The Art of Preaching

My job rocks. Every Sunday the challenge is to produce a 40 minute presentation of fresh, engaging material based on any passage in the Bible to hundreds of people who are hoping to catch something that will convince them that waking up before noon on a Sunday wasn’t a waste of time.

Preaching gets a bad rap and understandably so. The most common perception people have of “sermons” is that they are long, boring, irrelevant lectures droned out by marginally well-meaning but hopelessly out of touch individuals who had the unfortunate curse of being born in the wrong century.

But preaching is supposed to be an amazing and unique art form, primarily because the goal is not merely information but transformation. You don’t want people to leave saying, “I learned something I didn’t know.” You want them to leave saying, “I must change, and change now.”

There’s also a deeply spiritual dynamic inherent in preaching. The preacher, if he’s worth anything, believes, that because his sermon begins and ends with Scripture, it’s not merely his words, but the words of God coming out of his mouth. He is merely the interpreter, the translator, in a conversation between God and every single person listening. God is guiding the preacher’s words, using them to talk to each person, and connecting his truth to each unique need and circumstance. At its core preaching should be supernatural.

That’s not to say that whatever a preacher says is infallible. Preachers make mistakes all the time, and they can often be downright dangerous. But the goal of the preacher should be to communicate what God wants the people to hear, how God wants them to change, rather than just spouting off his own ideas.

Effective preaching is ultimately a result of the power of God. However, there are a bunch of practical skills preachers must have if they hope to truly engage their audiences. Here are a few I’ve learned:

1) Credibility is everything. What’s important is not that your hearers believe everything you’re saying. What’s important is that they believe that you believe everything you’re saying! Bottom line: If you don’t believe what you’re saying, get off the stage and give it to someone who does. Sadly, there are preachers in America who admit they don’t really believe what they’re preaching, but I guess they can’t find anything else to do at the moment. Nice.

2) Even the President needs… Passion!! I remember hearing Bill Hybels relay a conversation he had with Bono, where Bono told him that there’s one thing his fans expect when U2 hits the stage: energy. I’ve always remembered that. To have life oozing out of you is essential if people are to connect with you. Even if you’re a little nuts once in a while… at least you’re not boring!

3) Be clear. To clarify, be really, really clear. General Colin Powell described his approach to speaking like this: Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. But in order to do that, you gotta know what you’re going to tell them. Dr. Howard Hendricks is famous for saying, “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew.” The reason so many sermons fail so miserably is because no one can follow what the preacher is trying to say. He might crack a few jokes and have a magnetic personality, but that jig will be up really fast if know one, including himself, knows what in the world he’s talking about!

4) Crack a joke, the earlier the better. Laughter is the universal language of connection. Two people don’t even need to speak the same language, but if they can laugh together, a greater bond is possible than through hours of conversation. Don’t make those poor people sit there and listen to you for 30 or 40 minutes (or longer) without saying or doing something funny. They got up and got their kids ready because they trust you have something to say to them – the least you can do is crack them place up once or twice, lighten the mood, and help them engage with you even more.

5) Cut one major point entirely rather than hollowing out two or three major points. I learned this axiom from Dr. Don Sunukjian, my brilliant preaching professor. The idea is this: if you have to cut something due to time, don’t cut sub-point “c” out of points 1 and 2. Just cut all of point 3. If you cut your sub-points, you don’t get the opportunity to drive home your main points, leaving your message shallow. You know what you had to cut, but no one else does, so who don’t worry about it being incomplete. Most people will remember once salient sentence or story more than they’ll be able to recite all three or five of your main points anyway.

6) Use descriptive language instead of generalities. What’s more interesting? To say, “My brother has an old car with a big engine that’s a lot of fun,” or “My brother Matt has got a fire engine red 1967 Mustang with a .302 liter engine that literally sends a chill down your spine when you hit the gas.” It easy to be lazy with language.

7) Use slides sparingly. You’re not giving a lecture on the intricacies of grey matter in the human brain. You’re communicating for transformation, which is hard if you’ve got 85 Power Point slides to get through. Every time you transition a slide the eyes of the audience move off of you and on to your whatever is you’ve written. I want everyone’s eyes on me as much as possible. I limit my “slides” to main points (usually two or three), key verses of Scripture (for those who didn’t bring a Bible), an occasional significant quote, and sometimes a picture.

I love and believe in effective preaching and I think it is still the primary method which serves to transform the hearts of men and women who desperately need the touch of God.  Romans 10:14 says, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?

We who preach just need to get better at it. Thoughts?

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4 thoughts on “The Art of Preaching

  1. Good morning. Important points have been presented here. The only thing that could be added is the need for serious and continuous quality time before the Lord in prayer. Regardless of how skilled one is at speaking or how many scripture verses they can recall from memory, those who are atuned to the Spirit can tell whether or not that person has been spending time in the prayer closet and is truly hearing from God. Acts 4:13 and Acts 6:4 come to mind.

    Blessings always in Jesus name.

  2. I really liked reading this! I also love hearing you preach. Every time I have come, I learn something or hear something I was confused about explained in a way that helps me understand. I definitely feel challenged each Sunday. (I’ve also NEVER been bored)

    One thing I like that you do, but didn’t mention, is the cultural and historical background of the scripture presented. I think most ‘misinterpreted’ scripture became so because the original content or intent was not known/understood. Many times to understand Jesus’ parables, the audience Jesus was addressing needs to be be known and understood.

    I also like knowing/understanding the original language. It just takes understanding the scripture and it’s meaning to an even deeper level.

    There’s my two cents…. 🙂

  3. Hey Tim,

    How do you think hearers should respond if they think the one preaching has said something wrong or poorly? There can be a lot of “cranks” in churches who are quick to criticize.

    Do you have some examples of good ways folks have interacted with you about your preaching, and some not-so-good ways?

    Thanks!

    Bill

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