Put plenty into your sermons. After hearing some discourses I have often been reminded of the request of the farmer’s boy to his missus when eating his broth, “Missus, I wish you would let that chicken run through this broth once more.” (C. H. Spurgeon)1
Some ministers use their Bibles as the farmer’s wife used her chicken. They seem to feel that as long as any pulpit subject suggests some tenuous scriptural relationship it needs little solid biblical content. But all good sermons, like nutritious chicken soup, need substance as well as flavor, nourishment as well as taste.
Too often a sermon gathers its orthodox savor only from a drop or two of scriptural seasoning sprinkled through its introduction or added at its end. Such touches of biblical flavor supply little real nourishment to build the body of Christ or to satisfy the deep inner hungers of those who long to find nutrition enough to strengthen spiritual mind and muscle. Many topical sermons which possess good moral, ethical, social, or even spiritual dimensions differ from the kind of discussions one may find in the editorial columns of a good family newspaper only by the occasional release of some mild religious aroma. Such homilies may smell right, and even taste right, yet still fail because they lack actual biblical strength sufficient to nurture spiritual living. Where our sermons show such malaise, how may this be cured?
Designing a Cuisine
Stuffing It Down?: Certainly not by any endeavor to force-feed a congregation with indigestible chunks of biblical material served as great gulps of factual truth stirred into a thick conglomeration of exegetical stew. The best meals will always give participants something to chew on but comfortable digestion requires the contents to be both palatable and sized so as to be easily assimilated.
Many experienced pastors affirm that growing individuals and churches need a pulpit diet of from 75% to 85% of solid biblical exposition if their spiritual maturity is not to be compromised. The great tragedy is that, so often when we adopt this approach to congregational nourishment, it turns out to be nothing but a very dull and boring exercise.
Yet the even greater tragedy is that revulsion from such a badly presented biblical cuisine can blind us to another and more significant concern. This is the fact that even if wholesome food is presented without a proper attention to its seasoning and savor, the power of its raw nutrition can still nurture growth and sustain spiritual strength.
Exposing Biblical Substance: Expository preachers stand in good company. Peter, Stephen, Philip, and Paul all used selected substance from their Scriptures to marshall information that would lead listeners to discover mutually shared conclusions. Luke 24:27 affirms that Jesus explained His disciples’ then- situation by expounding from “Moses and all the prophets.” A true expository approach seeks to collate, clarify, relate, and then communicate biblical realities which are chosen to meet the needs of hearers today. But bad experiences with biblicists inhibit us from realizing that, in its best expression, fine exposition can be both creative and exciting.
Why do so many in our congregations struggle to recall the truths we share with them Sunday by Sunday, and few apply their meanings? Of course some of our hearers sleep, and others only half-listen. Yet most preachers have heard with numbing wonder from those who talk of the present relevance of some spiritual blessing based on biblical content received in the past. Such mature saints quickly display well-thumbed Bibles whose pages are marked to remind them of its power. With shining eyes they tell us of light bursting into dark situations, of freshly-focused objectives or impactive motivations which have changed behaviors, all of which they affirm arose directly from the substance contained in a portion of God’s Word. They confess that it is the biblical passage which has held it all together for them down through the years.
The Bible is God’s special gift to nourish the understandings we receive about Him, stabilize their truth, encourage their recall, and continually freshen their reality. I am often moved by the momentum of great ideas as they collide with mind and heart through pulpit thoughts whose verbal freshness scintillates. But I regularly find that few such sermons possess any real permanence. We too soon forget what the prophet insisted: “though the grass withers, and the flower fades, the word of our God stands forever” (Isa. 40:8).
Synthetic Substitutions
Pure food laws demand the clear labeling of products destined for human ingestion, yet a sermon may contain almost anything and still be swallowed by an undiscerning congregation. Just as some artificial soups feature only a minor dose of chicken-flavored salts — combined with an incredible array of spices, cellulose starches, corn syrup solids, and hydrolyzed soybean proteins — so a sermon may synthesize biblical flavor yet never present its actual substance.
Weak Links and Poor Content:
We too often hear brilliant sermons stocked with great ideas which nevertheless are entirely devoid of specific biblical teaching. While such sermons may exhibit great ingenuity and imaginative skills in the linking of texts with topics, they too often neglect to employ those same gifts to communicate creatively the actual substance of the chosen biblical portion. Links thus supplied pay such scant attention to exegesis that they mostly remain at the best biblically tentative, and at the worst biblically indefensible.
Some use texts as others use flagpoles — as instrumentalities upon which Christian colors may be displayed high enough to generate an occasional salute to biblical ideas as a congregation passes by. But just as a constant diet of jello and custard, cake, candy, and sweet sauces — without meat and potatoes — cannot build hard bones, healthy flesh, and strong muscles, so exotic sermons alone cannot provide nutrition adequate for spiritual growth.
The real challenge for imaginative preachers, therefore, is not so much to bend their talents to the creative tasks of composing novel sermon content as it is to seek ways to share the actual scriptural materials with originality and freshness. A nutritious pulpit cuisine may still be seasoned with delicacy, displayed in an attractive setting, and contain enough actual biblical substance to build the body’s muscle as much as it pleases the palate.
Focusing Nutrition
No effective sermon seeks to cover the waterfront. Just because we require biblical content this does not mean that we need superfluity. Powerful preachers sail through the substance of a biblical portion selecting which piers provide the best anchorage. At such points they choose to load supplies just sufficient enough to build the kind of momentum which enables them to reach port satisfactorily, and to enjoy a relaxing voyage on the way.
Objectives: An authentic sermon differs from a general Bible study by the precise focus of its purpose. A general Bible study usually introduces a diversity of interesting and useful factual information to hearers. But an authentic sermon marshals limited information selected from the substance of a biblical portion, designs it into a specific form and styles it into an appropriate shape, so that it facilitates the achievement of one particularly-chosen objective.
Sermons are crafted to reason inductively toward a chosen conclusion, sustain a specific attitude or behavior, establish a proposed reality, illuminate one major theme, and/or inspire celebration for one particular occasion. All of the biblical reality chosen for each sermon should be selected and designed to enable its internal flow to foster the gaining of just one such precise objective.
Only where such a deliberately-chosen theme, facet, or aspect of a general subject is focused as the integrating and controlling idea of the sermon can we avoid burying congregations in overloads of information from a biblical passage. A topical sermon may air a general subject — but a truly biblical sermon requires a specific aim. This choice of only one clearly-defined objective for an individual sermon, moreover, not only governs the actual selection of which biblical elements are to be exposed for that particular occasion, but it also encourages a later return to that biblical portion to work with other elements which relate to further themes.
Selectivity: Any sermon may include some self-generated truth of its own, but to be properly biblical a sermon ought mainly to share the actual realities presented within the biblical materials — to do this selectively and never exhaustively. Too many preachers confuse quality with quantity, believing their pulpit function is to detail every nuance of exegetical meaning contained within the biblical paragraph or portion. They proceed with inchworm exegesis under the false conviction that such constitutes expository preaching.
How can selected biblical substance — aimed to flow toward a chosen conclusion — best be crafted so as to avoid the mundane, and yet present biblical truth with some panache?
Facilitating Digestion
All good chefs know how the right seasonings, sauces, garnishes and condiments, aromas and colors, augment the appeal of a nourishing meal. They also appreciate the ways in which good linen, fine china, and similar service dynamics enhance its charm. Although such extraneous validities may add little to a meal’s nutrition, they remain as essential as the cuisine itself, for without them the attraction to ingest the meal may be insufficient.
Proper Presentation: The use of actual biblical substance as a prime ingredient in effective sermon material does not excuse us from the responsibility of framing those biblical realities in the best of words and setting them within the most-dynamic of contexts. The crowds respected Jesus’ teaching because He placed His truth within life situations, surrounded them with relevant explanations to facilitate common understandings, and expressed His ideas in memorable words. Effective didactic preaching does not consist of indigestible clumps of biblical truth thrown at congregational heads by authoritarian sermonizers. Jesus’ relevance came through fresh and creative presentations of eternal realities set within realistic, everyday circumstances.
Timeless and Universal Truth: This demands a resolute commitment to expressing principles inherent in the text as timeless and universal realities rather than merely as past facts. Thus a sermon prepared on Psalm 23 will not be formed around the proposition that God cared for David, but rather that David’s testimony illustrates how God cares for His own, including us.
The universality and timelessness of such a theme immediately places it within the life-situations of present-day hearers. An expository sermon on Psalm 23 can cover the exegesis inherent in the Psalm’s substance as it is structured to teach that God does care for his own: I. As a Shepherd Cares for His Sheep (vv. 1-3); II. As a Friend Cares for His Companion (v. 4); and III. As a Host Cares for His Guest (v. 5). Verse 6 then arises as a most-natural here-and-now response to all that precedes it, and the sermon applies itself naturally as this exegesis proceeds.
Right Ingredients and their Order
Long-range Planning: The extraction of good nutrition requires time and patience. Too many of us approach the planning of next Sunday’s menu on the Monday morning which immediately precedes its serving. Under such short notice we face the logistical difficulties of getting the proper ingredients together, arranging them in balance, preparing them for presentation, and deciding how they may best be served — a combined task largely beyond most of us to complete effectively within the following six short days. Accordingly, we pick much that is unripe, and often hunt so feverishly through multitudinous resources in order to achieve deadlines that we experience a kind of spiritual indigestion even before our hearers do!
By contrast, a long-range planned pulpit program allows us the time needed to plant seeds, water and fertilize them, to bring the products to a full harvest, and then to simmer them for as long as it takes to bring them to the tenderness essential for comfortable digestion. A careful program can be based on a lectionary, and scheduled around the Christian year, yet must also include special days, local emphases, and specific congregational needs to be useful. But the proper pre-planning of all this is often overlooked — although that aspect is its greatest essential.
Using Great Texts: Our forefathers in the preaching tradition knew the value of “billboard” texts — those which by their spiritual size alone carry great momentum. They knew the power of sermons based on some of the Bible’s great affirmations of truth, comfort, and evangelistic challenge. They saw that the natural powers inherent in the strength of such biblical portions had an energy which impacted the spirits of men and women even when a preacher’s words about them lacked much that was fresh.
These well-known portions of the Scriptures remain with hearers as easily-remembered vehicles of strong revelation. Yet today, we too seldom hear sermons on the most-memorable biblical texts, or based on universally-favored stories, chapters or portions.
Relevant Beginnings: Effective chefs realize that the right kind of appetizer enhances the palate for a full-entree course. The best preaching likewise begins with the posing of a problem, the discussion of a life-situation, or the development of a discernable need which whets the appetite for all that is to follow.
Preachers who fail to start sermons with such “here-and-now” orientations always discover an embarrassing need to add-on applications at the end. Those sermons which begin by avoiding the “then-and-there” syndrome open up the dynamic of involved hearers who embark alongside the preacher on a partnering voyage which can help them search the biblical portion to discover the proposed relevance together.
The order should be for relevance first, then biblical substance; not substance first, followed then by applied relevance.
Before entering our pulpits to declare that “soup’s on” for hungry souls, we do have to verify flavor, but no amount of fine seasoning can ever replace the need to check out the chicken.
1. William Williams, Charles Haddon Spurgeon — Personal Reminiscences (London, Eng.: Religious Tract Society, n.d.), rev. ed. (1923?).

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