How Can I Strengthen My Preaching?


A “Morning Worship Opinion Survey” used in hundreds of churches across the United States reveals that laypersons rank sermons number one among the activities at which they want their pastors to excel.

Why is preaching so important? The positive changes preaching produces in society and in the quality of individual lives is not available elsewhere. History offers countless illustrations of that assertion. An example of societal change: Listen to the recorded sermons of America’s pulpit giants during the 1940s and 1950s. Like thousands of tiny jackhammers, their prophetic words chipped away at the crumbling bricks in the wall of racism. Martin Luther King’s oratorical excellence did not produce new civil rights laws because his were the first words on this topic. Thousands of preachers had for twenty years laid the foundation on which his tall sermon columns suddenly raised the roof of revolutionary change.

An example of individual change: An anonymous man tells of his painful experience at age twenty-seven. A car-train wreck killed his parents and an infant nephew. “Nothing in life up to that point had struck such a devastating blow,” he says. “I sobbed until most people, even me, thought I would never stop. I did not consciously blame God, but that thought must have been in my subconscious. When the minister at the funeral explained how this was not God’s fault or God’s doing, I breathed a sigh of relief. The pastor’s remarks `rang true.’ I grew up in the church, and I guess I expected the church to help me. It did through that sermon.”

Ten Steps to Pulpit Power

Belief in word power is the irreplaceable foundation on which effective preaching stands. Without that conviction, pastors are seldom motivated to learn the principles that power the mystical servanthood by which the Word of God speaks through pulpit words. Ten of those principles are as follows:

1. Let prayer power your preaching. Pastors who touch the hearts of people must first, and continuously, touch the heart of God in prayer and meditation. When the listeners saw the boldness and eloquence of Peter and John, “they marveled, and they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13 Amplified Bible). If you are with Jesus in private prayer, Jesus is far more likely to be with you in public pulpits.

2. Read sermons that connect with contemporary people. If you want to play tennis well, take lessons from people who win often. Read books of quality sermons. Get on mailing lists to receive sermons by pastors whose churches contain numerous age twenty-five to forty-five young adults.

3. Study the famous master preachers Great painters do not imitate the masters, but trying to learn the principles by which those legends created their masterpieces helps painters develop their own unique styles.

Dissecting Charles Allen’s sermons, for example, tells you that he begins by stating one clear, brief, biblical truth. Under each of two, three, or four sub-points, he gives (a) a principle or truth, (b) one or more bright, contemporary illustrations (often humorous, these are either negative examples of someone’s personal pain when she or he did not live by that truth, or positive examples of human greatness by applying that truth, or both), and (c) a brief reference in one or two sentences that drives home the central point by referring back to the original scripture (sometimes with another scripture on the same subject).

Fred Craddock’s sermons show a different skeleton. He connects with the Bible by telling a story that creates an image that creates a feeling. Because images connect with the mind in ways that logic cannot, this method instantly links the biblical truth to personal insight-without consciously traveling through rational thinking processes. Craddock’s sermons are difficult to outline because they follow an almost invisible formula that looks something like this. He says (a) What? (b) So what? (c) For instance! He first hits the text playfully, often humorously. Then, he touches it seriously. Alternating humor and seriousness, his scheme is not far from that of a stand-up comedian, who often transmits profound truth under a cloak of humor. Weaving Bible images with human images of humor and dead seriousness pulls feelings up from the listener’s consciousness-feelings that lead to insights and make the Bible “come alive.”

4. Study the art of storytelling and illustrating. Paul told Timothy that his primary task was “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2
Timothy 2:15, KJV). Unless it comes in small pieces, the Bible cannot get through the small openings in our minds. That is what preaching accomplishes. Good sermons do not bundle the truth; they divide it, with illustrations. How well preachers do that determines whether attendees will rise from worship strengthened or awaken from it refreshed, after a good snooze.

5. Study contemporary audience-involvement techniques. Some pastors increase participation by printing a bare-bones outline of their sermon on a one-half sheet in the worship bulletin. Such sheets are excellent teaching tools that focus attention by listing two to four major points and a couple of subpoints under each (many of which include a scripture reference or quotation). Like a road map, printed sermon skeletons (a) help people enjoy the trip, (b) keep them from getting lost, (c) tell them that this trip illustrates a biblical truth, and (d) encourage them by indicating that this trip has an ending. Laypersons, most of whom are accustomed to training sessions that use flip charts or electronically projected outlines, feel right at home with these brief sermon outlines.

6. Remember your sponsor. When King Zedekiah brought Jeremiah up from the dungeon in a time of national crisis, he questioned him secretly, asking, “Is there any word from the Lord?” (Jeremiah 37:17). Most people are asking that question when they look up at a pulpit. Trying to connect with the audience through illustrations from contemporary culture, messengers sometimes forget why people are here. Knowing that preaching involves telling the truth of God from the Word of God, they expect more than sociology, psychology, or a second-class commentary on current events. They expect to hear from the sponsor.

7. Feed a balanced diet. In observing America’s megachurches, Lyle Schaller says that most sermons fit into one of six categories:
“God loves you and how you can love the Lord with all your heart, mind, and soul.
• How to get from Monday to Friday by following Christ.
• Teaching sermons on the basic beliefs of Christianity designed for newcomers to the faith and adults who did not learn much about the faith when they were children.
• What the Bible says about a specific problem the listener brought to church today.
• How Christians bear one another’s burdens.
• The transformational power of the Gospel for those who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” [The Seven-Day A-Week Church by Lyle E. Schaller (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992), p. 95]

Using the taxonomy above or a list from some other source, you can profit from scanning last year’s sermon subjects. Your favorite topic may appear on that paper trail with embarrassing frequency. Planning your sermon subjects several months in advance can protect against hobbyhorse homiletics (riding one subject until the audience is ready to drop).

8. Preach Christ. Frontier preachers who fueled America’s eighteenth-century religious awakening called for a spiritual connection with Christ through faith, not just increased efforts to follow religious rules and traditions. Similar “re-Christing” of the biblical message is continually necessary. Technological breakthroughs include a laser device for scanning latent fingerprints. Through this process, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police detected a forty-year-old fingerprint on a postcard written during World War II. Body oils and perspiration leave traces that respond to laser light. When photographed, variation in color helps to determine the age of the prints. Good preaching does the same thing. By focusing the laser of attention on the printed page and photographing it through human need, a preacher recreates and spreads the fragrance of Christ (2 Cor. 2:14).

9. Deliver it alive. People who grew up watching gifted TV personalities define effective spoken communication differently than
their parents did Preaching that connects with young adults does not sound like a read manuscript or a memorized speech. Spiritually beneficial sermons come across “live and in person,” from the speaker’s heart. The messenger’s style, not just the message, moves God’s help and hope across the bridge from pulpit to pew.

10. Keep it short! Voltaire said that the secret of being a bore is to tell everything. After a long, pedantic first paragraph, Paul writes. “Of these things we cannot speak now in detail” (Hebrews 9:5). Today’s wise preachers heed that tip. Great sermons climb in momentum and stop when they reach the top. As one preacher said, “few of my sermons are immortal, so I try to avoid making them eternal.” You may protest that some charismatic and evangelical preachers keep going for forty minutes. Yes, but typical mainline attendees do not sit still for that. They believe that effective worship can happen in sixty minutes and preachers win few games in the overtime.

Not Available at Stores

During the 1960s, many scholars predicted that sermons would become obsolete by the close of the century-replaced by the counseling office. Those naive prophecies failed to understand that sermons produce positive change in individuals and society not available from any other source. The sermon was not dead but merely sleeping. Or, perhaps, merely sleepy?