What are the things a pastor is supposed to consider when preaching in order to present a good sermon?
Everyone knows good preaching - when they hear it. The problem often is, "good preaching" is rarely defined but is almost always based on each person's preferences. The pastor, who normally goes through some sort of training, whether Bible school and/or seminary, is taught how to preach. Almost always, "good preaching" is defined by the instructor and the reference books he uses.
Homiletics is a technical term for preaching. I had three homiletics professors for the master's degree program and two in the doctoral program. The first three seminary professors had very different philosophies and methodologies for preaching and they differed from the guest lecturers' views. They did, however, agree on the basics of communication skills (voice projection, speed, volume, posture, eye contact, etc.). It must be said that preaching is a form of communication. One can preach but be a terrible communicator or one can be an excellent communicator but be a miserable preacher.
In three of the churches I served, there were many armchair professionals who insisted on critiquing (often a good thing), criticizing (often a bad thing), or telling me how to preach (almost always a bad thing). The toxic people were those who never studied the subject of preaching or learned the art of communication or had any experience in either. They had their preferences and insisted their pastor fit their expectations. For example, one red-in-the-face member of a church came storming down the aisle after a sermon to tell me that I preached like a Baptist (as if all Baptist pastors preach the same). We were in a Presbyterian church and he did not like it. He never did define what he meant. He just knew my preaching style was unacceptable. Another time, an elder told me my preaching was miserable. Why? For one, I ended sentences with prepositions. Unacceptable! He also wanted me to preach just like the previous pastor with university level vocabulary; even down to mimicking the previous man's West Virginia accent.
That armchair professional and the other elders embarked on a mission to make me the best preacher ever. There was at least one problem. They had not defined what good preaching was, let alone what best preaching was, and they had no professional training in either preaching or communication. They did know that they wanted me to preach like their favorite preachers and they each had one who was about as different from the others as you could get.
They did me a favor, though. It provoked me to go back and get my doctorate, take additional classes in preaching and communication, and embark on a three-year mission to learn all I could about both subjects and perhaps improve in the skill and art of "good" preaching.
By the end of those three years, I had read well over fifty books, subscribed to several magazines, read journal articles, evaluated famous and popular preachers, studied well-known sermons of those good ol' dead guys (and some living ones too), and took copious notes on everything. I invited the elders to use a sermon evaluation sheet and take regular opportunities to critique the preaching. They never did. Three different types of my sermons were recorded and sent to twelve solid preachers whom the elders liked and asked for their input. That was not too profitable because even those men disagreed about what was good, bad, or needed improvement.
I can say that there was indeed an improvement! About a 5% improvement, if one could actually measure it that way. Toward the end of my term in that particular church, one elder said with contempt that in my five years in the pulpit he never once got anything out of the messages. Wow! In his opinion, every single one of the 240 messages was a failure. On our last Sunday, another elder told me that he would never cross the street to hear me preach.
From this rigorous time of training, I put together the main points from all the preaching resources. Thankfully there was quite a bit of redundancy, otherwise, this blog would be about a thousand or so pages.
The first point of all this is to relate how difficult preaching really is for the majority of pastors. It's tough! The second point is to share what things a pastor is "supposed" to consider when putting together a sermon or message, and what is supposed to be done while communicating the message. The ideas and lessons from the various teachers, pastors, and books make it clear that their ways for crafting a sermon and delivering the message are what the preacher is supposed to do. They are certainly helpful and informative but much of these requirements could never be placed on the level of God's Law come down from the mountaintop. Nevertheless, the material below makes an excellent guide and perhaps a fine rubric for checking and improving one's sermons and communication skills. It could also serve to show those arm-chair critics how their own expectations or demands measure up to the more professional standards as opposed to personal opinions.
Perhaps, for you, this might give a better understanding of what a decent pastor goes through to prepare his messages? So, with that, I give you a summary of those must-have considerations:
1. Read the Scripture with expression to the congregation.
2. Read the Scripture with clarity.
3. Give an introduction that:
a. Engages and gets the attention of the audience.
b. Lays the foundation for the sermon theme.
c. Makes the sermon theme obvious.
d. Arouses their interest
e. Touches upon a need directly or indirectly.
f. Is relevant.
g. Includes a ministry sentence (a summary and the main point for what the expected response should be and an element of appeal or challenge).
4. Make sure this is an expository sermon.
Which is “Bible-centered preaching. That is, it is handling the text ‘in such a way that its real and essential meaning as it existed in the mind of the particular Biblical writer and as it exists in the light of the overall context of Scripture is made plain and applied to the present-day needs of the hearers.’” (S. Greidanus)
5. Concentrate on the original message from the Bible text but recognize the discontinuity of progressive revelation, kingdom history, and culture.
6. Does the sermon recognize the overarching continuity between the Old and New Testaments?
a. One faithful God.
b. One covenant people.
7. Focus on the goal of the original Biblical text.
8. “To understand a text is to understand the question behind the text, the question that called the text into being” (Richard Palmer).
a. Redefine the specific issue
b. Search for the underlying principle
9. The form of the sermon needs to be like this:
a. The main point of the sermon is clearly derived from the main point of the text.
b. “An oral topical sentence must do far more. It must state the idea clearly, tersely, descriptively and formulaically so that not only does the thought become memorable by being part of a larger pattern; it must also have an intrinsic memorable quality in its own right, such as sharply descriptive nouns and verbs that make the milestones of the speech’s progression stand out clearly” (Wilbur Ellsworth).
c. The sub-points of the sermon flow naturally from the main point and coordinate with each other. And the transitions are fluid, clear, obvious, and helpful.
d. The content of the sub-points are adequately developed?
e. The content includes:
i. The person and work of Jesus Christ
ii. Salvation by grace in Christ alone
iii. An appeal to the conscience about sin and guilt
iv. A focus upon eternity
v. Accountability to God
vi. A call for a specific response of repentance and faith
f. The biblical passage is explained adequately.
g. It is obvious that good exegesis has taken place.
h. The big themes of the Bible (God’s rule, covenant, grace, people, plan of redemption, His glory and the fulfillment of all these in Jesus Christ) is reflected upon or touched by the sermon?
i. The original message to the original audience informs our current circumstances.
j. The illustrations help the audience get the point.
k. Don’t use illustrations that detract from the main point.
l. The message reflects the dialogical nature of God and his people.
m. The sermon conveys the sense that the audience is one with the original hearers of the Scripture passage?
n. It employs a gracious invitation.
o. It admonishes with sober warnings.
p. It preaches perseverance to believers in Jesus.
a. Is application spread throughout the text or is it placed at the end?
b. “What application does, then, is to 'attach' to the simple interpretation of the passage the meaning for the congregation today in the context of their modern life situations…[w]hat this means is that not only must the preacher study the passage for its historical/grammatical meanings, but he also must:
i. Study the present situation(s) that the congregation faces,
ii. Study the various members of the congregation, who are facing it,
iii. Abstract the truth or principle that the Holy Spirit intended to teach from the passage,
iv. Discover how the writer applied this principle to his readers, and
v. Do the same today for his own congregation in their modern setting.” (Jay Adams)
c. Does the application flow from the biblical text itself?
d. Does the application address people where they live?
i. Is it interesting?
ii. Is it for today?
iii. Does it address issues of the day?
e. Is the application Gospel-centered (not moralistic), flowing from the grace of God in Christ?
f. Is the application specific, pointed and aimed at the conscience?
g. What difference will this sermon make?
h. Does it commend the Good News of God’s grace to the hearers?
i. Does the sermon take into consideration the various needs of the hearers in the congregation?
i. Unbelievers who are both ignorant and unteachable
ii. Some who are teachable, but yet ignorant
iii. Some who have knowledge, but are not as yet humbled…
iv. Some who are humbled
v. Some who believe…
vi. Some who have fallen…
vii. That the congregation is made up of mingled people (William Perkins in the Art of Prophecy)
j. Be careful not to communicate that only the application of the text is relevant. “…[A]pplication is based on a proper comprehension of the passage’s meaning and they will probably not take the application to heart unless this is clear to them” (Dr. Robert Stuart).
11. The conclusion of the message:
a. Does it flow from the sermon?
b. Is it a well-rounded wrap-up of the sermon?
c. Is the purpose of the sermon obviously achieved?
d. Is the focus of the conclusion appropriate to the sermon?
e. Does it challenge the audience to think or do something specific?
12. Delivery and style:
a. Will it be effective by what is said and how it is said?
b. “Apart from life-related, biblical content we have nothing worth communicating; but without skillful delivery, we will not get our content across to the congregation. In order of significance, the ingredients making up a sermon are thought, arrangement, language, voice, and gesture. In priority of impressions, however, the order reverses” (Dr. Haddon Robinson).
c. Preach in understandable vocabulary (be careful about using difficult theological terms unless you define them):
i. Is there varied and imaginative language?
ii. Is there sense appeal?
(a) Is it visually effective?
(b) Does it describe and employ the senses of taste, smell, see, hear, or feel? (Jay Adams)
(c) Is there a vivid description?
(d) Does it paint a picture for them?
d. Are the verbs active or passive? Is there action?
e. Consider the verbal aspects:
i. Use good voice inflection and clarity
ii. Make sure the volume is varied and appropriate
iii. Is the voice clear and easy to listen to?
iv. Are there fresh or abundant metaphors, similes or good use of pictorial language?
v. Is there unnecessary verbiage?
vi. Does it respect everyone in the congregation, all levels of physical, mental and spiritual maturity?
f. Announce your points in the sermon only if it will help the audience understand or more clearly remember the Holy Spirit’s purpose of the text (Jay Adams).
g. Is the sermon animated conversation?
h. Use appropriate body language that is consistent with the topic and words.
i. Do not lean on the pulpit.
ii. Do not use any habitual physical actions that can be distracting.
i. Is the preacher's overall appearance attractive or distracting?
j. Use facial gestures and expressions that are appropriate.
k. Have good eye contact with the audience.
l. Have a commanding presence in the pulpit.
m. Is the sermon oral English or written English (Jay Adams)?
i. Oral English is more concrete, looser, less grammatically exact, more repetitious, more limited in use of vocabulary – especially in terms or jargon. It must be comprehended at the speaker’s rate – the first time over.
ii. Written English can be more compressed and concise, more technical.
iii. Is the sermon going to be presented in oral English or bookish English?
n. Consider the length of the sermon (25-35 minutes maximum):
i. “The true way to shorten a sermon is to make it more interesting” (H. W. Beecher)
ii. “Brevity may be the soul of wit, but the preacher is not a wit. A Christianity of short sermons is a Christianity of short fibre.” (P. T. Forsyth)
o. Is it relevant? Is the congregation involved?
i. Does it address general needs?
ii. Address the whole person?
iii. Use dialogue?
iv. Use concrete and vivid language?
p. Is there a love and zeal for preaching that at times can be described as a mania (Acts 26:24; Jn. 10:20; 2 Cor. 5:13)?
q. Are you being authentic or trying to mimic someone else?
r. Take into consideration the manner of power preaching (Acts 4:29; 20:31):
i. Submit to the Holy Spirit in prayer
ii. Be full of zeal, intensity and boldness
iii. Proclaim with fear toward God and fearlessness toward man
iv. Anticipate God’s protection in the midst of suffering and opposition to the Word
v. Expect the Word to grow by God’s sovereign appointment
vi. Preach with compassion and tears (Acts 20:19,31)
a. Speak with confidence and boldness
b. Speak with fire, conviction and unction
c. Will the sermon move or persuade the audience?
d. Was the audience taken into consideration? Think analytically about the audience:
i. How much do they know about the message?
ii. What, if any, are some misconceptions and/or prejudices that they may hold?
iii. What are some of the obstacles that may intrude in:
(a) Communicating the message,
(b) Persuading people of its truth, and/or
(c) Motivating them to act on it?
iv. Are there any reasons why I might turn them off?
v. What technical terms will I need to use and to explain?
vi. How would I best illustrate the truth to this group?
(a) What are the best areas from which to draw illustrations?
(b) What sort of language should I use with this group to make my illustrations clear?
(c) What do I need to say in order to demonstrate how to implement the action(s) required?
vii. Is the audience varied enough in the above matters that I shall have to approach the question from more than one angle?
viii. Given the general spiritual condition of the congregation, how much truth can I communicate, and to what depth?
ix. Is my problem with this group fundamentally to give them information, to persuade them to believe or disbelieve something (or both), or to get them to do what they already know and believe? Or is it a combination of two or more of the above (Jay Adams)?
e. Does the sermon consider that the people might be expectantly waiting for God to speak to their problem with it or does it merely analyze the scriptural passage (Jay Adams)?
f. Does the sermon teach anything?
i. It is good, solid doctrine?
ii. Does it touch the mind?
iii. What will they know they did not know before?
iv. Will their faith be challenged?
g. Does the sermon offer hope?
i. Does it touch their lives?
ii. Does the sermon awaken wonderment?
iii. Is the preaching fresh and in a surprising way?
iv. Does it underscore the victory of the Kingdom of grace in our moment of time?
v. Does it tell them what is expected of them?
h. What kind of emotional response might the sermon evoke?
i. Is it warm or cold?
ii. Is there a sense of trust, courage, peace or guilt?
iii. Does it convey trust, assurance, confidence, and love?
iv. Does it convey a sense of intimacy?
v. Does it speak to their personal relationship with Jesus Christ?
vi. Is it moving?
i. Is this an oral speech or a sermon from God? Or is it reading literacy? “Orality requires more use of illustrations, comparison, contrast and figurative language to stir the imagination and set up mental pictures in order for the listening ear to take in and process what is being heard” (Wilbur Ellsworth).
j. If after people have listened to the sermon, will they come away anxious about themselves or reflecting on themselves (D.M. Lloyd-Jones)?
k. Does the sermon address the total person, so that the hearer becomes involved and knows that he has been dealt with and addressed by God through the preacher (D.M. Lloyd-Jones)?
l. Will this sermon humble the sinner?
i. Will this sermon exalt the Savior?
ii. Will this sermon promote holiness?
iii. Does this sermon glorify God?
14. Other considerations:
a. Does this sermon have the three essentials of truth, clarity, and passion (Dr. G. Campbell Morgan)?
b. Does the sermon do justice to and profitable for the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:20, 27)?
c. Be sure that in all the sermon, from Old Testament and from the New – Christ and His death and resurrection condition everything else that is said (Jay Adams).
d. Is the sermon Spirit-guided (Jer. 1:9, 17: 26:2)?
e. Is the sermon faithful to God (“…let him who has my word speak my word faithfully” Jer. 23:16, 28; Ez. 13:2,3)?
f. Does the sermon “disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed?” (Rev. Chad Walsh) or “break a hard heart and heal a broken heart” (John Newton)?
g. Does it add to God’s Word (like the Pharisees) or subtract from it (like the Sadducees)?
h. Is there exposition, application and exhortation in the sermon (ex: Deut. 31:30; 32:44; Deut. 1:5; 4:1; 5:1-21; 8:1; 10:12ff)?
i. Does the sermon aim for corporate edification, unity, maturity and growth (Eph. 4)?
“…the explanation and application of the Word to the congregation of Christ in order to produce corporate preparation for service, unity of faith, maturity, growth and upbuilding.” (Rev. Peter Adam; p. 83).
j. Is this sound preaching or sound doctrine? “To be sound is to be healthy; healthy doctrine is doctrine, which is not only true but also productive of godliness. Sound doctrine is healthy teaching; that is, it changes people’s lives” (Peter Adam, p. 84).
k. Will this sermon help people to understand and receive Jesus Christ and Him crucified?
l. Recall that preaching well is not the objective, but rather the means to the end.
m. Is it theologically weighty and also pastorally appropriate?
n. Is the sermon tied to literacy or orality? “…when a listener to a speech or sermon is compelled to take careful and copious notes to comprehend and retain what the speaker has said, the result, whether consciously or not, is to return communication from orality to literacy as quickly as possible” (Wilbur Ellsworth).
o. Don’t make the mistake of preaching the Gospel and hardly anything else but the Gospel, nor preach the rest of the counsel of God as if it were unrelated to the Gospel (Jay Adams).
p. Don’t preach in a way that resembles the lecture format by which aspiring young theologs almost exclusively are trained in seminaries. It may be fine for theological halls (at times), but it is not fine for the pulpit – IT IS NOT PREACHING! (Jay Adams).
q. Be careful not to “inadvertently convey the impression that the key to understanding the mind of God is found in the acquisition of an arsenal of highly technical and scientific skills. Over time men may come to regard the scriptures the way a biology student regards his proverbial frog; as a thing to dissect, rather than a source from which to hear God’s voice.” (A. G. Azurdia III)
r. Has regard being given to the “three essential principles of apostolic ministry… the message, method, and means for ministry ordained by Jesus Christ? The divine message? Jesus Christ. The divine method? Authoritative proclamation. The divine means? The power of the Spirit of God” (A. G. Azurdia III).
s. Which style of preaching is this (Reformational, Puritanical, or Redemptive-Historical)?
i. “For the Reformers, the whole sermon was application; what was added, attached, or folded in was done naturally, organically, as an integral part of the whole. From start to finish, as they interpreted the Scriptures for the congregation, at the same time, they preached what the text had to say about the people sitting before them. Application was made all along.
ii. In contrast, the Puritans exposited the text…they tacked on at the end of the sermon various and sundry ‘uses’ or ‘improvements on the text’ by way of application” (Jay Adams).
iii. The form of the Puritan sermon would be Declaration, the Explanation, and the Application. The first two divisions were to convince the reason, while the last division was aimed at warming the heart’s affections into accepting the doctrine of the first division… The preacher’s aim should be first to convince the understanding and then to engage the heart. Light first, then heat” (R. Bruce Bickel).
t. What is the aim? “If the aim of Christian preaching is more than intellectual enlightenment and moral reformation, but is, instead, the thorough-going transformation of people dead in trespasses and sins, then Christian preachers must rest their dependence solely upon the Spirit of the living God because such a transformation requires a power of an altogether supernatural kind. Stated simply, the power of the Holy Spirit is the sine qua non of gospel preaching, the one thing without which nothing else matters” (Azurdia III).
u. Is the sermon merely expounding the text or does it preach Jesus – a living person with a living voice? (Wilbur Ellsworth).
v. Is the sermon a dissected transcript of the Biblical text rearranged into a lawyer’s brief with propositional truths? If so, is this faithful to the Scripture (Don Wardlaw)?
i. “If the text ‘makes its point’ in story form then we ought to seriously consider constructing a sermon that is faithful to the content and the form of the biblical text…” (D. Wardlaw).
ii. “…the goal is to study carefully the form of the text and how it, in its literary context, plays its part in carrying the message to its intended effect with the hearers…the example of miracle stories which ‘were designed to evoke a wow! from listeners. The wise preacher will guess that a turgid apologetic for miracles or, worse, any rational explanation of miracles may scuttle the sense of wow and, therefore, be homiletically inappropriate. If a passage wants to provoke amazement, it would seem homiletically respectful to aim at the effect” (David Buttrick).
i. Allegorize – searching beneath the literal meaning of a passage for the ‘real’ meaning.
ii. Spiritualize – discarding the earthly, physical, historical reality the text speaks about and crosses the gap with a spiritual analogy of that historical reality.
iii. Imitate – seeing biblical figures as merely individuals whose qualities we are to shun or mimic. It “tends to transform the biblical author’s description into a prescription for today” (S. Greidanus).
iv. Moralize – “…means drawing moral inferences, usually things to do or become” (Keck).
v. Apply “[u]nless you are convinced that it is the intention of the Scripture that it be applied in a certain way, no suggestion as to application can be confidently advanced” (Douglas Stuart).
15. Personal considerations:
a. Through this sermon, do I serve God in Christ and the people well?
b. Is there humility, recognizing that in myself I am unable to speak for God? (Ex. 4:10ff)
c. Am I serving biblically?
d. “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens, wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” (Isa. 50:4)
e. Am I aware that it is God who makes me competent and sufficient to the task (2 Cor. 2:16; 3:5-6; 4:7)
f. Do I recall that I am powerless and that it is the Spirit and the Word that is effective?
g. Is the sermon preached from the heart to hearts?
h. Am I preaching this sermon as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men (Richard Baxter)?
i. Remember that “every passion in the preacher does not constitute unction. While it does not expel intellectual activity, authority, and will, it superfuses these elements of force with the love, the pity, the tenderness, the pure zeal, the seriousness, which the topics of redemption should shed upon the soul of a ransomed and sanctified sinner” (Dabney).
Granted, hardly any pastor will use these all of these supposed requirements. As I said earlier, they can be instructive and helpful if considered and applied, but ultimately it is the faithfulness of a godly preacher to God's biblical text, moved by the power of the Holy Spirit that will deliver a good message to God's people.