My earliest preaching mentors taught me that every sermon needed four things: a compelling introduction, a body that included two or three points of biblical exegesis, illustrations to make it memorable, and a conclusion that helped people apply the truth to their lives.
Boy were they wrong.
Three points and a poem may have worked at one time; not anymore. Listening habits have changed, listener attitudes have changed, and the environment of the preaching event has changed.
Today, every sermon must do these seven things to capture attention and motivate life change.
1. Expose a Real-Life Problem
Every sermon must answer the question “What does this have to do with me?”
The best sermons don’t begin with the Bible. They begin with a question about life and lead to a biblical solution.
How should I respond to my gay son? Why isn’t my life more fulfilling? Is it possible to forgive?
With the whole world talking about sexuality, the value of life, immigration, and economic justice, there’s no excuse for not speaking directly to the questions people are urgently asking.
2. Give People a Reason to Care
Every sermon must answer the question “Why does this matter?”
People have lots of problems, not all of them urgent. The world moves too fast to spend energy on things that are factually accurate but utterly unimportant.
Part of our job is to show people what makes this particular truth worthy of thought and, ultimately, action.
What happens if I don’t follow Jesus? Why should virtue matter more to me than money? What’s at stake with this idea?
Say, verbatim, “Here’s why this message matters so much.” Then tell them.
3. Present a Biblical Solution
Every sermon must answer the question “What does God say about this?”
People don’t show up on Sunday wondering what new products Apple is working on or what the experts at Fast Company think. They want to hear from God.
It should go without saying that the Bible is the basis of every message and that every preacher must be steeped in prayer before daring to step into the pulpit.
That doesn’t mean that (a) a few minutes alone with God will suffice for sermon prep, or (b) every sermon must be expository. In fact, the most boring sermons simply present either the preacher’s latest devotional thought or the results of an exegetical study.
A biblical sermon identifies a truth plainly taught in Scripture, either from the close reading of a single passage (textual sermon) or the identification of a clear biblical theme using multiple texts (topical sermon).
Struggling for structural ideas? Here are 10 creative ways to present biblical truth.
4. Communicate Visually
Every sermon must answer the question “What are you talking about?”
The eye has replaced the ear as our primary source of input, so it is increasingly difficult to communicate to a live audience with the spoken word alone. Five minutes with no visual stimulation is sure to have people checking Facebook.
But beware of overusing video clips to hold attention. Many are distracting, or pointless, or both, and there are other ways to enter the eye gate.
Props, visual metaphors, lighting, projected symbols (including words as symbols) are useful. Even the preacher him- or herself, through the use of gestures, eye-contact, and strategic movement, can help hold attention. That’s one reason I’m a big fan of preaching without notes. (Learn how to do that here.)
5. Exude Passion
Every sermon must answer the question “Why should I trust you?”
Facts, statistics, and biblical research are not enough to engender credibility with contemporary audiences. They want to believe you.
If you aren’t convicted by your own words, nobody else will be. If the truth does grip your heart, your entire visage will say so. Let the truth sink into your soul and leak from every pore in your body.
Preach as if you were fighting for someone’s life. You are.
6. Offer Hope
Every sermon must answer the question “What’s possible?”
Not all biblical passages have happy endings, and people face intractable problems like addiction, grief, and loneliness.
So the preacher’s job isn’t finished until people believe that with God all things are possible. Give them a picture of a better future, even if it’s far away. Remind them that God is good, God is love, and God makes all things new.
Always remind your hearers that grace wins in the end.
7. Call for Action
Every sermon must answer the question “Now what?”
Good information—even inspiration—is useless until people know what to with it. Oddly, highly educated and successful people are often clueless about how to apply truth to their lives.
It isn’t enough to say, “Go now and realize that your words have power.” You have to add, “So don’t gossip about your coworkers. Wear a rubber band around your wrist this week and snap yourself every time you make a negative comment.” Then you have to give them the rubber band.
What sort of changes might I need to make in my life? When should I do that? Are you asking me to take action this every minute?
Always give listeners and opportunity to respond to the truth.
The preaching moment has changed dramatically in the 35 years since I delivered my first sermon. Yet the essence of the prophetic function remains the same. Tell both the problem and what God says about it. Give people hope. Call for change. And believe it with all your heart.
That’s good preaching.