OK, I’m not about to try to supplant Moses’
I. Thou shalt preach short words. Avoid, wherever possible, the sesquipedalian (get it!) prose of theological journals. They might make a few people in your congregation go for their smartphone dictionary, but most will just let your big words sail right over their heads, leaving you alone impressed by how smart you are.
II. Thou shalt preach short sentences. Never use five words when four will say what you mean. “A picture is worth 1,000 words!” The origin of that phrase is debatable, but this is truth: People remember short phrases better than many words.
III. Thou shalt never forget consistency hath consequence. “When you care enough to send the very best,” whose card do you send? This phrase has kept Hallmark as the world’s biggest greeting card company for more than 70 years! Preachers who flip-flop in their preaching inevitably lose their people.
IV. Thou shalt always remember (like it or not) credibility counts as much as good theology. People must first believe what we say before they will do it. Remember New Coke, the product that was advertised under the slogan, “The best just got better”? It bombed! It died! Need I say more?
V. Thou shalt offer thy people hope. People always buy into good news faster than they will respond to bad news. When Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” message from the Lincoln Memorial, he created a hope-defining moment that still lives more than 50 years later. The fact is most of our people get beaten up all week long. They come to church on Sunday hoping for a word of hope!
VI. Thou shalt preach age-old truth in a new way every time. I tell my seminary students that one of the great challenges for pastors who preach is that they are called to deliver the same essential message in a different colored envelope every time. It’s true!
VII. Thou shalt remember the rhythm and cadence of your sermon makes a lot of difference in how well it will be heard and how long it will be remembered. English is an inconsistent language. However, one reason it is used universally is its inherent rhythm and cadence that, when used well, makes music in a listener’s ears. The YouTube preaching of H. Beecher Hicks illustrates this well. Become familiar with it and use it in your preaching.
VIII. Thou shalt remember the best preachers are tongue artists. Painting a picture with words takes practice. When a preacher learns to make listeners feel as if they are eyewitnesses at the scene, the sermon vividly comes alive. Consider Peter Marshall’s masterpiece, “Were You There?” (available free online). It’s a great example of how to make your tongue a paintbrush!
IX. Thou shalt ask questions of thy congregation. The reason for asking questions in just about any kind of speaking probably is obvious to the readers of Preaching. It seeks a response, whether audible or silent, thus connecting preacher and congregation. Moreover, it allows the preacher an opportunity to read the facial expressions of the congregation and evaluate whether real communication is happening.
X. Thou shalt frame thy sermon by making it clearly relevant to all who hear. I saved for last the most important preaching commandment. This is the one that explains why the message of the sermon matters. Put simply, if the people do not see why your sermon matters it neither will be heard nor remembered.
If your sermon meets these criteria, it will be a true barnburner. Even if it meets the majority of them, it will have an impact on those who hear it. Isn’t that exactly why we do what we do?
After 40-plus years of pastoral ministry, Leslie Holmes still loves preachers and teaches preaching at Erskine Theological Seminary in South Carolina and Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta, Ga., and Charlotte, North Carolina. He can be reached at RLesHolmes@aol.com.