Preaching ‘How To’ Sermons Instead of ‘Ought To’ Sermons

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Bible How ToAs a young pastor I can remember the feeling of expectancy when I took the pulpit of my church for the first time. I had graduated with a Masters of Divinity degree and had been awarded the school’s top preaching award. I thought I was ready to take on the world through the ministry of my small town church.

Two years later, the church was still stuck in the mud. My inexperience as a preacher was taking a toll on the church and me as well.

Nothing is more personal to a pastor than his preaching. When we are criticized for our messages, it penetrates all the way to the heart. I can remember the jabs I received from some of the old-timers who were still in mourning over the loss of the former pastor. It hurt.

I began to pray for God to help me learn to lead my church, and I received a postcard in the mail two weeks later that I have come to believe was God’s answer to me. It was an invitation to the first Purpose Driven seminar offered in Southern California.

Toward the end of the conference, Rick Warren reminded us that the only thing we could immediately change in our churches was how we preached. With that in mind, I went home and made some last-minute changes to the message that I would be preaching that Sunday.

The one thing you can change immediately

I had been working my way through the Ten Commandments and was scheduled to preach the ninth commandment, “Do not lie.” So I thought about what Rick had taught us that week:

“Don’t preach the way things are. Instead, preach the way things could be.”

  • “Make sure your sermon title implies good news.”
  • “Always preach the positive alternative.”

I got home on Saturday and started to work on my message. I knew I could not rewrite the whole thing, so I did what I could and began by simply changing the title from, “Do not lie,” to “How to be honest.” I reworked some of the major points to make them practical and encouraging.  Other than that, the message was pretty much the same. I utilized all of my careful study and all of the notes I had developed. I simply stated what I had learned in a positive, practical, and helpful way.

As I preached that Sunday I could sense a difference in the congregation that was obvious. They were attentive and eager to listen. When I closed that day with a plea for more honesty at home, in the workplace, and before God, I was stunned. People were responding to the clear direction I had taken with the message.

I offered several meaningful action points as “homework” and received a record number of positive responses written on the back of our communication cards. I sold more tapes than usual that week and had more appointments because of that message than ever before. It moved people to take action and apply the Scriptures to their lives.

Preaching ‘how to’ instead of ‘you ought to’

As a result of that preaching experience, I would never go back to preaching “you ought to” sermons. Instead, I would be preaching more “how to” messages that people could apply to their daily lives. I wanted to encourage people and help them apply Scripture as the answer to their daily needs. I wanted to devote my life to preaching for life-change.

From that Sunday on, our church became a different place. People were happier and more satisfied with the messages I preached. They were inviting their friends, and the church started to grow. In fact, our church grew for 30 consecutive months from that day. Each Sunday was a little bit bigger than the last for 30 months in a row. Enthusiasm began to sweep over the congregation, and people were genuinely proud of their church and pastor.

I’ve been preaching for life-change for years now. I am happy to say that over the course of ministry I have seen over a thousand people give their hearts to Jesus for the first time. We baptized over 800 people over the years as our little church grew from 85 discouraged souls to 850 attending every week. It all began with a change in preaching.

The pulpit is a very powerful rudder of the church. The words that you use and how you say them are important to the persons who come to your church. Your preaching can open the doors of heaven. Never settle for messages that educate people. Instead, teach the application of Scripture and you will transform the lives of many. Encourage people to follow Jesus and show them how to be “doers” of the word of God and not “hearers” only.

That is one decision you can make without any input from anyone else. Commit yourself to be a transformational preacher. Preach for life change.


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About Dave Holden

Dave Holden is the International Training Director for Equipping Leadership and a Pastor at Saddleback Church. Dave has helped over 32,000 global leaders maximize their life's work, and has an amazing knack for helping the average Pastor discover new growth in the church. Catch him on Twitter: @HDaveHolden.

  • John Gordon

    Great insights and helpful suggestions for more impactful preaching!

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