By R. Clifford Jones
Tuesday, March 01, 2005
the introduction create interest or trigger tension? Did it bring listeners
on board by revealing need and orienting the listener to what came afterwards?
Did the introduction provide a structural overview of the sermon? Introductions
are invitations for hearers to commit themselves for the long haul, hopefully
the next 30 minutes or so. In the world of broadcasting there is a time-honored
maxim that if you do not immediately grab the interest of the viewers or listeners,
you will undoubtedly lose them. The same holds true for preaching. Much thought,
therefore, ought to go into the introduction of the sermon, considered by many
preachers to be the most challenging part of the sermon to prepare.
What makes for good introductions? Certainly not something like, "Last week we were in Ephesians 3, this week we'll be in Ephesians 4." Nothing about that statement is exciting or appealing. Stories, anecdotes, quotes, and the like have long been considered staples for introductions, and the more contemporaneous they are, the more effective the introduction will be. One other thing about introductions: they are most effective when they are not read. Especially is this true when the preacher is relating a story in which he or she is a character. And maintaining eye contact with your audience in the beginning of the sermon is a must.
I consider the title of the sermon to be part of the introduction, and how the title is announced is crucial. Long after the sermon has been preached, people will remember its title. A catchy, memorable title sets the sermon up, and causes people to adjust themselves in their seats, waiting for what is to come. The general rule is that a title should not be more than seven words and should hint at what the sermon is about without giving all of it away. A title is a contract between the preacher and his or her audience, meaning that a sermon that fails to speak to issues denoted or connoted in the title is a breach of contract. While preachers should strive to be creative and original with titles, we should remember to shun that which is jocular, jolting, and jesty.
Did the sermon reflect eye-opening biblical exegesis and well-rounded research? Sermons lacking in sound biblical exegesis are the woe of many preachers. As much as post-modernism has created a thirst for an individualized, customized application of biblical truth, people still want to know that the fare the preacher is offering is exegetically sound. Hearers still place a premium on solid, biblical scholarship that is evidenced in deep, meaty sermons. People frown on frivolous, lightweight stuff that may tingle the ears and fancy the soul, but neither nourishes nor satisfies the deep longings of the human heart.
Before preachers soar homiletically, they must dig exegetically. Before we decide what God wants to say through us to our congregations, we must know what He wanted the biblical writer to say to another people in another place and time. And we preachers must accept that biblical exegesis is not determining what the biblical writer wanted to say, but discovering what the biblical writer wanted to say. As such, the biblical exegete will go the Scripture with no preconceived thoughts or personal agendas, but with an open mind, anxious to discover what God has disclosed. In exegesis, the preacher strives for accuracy.
Some preachers bunch or lump their exegesis together at the beginning of the sermon, especially their discoveries relating to historical data. They feel it is crucial to give all their background material first, to "lay the foundation," as it were. Exegesis works best, though, when it is interwoven throughout the sermon and is undetectable, though evident. Exegesis should function in a sermon as yeast does in bread or seasoning in food. It should impact the product but not be glaringly detectable. And the preacher must ever resist the temptation to impress the hearer with his or her scholarship, remembering that it is virtually impossible to lift up Jesus and show oneself to be smart simultaneously.
Was the sermon theologically sound? Preaching is a deeply theological act in which a human being speaks a word on behalf of God. It is because God has spoken that the preacher dares to speak, and the word the preacher proclaims must ring with theology.
No matter the passage of Scripture, the preacher must not only craft an exegetical proposition, but a theological one as well. He or she must plumb for the profound theological themes in the passage, linking them to similar themes in the rest of Bible. Indeed, it is in comparing a theological principle or theme in one pericope to a similar theme in another passage that the biblical exegete will be able to test the veracity of that particular theme. Along the way, the preacher will ask questions such as: "What is God saying and demonstrating to His people in this passage? Was the sermon christocentric?"
It is alleged that Charles Spurgeon once remarked that it didn't matter what his passage for the day was, after reading it he would immediately make a beeline to the cross. For Spurgeon, Christ and His cross were to be at once the core, content and center of all preaching. Preaching that failed to lift up Jesus Christ had no currency for Spurgeon, who like Paul reveled in the "foolishness of the cross."
A sermon that is grounded in the love of Christ will exhibit a grace orientation even if it deals with matters of the law. It will reek of restoration and resurrection, since, in a true sense, all Christian preaching is resurrection preaching. Hope will not be a lacking ingredient, but an ever present reality that seasons every element of the sermon.
Was the content of the sermon instructive? Was the material insightful? Most important, did the sermon scratch where people are itching? All the exegesis in the world will not amount to much if the sermon is not packaged in a palatable, captivating form. As preachers seek to be accurate as a result of their exegesis, so we must seek to be relevant in the way we construct and deliver our sermons.
One of the first questions that pop up in people's minds as preachers read their Scriptural passage and announce their title is, "Why did the preacher choose this passage for today?" Another is, "What does this have to do with me?" A variation of the second question is, "Will listening to this sermon make a difference in my life?" Perhaps more than anything else, listeners want to know that the preacher understands what they are going through and resonate with their needs. As much as they are interested in knowing what God had to say to His people of ancient times, listeners want to know that God understands their contemporary situation and is able to address, if not ameliorate, it.
The challenge of the preacher, then, is to deliver a sermon that is not only exegetically sound but also contextually relevant. If we want to capture and hold the attention of people, we must be interesting, remembering that people tend to be interested in that which meets their needs. Thus, the preacher will not only exegete the biblical text, but the community as well.
The content of a sermon should be age-appropriate. The general rule is that a sermon should be pitched to the educational level of the 10-year-olds in the congregation, making for a delivery that has broad appeal. Additionally, sermons should reflect an awareness of the occasion, meaning that a baccalaureate sermon will be markedly different from a funeral homily. Whatever the occasion, the content of the sermon should be sound and sober, eschewing the trivial and banal. After all, the sermon is a word from God.
Did the sermon reflect good use of illustrations? Supportive material make sermons interesting and relevant. As such, the content of a sermon should have an ample supply of stories, anecdotes, and other types of illustrations. These are like windows to the sermon, providing the hearer with an opportunity to "see" or experience in a captivating way what the preacher is talking about. It may also be said that an illustration is like a needed break that a swimmer needs to come up for a breath of fresh air. It is a break in the action, a time-out, if you please, during which the hearer regroups and adjusts. Without illustrations, a sermon is a dry discourse that is destined to bore.
Stories should never be told just for the sake of telling a story, and they should be serious and told in good taste. Stories help listeners experience, whereas explanations help them understand. Testimony and figures/numbers help listeners accept.
The most effective illustrations are real life experiences of the preacher. Little captures and holds the attention of hearers more than a preacher who is willing to share from his or her life. The practice suggests an identification with the listening audience, and a transparency that makes for authenticity. Knowing that self-disclosure does not come easily in today's culture, audiences tend to be drawn to preachers who are open and candid, especially as it relates to the struggles of life.
In addition to stories of the preacher's personal life, those of other people, whether living or dead, also make for good listening. Such stories engender identification, placing the listener in the presentation. Of course, every preacher knows that it is a breach of ministerial ethics to share from the pulpit information that is confidential, and that even changing the names and locations of stories to "protect the identity" of individuals is sometimes not good enough. As such, preachers should exercise extreme caution is sharing stories of others, doing so only when they have received permission from the parties involved.
Should preachers ever concoct stories to make a point? Most of my colleagues think it is unethical to do so, while a few see nothing wrong with the practice. Like most things in life, I guess it depends. One thing is for sure, and that is that telling a story as though it were true when it wasn't is unethical.
In a sense, ours is an age of story, an era of induction. Never before have people identified as much with story. As a consequence, in this day and age some sermons are a quilt of stories, one told after the next, with the preacher driving home his or her point at the end. That practice is all well and good if the stories are tied together so that the listener is not left scratching his or her head, wondering what the stories were all about.
Was the sermon well organized? Was the material laid out in a logical, coherent, sequential form? Were hearers able to follow the preacher without getting lost? Were the transitions in the sermon smooth and unobstrusive? As a teenager, I once listened to a sermon that was nothing but a hodgepodge of loosely connected ideas. The preacher seemed to be going in every direction all at once, and when he was done, not a few of us had a burning headache. Sadly, many preachers, like that one, can be indicted for confusing and confounding their hearers due to their lack of organization.
Organization is more than an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. What goes into each and how the content of each develops and flows is the crux of the matter. There must be unity, order and progression in a sermon, and transitions ought to be smooth and imperceptible. Transitions are most powerful when they are least noticeable. And because people tend to "listen up ahead," anticipating the next point or act in the sermon, the preacher should package the sermon in such a way that tension and interest are sustained. All that is said ought to reflect Athe big idea@ of the sermon, it being understood that a sermon should only have one "big idea."
Was good, effective language employed in the delivery of the sermon? This is not to suggest that preachers should strive to impress hearers with their facility in language. Verbosity is not the goal in this regard, but clarity. What preachers want their listeners to bring to church is their Bibles, not their dictionaries. Language that is age-appropriate and crystal clear so that all readily understand is what the preacher wants to utilize.
I once heard a preacher intone, "As I soliloquy succinctly, the sanctity of . . . ." Even though the alliteration and choice of words captivated me, I couldn't help but wonder if simpler words would not have been as, if not more, compelling in conveying what the preacher was trying to say.
In a true sense, the preacher is an artist, with words being the stuff with which he paints pictures. And yes, preachers, as writers, should aspire to be as creative and graphic as possible. Yet we must succeed at both without being overbearing, ever remembering that Jesus, our Savior, was compelling in His simplicity.
The beauty of English is that there is a rich array of words to convey the same thoughts, and the preacher who, through laziness or lack of learning, settles for the mundane and everyday to convey the sublime robs the listener. Figures of speech are there for us to utilize as we try to capture subtle nuances, and our listeners want to see, hear, feel, and smell what we are saying. Thus, we should use language that facilitates this longing on their part. To say, "when we got there it was fall and all the trees were red," instead of something like, "when we limped into camp it was fall and the forest had already exploded in color," is almost unforgivable.
Preparing a manuscript of the sermon has proven to be an invaluable practice in helping preachers use just the right word to express their thoughts. Writing out the sermon, even if one is not a manuscript preacher, also helps us crystallize and clarify our thinking. As they put their thoughts to paper, preachers ought never forget, though, that they will be heard, not read. Consequently, they should write with a listening, not a reading, audience in mind, except, of course, they are preparing a sermon for publication.
Was listening to this sermon easy or difficult? Did the posture of the preacher get in the way? What about the preacher's gestures, pacing, and demeanor? Did they detract in any way? A sermon is something that is preached. Its delivery should be direct and dynamic, with little or no distractions. Many sermons which were exceptional on paper have turned out otherwise because of botched deliveries.
One practice that almost invariably detracts from a sermon's effectiveness is for the preacher to be married to his or her manuscript. It is a time-honored truism that speakers who maintain eye contact with their audiences are infinitely more effective than those who do not. To be sure, there are preachers who read their sermons and still succeed at remaining connected with their audiences. They are, however, more the exception that the rule.
Another practice that tends to detract from a sermon's effectiveness is the up-and-down motion of the preacher's head as he or she tries to read and look at the audience intermittently. When done quickly, the practice is even more distracting, making the preacher look like a fowl drinking water.
Even before the preacher mounts the pulpit, he is sized up the audience. In other words, preachers begin to preach long before they begins to preach. People check out the preacher's attire and mannerisms, even trying to key into the preacher's personality. And as the preacher takes to the pulpit, the interest of the audience is heightened. Any idiosyncracies are noted and could easily become a major distraction. It is important, therefore, for the preacher to pay attention to anything that could draw attention away from the message to be preached, with a view to eliminating them.
Attention should be paid to what is done with the hands and feet. Wringing the hands, burying them in the pocket, or using them to gesticulate wildly, excessively, or inappropriately are all distracting. And the excessive movement and/or animation of the preacher may be distracting. To be sure, in this day and age of the roaming preacher, this is not a distraction in many circles. Today, preachers are prone to traverse the entire length of the rostrum, and to take to the aisles so that they may more readily connect with their audience. In a sense, whether the movement of the preacher becomes a distraction or not depends on the personality of the preacher. For some, movement, even excessive movement, goes with the preacher's personality; for others, it does not, coming across as contrived. It depends on the location and the preacher involved, making the matter of sensitivity to the context a critical one.
Grammatical errors minimize a sermon's effectiveness, as do inaccuracies in the preacher's material. Stories that sound too good to be true also distract. The level and tone of the preacher's voice contribute to a preacher's effectiveness. And because it is so true that preaching is truth through personality, the preacher's personality, which invariably and inevitably shines through the presentation, may be a barrier or catalyst to the sermon's receptivity.
Did the preacher end smoothly? How a sermons ends is as important as how it begins. In fact, some people believe that the conclusion of the sermon is more important than the beginning, if for no other reason than that it is the part of the sermon the hearer is most likely to take away.
What should the preacher put in the conclusion? What should the conclusion seek to achieve? The preacher should repeat or restate the main points or "big idea" of the sermon, telling the audience what he or she has just told them. In the conclusion, preachers should summarize and illustrate the message, and challenge or exhort their listeners. Through it all, Jesus Christ should be lifted up and the grace of Christ made evident.
People know when a sermon is ended, and so should the preacher. When the preacher has reached his destination, he should land the plane smoothly and taxi it to the terminal. Once I was on a plane that was about to hit the runway at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport when, without warning, the pilot took off. As I recall, we must have been about no more than a couple of feet from the ground when we went airborne again. It was a pretty scary experience. The pilot quickly came on the air to inform us that another plane had been on the runway, and had it not been for his quick action, we would have collided with that plane.
The skill of that pilot saved many lives that day. He took off as he was about to land, an act for which each passenger was grateful. Yet some preachers take off as they prepare to land for no apparent good reason. In doing so they confuse, and in some instances anger, their listeners. Of course, if they become airborne to avert a collision, they may be forgiven.
"Bringing the sermon home" should be done without rambling or awkwardness, and preachers who are unsure of how to end a sermon should not hazard a start -- which is not to say that the sermon should be scripted to the last detail, thereby denying the preacher any latitude for spontaneity or the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
If an appeal is made at the conclusion of the sermon, it should be spiritual, appropriate, and persuasive without being manipulative. Preachers need to be ethical in the way they appeal, eschewing the temptation to do any and everything possible to get someone to respond positively to what has been presented. We should try to make sure that the appeal is congruent with the message, not disjointed or extraneous.
What was the overall impact of the sermon? Did it scratch where people are itching? What was memorable about it? Did it appeal to something deep within the listener? Will those who heard it remember it for a long time to come? How has it changed the hearers?
Sometimes sermons that come up short in many of the aforementioned areas still succeed in having an overall positive impact on hearers. How well I recall a sermon I preached in my early ministry that falls into this category. As far as I was concerned, that sermon was the worst I had preached up to that point. It was a rushed job preached with the tenuousness and lack of confidence with which a young preacher who did not prepare well would be crippled. Yet, for reasons that still elude me, most of the members of the congregation seemed to receive a blessing from that sermon. In fact, more people accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior that day than have ever done as a result of subsequent sermons of mine.
Several elements not mentioned before contribute to the overall impact of a sermon, including the mood of the worshipers, the music rendered, and events taking place in the world and community. Sometimes a congregation is just ready for a sermon, the worship service having primed hearers to receive the preacher. A sermon emphasizing hope in the aftermath of a natural disaster or social upheaval will likely go over well.
Ultimately, a sermon that has not had an overall positive effect on listeners has failed. After all, the goal of the preacher is not to impress hearers with his or her facility in the original languages of Scripture, or his or her competency as an expositor. Nor is the preacher out to prove that he or she is a skilled pulpiteer. What preachers want is to communicate the word of God in such a way that lives are changed and enriched.
Preaching is the most challenging aspect of our work, and many pastors feel inadequate in the pulpit. Yet with prayer and hard work, we can craft and deliver sermons that transform the lives of our hearers and expand the kingdom of God on the earth as we pay attention to these elements of effective preaching.
R. Clifford Jones is Associate Professor of Christian Ministry at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, MI.