1. Are the physical conditions where you preach favorable?
The most elementary factor in gaining and keeping interest in a sermon is the ability of an audience to listen with a reasonable degree of comfort. True, soldiers have heard a chaplain’s sermons under a barrage of artillery fire, but a certain urgency of need contributed motivation to pay attention.
Ordinarily, poor acoustics, uncomfortable seating, lack of temperature control, crying or unruly children, and other such distractions can negate the best effort of an outstanding speaker with a vital message.
2. Are you yourself interested in what you preach?
Nothing could be duller and more boring than a sermon that the preacher gave as a mere recitation because it was eleven o’clock Sunday morning and the congregation expected the space of twenty or thirty minutes to be filled with words.
Some speakers are naturally intensely involved in whatever they happen to be talking about, and they just as naturally involve others in what they say. Their speech does not have to be a matter of life and death: they can talk about automobiles, basketball, books, or people and make you hang on every word.
What does the preacher do who does not have that native ability? As to sermons, we can read and think about the subject or text until excitement builds. We can — indeed, must — “preach” the sermon to our own self and let the truth of the message grip us. Also, we can pray until we are virtually compelled to share what we have experienced.
A noted preacher — who always had his Sunday preparation finished by Friday-spent a part of Saturday pondering his sermon and sometimes became so excited about his message that he had to take a sedative to get to sleep that night. No wonder he always preached with arresting passion!
Of course, the problem with some preachers is that they do not communicate the genuine interest they feel. Their early conditioning or their cultural inhibitions acquired later — perhaps both — cause everything they say to come forth muted. I have observed that my students who have had experience in acting are better able to express the interest they do feel than the average student who has not had such experience.
Many of us need to be loosened up. Recently lawyers who have practiced for years with limited success have recognized the need to be more expressive and have taken courses that have, in particular instances, revolutionized their ability to be persuasive. The good news of Jesus Christ deserves the kind of presentation that truly reflects its importance.
3. Do you address the vital interests of your congregation?
This is a tricky matter. What people feel to be important varies from individual to individual. The vital interests of one person may be noble and altruistic, while those of another are cheap and selfish. Talking about money may interest both of them for different reasons. One may want more money so as to help people in need. The other may want more money only “to spend it on his pleasure.” Prayer as a way to get things will be of interest to both and deserves an excellent hearing, yet one will grow spiritually and the other will merely feed his greed.
However, life and motives are not always so simply defined. The motives that impel us are remarkably mixed. A whole complex of needs and wants get involved in our decision-making, and even our finest motives are tainted to a greater or lesser degree with selfishness.
Many things can get our attention for something good, and while we often make a decision on the basis of less than the best of motives, we can progress to better motives and higher desires. We would like to think that every pew occupant came to church solely from a desire to worship God, yet we know that many new members join because of friendship, at least initially. Deeper motives may supersede the early shallow ones. Still the fact stands that a very human need got the process underway.
Why shouldn’t one human being talking to another about matters of spiritual significance speak in very human terms as a means of getting attention for those matters of ultimate importance? For that reason, you may well design your sermons with the help of Maslow’s “heirarchy of needs,” or something similar.
4. Do you make use of tension in your sermons?
The play of opposites is one thing that makes life interesting. A narrative that simply chronicles one colorless event after another, without evidence of opposing forces, is naturally boring. But let someone or some circumstance throw a monkey-wrench into the chain of events, hinder what would otherwise take place peacefully, and then we sit up and take notice.
If we identify with characters in the narrative we care what happens to them and take sides. The narrative is transformed into a story and becomes exciting.
So there is the tension of antagonism, and there is also the tension of suspense. Look at Jesus’ parables. In the story of the Good Samaritan we want to know what happened to the man who was beaten and robbed. In the story of the Prodigal Son we want to know what happened to the boy when one hindrance after another befell him.
In the same way, the inductive sermon goes after the truth that stands forth clearly only toward the end of the sermon. Some questions, some difficulty, some problem, some need must be answered, and all the evidence points to the still unresolved issue about which we may be breathless until the answer comes.
Frank Caldwell described the “dog-fight technique” for constructing a sermon. You might take some saying like that of Karl Marx — “Religion is the opiate of the people” — and tear into it, using all your resources to castigate it and refute it. If you know what you are talking about, you will be listened to.
Harry Overstreet described the “chase technique,” in which you might seek a solution to a particular problem. You would explore various avenues for an answer, eliminating one after another until you come to the right one. You might say that the solution is not this or this or this but this.
Why do we suggest, by our bland, unexciting approach, “Peace, peace!” when in fact struggle and tension are a normal part of life? Scripture is filled with dramatic contrasts, and we can make edifying use of them if we only open our eyes and see them.
5. Do your sermons favor the concrete rather than the abstract?
An old saying has it: “One picture is worth a thousand words.” Nowhere is that more true than in sermons.
The Bible, the basis of our preaching, is one great picture gallery, and some parts of it do tend to the abstract. It is more precisely a motion picture in which “the God who acts” is continuously in motion in history with His people.
This action-packed drama shows us concretely what God and men are like — individually and together. And we are drawn to what unfolds before our eyes. We may be even drawn into it and feel that we are there, a part of what is happening.
We could speculate forever about what God is like, but Jesus showed us concretely all that people need to know about God. Jesus was God’s example of Himself, the unmarred image of God. Jesus was God’s best argument.
Likewise, persons in whom the Christian faith comes to expression may in many ways and circumstances be our best argument for the truth of the gospel. And persons in whom the Christian faith is not permitted to come to expression in various life situations may be negatively an argument for the value and desirability of what Christianity offers.
So far, I have argued obliquely for the use of illustrations and examples in which persons figure prominently. However, there are other ways of achieving concreteness. An illustration may consist of only a sentence, perhaps just a word. A metaphor — “you are the salt of the earth” — can state a matter concretely and make a lasting impression. The same is true of a simile: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”
Some preachers may like to think in profound philosophical modes. Yet they should not imagine that their listeners are necessarily of the same inclination. Sermons should be designed to illuminate, rather than darken, understanding. Concreteness, then, can be our strong ally.
6. Do your sermons show variety of subject matter and form?
Preachers are under a biblical mandate to preach “the whole counsel of God.” If this were done it would assure that sermons would have variety of subject matter, for the scope of that counsel touches all aspects of life as we live it before God.
The problem is that we tend to have our hobbies and preach on favorite texts, like the preacher who preaches so often on the Prodigal Son that the congregation begins to feel that the elder brother was right in refusing to join the party. Or we preach so often on baptism that the congregation may be tempted to join a group that does not baptize.
If we simply let ourselves be led by the scriptures our sermons will enjoy kaleidoscopic variety. The general subjects covered in the Bible are limited in number, yet the different contexts provide an almost unlimited number of ways of approach. Preaching straight through selected Bible books or following suggested texts in a lectionary will lead a preacher into wide and challenging varieties of ideas.
Of course, it is possible to turn up a multitude of different sermonic ideas and yet to bore a congregation with them because we treat them all with a sameness of form. We force every sermon into the same homiletical mold.
The simplest way out of that problem is to let the sermon follow the form and/or style of the text. First, you might proceed interrogatively in a sermon if the text is a question. Arthur John Gossip did that in his classic sermon, “But When Life Tumbles In, What Then?” Or you might simply follow the movement of thought in the text, pursuing the author’s meanderings faithfully as you interpret his meaning.
“The Bible is rich in forms of expression: poetry, saga, historical narrative, proverb, hymn, diary, biography, parable, personal correspondence, drama, myth, dialogue, and gospel, whereas most sermons, which seek to communicate the messages of that treasury of materials, are all in essentially the same form,” observes Fred Craddock. “Why should the multitude of forms and modes within biblical literature and the multitude of needs in the congregation be brought together in one unvarying mold, and that copied from Greek rhetoricians of centuries ago? An unnecessary monotony results, but more profoundly there is an inner conflict between the content of the sermon and its form.”
7. Do your sermons have humor in them?
Considering the seriousness of the subject of religion, one might think that humor would have no place in a sermon. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
We find humor in the Bible. Elton Trueblood discovered enough of it to write a book entitled The Humor of Christ, Frederick Buechner went so far as to suggest that some of the parables of Jesus could be called holy jokes. Scholars have discovered puns in the writings of the Apostle Paul.
Granted, a few people would be so biased against pulpit humor that anything amusing would not achieve the kind of interest a preacher would desire. Also, others just seem not to be constitutionally tuned to see the humor in anything. However, most people appreciate good, clean, fresh, down-to-earth humor.
Humor contributes to sermons in many ways. A speaker not well-known to an audience can break the ice more quickly with humor than in any other way. Also, it is a well-known psychological principle that a serious thought following laughter will make a deeper impression than otherwise. Humor often helps us to face our foibles, laugh at them, and perhaps even rid ourselves of some of them.
Of course, the use of humor can be overdone. Neil Postman has accused us — and with some justifications — of “amusing ourselves to death,” so that our addiction to being entertained leaves us with little desire for discourse that has substance. I could imagine a contemporary church built more on the comic talents of the preacher than on the gospel and its ethic. Yet, the indefatigable “funny man in the pulpit” will not be able to address the inevitable pain, guilt, fears, and despair that sooner or later will overtake members of the congregation.
Most preachers, however, under-do the use of humor. Sermons can be markedly improved if the preacher will become a close observer of human nature, indulge in a bit of obvious exaggeration in describing it, and avoid going out of the way for something funny. This is no appeal for stale jokes that sometimes do evoke polite chuckles from sympathetic parishioners who don’t want their minister to be embarrassed by the silence of a joke fallen flat.
8. Do you share yourself in your sermons?
I am thinking of two quite different preachers. One of them can hardly preach a sermon without relating his theme directly to himself. Every truth of scripture seems to have to be filtered through the alembic of his personal experience. The other preacher eschews first-person stories in sermons and seldom uses them. Yet this preacher’s personal involvement with what he is saying is so obvious that his own image and superscription is on everything he says. Needless to say, both of these preachers have unusually attentive audiences.
Perhaps the first preacher fails to some extent to recognize that one preacher cannot experience personally every truth worth talking about. Sometimes we have to speak with certitude about things that other people have believed, and experiences that may be outside of our own competence.
Perhaps the second preacher is occasionally too cocksure in his attitude. Nevertheless, each of them in his own way is attempting to sound an authentic note in Christian preaching: the note of personal witness to the truth that is every preacher’s duty to herald.
Phillips Brooks was right when he called preaching “truth through personality.” Harry Emerson Fosdick said that preaching is “drenching a congregation with one’s life’s blood.”
Preaching that is modestly autobiographical, while it is authentically God-centered, may carry unusual power to engage the attention of the hearers. Tell me and show me in one way or another what Christ means to you in this situation or that, and I will listen.
1. Are the physical conditions where you preach favorable?