Is there anything wrong with the current state of preaching? Yes, say many listeners who form the congregations of today’s churches. Many churches are afflicted with a poor quality of preaching and the inevitable result is boredom in the pew. The torrential outpouring of words week after week simply does not make much difference.
After listening to an eloquent but empty sermon, one church-goer suggested to a friend: “That man can say nothing as well as I’ve ever heard it said.”
Mediocrity in the pulpit wastes hundreds of thousands of man-hours per week and is spiritually injurious to the lives of millions. How can preaching be made more meaningful and productive? The following suggestions may help.
Effective Preaching is Thematic
Good preaching is focused upon great scriptural truths. Each worthwhile sermon identifies, exposes, underscores, and presses upon the listener one of God’s profound revelations. Bad preaching is pedantic; it is marked by fractured thinking and trivial concerns.
Excellence in preaching demands that the attention of the congregation be focused upon the great biblical truths of sin, grace, heaven, hell, God, and other such truths.
John Bunyan’s philosophy of preaching was encompassed in his “desire that others might see, as he saw, what sin and death and hell and the curse of God mean, and also that they might discover, as he had discovered, what grace and mercy and forgiveness and the love of God can do for men.” Too much modern preaching occupies itself with minor details of a text instead of with such themes.
Expository preaching is often thought of as an exacting explanation of a lengthy scriptural passage. Typically, much time is given to emphasize obscure minutiae and the sermon ends with a tacked-on, often strained, application. Many suffering saints sit through such tedious presentations without ever recognizing anything of vital concern to them because the preacher has merely played trivial pursuit with texts.
Unfortunately, this is often thought of as “deep stuff.” Oratorical excellence or scholarly brilliance never make up for basic irrelevancy.
Someone said: “The Bible is a searchlight, not so much intended to be looked at as to be thrown upon a shadowed spot.” To discourse on hidden, inconsequential details is ineffective and unworthy of the listener’s attention. The preacher’s business is to seize important, timeless, biblical truth and bring it to bear upon human lives.
Effective Preaching is Inspirational
Deeply ingrained into the thinking of most preachers is the assumption that if the listener learns certain facts found in his theology books and commentaries they will be better people, more Christ-like, and less subject to Satan’s schemes. Consequently, the typical preacher often thinks of himself as a medium between the scholarly textbooks and the ignorant parishioner.
It is a fallacy to think that what people need is more information about theological niceties or textual particulars. The problem in human lives is seldom lack of knowledge and rarely does the awareness of more facts make much difference.
Most people already know far more than they practice and they are not ignorant. Explanation of subjects or texts is not the main business of preaching and the preacher who is content with dispensing information does little that is worthwhile. Education has been tried and found wanting.
Every good sermon helps the listener to understand the Bible better. However, the real business of preaching is not to inform, but to bring about change in human lives. For that to happen the sermon must inspire, motivate, persuade, and move.
Excellence in preaching demands that the preacher touch the springs of human motives to prompt transformation. A good sermon animates, quickens, elevates, and impels. It does not settle for mere academic presentation of facts.
A good sermon is much more than a lecture or an oral essay; it is truth made alive in the preacher, empowered by the Spirit, and therefore it transforms.
Effective Preaching is Encouraging
A disproportionate share of modern preaching falls into the category of tongue-lashing. The preacher’s method often appears to begin with the identification of something wrong with people, the church, or society. Then the worship service is used to rake people over the coals, using Scripture as the major weapon of affliction. Oddly, certain masochistic people enjoy this.
There is an appropriate place for rebuke in preaching. Rebuke, however, can be merely a vent for the preacher’s anger or it can cheer saints to higher levels of Christian achievement.
Paul wrote: “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12). Much more preaching needs to be done that encompasses such a philosophy.
Good preaching does not whip, it encourages. The preacher who feels smugly satisfied that he “let them have it” has not served well. Preaching must warm the coldhearted, comfort the downhearted, and soften the hardhearted. Good preaching cheers on; it does not denounce or censure.
If people leave the church feeling more discouraged than when they came, preaching has failed. It has been said that six out of ten people in church on Sunday are hurting. They come to find forgiveness, not more guilt. They must find grace, not condemnation. They desperately need a message of salvation, healing, and encouragement.
Effective Preaching is Passionate
Our fear of emotionalism has contributed to a cold, dead formalism in preaching. Hardly anything is so objectionable in preaching as dispassionate objectivity.
Charles Spurgeon wrote: “Even fanaticism is to be preferred to indifference. I had sooner risk the dangers of a tornado of religious excitement than to see the air grow stagnant with a dead formality. A lukewarm sermon sickens every healthy mind. It is dreadful work to listen to a sermon, and feel all the while as if you were sitting out in a snowstorm or dwelling in a house of ice, clear but cold, orderly but killing.”
John Stott echoes this truth: “We should not fear genuine emotion. If we can preach Christ crucified and remain altogether unmoved, we must have a hard heart indeed. More to be feared than emotion is cold professionalism — the dry, detached utterance of a lecture which has neither heart nor soul in it. Do man’s peril and Christ’s salvation mean so little to us that we feel no warmth rise within us, as we think about them?”
Many of today’s preacher’s apparently do not agree with these princes of the pulpit, but their listeners hunger for evidence that the preacher believes his own message. They want to know that this truth makes a difference.
Conviction is impossible without fervor. Our great need is not for better scholarship, but for spiritual fire. When listening to some sermons, many have thought: “Oh, for one good, soul-satisfying emotion.” Sermons frequently bore congregations because the preachers sound bored.
Effective Preaching is Truthful
After listening to an eloquent presentation, one unmoved listener responded: “That’s a bunch of sentimental slop.” Unfortunately, he was right. Much of our religion, hymnody, and preaching is sentimentally magnificent, but theologically weak. Passion is necessary in preaching, but it can never become a substitute for truth.
Sometimes preachers preach what they do not believe, but wish they did. There are things that sound great in sermons and make profound impressions, but simply are not true. It is tragically possible to be attractive, even elegant, while playing fast and loose with the truth. Rhetoric that masks Tightness or wrongness is contemptible.
We are constantly tempted to compromise truth with expediency. Yielding to this persistent enticement causes preachers to take texts out of context, twist interpretation to fit prejudice, and cite authorities to buttress fallacy. No dividends achieved by such tactics justifies dilution or contamination of truth. Most listeners are not fooled by oratory. If they are deceived, eventually they become disillusioned.
There is no way to escape the necessity of a rigorous integrity in the handling of Scripture. “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words” (1 Corinthians 2:13). Without this fidelity to eternal truth preaching is merely an exercise in futility.
A Final Word
A word must be said about an even more subtle temptation than those mentioned, the temptation to think that the sermon is the all-important thing. It is not. The preacher, not the sermon, is crucial. Many preachers spend hours preparing the sermon, but no time preparing the preacher.
A moment’s serious reflection demonstrates the truth of this. Some of history’s most famous preachers would not pass any homiletics course taught in this country, but who would argue with their effectiveness in preaching?
Similarly, some of today’s great pulpiteers are homiletical flops, but they are superb communicators. They are effective because they are anointed with the Spirit of God, they are burning with love for Christ, they know the Word and human nature, and they practice what they preach. When they speak, people listen and are moved.
It is a tragedy when preacher training schools emphasize academics, the careful crafting of the sermon, theological correctness, and a host of other cognitive or mechanical skills, but fail to give at least equal emphasis to simple godliness and the spiritual discipline crucial to effective ministry. Admittedly, it is difficult to light a fire in the soul, but nothing substitutes for it.
If people leave our churches saying “That was a great sermon; praise be to the preacher,” we have failed. Rather, the sermon must provoke the response “We have a mighty Saviour and a great salvation; praise be to our God.”
That does not necessitate homiletical genius, but a preacher aflame with the truth of God’s grace. Many preachers fail, not because of what they do in preaching, but in what they are as disciples. The greatest need is not for better preaching, but for better preachers.

Share This On: