1. What is the main purpose of my sermon?
In a book of interest to preachers, Phillip Collins writes:
“All speeches can be divided into at least one of the three functions:
1. Information: a speech whose principal function is to leave an audience better informed than they were before you began.
2. Persuasion: a speech whose principal function is to persuade an audience of a case that, before you began, had either never occurred to them or to which they had been actively hostile.
3. Inspiration: a speech whose principal function is to inspire the audience to do something that they had previously not considered doing or had been refusing to do or, occasionally, to carry on doing something.”
(Philip Collins was a former speechwriter for Tony Blair: The Art of Speeches and Presentations: The Secrets of Making People Remember What You Say, 2012)
I ask the preachers I mentor to examine what proportion of their sermons are devoted to these three functions. In my opinion, most evangelical preachers are weak on persuasion, even weaker on inspiration, yet strong on information! Interestingly, Collins suggests that while all speeches should have more than one function, persuasion should be dominant!
2. Have I fully understood the passage from which I am preaching?
This involves the spadework of studying words and phrases along with the cultural background and context. Exegetical commentaries can aid us here. Check how different English versions translate the passage from which you are preaching, ranging from those at the “formal equivalent” end of the scale, to the “functional equivalent”, and those in between.
The test of whether you clearly understand any passage is that you can explain it to your hearers in accessible language.
3. What is the big idea of my sermon?
Philip Collins asks: “What is your speech essentially about? Tell me in a single sentence. If you can’t do that, you don’t know. And if you don’t know you aren’t ready to do a speech.”
Pastor Paul Martin has written in a similar vein: “There is a tendency to want to say everything about many things as opposed to saying the most important things about one thing….Every sermon ought to be explained by one sentence…When you are finished the preparation of your sermon you should be able to quickly answer the question, “In one sentence or less, what is your sermon about?” If you cannot do that, you do not know what your one big point is and you need to do more preparation and study.”
The big idea is best summarised in a title for the sermon and the best kind of title is not in the form of a statement (which means what follows will focus on information) but a command or, even better, a question: both of which demands a response from the hearer. For creative idea for sermon titles, see this article.
4. Does the introduction to my sermon highlight the big idea and engage with my hearers?
“I am not and have never been a typical Welsh preacher. I felt that in preaching the first thing that you had to do was to demonstrate to the people that what you were going to do was very relevant and urgently important. The Welsh style of preaching started with a verse and the preacher then told you the connection and analysed the words, but the man of the world did not know what he was talking about and was not interested. I started with the man whom I wanted to listen, the patient. It was a medical approach really – here is a patient, a person in trouble, and ignorant man who has been to the quacks, and so I deal with all that in the introduction. I wanted to get to the listener and then come to my exposition. (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Volume 1: The First Forty Years 1899 – 1939, Iain Murray, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982)
As the saying goes:“If you don’t strike oil in the first five minutes, stop boring!” For this reason, the sermon introduction should be carefully scripted and practised. Nowadays I tend to do the introduction first and then read the Bible passage. If you read the Bible passage first, Christians can think they already understand it while non-Christians won’t see the relevance. If you start with the big idea which catches the attention of the hearers, you can then say, “Let’s turn to the Bible which addresses this issue.”
5. Is my sermon set in its context?
“A text without a context is a pretext for a proof-text.” Every sermon needs to be placed within ever-widening circles of context
- In the passage/chapter in which it occurs
- In the book of the Bible in which it occurs (and maybe the sermon series)
- In the metanarrative of the Biblical story-line
- Old Testament – looking forward to the coming of Jesus
- New Testament – looking back to the first coming of Jesus and looking forward to the second coming of Jesus
Beware of “synagogue sermons” when preaching from the Old Testament. Sermons which a good Jew would be happy with (ie. that don’t mention Jesus) or which only mention him peripherally or briefly in conclusion, are not what we should be aiming for. Look for text or theme connections which link with the New Testament and the coming of Jesus.
6. Does my sermon have a structure which makes it easier to follow?
Any structure needs to be derived from the passage in which it occurs:
- In narrative, it can trace the time-line of the events described
- In teaching, it can follow the development of the argument/logic
- In wisdom literature it can often be like spokes of a wheel which radiate out from the hub (the central idea)
- Sermons do not need to have three points! Quite often, the text lends itself to two contrasting or parallel points.
- Points do not need to alliterate! If you can find something that works and is memorable, use it. But don’t force it.
7. Does my sermon have helpful illustrations?
Illustrations serve two functions. Most obviously they illuminate the point you are making, like windows letting in the light. Less obviously, illustrations provide breathing space for thinking. Rather than constantly adding new information to assimilate, illustrations provide a plateau to absorb what has been said before ‘moving on up’. It is the difference between a series of steps and one steep gradient.
8. Does my sermon have an effective conclusion?
There are at least two kinds of conclusion to a sermon:
- The summary conclusion where you review what has been taught.
- The climax conclusion where you return to the big idea and apply it directly (and succinctly!) to the hearers – individually or corporately.
Whichever you use, the sermon you need to answer the “So what?” question: i.e. what exactly do you want your hearers to do as a result of this message? Praise? Repent? And about what? This can be followed by a prayer which also needs to be prepared (at least in bullet points if not full text) to allow the people to respond to the message.
9. Does my sermon address all those present?
The application of your sermon is largely determined by the profile of the audience/congregation. If the congregation is largely made up of Christians, focus not only on the individual and the local church, but (depending on the subject) place your sermons and them in the wider context of both the national church and the broader culture of which we are all part. And always include an evangelistic emphasis and challenge – if only to remind Christians present of the greatness of the gospel and to wish their non-Christians friends were present (and maybe bring them along).
10. Could I make changes in the presentation of my sermon?
Would my sermon benefit from…
“So for how long should you preach? The answer for me is around 23 minutes. The answer for Gary is around 21-30 minutes, with an average around 25. The answer for Tim Keller is as long as he likes. The answer for all of us? Plan to stop a minute or two before people start wishing you would. (And stop thinking you’re Tim Keller).” (Gary Millar & Phil Campbell, Saving Eutychus – how to preach God’s word and keep people awake” , Matthias Media, 2013)
Learn to estimate how long your sermon is going to be by the length of your notes. For me (using full notes) 1000 words = 10 minutes so I try to edit down to a maximum of 3000 words (allowing time for ad-libs).
- more variety in pace and volume? (especially in the conclusion – see point 8)
I find that using PowerPoint helps the hearers to see where I am going and helps me to clarify the structure of my sermon. My rule of thumb for its use is that it is an aid, not a substitute, for the spoken word. Someone only listening to the sermon should not miss anything substantial from not seeing the PowerPoint.