark, the message of the text will be reinforced every time a member of your congregation sees it.
Children’s Sermon/Object Lesson. Ever bring the kids into the adult service and have them sit on the floor near the pulpit and give them a children’s sermon complete with an object lesson? Ever notice how well the adults pay attention when you do so? You should do it more often, reinforcing the point of your sermon. If you are really brave, turn the whole sermon into an object lesson and see if it doesn’t stick!
Testimony Sermon. Illustrate your various sermon points with live testimonies from your congregation.
“Tag-Team” sermon. Use more than one preacher, taking turns with each new point.
Sensory Sermon. Employ smell, taste, and touch alongside the typical sight and sound.
Etc., etc., etc…
Your faithfulness to preach through a book of the Bible week after week is the bedrock of employing creativity. Your marriage as pastor and congregation gives you license to mix it up with creativity—it’s a romance needing a spark every so often. If you are reticent to take the dive and devote an entire sermon to one of these creative templates, then, devote a section of your sermon and grow your confidence.
However you do it, pray about it, commit it to the Lord, and be amazed by how much favor He gives to those who love to find new ways to say old truths about His heart for the people He loves.
After all, He is a compelling God!by Pastor Doug
Writing The Thank You Notes
I know Willie Nelson was singing about his girlfriends, but all I could think about was people who have passed through our church:
To all the ones I’ve loved before
Who traveled in and out our door
I’m glad they came along
I dedicate this song
To all the ones I’ve loved before
My list of former girlfriends is rather short, not much content for a song, but it just dawned on me, I’ve preached a lot of sermons to a lot of people! I’m doing the math in my head and it appears, in fact, I’ve preached over 800 sermons (or over 2,000 if you count the years of multiple services). Now that’s something worth thinking about!
So, in celebration of over two decades of preaching from behind the same pulpit, I wanted to do what you’re supposed to do after a good birthday party. I want to write some thank you notes. I bought a box of cards, so here we go:
Take out first note card and start writing…
To All The Ones Who Only Heard Me Preach Once:
Thanks for giving me a shot to gain your ear. Over the years, I’ve thought about you a lot, especially on Mondays. I can only assume, for those of you who left mid-sermon, you were responding to an emergency text message. We all get them; they’re awfully inconvenient. To those who stayed till the benediction but ran for the parking lot at the final “Amen,” thanks for hearing the whole of it. I’ve often thought, in a rare moment of confidence, it was probably the loud music, the less-than-perfect greeters, or the uncomfortable chairs that drove you away. Rapidly away. It certainly couldn’t have been the preaching, for…
Ah…never mind…can’t send that one. Crumble. Toss into the trashcan. New note card…
To All The Ones Who Slept While I Spoke:
Thank you for feeling so confident to do what I wanted to do: take a nap. I saw you. I looked straight at you. I wasn’t mad at you; I envied you. Do you know how good a nap sounds on a Sunday morning, especially after a restless Saturday night? Life sure isn’t fair, but, then again, maybe it is fair after all, for on Mondays I sleep in late when you’re…
Nah…not a good idea. I don’t want to let any of my pastor friends know I have sleepers in my church. Crumble. Trash. Take out new note card…
To All The Ones Who Became Part of Us, Then Left:
Thank you for the memories. I remember the first time you came to a service. You chose to come back and I remember how encouraged I was to see you again. Over the years, we wept; we laughed. We shared a lot of life together. I remember how kind you were after your father’s funeral, letting me know God used me. I remember telling your story in the sermon and thinking your story was the best thing I said that morning. I remember dedicating your children to the Lord; baptizing them years later; watching them off to college. I remember missions trips. Picnics. Fist bumps in the foyer.
Then, I remember hearing you weren’t happy anymore. I heard you were shopping around for another church, another pastor. I remember getting the word from somebody else you’d left the church. I’ll admit I took the high road when I heard about it because it’s the right thing to do, but if you want me to be honest, it felt like a kick in the gut. It sucked the wind out of my sails. I was ready to quit, convinced everybody else was quitting. Your leaving really got to me. It was hard, for I loved you and I loved your family. I gave myself to you. Every week. I spoke God’s Word to you. We shared the same…
Nah…I can’t send this. I really want to, but I won’t. But it’s good to get it out on paper, for I still miss them. I forgot how much I loved them. Let me try again…
To All The Ones Who Came and Stayed:
Thank you. Do you have any idea how special it is to share God’s Word with you? I remember the morning you looked up and caught my eye during the invitation to receive Christ as Lord and Savior. You had tears in your eyes. You decided to follow Jesus and I got to be there to see it happen. That day was amazing!
You’ve grown since. You’re such a part of what God is doing in our church. When I think of you, I think I have a great job! You make me want to study and prepare all the more for next Sunday. I love how I see you respond to what God says. You have fallen in love with His Word and it’s a blast to see how much you love Him.
Remember, a few years ago, when I asked you to help me be a better preacher and I couldn’t get you to tell me what was wrong with my preaching? When I pressed you for why you wouldn’t reveal my weaknesses, you told me you loved me and the sermon was not a performance but a part of our relationship. You, in fact, told me how our conversation on a Thursday was almost more important than my sermon on Sunday. You said you loved my preaching because you loved me, helping me understand what it means to be a local pastor.
I am so thankful for you, for you make me want to be a better pastor. It’s because of you, I put myself through the grind of sermon prep every week. The gnawing that starts about Tuesday, knowing I’ll stand behind the pulpit and speak on behalf of God Almighty, has never gone away. I’m as nervous today as I was when I first started. I want to get it right for I know it matters. Because you hear His Word and apply it each week, I am willing to wrestle with my own self-righteousness and let the biblical text do something in my heart every week. It means a lot to me when I hear Jesus say, “For their sake I sanctify myself,” because that’s what I do every week. Because of you, I loose sleep, battle doubt, fight fear, overcome temptation, sacrifice leisure, and try to do my very best to deliver God’s Word for you and your family. It’s impossible to be amazing every week, so I just shoot to be faithful. Humble, too. I’ve learned the hard way there is no such thing as a great sermon, just a great text; there is no such thing as a great preacher, just a Great Christ.
Because of you, He has used me. I love you,
Doug, your pastor, your preacher.
Folded. Stuffed. Sealed. Stamped. Left in the mailbox for future reference.
To be retrieved on Mondays.by Pastor Doug
Ever found your enthusiasm for a particular passage of scripture to be flatter than a tortilla? Even though you know it’s God’s Word, you know you’re not connected and it shows.
It happens to preachers, even good ones like you. Passion is easily lost in the study.
Every professional knows it’s difficult to invest energy where there’s no passion. However, preaching is no ordinary job, for handling God’s Word is a unique calling. It’s God speaking to your congregation through you, and if you don’t have any passion for your sermon, how can you expect it from anybody else?
Simply put, without passion, you’re sunk.
So, what does passion for the biblical text look like? It’s the intuitive, gut-level feeling that goes off inside, ignited by the power of God, charging you with a rush of energy and fervor. In these moments, the words come faster than you can record them. Your mind gushes with an overload of expression. You are in “the zone” and you can’t wait to start preaching.
These moments are precious. There is nothing quite like them. When you find this feeling, you can do a day’s work in an hour. Most importantly, your preparation is fresh and vibrant, not stale and limp. You can hardly wait to tell others because you know exactly why the sermon is important to you. You want to share the experience you’re feeling with the congregation so they can experience it, too.
So, what happens when this isn’t the case? Is there any way to rejuvenate your enthusiasm for the text?
Consider these steps to recapturing your passion lost, turning a wilted speech into a strong and vibrant sermon:
Obviously. God knows you need help. He invites you to ask. Do so. Like a deer panting for water is the preacher needing a connection to the Lord’s heart for His people. Pray in the Spirit. Invite the Lord to walk with you down the aisles of your soul and take inventory of what’s really going on. David prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.” Pray likewise and recover what’s missing.
• What do you want to say to me, O God?
• What am I missing which you want to give me?
• What about this text exposes the condition of my heart?
2. Find the dramatic center.
In all communication, there’s something about what you’re talking about which compels you. As you know, the Word of God is so powerful that, year after year, a familiar passage can be heard in a whole new way. Fresh insights are found with the changes of life. If you are going to invest emotional energy in the correct handling of this text, you must find the aspect that compels you—finding the “dramatic center” of what God is saying to you. Today! Nothing beats fresh bread.
It’s impossilbe to disguise ambivalence. At the climatic moment of your sermon, anything but absolute conviction on your part will be obvious, negating your message. What about the exposed human condition makes you weep? What makes you mad? What breaks your heart? Without being full of self-righteousness, what makes you want to get out of your chair and do something about it? What difference has the truth of this text made in your life? With this critical revelation from the depths of your soul, you won’t have to manufacture passion. It will naturally exist. You already care.
• What about the text captures my heart?
• What about the text evokes gusto inside of me?
• Why should I care about this?
3. Just be honest.
Even an admission of lackluster zeal in the pulpit is dynamically more powerful than a pastor trying to fake it. Honesty always trumps hypocrisy. Often, my honesty about what’s really going on in my heart is the key to diagnosing my lack of passion, unlocking the power of God’s Word to impact every part of my life. In a sober spirit of sincerity, God can heal my apathy and give me new grace for preaching.
Ask the tough questions. It’s acceptable and reasonable, when spending time in the study, to ask the difficult (or troubling) questions. Why are you ambivalent about this subject? What is it you really believe about what God is saying? What experience in life made you lack belief about this passage of scripture? In the presence of God, be raw and honest. This type of prayerful evaluation, directed by the power of the Holy Spirit, ought to expose what’s really going on inside.
• What are my honest feelings about the passage, even those I think I shouldn’t be feeling?
• Can I really commit my heart to this passage of scripture? If not, why not?
• Am I violating my own integrity?
4. Find Fresh Eyes.
Reexamine the way you see the text. Look at it from a variety of angles. See it from the view of a “seeker” who is hearing it for the first time. See it from the eyes of a child. Consider what the original audience must have thought. See it from the perspective of the opposite sex, another race, a disabled person, or an atheist. Change up your perspective and you might see something you’ve never seen before—something that will light a fire in your soul.
Don’t limit yourself to personal experience. Although personal experience tends to be the most powerful way to convey information, don’t restrict yourself to only what “really happened” to you. You may actually be passionate about things, whether or not you actually experienced them. For example, I was not abused as a child, but I once observed, at the grocery story, a small boy flinching as his dad violently yelled at him. This experience, although not my personal experience, helps me understand significant parts of scripture—with new passion!
• What would ________ see while reading this text?
• What incites passion in the hearts of others I know?
• What about this can work to do the same in me?
Passionate proclamation should always be your goal. However, in the spirit of honesty and transparency, what if you have conscientiously run through all these steps and you still feel less passion than you wish you felt, or less than you have felt before, or less than ever? Life is complex. Seasons of life are often full of challenge—sometimes a period of time can even seem dark. In those situations, we may or may not have the passion we ought, yet in those seasons, we step up to the pulpit, take our best shot, and trust God, who puts the power in His message even when we feel less than we wish. We are not alone when we preach. In our faithfulness, He rescues and redeems what we give in His name.
With God’s help, we preach His Word. It makes all the difference in the world, for the truth proclaimed with fire will ignite the work of God.
Especially in a good preacher like you!by Pastor Doug
Wanna Be Starting Somethin’?
“Why is it that grass grows on my driveway, but not on my lawn?”
It was an unusual question but the preacher captured the curiosity of the congregation for the first time in a long time. The audience was engaged, interested in where the sermon was going. A marvel happened: they looked up from their phones, their grocery lists. They were listening.
A good introduction sets the table for a good sermon. It matters. Preparing a good introduction is worth the extra time—your time, their time––for during the introduction, listeners decide whether or not they will continue to listen. It’s a great opportunity to capture the ears of the congregation––who come to church from a week of struggles––bringing them into a biblcial text, helping them live life to the full.
A good introduction is composed of three parts:
PART 1: An opening hook: It commands attention, engaging the ear.
Consider the first words that come out of your mouth. Choose them well. Make them matter. Capture the curiousity of the wandering mind. Don’t waste the moment by saying what is obvious or predictable. Get after it, for you have the imperative assignment of exposing light on the truths of God’s Word! Whatever you say: engage their ear and make them want to hear more.
Effective: “If you wanted to destroy this church without a bomb, how would you do it?”
Not-so-effective: “Today I would like to talk about something that all of us feel deeply about…”
Effective: “I’ve always wondered how wise those guys from the east really were.”
Not-so: “Last week, we talked about chapter 6 and, this week, I want to talk to you about chapter 7…”
PART 2: Developing thought: It exposes need, speaking to the heart.
Upon capturing the attention, use some time to address the needs of the listeners. Show how this sermon will speak to their hearts. Give them evidence you are about to address their temporal needs with God’s timeless truths. Say what you need to say in order to show them why they should care to continue listening. Speak to the heart and they’ll listen.
PART 3: Transition to body: It serves as the link, assisting the head.
Connect the dots so your introduction flows effortlessly into the body of your sermon. Achieve a smooth segue. Connect the human need of the developing thought to the main body of the sermon. Do so by introducing the main idea of your sermon. Do not be abrupt. Build a short bridge from the introduction to the main body. With kindness, help every listener cross safely.
COMMON MISTAKES TO AVOID…
Don’t go too long. The introduction is a freeway onramp, not a long stretch of highway. Get folks from their situations in life to the a place where they are ready to hear from God. Brevity is always powerful. Error on the side of concision.
Don’t write your introduction first; write it last. Write your sermon’s main body first. Then, write the introudction (and the conclusion) last. Why? Because the introduction serves the main body not the other way around. Also, you must know where your going (i.e., to the main body of the sermon) in order to know how to get there (i.e., the introduction).
Don’t open with an apology. Don’t start with: “I am sorry I am not prepared today.” (They will figure that out themselves. Soon enough.) Do not begin with excuses, justifications, or any other form of insecure speech. Just get up in the pulpit and proclaim the Truth as best you can! Leave room for the Holy Spirit to be strong in your weaknesses.
Don’t promise what you cannot deliver. Be sober in your introduction and only guarantee what you will have time to adequately address. Prepare words that frame where you will be going, not where you hope you will be going. Only write a check you can cash.
Don’t always jump out from the same bush. A healthy dose of creative variety keeps the listener guessing. Some techniques are only good once a decade. Some are good the first time, but not so the fourth and fifth times. Create anticipation by finding new bushes, not overusing the same one.
Don’t make it too good. Remember, the introduction serves the main body, not the other way around. Be careful to not peak in the first few minutes of your sermon, causing an emotional exit for the listener before you get to the part of the sermon that truly matters. Be good, but remember the introduction is a lot like the role of John the Baptist, just preparing the way for One greater.
Don’t bring in foreign scripture. There is more than enough in one biblical text to occupy the full time of your sermon that you do not need to introduce an entirely different biblical text, especially in the introduction.
Steer clear of the rabbit trails. Stay focused. Be a ramp for the listener by avoiding all and any speedbumps, detours, side trips, and obstacles. Stay on the short ramp and get the audience on the freeway of the sermon’s main body sooner than later.
Check out this example of how to introduce a sermon on Romans 7:7-25, divided into three parts:
OPENING HOOK: Why is it that grass grows on my driveway, but not on my lawn?
DEVELOPING THOUGHT: I’ve diligently fought the grass in the cracks of my driveway. I’ve applied Roundup; taken a hoe to it. I’ve labored over the cracks in my driveway. A few feet away, over on my spacious lawn—a lawn I’ve fertilized, watered, and, quite frankly, deeply loved––I have patches where grass will not grow! Now, what’s up with that?
Ever wonder why what you want to happen is not what happens? Why is it my intention to do all these good things, but I end up doing all those things I don’t want to do? I want my grass to grow on my lawn. I don’t want my grass to grow on my driveway. Why do I do what I don’t want to do? How can I ever hope to overcome sin? Am I the only one? Anybody here know what I’m talking about?
TRANSITION TO BODY: I see that hand. It’s the hand of the Apostle Paul, for he knows what I’m talking about. Good news, we are not the only ones! Paul documents his struggle quite candidly in the 7th chapter of the Book of Romans. He asks, “How can I ever hope to overcome sin?” He answers us with our only confidence, “By submitting to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” Check it out as we read Romans 7 together…
Chuck Swindoll once said, “When I begin my sermons I dare the person not to listen to me. Not that I’m that great, it’s just that I’ve got something to say that’s too important to ignore.”
Introductions matter. If you start smart in the pulpit, they’ll probably listen well in the pew.by Pastor Doug
Thou Shalt End Well
Have you ever heard Mark Twain’s take on sermon brevity?
He valued it. Once, he listened to a preacher for five minutes, and, subsequently, was ready to contribute fifty dollars. After ten minutes more of the sermon, he reduced the amount of his contribution to twenty-five bucks. After a half-hour more, he cut the sum to five dollars. At the end of an entire hour of oratory, when the plate was passed, he stole two dollars.
In light of dwindling attention spans, I give to you the following prohibitions when it’s time to end your sermon. Know I’m right there with you, confessing my transgressions and asking for help, hoping to end each sermon well. I implore you to join me and walk the path of thoughtful preaching, especially when it comes to the sermon conclusion.
The Authorized Version of the
Ten Commandments of Sermon Conclusions:
I. Thou shalt not fail to prepare the conclusion in the study. It should not take much time to prepare your conclusion, but it’s time you cannot jettison. Write the body of your sermon first. Then, write your introduction and, finally, write your conclusion. Make it the cherry atop your week’s composition. Much like a marathon runner who won’t quit moments from the finish line, don’t skip this step. Finish strong in the study and you’ll finish strong in the pulpit.
II. Thou shalt not introduce new information. Summarize what you’ve said, but do not add new points, for if you do, it’s not a conclusion, but an extended movement of the main body. Hammer in what you’ve started with conviction and purpose. When you make a whole new point, you demonstrate a lack of discipline and it’s frustrating and confusing for the audience. In the same way the runner sprints for the finish line, once you see the end, focus and finish fast.
III. Thou shalt not manipulate your congregation. Using emotion for the sake of emotion or because you know it will get you a better response at the altar is not an act of kindness. You should preach unto others as you would have them preach unto you. Even if you can trick others to think your manipulation is an authentic spiritual response, you cannot trick God. Besides, you surely won’t fool your spouse and your children. They’ll know what you’re doing, and, more than likely, so will everyone else. Preach with authenticity and reject exploitation.
IV. Thou shalt not abandon the big idea. The big idea rules every part of the sermon, including the conclusion. The big idea is the point of the sermon––one sentence taken directly from the biblical text. It is reflected in every point. It’s the one thing you’ll want the audience to remember days later. It’s the clear bullseye, not the scattered buckshot. Thus, with your final opportunity to proclaim it, do so. You’ll not regret keeping your conclusion simple.
V. Thou shalt not build your sermon to support your conclusion. You know the temptation: you have found a great story and now all you need is a sermon to get you to your great story. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We know it happens. However, it’s not how it’s supposed to work! The conclusion serves the sermon; the sermon serves the big idea; the big idea serves the biblical text, not the other way around.
VI. Thou shalt not bypass the opportunity to call for commitment. Every sermon ought to lead the preacher and the congregation into the presence of God where a challenge is given, a decision is made, and a life is changed. Spirit-empowered preachers ought never lose the opportunity to create space for the supernatural! Always call for a commitment to Christ, never missing the moment to respond to the message of God’s Word. If you preach the Bible, you should expect the Holy Spirit to stir the hearts of those He loves.
VII. Thou shalt not end abruptly. Abrupt endings are usually traced to poor sermon preparation, for abrupt is when you stop speaking while the congregation’s mind is still going. It’s awkward and unsettling. It’s not the way you want to finish. Years ago, I was listening to a sermon and the…
VIII. Thou shalt not end on the negative. There are two sides of the Gospel: bad news and Good News. While it’s vital to confront, not skirt, the bad news in order to set up the announcement of the Good News, never end on the bad news. End with the answer that Jesus brings. End with the hope for the troubles of this life. End pointing others to Jesus, the One who saves, the One who gives faith for tomorrow.
IX. Thou shalt not end with an apology. I’ve learned long ago that I shouldn’t apologize for my effort, as feeble as it might be, to preach the Word of God. Over the years, as long as I am faithful to preach the scriptural text, I’ve discovered this to be true: what I thought was really good was not always what the Holy Spirit used to change someone’s heart and, conversely, what I thought was not good was often what the Holy Spirit used for change. I do my best to be prepared to stand in the pulpit, but I know it’s not up to me to do what only God can do. I don’t apologize; I leave it to Him, trusting He will use even me. In my weakness, He is strong.
X. Thou shalt not circle the airport. Finally. In conclusion. One more thing. As we wrap it up today. Let me tell you one more time. As we end. Finally, etc, etc, etc. When the time comes to land the plane, like a good pilot, prepare the audience for touchdown and quickly put the plane on the tarmac. Your goal as a communicator? Land the plane. Just like me, you will never spend a Monday wishing you had spoken longer, said a few more things, circled the airport a few more times. You’ll always be content with on-time landing.
The sermon conclusion provides a vital function. As you prepare it, remember you bring finality to your message by driving home the main idea into the hearts of your hearers, giving them opportunity to respond to God’s truth.
Of course, in your conclusion, you can summarize, give an illustration, quote a poem, ask a question, sing a hymn, give final instruction, or some other creative option, but I find the best conclusion is the one I keep short by simply restating the big idea with force and conviction. Because the weight of my preaching rests squarely on my exposition of the biblical text (i.e., the main body of the sermon), my conclusion is best when fewer words are spoken.
In brevity, I seek to end well.
After all, we want Mark Twain to hear the Gospel. We cannot afford to lose folks like him.
Nor the offering, either.by Pastor Doug