6 Steps to Powerful Preaching

1. Descriptive Language

“The difference between the right word and almost the right word,” said Mark Twain, “is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Some words thunder, others flicker. Some words evoke passion, awe, or conviction. Others simply take up space.

Scripture often uses striking, descriptive language:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. (Isa. 6:1–4)

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me. (Ps. 23:1–4)

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:14–19)

As Proverbs teaches, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (25:11 esv). We preach in a way that is understandable, even conversational. But the conversation is lively, descriptive, and inspiring, raising listeners’ eyes to something more majestic than the mundane.

2. Choose Specific Nouns and Verbs.

We often bore listeners with broad, generic nouns and verbs. For example, “The dog walked into the room.” Consider these adjustments:

Broad Specific
Dog Chihuahua
Walked Scurried
Room Kitchen

The sentence transforms from “The dog walked into the room” to “The Chihuahua scurried into the kitchen.” The first shares information; the second crafts an image. The difference lies in the specificity of the nouns and verbs.

Some additional examples may prove helpful:

Broad Nouns Specific Nouns
Tree Weeping willow
Drink Cranberry juice
Fruit Mango
Dress Ball gown
Broad Verbs Specific Verbs
Go Mosey
Read Scrutinize
Eat Gobble
Write Scribble

Descriptive nouns and verbs lessen the need for adjectives and adverbs. When we discuss picturesque language, we may envision scattering adjectives and adverbs throughout our paragraphs, liking hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree. Instead, compelling nouns and verbs stand on their own. For example:

Adjective-Noun Clearer Noun
Expensive car Porsche
Purple flower Violet
Difficult problem Quandary
Newborn baby Infant
Verb-Adverb Clearer Verb
Walk hurriedly Rush
Think carefully Contemplate
Say loudly Yell
Smile happily Glow

We need not eliminate all adjectives and adverbs (I’ve used some in this chapter—even in this sentence!), but clear nouns and verbs require less of them.

3. Speak in Pictures.

When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded not with a definition but with a story: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho . . .” (Luke 10:30). When confronted about his association with sinful people, he could have explained, “It’s the sinners who really need me.” Instead, he pictured, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Luke 5:31). Jesus taught in pictures.

Likewise, effective preachers don’t just ask, “How can I explain this?” They also ask, “How can I picture it?”  What story, metaphor, or image will build a picture in listeners’ minds?

Novelists teach the principle “show don’t tell.” Rather than telling readers that something happened, they show it happening. A preacher might follow the same principle—for example, when describing a basketball game. We could tell listeners that “the player shot a free throw.” Or we could show that player shooting the free throw: “The point guard, all of four feet and eleven inches, toed the free-throw line. She bounced the ball twice, then inhaled. When she raised her gaze to the rim, her blond ponytail folded into the back of her neck. She bent her knees, raised the ball to eye level, then arched the ball, with soft backspin, toward the rim.”

Show it, don’t just tell it.

4. Speak to Experience.

Fred Craddock bid preachers,

“Go through your sermons sometime on a rainy day—when nobody is expecting you to do any calling or anything—and look at the words. How many words in there just don’t have any pulse? No nerve twitches. You say them, and it’s nothing. “Stewardship.” The seventeenth time you say that in a sermon it’s kind of dull. Sort of like it was the first time you said it. Do you have another word?

“You can say “all people are mortal,” and put it to a vote, and it will pass. But nothing happens. But if you say, “Jimmy Hubbard was killed this morning on his bicycle while he was delivering papers . . .” Concrete, specific—this creates experiences.”

Sermons that leap from the pulpit into the hearts and lives of people go beyond vague principles (mortality) to the heartaches, joys, and nitty-gritty of life (Jimmy Hubbard on his bicycle). Speak not just of evangelism, but of pointing out the spiritual dimensions of a novel during Thursday evening book club. Preach not just about sacrifice, but of the doctor who sold his medical practice and spent two decades caring for AIDS patients in Haiti. Progress from principle to experience.

5. Speak to the Senses.

If we were there—in the text, or in the story told as an illustration—what would we see, hear, smell, taste, or feel? Step into the story and look around, listen. Then describe what engages the senses.

For example, if we preached from Matthew 8:23–27, when Jesus calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee, we could imagine ourselves in the boat. Feel the disciples’ exhaustion, having traveled with Jesus for days on end. Taste the sea air. Hear the wind whip up and feel the air temperature drop as it blows against your skin. See the stars and moon disappear behind the clouds that roll in. Feel the cold waves as they beat against the boat and spill onto your feet. Hear the panic in the disciples’ voices, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” See Jesus stand and listen to his response: “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Watch as he raises his arms and commands the storm, “Quiet! Be still!” Feel the wind subside and the rocking of the boat lessen. Watch as the moon and stars return to view. Sense the disciples’ wonder, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”

When we speak to the senses, texts and stories come alive for listeners.

6. Include Dialogue.

In the paragraph above about Jesus calming the storm, the dialogue shared by Jesus and his disciples draws readers and listeners into the story. Dialogue helps listeners enter a scene, rather than observing it from the outside. Thus, Scripture uses it extensively. When Moses approached the burning bush,

God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out. . . . So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exod. 3:4–15)

Often, we summarize dialogue rather than including the actual conversation. Instead, invite your listeners to eavesdrop. Rather than summarizing, “My friend Matt told me I should be more careful,” recount the dialogue: “Matt put down his fork and looked me in the eye, ‘I’m worried about you’ he said. ‘Please, for the sake of those who care about you, be careful.’”

When narration and explanation give way to dialogue, listeners get to stand alongside the characters in the story and experience, firsthand, what the characters experience.

Excerpted from Preaching: A Simple Approach to the Sacred Task © Copyright 2022 by Daniel Overdorf. Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved