John Wesley (one my personal heroes and co-founder of Methodism) encouraged “plain speaking for plain people,” he also advocated excellence in preaching. When preparing a sermon, I always ask myself the following questions:
1.) You are the resident theologian: Even if you have never attended seminary, there is a good chance that you have had the opportunity to study the Bible in more depth than the majority of your congregation. Granted, I have at least one gentleman in my congregation who could probably run rings around me in any Bible exam, but for the most part, most people don’t have the time, opportunity, or inclination to study the scripture in great depth. While I always encourage my congregation to take part in small groups and personal Bible study, I also try to be respectful of the fact that my parishioners will look to me in order to help to elucidate the difficult questions regarding Biblical interpretation. Part of our call as ministers is to immerse ourselves in the study of the scripture as well as to acquaint ourselves with deeper theological and philosophical discourse. While every sermon does not need to center on such cerebral topics as, “How many angels can dance on the head of the pin?” we should still strive to provide parishioners with thoughtful discourse.
2.) What is the cultural context? Sadly, most people get their ideas about the Bible from popular movies and television. While there are many excellent films about the Bible available, there is also a great deal of misinformation out there as well. I always encourage people to go home and to read the Bible for themselves, but I realize that even if they do commit to study the text at home, there is still a great deal in the Bible that remains inaccessible to the casual reader. Therefore, it is our duty as preachers to illuminate the setting of the story. What was life like when this text was written? What were the common practices or customs that might seem alien to us today? What was happening in the world at the time? How does this text fit into the overall Biblical narrative? It’s important to let listeners into the background of a text so that they can begin to enter into the story.
3.) What is the story? Human beings are wired for story. Stories allow us to engage with the text and help listeners to connect with your message. A few people will be interested in your theological underpinnings, but at the end of the day, most people will resonate with the story that you share. If the text that you are preaching from during a certain week doesn’t have a clear narrative arc, try connecting it to another story in the Bible, such as a story from the gospels, by expanding on the larger theme of the passage.
4.) Where is the heart? Why should they care? If you had to summarize your sermon in just one sentence, what would it be? I like to think of this as my “elevator speech.” It helps me to imagine what I would say if I was in a crowded elevator and only had a few floors to answer the question, “So, what’s the sermon about this Sunday?”
5.) Did you “land the plane?” Don’t leave your sermon without an ending! Preaching is an aural exercise and listeners should know when you have finished. Some preachers are incredibly talented at leading their listeners through a crescendo of emotion and then finally “sticking the landing.” Even if you get nervous when speaking in front of a group, try to leave your listeners with the sense that they have heard a complete message that is a satisfying whole. An easy way to do this is to close with one of the following: A call to action (How can people put your words into practice?), a final thought (give them something to contemplate throughout the week), or a prayer (we should always begin and everything in prayer).
I hope that these thoughts were helpful to you in your own preaching! Do you have any tips to share? I would love to hear them! I’m always trying to improve my preaching. I believe that we can all learn from one another and I would be delighted to connect with you. Leave a comment below or follow me on Twitter @BeckieWrites!
Peace Be With You,