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I’ve met some people and listened to others that seem to make sermonizing simple. Surely, God has uniquely gifted some people to walk onto a stage and wax eloquent for 45 minutes without a single note and seemingly little preparation. Francis Chan has this gift. I’ve seen him decide on the platform (through prayer) what passage he was preaching from and then knock one out of the park. But quite honestly, those guys are few and far between.
For most pastors, me included, preaching a great sermon typically requires a great amount of work. I actually love the process of sermon writing and sermon delivery. I love preaching. It’s what I’m called to do. I think there are some pastors who read Peter on the day of Pentecost, Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount or Francis Chan at a conference, and think, “Well if they can do it like that I can too.” But again, I think the people who can do that and do it great are few and far between.
As I was thinking about great sermons, I started thinking about all the things that go into it. Sure, you can do all these things and still not be a gifted communicator, but for those of us who are called to preach, I think these are 7 things (7 is God’s perfect number right?) that when put together, will usually make up a great sermon. (And by great I don’t mean the people loved it, I mean that it was effective)
1. Passion — Passion doesn’t mean that you have to rant and rave but it does mean that you should show some conviction about what your speaking to. I’m a sermon junkie. When I’m not preaching them, I’m usually listening to them or watching them. When I workout I don’t listen to music, I listen to preachers. It’s a sickness I know. I told my wife the other day, if I’m not interested with the communicator in the first 5 minutes, I usually don’t keep listening.
It’s the person not the preaching that will keep people listening at first. You don’t have to preach like someone else, but you need to figure out how to preach with passion within your own personality. Change your voice inflection. Preach with enthusiasm. When it comes to delivery, this one thing alone is what I personally look for in a communicator. “Are they passionate about what they are presenting?”
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2. Prayer — I didn’t include this because I was supposed to, I included it because it is the life blood to our sermon preparation. I think sometimes as pastors we can easily forget to pray. We pray a lot as pastors, and I don’t mean in a disciplined way. We are the ones who are always asked to pray for the meal. We pray with people in the lobby. We pray over the requests that come in. We pray in the worship service. We pray in small groups. We pray with our staff. Prayer can easily become something we do instead of part of who we are. Prayer needs to be at the forefront and foremost in our sermon planning. If God’s Word is the source of our preaching, then God should be the source that we seek to lead us where in His Word we should preach.
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3. Planning — I used to be a Saturday Night Special sermon writer. I’m gonna say something that someone needs to hear. When it comes to sermon writing, some pastors need to stop claiming that their laziness is God’s Spirit at work. Yes, there are times God throws a curve ball and you have to change your sermon last minute, but typically, pastors who delay their sermon preparation are relying on the Holy Spirit out of desperation not diligence. I truly believe that planning honors God and God honors planning.
I don’t care how far you work ahead, but a pastor should be working ahead on sermons? Planning what passages God is leading them to preach from. What illustrations can support the message? What props could be used on the platform to communicate this truth better? What songs best support this message? The further out you start planning your sermons the longer you have for God to speak into that message.
If you are currently planning during the week of your sermon, try this simple trick to get ahead. The next time you have a Sunday where you’re not preaching, spend time that week acting as if you were and write a sermon for the following Sunday. The next week your sermon is already done, or at least the nuts and bolts of it, and you can work on the following Sunday. All the sudden you are two Sundays ahead in sermon prep. Right now we plan seven weeks ahead on outlines and I write a manuscript of the message the week of. Being ahead in my sermon planning has been the single greatest liberator for me in sermon preparation.
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4. People — Any sermon that is not focused on the needs of the people is not worth preaching. I’ve preached many a sermon to serve my own needs before. I’ve preached many a sermon to please people before. I’ve found that it’s only when I focus on the needs of the people that I preach anything worth listening to. To know the needs of the people you need to know the pulse of the church. One of the best ways to know the pulse of your church is to read all the prayer requests every week. Listen to what your small group leaders are saying. Watch the Facebook feed. Every year we do a “You Choose Sunday” where we let people pick the songs we sing and turn in questions for me to answer. I’ve done several sermon series that were born from seeing the questions that were coming in for that week. If I just preach what I feel like and not what the people need I may as well be preaching to an empty room.
5. Purpose — What do you want people to do with your message? This is often times for me one of the hardest questions to answer. If there is not a next step for the people to take then what was the point of preaching the message in the first place? Yes, there could be a number of different next steps depending on the stage of life and faith that person is in, but you need to have a clearly defined purpose for your message. When your done, and you’ve just presented God’s Word in a clear and compelling way, what do you want people to walk away and do? This doesn’t have to be cute or clever either. Don’t over think it. I often times challenge people to “pray this prayer every day” or “memorize this verse” that has to do with the message. It can be something simple that connects God’s Word to their heart. Finding purpose in a sermon doesn’t have to be painful for you it just needs to be practical for them.
6. Precision — This is where a lot of the hard work pays off. When you deliver a sermon, if you are not true to the text then why have the text to begin with? Yes, there is room for interpretation on some things in Scripture that maybe you or I should agree on, but we need to be precise on our dividing of God’s Word. Most of us get paid to do what our parishioners don’t have the time to do: i.e. Find out cultural context, date, time and setting. Look up the meaning of Greek or Hebrew words and read what other great scholars and theologians say about the passage. If God’s gifted me with the ability to preach, I have the passion for it, I’ve spent time in prayer, put a plan in place, considered the people and found a purpose in which to preach this one sermon, I better be sure that I preach with precision this passage God has laid before us. Will I make mistakes? Sure! I’ve preached some sermons I hope no one ever hears how I interpreted it before, but I want to do my best every week to rightly divide God’s Word to His people.
7. Power — This is the one I have no control over really. This is the part that I cannot generate and cannot manipulate. This is the part that I beg God for every single week. “Lord, send YOUR power!” Acts 14:1 says that Paul and Barnabas preached with such power that a great number of people became believers. Peter preached with such power that the people at Pentecost were cut to the core and asked, “What do we do?” If my words are not laced with God’s power then my words are empty.
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There are a great many more things we could say on each of these points, but I think they truly are seven key things to preaching a great sermon. Notice, only one of these had to do with the actual delivery of the message…passion! Every other part of a great sermon is either outside of my control or happens before I hit the platform. Too often we focus on the platform without the preparation. We need to remember that great sermons typically require a great amount of work.
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