3 Reminders About Sermon Delivery

We’ve been talking about the 3 legged table — maintaining the balance between content, structure, and delivery.

Today let’s talk about delivery. Here are three rules to remember.

1. Effective delivery is not an accident.

There are some who are so naturally gifted at public speaking that words effortlessly flow and charm fills the room whenever they stand in front of a group.

As it turns out, they have as many delivery-related challenges as the rest of the us — but they’re most likely to overlook them, because they think they’ve got the delivery aspect down.

It doesn’t matter how naturally gifted one may or may not be, good delivery takes practice. Talent bestowed at birth may give you a slight head start, but it doesn’t give you a free pass. To be effective in pulpit ministry, you have to develop your public speaking skills.

This involves more than just a pre-Sunday run through. Rehearsing your message is essential, but effective delivery requires more. It requires that speakers strive consistently to sharpen their skills — to rid themselves of the ummm habit, to learn to plant their feet, to develop a more pleasant voice, to gesture naturally, and so on.

It doesn’t happen by accident; it takes intentional effort.

2. Effective delivery is dynamic.

Dynamic doesn’t mean loud. In this context, it means varied — changing volume and tempo from time-to-time, as well as including plenty of white space.

For example, sometimes speakers forget they have a microphone. They forget that it’s not necessary to bellow the entire message. We need to remember to use our inside voice. Even dare to whisper at times.

And don’t be afraid to pause.

When you say something powerful and/or profound, it’s tempting to follow up with, “Did you get that? Let me repeat it. I’ll say it again…”

This isn’t necessary.

Give your listeners a powerful statement. And then give them some white space. Pause. Let the words sink in. And then move ahead with your message. They’ll remember what you said.

Speak softly sometimes. Speak with a little heat at other times. Speed up. Slow down. And make use of white space. Effective delivery is dynamic in its presentation.

3. Effective delivery is inconspicuous.

G.K. Chesterton said, “The aim of the sculptor is to convince us that he is a sculptor; the aim of the orator is to convince us that he is not an orator.”

The people in the pew don’t really want to watch a performance. They don’t want to be preached at. Nor do they want to hear schtick. Or stand-up material. Or a sales pitch, either.

Neither do they want to hear you stumble your way through your presentation like an actor who has forgotten his lines.

Your listeners want to hear — they need to hear — a sincere presentation of God’s Word, the result of prayer, study, and preparation. A message that reflects your research as well as it also reveals the depths of your heart.

While the sermon may resemble a performance in that it involves meticulous preparation, ultimately it must be much more than a performance. It must be authentic.

This involves more effort on your part, not less.

The most effective preachers and public speakers don’t allow themselves to become a distraction — either by being unrehearsed, or by being a little too over-the-top.

You don’t want your delivery to get in the way of your message. Strive to make it as inconspicuous as possible.

Don’t underestimate the importance of effective delivery.

Essentials of Sermon Structure

There’s a house going up in my neighborhood…eventually.  The construction materials have already been delivered and are waiting to be put to use. There’s a potential house in there somewhere — but today it’s just a concrete slab surrounded by stacks of brick and lumber and miscellaneous supplies.

Someday these materials will make a home. There will be a kitchen where you can prepare a meal, a den to to relax, and a bedroom to fall asleep in at night.

At this point, however, the house is all content and no structure.

I frequently hear sermons that fall into the same category: all content and no structure. There is plenty of good material there, plenty of potential, but there’s no flow, no recognizable organization, and no identifiable direction. The sermon looks more like a building-in-progress than an occupant-ready residence.

An essential lesson that all public speakers — especially those in pulpit ministry — need to learn is that good content alone is not enough to carry a message. Unless your good content is presented in the context of solid structure, many of your best ideas will be lost on your listeners.

Today, let’s take a closer look at structure — the second leg of three-legged table that makes up a great sermon. Here are three structure-related guidelines to keep in mind.

1. Good structure follows an arc.

An effective sermon takes the listener on a journey, starting with where they are and leading them to where they need to be.

This is why you start with the sermon-worthy problem. You begin with an area in which your listeners need to experience growth. Then you lead them through the process of putting this Biblical principle to work in their lives. And you conclude with a call to action/call to decision.

For example, if you’re preaching on forgiving on another, you might begin with our reluctance to forgive. And then you take your listener step-by-step, thought-by-thought, point-by-point, scripture-by-scripture through the hows and whys of what it means to be forgiving toward one another. As you come to your conclusion, your listener is able to track the ‘plot’ — the story line — of your message.

This way, as they reflect on your message, they can say something more than, “The preacher had a lot to say about forgiveness today.”

Instead, they can say, “I understand better why and how I should forgive others, and I know where to begin putting this principle into practice.”

2. Good structure identifies the ‘plot’ of the sermon early.

This involves more than just announcing your topic. It involves giving your listeners a clear idea — early on — of where your message is headed.

Imagine that you just sat down to watch a Netflix movie — one selected at random from the menu. At this point, you know nothing about it. You’ve read no reviews; you don’t know the actors; you haven’t even seen the trailer.

After pushing PLAY, how long are you willing to wait to be able to develop an idea of what’s going on?

Most people want to know in the first few minutes where this journey might take them, as in: “OK, I get it. This loose-cannon cop has to catch some bad guys and survive an internal affairs investigation and fix his failing marriage all at once, while his beleaguered captain questions his every move. Good thing he’s got a wise-cracking partner.”

You want to know these things early. You don’t want to find yourself half-way through the film, still asking, “OK. What’s this movie about? Who are these people and why are they on my television screen?”

In the same way, your listeners want to know early on what your message is about and where it might be going. I said might because you don’t have to give away the ending in the introduction. Just give them a general idea of the direction you plan to go.

You need to do this in the first few minutes of your message. This lets the listener know what to expect.

3. Good structure is simple to sort and file.

More on the movie comparison.

As events unfold in the second act, the viewer needs to be able process each plot point in terms of how it fits into the overall story. There will be plenty of twists and turns and surprises along the way.

For this reason, when something important happens, the viewer needs to know it, so they can see that the movie is going where it originally set out to go. Otherwise, your action-packed adventure starts looking like an indie-house art film.

Here’s my point. You need to map out the progress of the message for your listener. You may make a dozen or so noteworthy statements in the course of your sermon; make sure your most essential ideas are too clear to miss.

This can be as simple as saying, “Firstly, secondly, thirdly,” — though some preachers don’t like to do that.

At the very least, call out key “plot points” by saying something along the lines of, “I want to take note of this…” Or, “This next idea is essential to understanding what forgiveness involves…” Or, “This can be a turning point in learning how to practice forgiveness…” And so on.

I can’t count the times I have found myself at the half-way point in listening to a sermon, thinking, “I’m not sure how what he’s saying now relates to what he said before. I have no idea where this message is headed, or even what it’s about.”

A sermon shouldn’t be a mystery ride. Your exposition, your stories, and your major points need to be moving in a discernible direction. Your listener needs to be able to make sense of each step along the way, understanding how this point relates to the whole.

At any point in your message you want your listener to be able to hear what you’re saying now and understand how it is connected to what you were saying before and how it will lead into what you’re saying next.

When it comes to structure, basic is better.

There’s no point in trying to re-invent the wheel. You can’t beat the introduction / body / conclusion format. Neither can you beat the 1-2-3 format for the body.

Make no mistake: your content is the most powerful part of your message. But it must be presented in the context of an intuitive, identifiable structure.

Keep your structure simple so that your outstanding content will be sure to find its way into your listener’s heart.

Three Rules of Quality Content

Today, a few reminders related to content. First of all..

1. Good content includes your own personal reflection and experience with the text.

The sermon is more than a history lesson or a study in Greek grammar. It’s also more than just telling your listeners what they need to do.

The sermon needs to be — to some extent — a testimony of how this Biblical truth has played itself out in your life.

Sometimes it may be a testimony of victory, as in: Let me tell you how today’s message has helped me to live a more victorious life in Jesus Christ.

Other times it may be a testimony of confession, as in: This is an area in which I struggle, too, and I’m working on it.

Your listeners need to know that you’re not merely teaching a subject, and you’re not merely telling them from a distance what they need to believe and how they need to behave. Your listeners also need to know that the message you preach and the principles you teach have a personal component.

For this reason I encourage pastors to include personal reflection on the text and at least one personal illustration in each message.

When you’re talking about how to deal with discouragement, for example, share your own story of discouragement.

When you’re talking about persistence in prayer, tell your listeners about your own prayer journey.

Make sure you include a part of yourself in each sermon you preach.

On the other hand, keep in mind that…

2. Good Content Requires Layers of Research.

Occasionally I will hear a sermon in which the first point above is taken to an extreme, as in: the message consists exclusively of the preacher’s personal take on the text, and how it relates to his or her own life experience. There are no references to Biblical commentary or scholarship, no quotes or insights from theologians or preachers, and every illustration is taken straight from the preacher’s life.

This is not so much a message as it is a memoir: “Let me tell you all about me and what this verse means to me and how this makes me feel.”

While the sermon needs to include some amount of personal history, it needs to include much more. Your listeners need to know the background of the text, they need to hear what scholars have said about it, and they need to see how the principles taught in today’s message can be found elsewhere in Scripture.

When it comes to illustrations, they need more than vignettes from your daily life. Personal illustrations are good — as well as essential — to an effective message. But by themselves they’re not enough.

When you can, use Illustrations from the world of sports, business, history, or entertainment. Use examples from the lives of others. Use quotes from leaders and thinkers to summarize your best ideas.

In other words, make your message about something more than your own perceptions and life experience. Let the wisdom, knowledge, and experience of others contribute to your sermon preparation.

Here’s a third content-related principle to remember.

3. Good content is as much about the listener as it is the topic.

In order to become doers of the Word, your listeners need to understand how the Biblical text connects to their daily lives.

The story of Abraham, for example, is not just a story of a righteous man who lived long ago. His story teaches us the principles of faith and obedience.

The Parable of the Prodigal is not just a lesson in ancient Jewish family dynamics. It teaches us the principles of sin, repentance, mercy, and reconciliation. Listeners need to understand the principles driving this parable, and how they relate to our daily lives: ie, Our God is not aloof; he goes so far as to run in the direction of our redemption.

I’m saying that your listener needs to understand — with each and every message — that this sermon is about me, the listener: What Christ has done for me, what Christ is calling me to do for him.

Therefore, we need to avoid the temptation to make the sermon about the absent “they”, as in: Let’s talk about what others are doing wrong and how they need to make things right. An effective sermon challenges the listener to take his or her own step of obedience.

In addition to going as deep into the text as time will permit … in addition to sharing your own personal experience with the text and topic … make sure that you include your listener in your sermon. Give them reason to say every week, “The preacher is preaching to me.”

A Balanced Approach to Preaching

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.

5 Questions for Sermon Preparation

Pastors read 2 Timothy with different eyes than the typical church member.  In Paul’s exhortations to Timothy the preacher, we can’t help but think about how they apply to us.

This is especially true of 2 Timothy 4, which begins with something of a check-list for sermon development.

Here’s a summary I made while I was working on the Finish Strong series, with some follow-up questions.

Preach the Word. This is why most of our messages are expository. I don’t think that you have to go through the text verse-by-verse, like an audio commentary. I do, however, think the best sermons are the ones that begin with an idea developed from a Biblical text, whose major points are drawn from that text.

Be prepared in season and out of season. KJV says “be instant.” Barclay translates the word “urgent.” This meaning of the word, along with Paul’s use of the phrase kairos akairos (“in season, out of season”) seems to indicate that Paul is challenging us to preach in the now, the message that our listeners need to hear today, whether it’s fashionable or not.

Correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction. When we say things that are uncomfortable to hear, we need to say it as softly as possible.

And don’t overlook the keyword instruction. It’s not enough to preach about how bad things are, or how good they ought to be. We need to instruct our hearers how to get there.

Beware of the itching ears. There are those in every congregation who want to hear what they like to hear, not what they need to hear. I’m sure that each one of us has been asked, “Pastor, why don’t you preach more often about…”

Some want a steady diet of sermons about prophecy, or word studies, or politics, or family values, or world missions, or how bad the world is, or how wrong other religions are, and on and on.

We respond to itching ears with a challenge: Be doers of the word, not just hearers who delude themselves. Each message should be a call to action— specific action, with careful instruction on how to apply God’s Word to their daily lives.

As we prepare each message, we should ask ourselves:

• Is the foundation of this message a Biblical text?

• Is this message urgent? Is it timely? Is it what they need to hear today?

• Are the most confrontational aspects of this message being offered in a spirit of patience?

• Is this message a call to action? Does it challenge the listener to “do” the Word?

• Does this message contain careful instruction on how to follow through in obedience?

What Should I Preach Next?

There’s a question nearly every pastor struggles with at some time (and for some, it’s every Sunday):

What should I preach next?

Sometimes the answer is obvious, other times it remains elusive.

When you’re not sure, here are five questions that will help you decide. As you pray and seek God’s guidance, ask…

1. What is God teaching me?

Your best messages will come from the overflow of your devotional life and your personal walk with Christ. The lessons you learn in your daily devotional are your best resource. What God is teaching you, he is preparing you to teach others.

2. Which need have I seen demonstrated in the congregation?

Another way to say it: Which area of growth seems to be lacking? One pastor told me he decided to spend the summer teaching on Biblical parenting because he has observed a number of unruly kids and overwhelmed parents among the congregation.

Another pastor told me that after doing a survey he discovered that only a small percentage were having a daily time alone with God, so he’s preaching a series on developing a devotional life.

Another pastor, recently appointed to a new church, told me that he’s preaching through books of the Bible on Sunday nights, and teaching a class on Bible history on Wednesday nights, because he noticed that there was very little Bible study taking place in the small groups and Sunday School classes. His goal is to help the congregation develop a closer relationship to Scripture.

3. Is there a sin we need to confront?

Such as racism, gossip, division, criticism … well, the list of possibilities is pretty long. If you get the sense that your congregation, on the whole, seems to be winking at certain sins, it’s time to address the problem from the pulpit.

4. Is there a new area of ministry we need to pursue?

One pastor told me that he is spending 2018 preaching on personal evangelism from several different angles. The goal, he said, is to get people committed (at the very least) to inviting people to church, as well as teaching them the basics of sharing their faith.

Another pastor — of a fledgling church plant — told me he preaches on missions as often as possible to remind the congregation that we’re not a mission for others to support, we’re in mission to support others.

5. Is there a weakness we need to strengthen?

A friend of mine recently became the pastor of a church that had just experienced a split after the previous pastor left in unpleasant circumstances. He told me, “My job here is to help the remnant experience healing.” His go-to topics are forgiveness, mercy, reconciliation, avoiding gossip and idle-talk, and staying focused, as a church, on top priorities.

As you prayerfully consider these questions, the Holy Spirit often brings one key idea to the surface. From there, you begin your research … and that’s where Preaching Library is eager to help.

The Distance Between Finally and Amen

Even if you don’t use the words “in conclusion,” or “and finally,” your listeners should be able to perceive that you’re in the closing section of your message — if you have built the sermon around an intuitive, easy-to-follow format.

Your listeners will know you’re wrapping it up, and they’ll be ready for you to bring the message home — sooner rather than later.

When checkmate is your next move, you don’t waste time re-arranging your pawns. You finish the game.

In the same way, the conclusion needs to be concise. It’s not the time to be funny, or to tell a story that just came to mind, or to introduce new ideas. It’s the time to make your final move: bring your message together with a practical, do-able ten-second-take-away that your listeners can put to use in their daily lives. And make your call to decision.

If you have built your message well, your listeners will already be asking: What can I do? What should I do next? Don’t make them wait for the answer. Once the “and finally…” part of the message begins, bring it to a close as efficiently as you can.

And then you can say Amen.

Application Leads to Action

Solomon says, “A wise teacher’s words spur students to action and emphasize important truths.” (Ecclesiastes 12:11 Living Bible)

This describes the preaching task. Our job isn’t merely to give people something to think about, our job is spur them into action. Our job is to tell them on Sunday morning how they can put God’s word into practice on Monday.

In this sense, every sermon could be a how-to sermon — how to take “this important truth” and put it into action in your daily life. If we’re not challenging people to do something, we’re subtly encouraging them to be mere hearers of the word who delude themselves. [James 1:22] The difference between a sermon and a class lecture is in the application of spiritual truth.

Every doctrine, no matter how deep or academic, has a practical application. The question we must ask is, “What does this truth mean to the listener? How does it affect one’s daily life, one’s decisions, one’s attitude towards problems, one’s ambitions, hopes and dreams? How does one live life according to this truth?”

In class, we only needed to be able to define a doctrine or a theological concept to pass the test.

In the pulpit, our challenge is to apply it — to spur our people to action, so that their lives can be transformed by the truth of God’s Word.

1 Thessalonians 5:11

The Empowering Truth

God spoke to the prophet Jeremiah:

“…if you utter worthy, not worthless, words, you will be my spokesman.” (Jeremiah 15:19)

I could write 52 weeks a year about how weighty God considers our words, because it’s a truth encountered again and again throughout the Bible. You see it in the Psalms and the Proverbs, in the prophets and the epistles, and certainly in the gospels. What you say matters.

With every conversation, with every communication, we are called to speak Worthy Words … words that contain the empowering truth — truth based on faith in his promises.

Our tendency, all too often, is to drone on and on about the badness of a particular problem, how everything is coming undone, how nothing is getting better … and woe is me, because it’s not my fault.

Do you know what such talk can be called?

Worthless words. It’s speech that has no value at all.

We must remember that we are called to speak more than merely the partial truth. We are called to speak the empowering truth.

There’s a difference between the two.

The partial truth may be that this or that situation is a mess. Of course, anyone can see it and anyone can say it. The empowering truth, however, is that God can turn this mess into a masterpiece.

The partial truth may be that someone you know has made a myriad of mistakes, and now they are paying the price. The empowering truth is that God can restore their life, just as he has restored your life, and he can redeem any situation — because his great is greater than our sin.

Speaking the empowering truth means more than merely analyzing the way things are. It means that, through faith, we  proclaim what God can do.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29)

Conversations (and sermons) that build others up and benefit those who listen — these are the worthy words that God spoke about to Jeremiah.

And when you fill your conversation with worthy words, his promise applies to you, too: “You will be my spokesman.”

If you have developed a pattern of speaking only what you feel, and saying only what your cynicism allows you to see … now is a good time to break the habit and start speaking words of faith.

It’s not that you’ll never call a situation dire, because dire happens, as we all know. It’s that you’ll learn to say: “This situation may not be good, but I know that God has the power to turn it around. He will change me, he will change you, he will change this circumstance, so that we will experience his glory in a new way.”

Is there someone you know … someone you care about deeply … who needs to hear the empowering truth today?

Number One Reason Americans Go To Church

The Number One Reason Americans Go To Church

According to a Gallup poll, the number one reason Americans attend church is to hear Biblical preaching.

And the numbers are high: 83 percent of Protestant worshipers cited sermons that “teach you more about scripture” as a major factor in why they go to church.

Almost as many — eighty percent — cited the importance of practical application, ie: teaching that connects our faith to daily life.

Biblical preaching ranks above kids’ programs, outreach, and social activities.

And it ranks way above music. Only 38 percent consider the worship band and/or choir a major factor.

What’s the lesson here?

Preach the Bible every week. The best way to do this is to build each sermon around one text, supported with supplemental texts.

During the introduction, provide relevant backstory on the passage. This need not be a seminary-level history lesson. Just enough information about the author, characters, and cultural surroundings so that your listeners can place the text in its proper context. This can usually be done in a couple of minutes.

Pull major points of your message — and especially your main idea — from the text.

As often as possible, preach through an entire book of the Bible. A good way to begin this practice is to cover a chapter a week, especially if many of your listeners don’t have much of a foundation in the Word. This will enable you to get through books quickly, helping your listeners establish a general knowledge of Scripture, which will prepare them for deeper studies.

However, even when you’re not preaching through a book of the Bible, always keep the first point in mind: Build each message around one Biblical text, drawing your points from it.

Christianity Today also published an article related to this Gallop survey.

Preaching To Needs

Preaching to People's NeedsIn 1956 pastoral counselor Edgar Jackson wrote a little volume called How To Preach To People’s Needs.

Through his research he had discovered that members of the average congregation — those sitting in the pews — were facing the following issues:

• 20% struggle with an acute sense of loss.
• 33% have serious marital problems.
• 50% are having trouble adjusting to major life-change.
• 10% are dealing with depression.
• 20% are overcome with guilt or fear.

Sixty-two years later, do you think those numbers are higher, or lower?

Let’s not forget, as we stand before our listeners, that there is unspoken pain in the room. Don’t hold back, then — not in your planning, or your preparation, or your delivery. Only the boldest message of hope can break through the darkness in their lives.

So let’s preach hope. Powerful, Biblical, grace-based hope. In every message.