On occasion I run into someone who is preparing to preach their first sermon in front of a congregation. Although preaching is a subjective practice – each person finds what “works for them” – there are certain principles I use to govern how I preach and craft my sermon that I advice newbie’s. Here’s eleven that readily come to mind.
1. Bathe your sermon in prayer, but don’t wait for a sign.
Sometimes I meet people who won’t preach unless they receive a clear sign, an undeniable “sense” of what to preach on. Sometimes signs come and sometimes the Lord will give clear direction, but more often God has gifted us with brains and passions which he expects us to use. Bathe your sermon in prayer and seek to be sensitive to the leading of the Lord (as you walk in the Spirit), then go ahead, choose a topic and give it your all.
2. Add humour and stories, but not too many.
One of the elements that made Jesus’ preaching so effective was his ability to tell a compelling story that drove home a point. On occasion he even incorporated a good dose of humour (like the “plank in the eye” parable which offered a comically vivid hyperbole that got the point across). For me, adding humour to my sermons is critical. I have a very low attention span and when someone is talking away I sometimes get distracted and miss the preachers point. Humour always brings people back, keeps them captivated and helps them grasp each step of your sermon. But too many stories can distract from the message, so make each one count.
3. Be sensitive to your audience.
There’s nothing worse than a dead sermon in which the preacher is the only one in the room who doesn’t know it. You’re preaching to deliver a message to an audience. If you’ve lost them, find a way to get them back or kill it. Don’t beat a dead horse simply because you’re only 3 points into your 10 point sermon.
4. Be clear and concise.
Often times a preacher who develops his sermon around one portion of scripture (expository preaching) offers up every single principle they can find in that passage. What often happens is that the parishioner may walk way wondering what the sermon was all about. There was no single clear theme even if the sermon had a clear title. It just seemed to be a bunch of random principles. Some time back I was visiting a church where the preacher preached an expository sermon. When we left I asked my wife what the sermon was about, she couldn’t recall either, though we both remember what passage of scripture was used.
5. No shame in rehearsal.
For some reason there seems to be a sense in which it’s okay to have “worship practice” but not okay to have “sermon practice”. I think it is just as important to rehears your sermon as it is for the worship team to rehears their songs. Chances are when you actually preach your sermon it will come out different than intended; you might forget this point or leave that point out. But on the whole, when you rehears your sermon you’ll get a good sense of the “flow” of your message. There have been many occasions when I thought I was ready for Sunday morning, but when I rehearsed my sermon the day before I discovered parts of it didn’t flow, but new ideas that fit better with the direction I was going would naturally come to mind. In the end, rehearsing my sermon enhanced the message.
6. Find a role model.
This, I think, is important. Find someone who connects well with crowds, who knows how to deliver a message and who’s style you find effective, then model yourself after them. Many people spend lots years and money in institutes or reading books learning to how to be effective preachers. This is to your benefit. Pay close attention to what they do right and wrong, learn from them. My own style is loosely modelled after a youth pastor I had as a teenager mixed with a few other professional personalities whom I have found to be effective communicators.
7. Time matters… sometimes.
Not only should you be sensitive to your audience, you should be sensitive to your context as well. If the average sermon where you are scheduled to preach is between 20 and 35 minutes, don’t preach for an hour. I’ve heard people say, “but I felt the Lord lead me” and so they preached on and on until every head in the joint was bobbing up and down. Unless the Lord was leading you to lull the congregation to sleep, you probably heard wrong. Yet there are times when a sermon is so gripping that time almost stops, and when the preacher finally concludes his sermon a sadness comes over the crowd that it’s over too soon, followed by an astonishing realization that s/he preached for 90 minutes. So time restraints matter, but not always.
8. It’s not about you.
Preachers sometimes forget that the message is not about the speaker. While consciously we know this, our subconscious can easily forget. It’s difficult to stand on a raised platform with an entire room filled with eyeballs fixed on you to remember that, ultimately, if they’re more wowed by you than by your sermon, there’s a problem. Many preachers gauge their success or failure based on the response of the crowd. If they’re “amen-ing” you it spurs you on, but if their silent you slump into depression and want to quit. Maybe the sermon was a dud and maybe you should kill it. But if a dud sermon depresses you because the crowd wasn’t “amen-ing” all the way along, that’s a strong sign that you’ve probably made it more about you and less about the message.
9. Don’t be afraid to go deep.
Personally, I don’t like it when the crowd “amen’s” me all the way along. It means that I’m simply receiving affirmations by a crowd who’s basic and simple beliefs I’m bolstering. No! I would much prefer a crowd who’s expressions are piercing in silent nods and captivating glares, with the occasional outbreak of laughter interspersed. From my experience, that’s a sure sign you’re stretching them and making them think and see things from different angles and new perspectives. People don’t grow if all you ever do is affirm what they believe. Go deeper. Challenge them. The greatest compliment I receive after a sermon is when people come to me and say, “Wow Derek, I never considered that before. Thank you.”
10. Always live what you preach.
This is so important. Too many preachers seem so high and untouchable. It’s hard for people to relate with demigod’s in nice suits and ties standing behind large oak pulpits. I make an effort to be as transparent as possible. I’m not a perfect person and I insist that people know. I have struggles like everybody else (ask my wife why I don’t put a Jesus Fish on the back of our car!). When I preach, I often make for the best illustrations. My failures communicate to people that I’m with them, I understand their struggles and weaknesses. But I preach victory over our failures by the grace of God. So I live a life of tension, yielding to God’s grace for victory while not pretending that I’ve arrived. I preach a sermon of “already/not yet” and I live a life of “already/not yet”.
11. Leaders are readers…
I can tell after listening to someone preach for five minutes whether or not they’re readers. Their sermons lack rich content. I sat under one pastor who’s sermon every week revolved around a single phrase, “God can do all things, not some things, but all things!” Another preacher I sat under for a while preached “God will take from the rich and give to the poor”… every, single, week. Another pastor I knew would take ten minutes before the service to prepare an acrostic for a sermon. All of these are signs that the preacher is not well read, and hence, not growing in their walk. My pastor said it right this past weekend, “It takes more than prayer, Bible reading and daily devotions to grow as a Christian.” Read often. Read your Bible, then read a book for Christian growth, then read a theologian on a biblical topic, then read a popular non-Christian book, then read a piece of classic Christian literature. Reading the Bible is not enough. I spent a summer in the small down of Canso Nova Scotia filling in as pastor of a tiny church. There were no resources in this town except a small library next to the church which didn’t even have a Christian section. I was alone and the only book I had was my Bible. My sermons lacked content and I was dying spiritually. If you want to grow as an effective preacher, read more than a Bible.