I’ve referred, in the past, to the preaching presentation as a three legged table: equal parts content, structure, and delivery. Where one is lacking, the sermon wobbles.
Since we each tend to be more naturally gifted in one area above the others, we need to remind ourselves, frequently, of the following rules of balance.
1. Good content can’t overcome poor delivery.
The difference between a Broadway production and a community theater production of Our Town (for example) comes down, ultimately, to delivery. Both contain the same lines of dialogue; they’re delivered better on Broadway.
The fact is that I rarely come across a sermon lacking in quality content. Usually the problem lies in one of the other legs — and it’s often delivery.
Recently a pastor told me about a funny story he told that didn’t go over well. “Apparently,” he said, “humor doesn’t work with my congregation.”
When I listened to the message, I had to tell him that the problem with this particular story was not the story itself. The problem was in the telling: he told it like it he had only heard it one time, and had not completely mastered the particulars.
All he had to do was practice telling it a time or two. Told well, it would have gotten an appropriate laugh, it would have supported his point, and it would have strengthened the overall quality of his presentation. Instead, he decided to wing it, trusting in his natural story-telling abilities. The result was an illustration that didn’t work.
I encourage pastors again and again to practice your presentation. At the very least, it will help you minimize some of your built-in bad habits.
Your best content is lost when you miss the mark on delivery.
Conversely, the second rule of balance reminds us that…
2. Good delivery can’t compensate for weak content.
Occasionally I’ll come across a preacher or public speaker who has such a natural gift of gab that you can’t help but listen — from start to finish.
The problem comes when you realize that they’re not really saying anything. They’re telling stories about themselves, they’re stretching out Bible stories to get lots of laughs, they know when to when to whisper, when to pause, when the push the right button. But when all is said and done, you find yourself wondering, “What, exactly, was that sermon about?”
Last week I listened to a sermon 35 minutes in length. I realized at the 15 minute mark that, in spite of the stories and the humor, we still had no idea what the message was about. He eventually found his way into the text and topic, and spoke a little bit about it, but I’m still not sure what he meant to say. However, he kept us engaged the whole time, because he had a naturally good delivery. It’s a shame there was no discernible to call to action or ten second take-away.
The third rule of balance…
3. Solid structure is as essential as solid content.
I once sent my grandfather a sermon of mine on cassette tape, asking for feedback. (He trained public speakers.) His critique: “I had a little trouble following your outline. You met yourself coming and going a few times.”
He was telling me that I talked in circles. And he was right. In fact, point three was the exact opposite of point one. I’m still not sure what that sermon was about. (In my defense, it was 30+ years ago; certainly there’s a statute of limitations.)
I will say again that poor content is rarely the culprit in the ineffective sermon. Poor structure, however, does as much damage — if not more — than poor delivery.
Not many people are willing to watch a movie with no discernible story line. They want to know what the movie is about; they want to be able to sort and file each plot point as it occurs, so the conclusion can bring it all together.
It’s the same with your sermon. The introduction needs to define the direction of the message, and your listener needs to be able to recognize each dot as it is connected and each block as it is stacked.
This means that your outline needs to be painstakingly simple: Memorable main ideas with a direct connection to the Big Idea, using sub-points only when necessary.
Clearly, there’s more to your sermon than your outline. But complicating the navigation between your introduction and conclusion will not make your message deeper, it will only make it muddy.
Keep it simple, then.
The most effective sermons maintain a balance in each key area: content well-prepared, structure that’s easy to follow, with delivery comfortable and pleasant.