1. Preparation: preparing to preach 2. Selection: selecting a text 3. Interrogation: exegeting the text 4. Variation: varying the sermons 5. Introduction: beginning the sermon 6. Organization (1): the principles of sermon organization 7. Organization (2): the practice of sermon organization 8. Application (1): the principles of application 9. Application (2): the practice of application 10. Presentation: preaching a sermon
One of my favourite childhood books was How do they do that? The Discovery Channel took the same idea and made it into a TV programme called How do they do it? The Internet has its own howstuffworks.com. These and other similar books, programmes, and web sites tap into our natural human curiosity. We want to know what lies behind the surface, what led up to the discovery, what makes what.
How Sermons Work is a ‘How do they do that?’ about preaching. If it was a web site, we would call it howsermonswork.com. I’ve written it for four audiences. First, it is for seminary students who want a short practical guide on how to prepare and preach a sermon. They will read the classic books on preaching theory and practice as they continue their studies, but their ‘practise preaching’ class is looming and they desperately need a helping hand to get started. Here it is.
Second, the book is for elders. The material was originally prepared to help elders who were being asked to preach in various settings. I wanted to give these men a simple step-by-step guide to help them to prepare sermons in an efficient, enjoyable and edifying way. I’ve expanded the material since then to help more elders become more ‘able to teach’ (1 Tim. 3:2).
Third, I hope that even experienced preachers might pick up a crumb or two by reading this brief ‘refresher.’
Fourth, although the book is about ‘How sermons work,’ I’ve written it so that the vast majority of the material will be relevant and helpful to anyone who has to prepare a Bible message (e.g. for Sunday schools, Bible studies, etc.). So it is not just for preachers.
In fact, maybe above all I want non-preachers to read this book. Given that the most important hours in a Christian’s week are the one or two hours they spend listening to their pastor’s sermons, I find it surprising how few Christians are interested in ‘How do they do that?’
Some people seem to think that pastors ‘receive’ their messages direct from God. They imagine some mysterious process by which the pastor just ‘gets’ a sermon. That is too high a view of preaching. It views preachers more like angels than ordinary mortals. I want to show that, just like any other work, there is a reasonable and logical method and system to follow.
Others think that a pastor just spends the week relaxing, gets up on a Sunday, and says the first thing that comes into his mind with little or no forethought or planning. That is too low a view of preaching. Anyone with a bit of verbal fluency could do it. I want to demonstrate that behind the thirty to forty-five minutes you see and hear on a Sunday morning are many hours of mental, spiritual and practical labour. Like all pastoral labor, it involves head, heart and hand.
So, if you want to increase respect for your pastor and his preaching, ask, ‘How do they do that?’ Then read this book and find out the answer.
The preacher has a number of God-given voice tools in his vocal toolbox. Here are six. (Update: For more on how to deliver a sermon, see my new book from Evangelical Press, How Sermons Work.)
1. Volume There is no point in preaching if we do not speak so as to be heard. The voice should be loud enough to be heard by all throughout the whole sermon. Volume should flow naturally from the subject material and its impact on our own hearts. It should not be manufactured.2. Diction Many people mistakenly think that volume is the most important factor in making ourselves heard. It’s not. It’s diction – the clarity with which words are spoken. People will hear even the whispers of someone who clearly separates and articulates all the consonants and syllables of his words without slurring, mumbling, or omission. Equally, without diction, the loudest voice in the world will be just a noise to the hearers. 3. Tone Tone refers not so much to the volume of the note but the pitch of it. The voice has a wide range of tones from low bass notes to high alto notes. In our everyday speech our tone varies with mood and circumstance. This natural variety should be carried into the pulpit in order to avoid unnatural monotony. Normally sermons begin with a low tone/pitch, which usually heightens as the sermon progresses to application.4. Emphasis When we talk to people, we naturally emphasize what we most want our hearer to listen to. We do this by an increase in volume, diction, or tone for a word or two. This natural “tool” for making one word or phrase stand out from the rest is an important and much underused vocal asset.5. Pace Another “tool” is pace. Regular and appropriate variations in pace make listening easier. Care should be taken not to speak like a train – and also not to speak like a tortoise. Wise insertion of pauses allow the truth to sink in and influence the heart before moving on to the next point. Sermons without pauses are like the flat stones which are skimmed across the surface of the water. They make shallow and temporary impressions on the surface as they skate along. Pauses allow the pebbles of truth to sink down and stay down.6. Variety “Variety” simply refers to the wise and judicious combination of these “tools”. When building a house, the joiner does not always use the hammer. He picks up different tools for different tasks. So, when preaching a sermon, the preacher should wisely vary the use of his vocal tools, moving from loud to quiet, from fast to slow, from didactic to emotional, etc. Robert L. Dabney said: “Take your model here from Nature. She does not thunder all the year; she gives us sunshine, gentle breezes, a sky checkered with lights and shades, the stiffening gale, and sometimes the rending storm. So no hearer can endure a tempest of rhetoric throughout the discourse.”
Application is what makes a sermon “stick.” It glues the truth to the mind, fixes it in the heart, and attaches it to the conscience. Without application, the sermon slips through one ear and goes out the other, leaving us unchanged.
But what is application? Here’s my definition: Application is the process by which the unchanging principles of God’s word are brought into life-changing contact with people who live in an ever-changing world. Update: For more on sermon application see my new book from Evangelical Press, How Sermons Work.
The preacher is described as, “a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). This means that a major part of the preacher’s task is to divide the word of God into appropriate blocks of material. His sermons should have a plan or a structure. This means that the main block of sermon material will be divided into two or more smaller and distinct blocks of material which are then presented in logical sequence.
Sometimes this plan will be obvious before the preacher even begins to question the text. Sometimes it will arise as he works on it, and sometimes it will only arise after the work of exegesis is completed. In sermon preparation, the preacher should be constantly seeking a structure. And even when one emerges, the question should be, “Is this the best one?” The preacher must be prepared to dispense with his initial structure if another emerges which better presents the subject.
The major benefit of structure, apart from helping the preacher to present his material, is that it greatly aids retention of the message by the listeners.
Update: New book from Evangelical Press: How Sermons Work.
1. Don’t be too long Over-lengthy introductions imbalance the sermon, waste time, and weary the congregation. An introduction should contain only one leading thought. 2. Don’t be too showy Some preachers think that they will get their hearers attention by displaying their historical, cultural, or literary learning in their introduction. Shun the sensational and anything that smacks of display.3. Don’t be too ambitious Trying to link a distant event or saying with the subject of the sermon by a long series of elaborate leaps in logic will not be persuasive. The introduction must be clearly relevant to the body of the sermon.4. Don’t be too personal To start with a personal story now and again may be acceptable but not as a general rule.5. Don’t be too loud The introduction is meant to be a gradual awakening not a bugle in the ear which exhausts the preacher for the main body of the sermon. Save your steam for the “hot” parts. 6. Don’t be too predictable One writer has argued that a good introduction to a sermon would only be good for that sermon and for no other. If it is adaptable to other sermons then it probably is too general and vague. Try to avoid stereotypical and predictable introductions. Sometimes it may be useful to give a brief introduction before reading the text.7. Don’t steal the sermon’s thunder The introduction should pave the way for the sermon, not repeat it. If you introduce later material from the main body of the sermon in the introduction, you end up repeating the introduction. 8. Don’t be apologetic Preachers must not introduce their sermons with an apology for themselves or their sermons. This will not excite sympathy in the hearers but contempt. Preachers are authorized and authoritative ambassadors of Christ and must convey that. 9. Don’t flatter Preacher’s who begin by flattering their audiences will be regarded as insincere sycophants. 10. Don’t be offensive Great care must be taken not to offend taste especially at the beginning, when first impressions are so important. Have a regard to the age and sensitivities of your congregation.
For more on introducing a sermon, see my new book from Evangelical Press: How Sermons Work.