I’ve been listening to sermons for over 35 years now and preaching them for about 17. There are so many master preachers who have written volumes over the years on this subject and I have learned a great deal from all of them. Although I do not consider myself among their ranks, I do have a few tips I have picked up along the way for budding preachers. None of these are really new. I am just restating them in my own words and adding a few of my own thoughts and opinions.
Great preaching is biblical, questionable, bridgeable, simple, personal, emotional, applicable, and ephemeral.
1. Be thoroughly biblical.
I know, I know. This goes without saying and yet my commitment to the Bible demands that I start here. The job of the preacher is to communicate God’s unchanging truth to an ever-changing world. It doesn’t make any difference if you share God’s Word verse-by-verse or verse-with-verse. It does matter that you share his verse. A young lady once asked me if I ever used borrowed material for my sermons. I answered, “we’re all using borrowed material. It’s called the Bible!”
2. Begin questionable.
I don’t mean start with a questionable beginning, although I do that all the time; I mean start by answering the most important question. Like it or not, in the first five seconds of your sermon, every person is asking, “Why should I listen to you?” Or, “What does this have to do with me?”
Before you exegete the text, exegete the people.
The way I do this is to regularly ask myself, “What is the biggest problem my people are trying to solve?”
We already know that the Bible has the answers to life’s greatest questions, but they don’t.
Begin your introduction helping them to see how this message could be the answer to their biggest problem!
3. Bridge the timeless principle.
Helping people bridge the ancient text with their modern lives is the most challenging task of the preacher.
Don’t try to impress people with your biblical knowledge. Rather, seek to impact them with unchanging truth. I know every preacher knows this, yet many seem to discard it when they start diving into the text. It’s as though they’re trying to redeem their seminary tuition.
I live on the Delmarva peninsula on Maryland’s eastern shore. When I need to get to Maryland’s western shore I have to take the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The bridge spans 4.3 miles east to west. Picture the eastern shore as the timeless principle and the western shore as the biblical passage. Great preaching is when you are building this bridge from both sides at the same time and meet squarely in the middle of the bay. BTW – don’t build half a bridge and hope they can jump it. (I’m picturing the scene from Speed)
Of course, some passages demand that you build longer on the western side (focusing on the historical/cultural/geographical elements of the text) before you can meet up with the eastern shore (principle). A complicated passage may require that you build out three miles of western bridge compared to 1.3 miles of eastern. Even then you should interlace a mile of western route with a quarter mile of eastern route moving smoothly from side to side. In other words, don’t spend 30 minutes explaining the history of the Amorites and then try to tack on five minutes of application. They won’t wake up to catch it.
4. Make it simple.
A comment that I often hear from people at my church is, “Preacher, I like how you bring it down to my level.” I take that as a high compliment.
Choose clear over clever every time.
I believe that your study should cause you to know the text so well that you can say it simpler, not harder.
Help the audience to feel closer to the people, places, and problems found in the Bible.
Preach in such a way that they leave impressed more by the spiritual truth than by the speaker’s knowledge.
Using what’s confusing means your sermon is losing. Or as my old preaching professor used to say, “Put the jam on the bottom shelf so anyone can reach it.”
5. Paint it personal.
When I first started preaching I would spend hours searching for that perfect gut-wrenching, leave ’em weeping in their seats, illustration. I found a few here and there, but when I became a pastor and needed to churn out 52 messages a year, I quickly realized I was going to have to rethink my sermon illustration strategy.
Over time I realized that the illustrations which seemed to be the most helpful for my people were the stories from my own journey. As I shared about my own faults, fears, failures, and frustrations, people were encouraged.
I’ve learned over time that the best preaching is truth through personality. Sharing with your people how you are personally wrestling with living out God’s incredible promises and principles helps them see a model that they can mimic.
The trick is to be real – not some fake version of Christianity that no one can live up to, but an authentic model that they can relate to.
By the way, I’ve also learned that they probably won’t remember your points, but they’ll never forget your stories. So be vulnerable.
6. Watch the emotional.
Preaching is about taking people on an emotional journey as much as an intellectual one. Lean too heavy on either side and the audience gets uncomfortable.
I like to think of preaching like taking people on a roller coaster ride. It should be enjoyable, but avoid extremes. Don’t jerk the riders around so fast that they feel jarred. By the same token, the ride shouldn’t be so dull that you lull them to sleep. Great preaching is shooting for emotional balance. Learn to show enthusiasm without making them think you’re crazy, and weep without becoming whiny. Softening the edges helps the audience enjoy the ride.
Also recognize emotional rhythm. Audiences can only withstand high emotional tension for so long (good or bad). Great preaching builds tension and then releases the pressure (usually with humor) and then repeats the cycle.
7. End applicable.
The question every preacher must answer is, “Am I preaching so that my people will know more or grow more?”
People only grow spiritually when they are able to take the truths of the Bible and begin to practice them in their everyday lives. However, they’ll never take the steps that are unclear. That’s why the most important element of the sermon is the call to action.
I never finish preparing a message without saying to myself, “So what?”
So what are they to do if what I just said is true?
I’ve discovered that the most powerful sermon application is just one step.
Whenever I have two or three applications the message becomes diffused and people get confused.
Andy Stanley’s Communicating for a Change is an excellent resource for this point.
8. Keep it ephemeral!
Okay, that was on purpose. Yes, I meant to violate number four.
The right word to use for this point is short.
People simply cannot endure long sermons. I know I can’t!
Often preachers write this off as the fault of the audience, when more often than not it’s the fault of the preacher. We try to say too much and then go too long.
I spend almost as much time taking stuff out of a message as I did putting it in. If you want your message to be powerful, then you need to remove the unnecessary. Cutting it down to what most accentuates your main point is the secret sauce of great messages.
My messages are usually around 35 minutes. The breakdown is typically something like seven minutes of introduction, 21 minutes of content, and then seven minutes of message wrap, call to action, and closing prayer.
Remember, the point of preaching is not just to inform, but to transform.
The best way to transform our people is to transform our preaching.