I am closing in on my forty-third birthday and have been a churchgoer all my life. A bit of simple math shows that I’ve probably listened to somewhere around 4,000 sermons over the course of my life (which undoubtedly means I should have far more knowledge of the Bible than I do and should be far holier than I am!). I’ve also preached a few sermons of my own over the past 10 or 15 years. Recently, and largely for my own purposes, I found myself thinking about some of the elements that can make a sermon difficult to listen to. Having jotted them down, I thought I’d share them with you.
They have no obvious outline. Most people today are unaccustomed to listening to extended verbal communication. Preachers can assist listening and comprehension by providing some kind of an outline. It does not need to be a Lawsonesque alliterated masterpiece, but it is helpful to at least allow the congregation to know in advance how the sermon will unfold. A solid outline also helps pull them back when their minds drift. They can be pulled from daydream or confusion when they hear, “This brings us to the second great emphasis of this passage.” (I think it’s usually best to avoid using the word “point,” as in “My second point is…” Try to find a more interesting way of framing a sermon than through “points.”)
They include word studies. A sermon rarely improves from the point the pastor says, “In the Greek this word is…” I suppose there are select occasions when mentioning and explaining a Greek or Hebrew term adds to the congregation’s understanding, but that’s rare. Far more often than not, word studies are the kind of thing a pastor should do in his study and keep in his study. The preacher ought to do his preparatory work in such a way that his sermon shows clear evidence that he has put in full effort and mined the depths of his passage. But he doesn’t always need to explicitly show that work. (And yes, we all already know that dunamis is related to the English “dynamite.”)
They include extended quotes from commentaries. Commentaries are crucial when it comes to properly understanding a text. Preachers rightly spend a good bit of their prep time learning from experts through their commentaries. But there aren’t many occasions when the preacher should quote these experts. To read a quote from a commentary, and especially at length, is to radically change the voice of the person speaking—from his own voice to the voice of a scholar. It is to radically change the form of communication—from a spoken sermon to a written book. It is often difficult for the congregation to make that transition, and often difficult for the congregation to understand the point that is being made. It’s far better, on the whole, for the preacher to simply summarize in his own words.
They include citations. In college and seminary, it’s extremely important that references are carefully cited. If the idea comes from someone else, you need to make that clear. But in sermons, it’s not nearly so important. If you are going to provided an extended quote or rigidly follow another person’s work (which you probably shouldn’t), it may make sense to provide a citation. But otherwise, know for your own purposes which resources you relied upon, but don’t feel that you need an academic-level of citation in a sermon. A sermon is not a paper and a church is not a seminary. Again, it’s typically far better to summarize than to quote.
They include every possible option. There are many parts of the Bible that are open to various legitimate interpretations. Does Romans 7 describe the experience of a believer or an unbeliever? Does James 5:14 specifically mandate anointing with oil, or does it more generally mandate prayer? Does Colossians 3:16 speak of three distinctly different kinds of song or does it simply call for a wide variety of songs? While it sometimes makes sense for the preacher to engage with the various viewpoints, it’s usually most helpful for him to make his own choice and to focus most of his attention on that one. Here’s the important principle: Don’t answer questions the congregation isn’t asking. Don’t spend lots of time working through options your listeners would never have considered. (Sometimes even the preacher won’t be entirely convinced by one side or the other, so he may just have to choose one and go with it. That’s allowed.)
They include long stretches without illustration. Illustrations are powerful. Not only do they provide an alternate, illustrative way to explain the same truth, but they also allow an opportunity to consolidate knowledge and to provide the listener an opportunity to catch his breath. Of course, illustrations can be done well or poorly. Typically, short illustrations are more effective than long ones. Some of the best are extremely short, like simple one-sentence similes—comparisons using “like” or “as.” Some of the worst are extended illustrations, especially ones related to film, books, or other pop culture that few people are familiar with. You usually know an illustration is ineffective when you need to explain the illustration! (Tip: Speaking to the kids almost invariably also draws in the adults. Make a simple illustration targeted at the children and you’ll also catch the attention of all the grownups.)
They are presented with a monotone delivery. A sermon’s words matter most, but presentation is also extremely important. Elements like pitch and volume make a huge difference in listening and comprehension. When we think of monotone delivery, we may think naturally of someone who maintains a drab “neither here nor there” tone throughout, and that makes listening difficult. But so, too, does the preacher who cranks up full intensity and sticks there for too long, or the preacher who drops to a dramatic whisper and stays there endlessly. Just as a preacher puts effort into his understanding and explanation of his passage, he should put effort into his delivery, to know where he should vary his volume up and down, where he should press in and where he should relax. Shouting and whispering, speeding up and slowing down, can all be used to enhance a message. But they can also all be used to detract from it.
There is much more that could be said, of course. And at the end of these reflections, I find myself marveling that the Lord chooses to use such weak people with such weak skills to deliver such powerful truth. There are no perfect preachers and no perfect sermons, but there’s an unchanging, unerring message that still shines through.