I have been a pastor for almost a decade. I spend between 12-15 hours each week thinking, researching, and writing before I deliver the first words in my Sunday sermon. The process of writing my sermon goes through a lengthy journey each week. I contemplate several questions from Monday to Friday which force me to edit and re-edit my manuscript. There is no perfect sermon, but a sermon that goes through revisions and asks import questions has a much better chance of communicating with clarity than the self-assured preacher who engages the sermonic task with nothing more than academic lenses.
I have compiled a list of ten questions I ask myself each week at some point or another.
Question #1: Is this language clear? When you write a manuscript ( as I do) you have an opportunity to carefully consider the language you use. I make a habit of reading my sermon out loud which leads me to realize that certain phrases do not convey the idea clearly. A well-written sermon does not necessarily mean a well-delivered sermon. Reading my sermons out loud causes me to re-write and look for other ways to explain a concept or application more clearly.
Question #2: Is there a need to use high theological language in this sermon? Seminary graduates are often tempted to use the best of their training in the wrong environment. People are not listening to you to hear your theological acumen. I am well aware that some in the congregation would be entirely comfortable with words like perichoresis and Arianism. I am not opposed to using high theological discourse. Words like atonement, justification, sanctification are biblical and need to be defined. But extra-biblical terms and ideologies should be employed sparingly. Much of this can be dealt in a Sunday School class or other environments. High theological language needs to be used with great care, and I think it needs to be avoided as much as possible in the Sunday sermon.
Question #3: Can I make this sermon even shorter? As I read my sermons each week, I find that I can cut a paragraph or two easily, or depending on how long you preach, perhaps an entire page. This is an important lesson for new preachers: not everything needs to be said. Shorter sermons–which I strongly advocatea–force you to say what’s important and keep some of your research in the footnotes where it belongs. Preachers need to learn what to prioritize in a sermon so as not to unload unnecessary information on their parishioners.
While in seminary, I once heard a Presbyterian pastor preach the equivalent of three sermons in 55 minutes. I remember thinking, “If he finished now it will be a great sermon.” 40 minutes went by, and I thought, “If he finished his sermon now it will be all right.” After almost an hour I turned to my wife and said, “I pity his congregation.” Mistakes happen. Preachers lose track of time and people are generally very forgiving. But when this is a frequent occurrence it becomes a detriment. Preachers may turn into apologists for the Puritan era when they preached two-hour sermons. My response to this is very simple: “You are no John Owen!”
Question #4: Will my people hear a message about a great God or a convenient God? Sermons that do not lead people to serve God more faithfully have not fulfilled their purpose. The sermon needs to urge people to live more like their Lord and God. They can contemplate God, study or learn more about God (these are important), but if they leave uncertain as to how to serve their God more faithfully, the sermon has not pierced deeply enough. God’s people need to be consecrated by the Word of the Lord, pierced by the sword of the Spirit into action. Communicating only details about God can leave parishioners with a convenient God that demands knowledge but no sacrifice.
Question #5: What can I teach that will increase my people’s knowledge of the Bible? Every preacher must know: your people will remember between 1-5% of your preaching ministry throughout their lives. There is no statistic about this, the evidence is borne by daily experience. Exegesis of a verse in Hebrews will be forgotten perhaps before the sermon is over, but hermeneutical principles will remain if they are communicated succinctly. One common interpretational phrase I have used in many of my sermons is, “The Holy Spirit does not waste his breath.” This phraseb communicates that every detail of the text matters. I want my people to know in every sermon that every word in the Bible is meaningful and put in there for a reason. Many other principles will encourage God’s people to love their Bibles and learn more about it in their own studies and meditations. They may not remember my careful exegesis, but they will remember that the text is to be cherished.
Question #6: Do people follow me from point A to point B and C? I have heard my share of disconnected sermons over the years. Sermons need to have a message that is connected throughout. Themes and illustrations need to be connected to the central message. If illustrations have no purpose in the development of a sermon or if they are only used to get a laugh, people will inevitably leave confused and uncertain of the illustration’s purpose. Preachers need to be very aware of how point A connects to point B. Paragraphs need to smoothly transition, otherwise, you are beginning a new sermon altogether, and people are left wondering what the main point is. This is why manuscript preparation can help with transitional statements. On my last sermon, I repeated this phrase several times, “The future belongs to the child.” In fact, I generally title my sermons after my main point.
Question #7: Is this sermon going to connect to particular concerns of my people? I firmly believe that sermons need to connect in some way to everyone, from the young convert to the university professor. The more you preach, the more you begin to see people in your congregation with unique needs. When a pastor says “I have no one in mind when I preach,” he is likely ineffective in his preaching. Pastors are shaped by their conversations, counseling, and context. People I pray with and meet each week come to mind when I make applications. Of course, we need to be careful not to use the pulpit to deliver a privatized homily. A sermon on divorce the week after a congregant was divorced is unwise. Preachers need to consider the need of his own flock. For instance, “Does my congregation have a tendency to pride in their intellect or status?” A preacher is always preaching locally, though he can minister broadly. New Christians need to see their pastor’s words as applicable and rich to their own unique situation and this requires a good dose of wisdom and knowledge of particular needs in the congregation. Pastoral application becomes richer when there are pastoral encounters and engagement with the people. It is important to note also that we have our failures and shortcomings, but these should not keep us from addressing them corporately.c
Question #8: Is my argument persuasive? The sermon ought to leave the listener convinced that the Bible’s claim is right and true. Arguments can be phrased differently in every sermon. Some arguments will be demonstrably more persuasive than others. The preacher’s role is to give enough context and substance, so the main point becomes attractive. Persuasion is a difficult skill and needs to be considered again and again, which is why sermons need to be revised several times before they are delivered. One common problem is pastors trying to persuade people to death. Sermons are not commentaries. A preacher does not need to make his congregation turn to several Bible passages. A sermon is not an informal Bible study. Make your point. Make it desirable and succinct and move on.
Question #9: Where is the Gospel? A Gospel-less sermon is no sermon at all. Ask yourself, “Where is the Gospel?” Will my people be saved from their sins and misery after hearing this word? Will they find hope in Messiah Jesus? Will the broken-hearted see Jesus with greater joy? Will the single mom find refuge in Jesus and his Kingdom? Preachers cannot end a sermon in the desert. The Gospel is promised land. The sermonic journey takes the parishioner from darkness to light; death to resurrection.
Question #10: Is my application too general? Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.” My closing question is a question about how my applications speak to my congregation. There are a thousand ways to speak the truth, but not many ways to speak the truth in love. Application is truth in love. Love your congregation by applying specifically and carefully. It is one thing to say Trust God, it is another to say, Believe his promises in the middle of your cancer. Generalities sometimes are inescapable, but try to escape them as much as possible when applying the Word. If there is one part of the sermon that deserves great concentration, it is in the application of the Word to God’s people. Pastors should read good counseling books. Pastors should know their people well in order to apply God’s truth in love (see #7).
You may consider each question every Sunday, and after some time these questions will be a natural part of your sermon preparation each week. Not all sermons are created equal. Just delivering content is not the goal of preaching. Preaching is an art, and we can all learn to grow.