If we don’t communicate well, we might as well be. It is tough to keep our sermons clear and meaningful. But it is vitally important.
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul wrote, 11 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. 12 So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.
Now, I know he was speaking of the comparison of tongues and the gift of prophecy. But the point is the gift of prophecy (preaching) is supposed to be something people understand. That is how it builds them up.
He said the ministry of prophecy (proclamation) should be different from aimless vocalizations. We as pastors are challenged to come with a meaningful message week after week. In doing that we can easily slip into bad habits and our preaching suffers. Here are 5 things that can make us ineffective at communicating life transforming truth.
1. Minimizing the Word.
Is our message rooted in a passage? Or are we fluttering all over Scripture to make our own point? There are times when we should preach topical messages. A few weeks ago, I preached on the Scriptural Foundations of Religious Liberty. Obviously it is a message that is preached using themes of Scripture. But this shouldn’t be the whole diet a congregation gets. They need to see their pastor dig into a passage and find the main idea and apply it to life. That’s the life-blood of biblical preaching.
2. Staying Vague.
I would say, after teaching homiletics for several years, this is the greatest temptation of preaching. It is easy to preach big fuzzy ideas. Saying, “I want to encourage, disciple, strengthen…” is not enough. What is the passage saying specifically, and what kind of feeling, thought, or action should come from understanding it? Our job isn’t just to make people feel better but it is our task to give them a clear picture of what transformation will look like. Keep asking the text and yourself questions that force you to clarify what you expect this truth to accomplish.
3. Neglecting Your Outline.
Outlines are the unglamorous part of preaching. This is where the “grunt-work” of writing begins. In our physical bodies, the outline is the skeleton. It’s not pretty to look at, but without it the body has no form, no structure. It is just a blob of tissue that can’t stand on its own. On a family vacation, the outline is the itinerary. If you’ve ever traveled across the country with four little boys in the car you know, you need a plan. You map out the trip from one place to another. The memories happen along the way, but the itinerary makes those memories possible. Without it, you get nowhere. The same is true for sermons with poor outlines.
4. Using Poor or No Illustrations.
Illustrations come in all shapes and sizes. We need them. They are windows to what the truth looks like in everyday life. They force us to take the principles of the text and compare them to life. They also hold attention. What are some keys to good illustrations? They need to be relatable to the congregation. They need to be varied. They need to be edited. Don’t just use stock illustrations, but edit and adapt them so they can make the point they need to (but don’t lie).
5. Ignoring Time.
We may think it is unspiritual, but we live in a time-conscious culture. Keep it moving. Rarely does a longer sermon mean a better sermon. I know when I go long (over 30 min.) in our church, I missed it. It takes practice and discipline to cut from a sermon what doesn’t move it forward. I once heard that Walt Disney cut thousands of hand-drawn images from one of his animated movies. It amounted to several scenes and many minutes of footage. The images were good, but they didn’t move the story forward. If you have to preach a little longer, know it ahead of time. Have a purpose for it. Otherwise our people will think we are just wandering.
If you’ve been preaching for awhile you know these things. But it may be time to go back, look over your pattern of sermon prep. and see where you may have let things slip. It happens.
Which part of sermon prep. gives you the most trouble?