Learning to prepare sermons is like learning to fly an airplane. Both sciences require precise knowledge and sound judgment. The similarities between sermon preparation and flying are especially enlightening to preachers who travel using aviation as a means of transportation. Pilots and preachers have the responsibility of taking the people safely to where they need to go. The sermon is like a short flight where the preacher elevates listeners to spiritual heights never experienced before.
Air travel and sermons have distinct transitions and phases. Sermons have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Similarly, aviation has peculiar parts. This article draws lessons from basic flight anatomy, such as flight preparation, takeoff, destination, cruising altitude, and landing and applies them to sermon preparation and delivery.
A good flight and good sermon begin with good preparation. For optimal performance, aviators and preachers need good physical and mental preparation for the journey. Fatigue and illness is often responsible for aviation accidents. This is why pilots should not fly when they are fatigued or ill.1 A preacher who is tired or sick can spoil a good sermon. Even such minor illnesses as the common cold can affect the tone of voice and normal breathing of preachers, undermining their communication skills.
The operational manual. Pilots are required to follow the instructions of the manufacturer’s manual for the airplanes they fly. The Bible is the undisputed preaching manual for Christians. After all, God’s command for his emissaries is to “preach the word” (
The Bible is the source of food for the soul. Providing good and abundant food during flight was one of the airline industry’s strategies, years ago, to attract and retain frequent travelers. Some airline companies even served coach passengers with cloth napkins and real silverware. Those were the “good old days.” Because of financial constraints, food service in the airline business has decayed considerably. It has literally been reduced to peanuts. During a typical two-hour flight, most passengers are served only a soft drink and a small bag of peanuts or pretzels. The Bible is the main source of spiritual food. God has given it as a recipe book to feed spiritual passengers with the dishes of heaven. It should be served from the pulpit’s table abundantly and attractively so new people are attracted to the church and continue to come for more food.
Plotting the course. Careful planning is the key to success in aviation. Prior to departure and before passengers enter the aircraft, aviators check the electronic and mechanical instruments of the plane and review the trajectory of the flight. Preparation is also necessary in preaching. “Preachers must be more than sermonic disc jockeys playing other’s creations.”2 They need to compose new and attractive sermonic compositions for their audiences when they preach.
Consumed by the rigors of ministry and daily life, preachers may not allot enough time for the ministry of the word. This can happen to the best. The apostles were busy doing ministry to the point of disregarding the preaching of the word of God. In view of this predicament, the Twelve summoned the general body of disciples and told them that it was not right for them “to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” (
A focal point of flight preparation is the destination. Pilots plot a safe route to take passengers where they need to go. They communicate with the control tower to meet departure and arrival times. Good preachers not only start and finish sermons on time; during the preparation and delivery of the sermon, they maintain constant communication with God in the control tower. “Following a systematic method for constructing a sermon does not rule out nor does limit the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”3
Eggold affirms that “every sermon must have a goal, and both the preacher and the congregation ought to know what it is if dialogue is to take place. When a hearer doesn’t know where a preacher is headed, he begins to think of other things and lets the preacher go his solitary way.”4 Without a clear destination, the preacher may get lost in the sermon and lead the people astray.
Choosing the topic is like choosing where to fly. People book flights to places they need to go. They go to church because they want to reach higher levels of spirituality and want sermons that offer what they need. Some sermon ideas may be theoretical and biblically correct but may not be relevant to the needs of the flock. Before deciding what to preach about, the preacher must be acquainted with the needs of the audience. They need to know in what airport of life they are on their journey to heaven. Every successful sermon leads hearers of the word a step closer to their destination.
Takeoff in aviation is the act of leaving the ground. It is one of the most important maneuvers in aviation. A miscalculation or mistake by the pilot can be disastrous. It starts with the crew’s effort to capture the attention of passengers and provide them with specific instructions. It continues with taxiing and then liftoff. The sermon introduction in preaching is very similar to the takeoff in aviation. People sit down before the sermon begins; the preacher captures their attention, and then takes off with the sermon.
Capturing the attention of the audience. Capturing the attention of air travelers is of paramount importance for safety reasons and because airline companies want to make sure passengers are on the right flight. Important as it is, this is one of the most difficult tasks of aviators; especially capturing the attention of frequent flyers. People who travel frequently tend to ignore the stereotype announcements and safety demonstrations provided by the crew. Preachers similarly have difficulty capturing the attention of worshipers who go to church regularly. Some worshipers sit before the pulpit and listen to sermons nearly 52 weekends a year. To capture their attention week after week requires ingenuity and avoiding predictable sermon introductions.5
Eye contact. While taxiing and during flight, pilots look at the surroundings to avoid colliding with other aircraft and obstacles. Eye contact is also very important in preaching. Good preachers listen to the audience with their eyes. Listeners can say a lot through their eyes. A tear, a glow of satisfaction, and a frown in the forehead reveal a lot about the effect of the sermon on the congregation. Preachers are “ordained to preach the gospel, not merely to read it.”6
Introduction length. Some taxiing at large airport takes so long it leaves the sensation of the pilot leading passengers to their destination by road and not by air. So are some sermon introductions. Some writers believe the introduction of the sermon should not comprise more than 10 to 15 percent of the sermon, and indicate that preachers “should not spend so much time setting the table that there’s no time left to eat.”7
Lift-up. Normal liftoff is one in which the airplane is headed into the wind 8 and gradually gains altitude letting the airplane “fly itself’ off the ground.”9 The effective sermon gradually lifts-up the audience into the contents allowing them to understand and assimilate the message.
Pilots and preachers can take their passengers to unbelievable heights. In aviation, the higher the altitude the less oxygen is available and the more difficult the journey becomes. “The world altitude record for an airplane was set on August 22, 1963, at 354,200 ft (107,960 m) by an X-15.”10 Most commercial aircraft fly with pressurized cabins at heights where humans would not survive for lack of oxygen. The higher the contents of a sermon, the higher the concentration level and retention capacity the congregation needs. Preachers should preach at an altitude suitable for their congregation.
Preventing homiletic hypoxia. Hypoxia is a condition produced by lack of oxygen. Professional golfer Payne Stewart and five other people lost consciousness due to hypoxia and crashed while flying from Orlando to Dallas in 1999.11 Preachers can fly so high in their allocutions that it can leave the audience breathless. This type of homiletic hypoxia fails to communicate the gospel properly. People leave the church much impressed by the eloquence, but without a clear understanding of the word of God. There is nothing more vain in preaching than saying nothing with elegance or saying something in a way few people understand.
Flying straight. The FAA strongly emphasizes the necessity for forming correct habits in flying straight and level. “Straight-and-level flight is flight in which a constant heading and altitude are maintained.”12 Straight-and-level preaching, as easy as it looks, is not easy. It starts with good preparation. The mind is a powerful warehouse of ideas that surface to the preacher’s conscience during delivery. Sometimes the ideas are related to the subject, but do not necessarily reflect the main thrust of the sermon. For the unprepared preacher, who is in need of minutes to complete the thirty-minute sermon, it is very tempting to insert in the elocution new ideas although they may not be totally related to the topic.
Proper use of windows. Passengers and pilots benefit from the panoramic views airplane windows provide. Illustrations serve as windows in sermons. The importance of illustrations in preaching has led some writers to declare that a sermon that cannot be illustrated should not be preached.13 Illustrations awaken the interest of the audience, facilitate understanding of theological truths, and can persuade to action. “The right kind of illustration provokes a mental picture in which the hearer actually sees the point of application.”14
Sermon duration. Range in aviation is the ground covered by an aircraft with the available fuel. The world’s record for a nonstop, nonrefueled flight is 24,987 mi. It was set by the specially designed Voyager in 1986, while flying around the world.15 To be immortal, a sermon does not have to be infinite. Some audiences may agree that the longest word in English is a word from the local preacher. The capacity of human retention and concentration has limitations. A sermon can overdose a congregation with knowledge to the point of saturation.
What goes up must come down. Air travel and sermons have a beginning and an ending. In aviation, landing is one of the most important phases of flight. Over 50% of aerial accidents happen on the approach or landing.16 The flight is not over until the aircraft parks safely at the terminal, and all passengers and crew are safely out of the plane. The conclusion of a sermon and landing in aviation share striking similarities. Memorable sermons and flights have a perfect ending. A perfect landing may help passengers forget a bumpy ride.
Conclusion phases: Sermon conclusions and landing in aviation can be divided into three phases closely related to each other: Descend, touchdown, and shutting up. The pilot and crew inform passengers of the proximity to the destination, provide safety instructions, and once on the ground they welcome them to the city where they have arrived and invite people to fly with them again. Sermon conclusions in particular summarize and exhort the congregation to respond in a practical way to the message. Preachers want listeners to go home and do the Christian deed. Satisfied church listeners come back to churches that offer inspiring and relevant sermons.
Some sermons electrify audiences, others only electrocute them. Aviation offers preachers excellent ideas to produce unforgettable and inspiring sermons. Next time you step into the platform’s cockpit to feed the saints, take them on an electrifying and transforming spiritual ride.
Ricardo Norton is a Professor at Andrews University Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, MI.
1. Richard L. Collins, Flying Safely (New York, NY: Delacorte/E. Friede, c1981), 313.
2. Michael Duduit, ed, Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1992), 135.
3. Lloyd M. Perry, Biblical Preaching for Today’s World (Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), 44.
4. Henry J. Eggold, Preaching is Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 23.
5. Duduit offers ten alternatives preachers can use to avoid predictable sermon introductions, see pages 177-178.
6. H. M. S. Richards, Feed My Sheep (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1958), 124.
7. Floyd Bresee, “Sermon introductions/1,” Ministry, January 1991, 24.
8. Airplane Flying Handbook (U. S. Department of Transportation: FAA, 2004), 5-2. Here after quoted as FAA.
9. W. N. Hubin. The Science of Flight, Pilot-oriented Aerodynamics (Iowa: Iowa State University Press/AMES, 1995), 208.
10. David F. Anderson and Scott Eberhardt, Understanding Flight (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 185.
11. http://www.airsafe.com/stewart.htm. Payne Steward was the winner of the 1999 U.S. Open golf tournament, the same year he died. It is estimated the plane crashed at over 600 mph. http://www.planecrashinfo.com/famous90.htm.
12. FAA 3-4.
13. Duduit, 199, 200. Subsequent pages of this book offers excellent insights on how to find, store, and use illustrations.
14. Perry, 142.
15. Anderson, 189
16. John Ernsting and Peter King, Aviation Medicine (London: Butterworths, 1988), 697.