“Sir,” said Lady Astor to Winston Churchill, “if you were my husband, I would give you poison to drink.”
“Madam,” said he, “if I were your husband, I would gladly drink it.”
That was one of three memorable stories that a preacher told as part of a sermon on overcoming our anger and the temptation to retaliate. I am sure he told us that we were to forgive and return good for evil, but I am equally sure that what we remembered were the stories – the clever ways in which people had been able to get back at those who had offended them. What was that preacher really trying to do?
It was an affluent church. The members were among the wealthiest in the city, the families lived in the best neighborhoods, and they sent their children to private schools. The rector preached on sacrificial giving, making references to the widow and her mite and to other demanding passages of Scripture. He spoke of costly discipleship, and I left the sanctuary with this question in mind: “What was he really trying to do?”
Surely he did not expect those people to change their lifestyles and accept a more simplified way of Christian living. Was he trying to make them feel guilty? Or was he falling into an insidious trap — the temptation to believe that talking about something is the same as doing something. (That is what we preachers in the South did for years on Race Relations Sunday. In talking about brotherhood, we felt we had done something about it, and therefore could go to our homes feeling less guilty.)
On another Sunday, in another city, the minister chose to preach on Hebrews 1:4, and he spent twenty-five minutes developing the thesis that the name of Jesus is superior to the name of angels. It was obvious that he had worked hard in the preparation, but he never made any connection between his theme and his congregation. At one point in my notes, I scribbled, “He’s yelling about things no one cares about.”
In the years since my retirement, I have listened to fifty-one different preachers — of many denominations, male and female, lay and ordained, liberal and conservative, well-educated and poorly-educated, in large churches and small ones, As I have listened, generally taking notes, I have had two basic questions in mind: “What is the preacher trying to do?” and “How well is he or she doing it?” Frequently, I could not answer the second question because I had not been able to find the answer to the first one. Every sermon needs a purpose.
I know from my own experience that the first purpose of every sermon is to get through it without looking stupid — hence the Saturday night or Sunday morning anxiety. Beyond that, however, there should be something definite that the preacher is trying to accomplish.
Here are three approaches that helped me in clarifying my purposes and, I believe, in making my preaching more effective.
Go back to the classroom
When I was in Duke Divinity School, James Cleland — that master preacher and teacher of preachers – emphasized that every sermon should have one, clear, dominant purpose. When we wrote a sermon or preached a sermon in his class, we were required to state its purpose — to inform, to actuate, to convince, or to inspire — and we were to be sure that the sermon did fulfill the purpose. Long after I had left the classroom, I found it helpful to discipline myself in asking the question: What do I want my people to learn, to do, to believe, or to feel?
I heard an effective sermon in an Episcopal church, in which the rector was speaking about the importance of the creeds in the life of the church and in the life of the Christian. It was clearly a sermon to inform – he wanted his people to have a better understanding of the place that the creeds had in their lives, not just as ritual in worship but as the foundation for Christian living.
In a Baptist church, I heard the minister make a significant appeal for persons to answer the call to mission and to exercise their gifts in Samaritan kinds of service. This was part of a sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan; clearly, it was a sermon to actuate.
In a Presbyterian church, a minister wanted his people to see why homosexuals should not be ordained to the ministry. His purpose was to convince.
In a Lutheran church, the pastor made a beautiful statement about the meaning of Pentecost. It was part of a creative worship service, and I think his purpose was to inspire – to help us feel better in the knowledge that in a very troubled and difficult world there is a living God.
I found it helpful, as a conscious discipline, to remember what I had been taught and to ask the question: What do I want my people to learn, to believe, to act upon, or to feel?
Put on the bifocals
Another concept that stayed with me from Cleland’s class was his emphasis that every sermon should have two focii — the biblical foundation and the contemporary application. This is the great therefore in the writings of the apostle Paul; practical, ethical principles followed a profound theological discussion.
According to Cleland, a sermon can be Old Expository, in which the preacher starts with the Scripture and then makes the application to the contemporary situation; or it could be New Expository, in which the preacher begins with a contemporary human issue or problem and then goes to the Scripture to find a biblical perspective. Either way, there is both the biblical and the contemporary; there is both exposition and application.
It helped me to have these concepts in mind and it was important to me to know which approach I was taking in any given sermon. This helped identify the sermon’s purpose. If I started with the Scripture – perhaps given to me by the Church Year — I needed to ask the question, “What does this passage mean to these people in these days?” If I preached on the Trinity, I forced myself to answer the question: “All this is true; so what?” If I preached on the story of Jesus’ stilling the storm, I needed to show, in some way, that the power of Jesus is somehow relevant to the person who is dealing with cancer or unemployment today.
Meet George Brown
During my first years in the pastorate, I began to use the homiletical device which I called George Brown. George was a fictitious and yet real person — a composite of the average church-goer, middle-class and middle-aged — with all the needs and frustrations of contemporary man. Sometimes I referred to his wife Georgia, or to his son George Jr., but mostly I spoke of George, because I knew him best.
After a time, my people knew who George was and I could refer to him without further introduction. Sometimes I brought him into the sermon. For instance, in a sermon on the cost of discipleship, after expounding on Luke 14:25-27, I would say something like this: “If George Brown were here today, I know he would challenge me with ‘Preacher, what is this business of discipleship supposed to mean to me? How can I carry a cross? I have three children, one already in college, my bills take most of my money — I can’t stop work and go off to some mission field. Maybe I can give a little more money, but I don’t know how much more I can do than I’m doing. What do you want me to do about this sermon – just feel guilty or frustrated’?”
Whether I asked the question in the sermon or only in the study, I found that answering it helped me clarify my purpose — and to be aware of George’s growing edge. I knew that my average church member was not going to give away everything and go into the ministry. Yet, I knew that he had some yearnings to go further and deeper into the Christian life and my task was to show him in concrete ways what discipleship and service might mean to him at this particular stage of his personal pilgrimage.
On Easter Sunday, I realized it was important to accept people who wanted to believe in Easter but found it difficult to overcome their fear of death and the uncertainties surrounding the future. I could express that duality in the words of George Brown and my sermon would be more purposeful in speaking to the many George and Georgia Browns in the congregation.
A new minister came to one of the large churches in Baltimore. I took the opportunity to hear him preach. One of my colleagues asked me what I thought of his sermon, and I replied, “It was impressive.”
“But was it helpful?” my colleague asked.
I thought for a moment. I had to say, “Not really. It was impressive — language, outline, even the accent – but I can’t say that it was helpful.”
The purpose of a sermon is to be helpful. The more clearly the preacher understands his purpose, the more helpful his sermons will be.

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