By Mark Blackburn
It’s late Saturday night. After a week of seeking God and agonizing you finally know what you are going to preach in the morning. The only problem is you now have to develop that great idea into a sermon. The two questions preachers wrestle with most often are what should I preach and how should I preach it?
Sermons can take many forms. Typically, sermons are classified into three broad categories: topical, textual, and expository. Each of these categories can then be broken down into a myriad of smaller classifications. Every variation has its own unique development methodology. Because of the individuality of the preacher as well as the unique makeup of each audience no two sermons are ever alike.
There are, however, essentials that should be in every biblical sermon. Regardless of whether a preacher chooses to preach topical, textual, or expository sermons, or regardless of whether the preacher started with the text or found a preachable idea and then found a text to support that idea, there are four elements that must always be present in an effective sermon. Before launching into the four specific elements, a disclaimer needs to be made. The leading of the Spirit and anointing in sermon development and delivery are essentials that will not be dealt with here.
The first essential element of every sermon is transformation. The goal of every sermon or lesson must be the transformation of the hearer. Too often sermons are developed with no end goal or purpose in mind. Sermon development should always begin with the question, How do I want the hearers to be changed as a result of the message I want to preach? If you don’t start sermon development with the proper end or outcome in mind, the path the sermon takes will probably lead to the wrong destination or target.
While transfer of information is an important element of every sermon, as we will see below, knowledge in and of itself is never the goal. Knowledge without change accomplishes nothing. A simple yet effective way to help ensure you have the right goal is to use the following statement at the beginning of your sermon preparation: My purpose in preaching this message is to. . . . The desired transformation can take many forms. It can be a change of attitude, a change of heart, or a change of behavior, but preaching should never be just to inform the hearers. Understanding the purpose or desired transformational outcome of your message can radically shape the process of sermon development.
Second, sermons must have information. While this may seem like a given, many sermons fail to leave the hearers with any substance. Ask yourself this question during sermon development: Will the hearers leave knowing any more about God and the Bible than they did when they arrived? The goal is not to show how much you know, but it is in part to educate listeners about the Bible and its truths. Paul stated in Romans 12 that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. If we are going to achieve transformation we must present a biblically sound idea.
As often as possible the preacher should use the main point of a biblical passage as the main point of the sermon. Many times, however, a supporting point in a passage becomes as the main point of the sermon. While this is not necessarily bad, it can often cloud the true meaning of the passage by causing the hearers to think the main point of the passage is actually the supporting point being proclaimed in the sermon. An analogy might be helpful. Kentucky Fried Chicken has a number of items on its menu such as coleslaw, mashed potatoes and gravy, and biscuits, just to name a few. While many people may like KFC’s sides, what they really go to KFC for is the chicken. If you don’t like the chicken at KFC you probably go somewhere else to eat even if you like the sides. Only dwelling on the supporting ideas of a passage without dealing with the main point is similar to serving only the sides and neglecting to give the hearers the main dish.
Third, sermons must have inspiration. While it is true that sermons must have biblically sound information, they also must connect to the heart. The use of illustrations and stories is critical in moving the hearts of people, and it is in this arena that Pentecostal preachers excel. Pentecostal preachefs have long understood the power of the poignant illustration or the moving story. However, we are not just looking to have an emotional impact. The inspiration must be founded upon and directly correlated to the truth of God’s Word that is being presented.
In addition to the inspirational content that may be used. Pentecostal preachers hair long understood the power of passion. Passion is often a key factor in getting and keeping the attention of the hearers, and it frequently helps create the emotional openness which leads to the receptivity of the message by the audience.
In addition to having a trans-formative purpose, information, and inspiration, sermons must also have application. Application is the so what and now what of the sermon. The audience has at least two unasked questions during every sermon: What does this mean to me? and What should I do about it? Application is the preacher telling the audience what to do with the truth that was just presented. It is in essence how to live out what the preacher has said they need to do. Many times a preacher can move people to a point of decision yet leave them clueless on how to enact or live out that decision. Additionally, preachers often preach for an altar call yet never give the congregation any insight on how to actually live out the message on Monday morning.
An example of preaching on evangelism could be illustrative of the need for application. Convincing people they should evangelize the lost is frequently easy. The audience will often flood the altar after a sermon on evangelism. However, getting people to actually tell someone about Jesus is the hard part. Often times it is because we convince people of their need to do something through information or inspiration but never give them the tools to live it out in application.
One of my Bible college professors repeatedly stated that 90 percent of what Jesus did was application and only 10 percent was information. He stated that in modern preaching the percentage was often reversed with 90 percent information and only 10 percent application. Ninety percent application may have been too high of a percentage since other scholars usually cite the percentage of application in Jesus’ ministry at 70 to 80 percent. However, the truth remains the same: we are often information heavy and application light. The old adage is true, Information without application leads to frustration.
There is a myriad of sermon structures that are available. Ultimately, the number of possibilities on developing a sermon is only limited by the number of preachers. Regardless of the particular methodology you utilize for a given sermon, there are four elements that must be in every sermon: transformation, information, inspiration, and application. If you include these your sermon development will be greatly enhanced and will likely be more effective.
There has been much discussion over the years about the distinction between preaching and teaching. Some have exegeted the biblical text and interpreted the use of the various underlying Greek words for preaching and teaching to mean that preaching is what you do in evangelizing the lost and teaching is what you do when communicating to the saved. In this scenario it is both the audience and the content that distinguishes one from the other. Others have stated that it is the delivery that determines the distinction. If you are excited it is preaching and if you are not so excited it is teaching. This is exemplified in a quoted by T. F. Tenney: “Teaching is telling and preaching is yelling.”
In my opinion the distinction can be found in the four elements above. Every sermon or lesson must have transformation as the goal. Sermons and lessons must have information. Sermons and lessons must have inspiration. And sermons and lessons must have application. However, it is the balance of information and inspiration that determines whether you are preaching or teaching. If you are seeking transformation primarily through information I call that teaching. If you are seeking transformation primarily through inspiration, then I call that preaching. Regardless of whether you are preaching or teaching, good development needs each of these four elements. Your audience will both appreciate their inclusion and more likely be changed by the message.
The above article, “Sermon Preparation,” is written by Mark Blackburn. The article was excerpted from the April-June 2014 issue of Forward Magazine.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.