This post also appears on MinistryMatters.com here.
I recently realized something that astounds me: this summer I passed the century mark for sermons preached. Since my first incoherent ramblings about the Letter to the Hebrews during a Homiletics class in seminary to the sermon I’m giving this Sunday, the Holy Spirit (along with my mentors and parishioners) have taught me so much about the craft of preaching. As I look toward the horizon of my next hundred sermons, I’d like to share with you ten things I’ve learned during the first hundred.
1. More than anything, preaching a sermon is an act of trust. I have discovered that the sermons I think are home runs don’t generate nearly as much “press” as the ones that I think are only okay. But every time I give what I think is a mediocre sermon, multiple people come up to me afterwards and tell me how much it spoke to them. Could this possibly be because I decided I needed to trust God more in the preaching of the mediocre sermon than the home run? And in that act of trust I was more open to the movement of the Holy Spirit during delivery? And in that openness I connected more intimately with my listeners? If so, I can conclude one of two things: either I can strive to write only mediocre sermons (nope!), or I can strive to find the place of openness and trust each time I mount the steps to the pulpit. As I move into my next hundred sermons, I ask God to bless me with an ability to trust God’s movement that is independent of my perceived skill.
2. Preaching is not about showing expertise. I learned this lesson thanks to the Rev. Dr. David Lose and the Biblical Preaching Project I participated in at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. Showing yourself to be an “expert” in the pulpit might seem like a good thing to do; after all, your listeners want to know that you know what you’re talking about. But be careful taking this too far. If you actively try to demonstrate your expertise or your fluency with biblical interpretation and theology (or worse, discipleship), then you run the very real risk of causing a complete disconnect between yourself and your listeners. Your demonstration will reinforce in their minds that they aren’t good enough or knowledgeable enough to study the Bible or think theologically (or worse, be disciples). It is not your job as the preacher to be the rock that they hang their faith on. (That’s someone else’s job and he’s way more important than you.) If you’ve been in a congregation long enough, they’ll know you know what you’re talking about. They’ll trust you. Use this trust to show your own vulnerability, the shaky times you’ve had, the moments when God surprised you from an unexpected trajectory. Not displaying expertise does not mean not having any. It just means that it shouldn’t be the takeaway from the sermon. Be vulnerable and you will connect even more with God and with the people.
3. The best sermons are about exactly one thing. I learned this the first month of college when my first three-page paper was returned to me without a grade and the words “too many ideas” scrawled in barely legible professor-script. That semester, Dr. Huber taught me the value of presenting one thought and developing it deeply. Moving this practice to preaching is the best advice I can give. Whether your sermons are ten minutes like mine or forty minutes like the ones my in-laws hear every Sunday, the sermon should still be about one thing. Every sentence should support the main thought. If it doesn’t, cut it. Your listeners will stay with you, and you’ll have more room to say what you need to say. Keeping your sermon to exactly one thing will protect you from the dreaded “greatest hits” sermon; that is, a sermon which says everything a passage of scripture could be about but expands on none of them. Pick an idea and work with it. “Turn the crystal,” to quote my Homiletics professor. After all, you’ll get another crack at the readings in three years.
4. The more specific the more universal. This might seem antithetical, but I assure you it’s not. If your sermon is full of generalities or ideas with no examples to back them up, then your words are more likely to sail over the heads of your listeners. So be specific. Illustrate your point with an example that could very well happen to some of your listeners. Even if the example doesn’t hit home, it will hit closer to home than a bland generalization ever will. For example, a few weeks ago I preached about God finding us (inspired by the parable of the lost sheep). At one point, I said this:
“Perhaps you are holding your mother’s hand as she lies dying. She holds your hand back…until she doesn’t. You don’t think you have any more tears, but you are wrong. Your deep grief reveals not how deeply you loved her, but how deeply you love her, and you realize your love will never become a past tense thing. And God finds you in the continued connection between the living and the dead.”
Preaching through real world examples helps connect to the listeners, but it also serves another important purpose. It gives listeners a model by which to reflect spiritually and theologically about their own experience. Modelling this practice from the pulpit is a good end in itself.
5. Every sermon is about the preacher. You might not think that your sermon is about you because you never mention yourself, but every sermon is about the preacher, no matter the content. Even if you did only a minimal amount of self-reflection, every sermon springs from a mingling of prayer, study, examination, and experience. Oftentimes, my sermons will touch on something I’m wrestling with even if I don’t realize it’s on my mind. In the end, if the sermon doesn’t “preach” (in the sense of resonate) to the preacher, then it won’t preach to anyone else. That being said, I don’t advocate having the preacher be the “hero” of the sermon. Just remember that every sermon is about you whether you want it to be or not.
6. Every sermon should be about the listener. The sermon might be about you, the preacher, but it should also be about the people you’re preaching to. The hardest group to whom to preach is a group you’ve never met before. Once you’ve been in a worshipping community for a while, your sermons will start resonating more and more because you will have gotten to know the people. You’ll know their particular struggles. You’ll know what they’re hungry for. You’ll know how to talk to them. Once you know your listeners, there’s no excuse for a “boilerplate” sermon. Hit them where they live. Offer them enough comfort in your words that they will accept your challenge. Offer them enough challenge so they can grow spiritually. But above all, offer them the Gospel in the way they are most likely to hear it. (That’s what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did, after all.)
7. Every sermon should proclaim the Gospel. This one seems really obvious, but it’s harder to accomplish than you might think. I do not mean here that every sermon needs to be specifically about the lesson from the Gospel you read just before preaching. What I mean is that every sermon must proclaim the good news of the love of God made known in Jesus Christ our Lord. This good news might come in the form of encouragement or comfort or hope; it might come through pointing out God’s presence in the midst of challenging times; it might come from telling the story in a new, enlightening way. No matter from where you take your text, the Gospel can shine from it. As I said, however, it’s harder than you might think. I wrote a story sermon once that ended up being just a story. There was no sermon in it. But I didn’t notice until too late. When you’re done writing your sermon, look back at it, and ask the “Where’s the beef?” question. If you can’t find the “beef” then you’re not done.
8. There’s a difference between a sermon and preaching. A written sermon is like a musical score: the notes are there ready for the orchestra to play them, but until they put bow to string or lips to mouthpiece, the notes are just little black marks on paper. If written sermon is to musical score, then preaching is to making music. The preacher gives life to the words by speaking them. We call it a sermon “delivery” on purpose; God calls preachers to deliver the good news directly to where people “live and move and have their being,” just as the UPS guy delivers packages to your front door. This happens most successfully when spoken aloud. Not only that, but the preaching moment is sacred because during it the Holy Spirit rides the preacher’s breath to the listeners’ ears and down into their hearts.
9. Preaching is theatre. Imagine two preachers have written the same sermon text. One reads it in a drowsy monotone. His head is down, and he’s giving off the general air that he just wants to get through it so he can get on with his day. There’s a good chance half the congregation is checking their smartphones. The other has the text in front of her, but she’s looking up way more than she’s looking down. Her voice rises and lowers in volume; she hammers some words and lets silences linger between thoughts so they can sink in. Perhaps she uses the pulpit as a prop or gestures with her hands at appropriate times. She is engaged in the preaching moment and her whole body is part of the delivery. There’s a good chance the smartphones are safely in pockets and purses. You can hear a pin drop. The congregation is hanging on every word. Delivery matters. I’m not telling you to try to win an Oscar every time you mount the pulpit; just remember that how you speak is just as important as what you say.
10. Preaching is a gift. Have you ever stopped to think just how blessed you are to have an opportunity to proclaim God’s eternal presence, Christ’s love, and the Holy Spirit’s inspiration to a group of willing listeners week in and week out? The next time you are stuck in the middle of sermon preparation, think what a gift God has given you with this opportunity. Then remember God has also given you the gifts to preach the Gospel through words. Thank God for all the gifts in your life, and then get back to work using them.