Going to seminary ruined me from listening to sermons. It is very rare that I am able to go to worship and not over analyze the sermon. I was trained in sermon autopsy. I can track the flow, the arc, the point(s), the high, the low, the direction, and the emotion. I have given a lot of sermons and I have listened to a lot of sermons. There is a difference between a good sermon and a bad one. (In the interest of full disclosure – I do not claim to be an expert in the craft and have given more than my fair share of bad sermons. I had a mentor pastor remind me one time that major league starters only bat .300. So if 1 sermon out of three is good, your are doing better than batters in MLB.)
What I have learned from many many of my bad sermons over the years is that there are ten things that will make a difference in your preaching.
- Shorter is better. Stop trying to be Andy Stanley, Rick Warren, or Craig Groeschel. You cannot preach for 30-45 minutes to a captive audience. Do you know what the average attention span is today? EIGHT seconds. A goldfish has a longer attention span than a human now. Blog posts over 750 words are TLDR. My grandfather was a baptist minister for 30 years. He always said if you went over 15 minutes you were repeating yourself. Today most people can make it to 12 minutes of a talk. If you go past 20 minutes you are pushing the limit.
- Part of the worship experience is better. The emphasis on the sermon came during a period of time with longer attention spans and better preachers. Billy Graham could captivate arenas full of people. I am not Billy Graham. I used to think that if the rest of the worship experience was so-so that I could make it up with the sermon. Not so. The sermon shouldn’t be the focal point of the worship experience. It should be a component of the worship experience.
- Pointed is better. Notice that I said pointed and not points. You can’t make three of four points anymore. My preaching professor would say over and over again, “Have A point and make it really impactful.” If you have three really big important points, you have three really big important sermons to preach. Stop trying to make them all in one Sunday. I have one person who still reminds me of a sermon I preached 8 years ago. I don’t even remember the sermon, but he does. When crafting a sermon, I want to know what is my one big point that I need to stick. That is what I will craft the rest of the message around.
- Relational is better. Know your audience. If I am giving a sermon to a group of pastors it is a different audience than if I am giving a sermon to a rural congregation. Know who you are speaking to. One sermon I used a reference to Harry Potter. After the sermon a lady approached me and asked me who Harry Potter was. The sermon was lost on her because she spent the entire time trying to figure out my illustration. The more I know about the struggles happening in my congregation, the better I am to help them deal with their struggles. Your sermon needs to connect to the audience.
- Memorable is better. Our minds are hardwired to think in certain ways. What I have often tried to do is connect with some sort of everyday thing, person, place, idea that reminds the listener of the sermon. Many people will forget what Bible verse was used on which Sunday, but if you manage to connect your ideas to something that is concrete in their life they might hang on to the point.
- Personal is better (sometimes). I usually dislike people using a canned story or illustration for a sermon. Many of my sermon ideas/illustrations come from everyday life. Everyone enjoys laughing at my follies. Everyone can lament with my problems. Everyone can see and share my joy. Sometimes. You have to know when to share and when not to share. People want to know their pastor is human, but they don’t want too much information. Also if you have a spouse or children in your sermon, it better be with their permission.
- Mission oriented is better. This is the one that I struggle with the most. What do you want me to do with this message? What is the challenge to change or the call to action? Tell me the outcome. Too often I don’t like prescribing a set outcome so many of my sermons don’t communicate a goal or behavior. The sermon should communicate, challenge, confront, and convict. Many of my sermons lack that final push.
- Gospel centered is better. My preaching professor would remind us over and over again, “Tell me the good news.” I have heard a lot of sermons that were full of great stories, illustrations, points, and information. Yet all these sermons left out the good news. Every single sermon we preach should have something that is good news. The idea is if someone from outside your church came to your church that one single Sunday would they be able to hear the good news? Even if you are preaching from the Old Testament you need to communicate the good news.
- Good endings and beginnings are better. The two hardest things for me to write are endings and beginnings. I want the opening to be something powerful that captures the listeners attention. I want the ending to be convicting that wraps up the message perfectly. These two parts of the sermon are always struggles for me. I probably spend more time than I need to worrying about what to say during these parts of the sermon.
- Breathing is better. The best advice that I have ever received about giving a sermon is to take a breath before you begin. Breathe in the Holy Spirit. Take a moment before you start to remind yourself why you are doing this. Feel the joy of the message that you are about to deliver. Take a breath.
What are some things that you would recommend to preach better sermons?