A few years ago Henry Ward Beecher became a good friend of mine.
Over a year-long period when I was researching Henry’s preaching and writing a dissertation (Henry Ward Beecher and the Political Pulpit, available at fine microfilm depositories everywhere), I grew to know and love my colleague of a century ago.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Henry was his insistence that preaching ought to do something. He wasn’t satisfied with preaching that sounded pretty and impressed people; he thought people ought to be different after hearing a sermon than they were before.
That’s not a bad idea for preachers today. Orin Gifford observed that “Paul’s preaching usually ended in a riot or a revival.” Ours all too often ends in a yawn.
Why does so little result from our preaching? Could it be that we don’t always know what result we seek, and thus don’t know how to focus our message? Instead of a “rifle-shot” approach, we settle for “shotgun” sermonizing, hoping that somehow, somewhere, something we say will make a difference for someone listening.
Perhaps we can learn something from secular communicators, who have learned to target their audience and their message. For example, when you receive a direct mail advertisement, chances are good you’re part of a “target” audience, and that the letter and brochure are designed to get your attention and lead to action. They don’t make millions by sounding pretty; they get results by making a case, getting you involved personally, then asking you to do something about it.
Certainly preaching must not be a sanctified sales pitch, but it also shouldn’t wander aimlessly with little effect.
As our model preacher, Jesus wasn’t afraid to speak clearly, directly, telling people what they should do and then challenging them to act. No one could have walked away from the Sermon on the Mount muttering, “I wonder what He was trying to get at?”
As I look back over some sermons I preached in earlier days, I could ask that question of myself: what was I trying to accomplish with that sermon? If I don’t know, it’s fairly certain the poor congregation had even less idea.
That’s why it’s a good idea to evaluate each message before it’s preached by asking some questions of ourselves: What am I trying to accomplish with this message? (If I can’t come up with a pretty concrete purpose in a simple sentence, I’m trying to do too much or not enough.) Does it accomplish that purpose? Are there changes that would make it more effective in accomplishing that purpose?
In his Yale Lectures, Henry Ward Beecher used an illustration from architecture to make his point about the purpose and character of preaching:
“When a master-builder goes to the forest for material he does not take any and every tree, and then put them together at haphazard, or for the sake of accommodating his building to the form of trees. The trees must conform to the house that is to be. The builder carries with him into the woods the future house in his eye, and selects the trees by the known wants of the house; this one for a sill, that one for a corner-post, others for beams, and so on.
“Thus all truths, all sermons, are merely subordinate materials and instruments; the preacher’s real end is to be found in the soul-building that is going on. He is an artist of living forms, of invisible colours: an architect of a house not built with hands — Jesus Christ the foundation.”

Share This On:

About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

Related Posts