Two Essential Elements of an Excellent Sermon

effective preaching

Without both of them in place, your ministry will at some point go off the rails.

You know how much work it takes to produce a sermon (or any talk, for that matter).

And you’ve likely also wondered why some talks seem to stick while others don’t.

Sometimes, you work for hours or days on a message that you know is as extensively researched and accurate as you know how to make it. You preach it and it lands with a thud.

Other times, you whip something together quickly and for some reason, it resonates and has people talking about it months (or even years) after.

What gives? you ask. Great question.

To make the problem even more nuanced, if you’re like me, you’ve seen preachers build significant followings and yet often their insights aren’t, well, that faithful or great. Yet their teaching spreads like crazy.

What’s going on?

Here, I want to share a simple framework you can use to help you see if your sermon (or any communication for that matter) passes the test.

WHAT’S CHANGED SINCE THE INTERNET SHOWED UP?

Fortunately, I’ve been preaching long enough (since the ’90s) to remember how easy preaching used to be compared to today.

A brief history lesson.

First, in the ’90s there was virtually no internet. Unless people subscribed to a church’s cassette or CD ministry, the only way to hear a preacher was to show up in person. And since people didn’t/couldn’t attend multiple churches on the same Sunday, you were rarely compared to other preachers except perhaps the amazing preacher across town.

As a result, it was easier to simply take your ideas, thoughts and insights and share them on Sunday morning. The content mattered more than the expression.

As long as you had a pulse and could put a few sentences together in a reasonably compelling way, people would be appreciative of the work you did and for bringing God’s word to them. And that was that.

As this post outlines, the model of preaching for centuries was based on scarcity—that is, you had to be in a certain place at a certain time to hear a message or you missed it.

Then around 2010, things started to shift. Dramatically.

The internet had been around for a while, but as smartphones, social media and high-speed internet all became widely available, the combination suddenly meant people who attended your church could access your content and other preachers any time for free (no CD ministry). So they did.

Suddenly, preachers of normal-sized congregations were being compared to the best megachurch preachers around, and the pressure was on. To add even more complexity, people’s attention spans and loyalties kept shrinking.

TWO WAYS TO BLOW A MESSAGE

As a result, it’s easier than ever to lose an audience with your message in the current context.

My old method of preaching (take the week’s learnings and share them on Sunday without paying a ton of attention to delivery and final form) doesn’t work nearly as well if you are hoping to reach new people. You can always find 50–100 people who are willing to listen to your meanderings, but most people expect clarity.

The best way to blow an otherwise-faithful message is to bring your undigested thoughts into the pulpit on Sunday.

Sure, your thoughts might help people. And yes, the Word of the Lord never returns empty.

But it’s almost like some preachers expect God to do all the work to make their sermons land because they’re unwilling to do the hard work of preparation.

This can hit preachers of every stripe.

Academically-minded scholars can show up on Sunday with a research paper no one understands. They never took the time to make their message understandable and accessible.

Another, perhaps greater, way to blow a message is preachers who don’t do adequate prep of any kind and “wing it” on Sunday because they got too busy.

Some preachers who don’t prepare on Sunday say they want to rely on the Holy Spirit.

But that’s like saying the Holy Spirit shows up best in your undigested thoughts that you’re making up as you go along.

The Holy Spirit shows up more regularly in your study as you do the hard work of sermon preparation than he does in the pulpit when you haven’t prepared.

So what do you do?

THE SOLUTION? TRUE AND CLEAR

At the heart of great preaching are two factors. First, the message is true.

That comes from fidelity to the text, understanding the application to the people you serve and making sure you’ve put a biblically faithful message together.

Honestly, most preachers (not all, but most) do this step and many do it well.

The second factor, though, is whether you’ve made the message clear. In other words, have you prepared it in a way that people will understand?

It’s in the possible combinations of true and clear that messages today rise and fall.

The Four Categories of Preaching chart below shows the four possible places in which a message could land. A quick check through this matrix will help you see where you might need more work before you deliver your message or whether it’s ready to go.

Every preacher probably has messages that land in each of the four segments on this chart from time to time. That’s life on this side of heaven.

But if your message lands in a particular quadrant regularly, you’re likely leading your church in one of four directions: irrelevant, academic, trivial or powerful.

The result? When your preaching lands in a category consistently you’ll end up leading a dying church, shallow church, stagnant church or a growing church.

Let’s unpack each quadrant.

Irrelevant (Dying Churches): Not True. Not Clear.

If your message ends up being neither true to God’s word nor clearly understandable, it’s irrelevant.

Not only do people not understand it, but the parts they might understand don’t resonate because they’re not true, let alone helpful.

This is the fast path to creating a dying church: Deliver messages that are neither true nor clear.

Solution: Do the hard work of becoming clear and faithful. And if you have no intention of being faithful in ministry, please leave. You’re in the wrong field.

Academic (Stagnant Churches): True, but Not Clear

When your sermon is true (biblically faithful) but not clear, it’s not irrelevant, but it tends to produce a stagnant congregation.

Confusing or losing people is expensive because they have to do the hard work of not just listening to what you say, but clarifying it and then trying to figure out what to do with it.

Some members and attendees will sign up for this week after week. Sometimes, it might even pass for “deep teaching.”

But you’re unlikely to see your church grow when you’re consistently unclear.

Worse, you can even develop a self-righteous streak and blame people who “don’t get it.”

When communication is unclear, it’s never the audience’s fault. It’s the communicator’s fault.

Solution: Keep being faithful, but work harder on making your delivery and key points clear and memorable. It helps to start your message prep earlier. Clarity takes time.

Trivial (Shallow Churches): Clear, but Not True

This category breaks my heart and appears to be on the rise.

Obviously, at its worst, this is how cults spread: Leaders preach clear messages that aren’t grounded in truth.

But there’s a much more subtle form of this at work in legitimate Christian churches where sincere pastors have realized that the internet is changing the communication game.

Here’s the trap: They work so hard on being clear that sometimes they neglect to check if their message is actually true.

Let’s unpack that for a minute.

If you scroll your Instagram or TikTok feed, you’ll see all kinds of messages that are clear but not grounded in truth.

Let’s pick on a few of these verbal memes as examples.

Take this one: 

“You will never be criticized by someone who is doing more than you. You will only be criticized by someone doing less.”

You and I have both seen that quote populate the internet and I’ve seen it show up on some preacher’s feeds.

Well, it sounds compelling. It’s also completely false.

From Outreach Magazine  Will Mancini: Beyond Vision Casting

Some of the best criticism I’ve ever received is from people doing more than me. They’re gentle and kind about it, but man has it been helpful. I hope that’s true of you too. It will be some of the best stuff you ever get.

I’d also assume that God has done more than you and me, and perhaps from time to time God has corrected you (he certainly has corrected me).

Sure, it makes you feel superior to the trolls and people who take cheap shots at you, but it’s actually not true nor is it remotely grounded in Scripture.

Here’s another one:

“Become the best version of yourself.”

That’s a nice self-help meme that’s floating around in all kinds of circles, but it completely ignores the complexity of human nature, sin and redemption.

For example, I’ve noticed that I seem to be the problem everywhere I go in life, and to simply “be the best version of myself” ignores the challenge I have to “be transformed by the renewing of my mind” or to “become a new creation” (if you read the Scripture, you may recognize those teachings).

Worse, it links up biblical preaching to mindset ideas that are floating out there, making Christianity seem like another branch of pop psychology.

There’s nothing wrong with clarity. You need it.

But if you don’t tether clarity to truth, you end up with a shallow church or, worse, a cult.

Shallow preachers produce shallow followers. When we look at the discipleship crisis we seem to be in, perhaps that’s a reason why.

Solution: Do the hard work of wrestling through the text and finding the truth before you work on how to make the truth clear and understood.

And don’t just get sucked in by some book you just read, YouTube video you just watched, or Instagram post you saw without thinking through it deeply first.

(Powerful) Growing Churches: Clear and True

This is the sweet spot. It’s where every preacher wants to be every week, and where growing churches land pretty much every weekend.

Delivering both true and clear sermons doesn’t guarantee you will grow, but it does position you to grow. In other words, it removes the obstacles that could be in your way as a communicator to communicate clearly with the world you’re trying to reach.

Preachers who produce powerful messages that usher in life change have done the hard work of studying and wrestling with the text and the hard work of wrestling through how to make their idea clear and relevant.

Is it true? Have you wrestled through the biblical text and really come to terms with what God is saying?

Is it clear? Have you done the really hard work of making complicated ideas and application points clear and memorable?

While preaching is a deeply complicated work (Mark Clark and I walk you through many of the nuances of studying deeply and communicating effectively in this era in the Art of Preaching Course), running any message you give through this simple framework can help you see ahead of time.

Solution: The best way to do this is to start ahead of time.

Great preaching is like a stew. The longer you let it simmer, the better it gets. Start your message prep early—as in weeks or months early.

If on Thursday morning, you’re still trying to decide what you’re going to say on Sunday morning, you’re preaching might be true, but it won’t be clear. Clarity takes time. It means sorting through 100 ideas to find good ideas and eliminating all of the good ideas until you have the clearest, best idea left standing. Then you preach that.

While it took me a few years to get there, for the last decade I’ve generally been in the habit of outlining an entire sermon series before I preach the first message. That means choosing the biblical texts, figuring out the angle, writing the first message or two, and outlining the remainder. The hardest work is finding a single sentence bottom line for every message ahead of time that clarifies the point of the sermon.

Clarity takes time, and it takes practice.

If you’re not clear, your congregation won’t be either.

As Andy Stanley says, “Mist in the pulpit, fog in the pew.”

If you’re still winging your messages or not putting in the hard work ahead of time (way ahead of time), just know you’re setting yourself up to lead a stagnant or shallow church. And no one wants that. Especially you.

Conversely, if you take the time to work, pray, study, write and find clarity ahead of time, you’ll be amazed at how your messages start to connect.

Using the framework to assess your message as you prepare it will help give you a reasonable idea of where it might land. True and clear puts you in the best position to preach a powerful message and lead a growing church.

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This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com and is reposted here by permission.