There are a lot of things I do not know about preaching. Here are a few things that I DO know, or think I know:
FIRST: the best sermons are the ones where the preacher takes a single text–a verse, a paragraph, even a chapter–and explains what God is saying to the church through it. Yes, I’ve preached topical sermons, and sermons that used multiple texts to make a coherent (more or less) set of points. And I will likely do all those things again.
But both in my own preaching and in the preaching of others, the approach that speaks the most deeply is where someone has taken a passage of scripture, set it in its context, and prophetically applied it to the life of the listeners.
But don’t skip the last part. It’s not enough to explain what the text MEANT to the original hearers. What is God saying to his people TODAY? Even better: what is God saying to YOU and to your listeners through the text today?
The text ALWAYS meets the life of the community somewhere. Your job is to find it. Keep studying and working and praying until you do.
SECOND: the best sermons have an outline. I have heard very good one point sermons. I think my dad, Errol Stepp, is an excellent practitioner of the art of unipoint preaching.
But for most of us, structure is important, and the clearer the better. Structure helps the listeners follow your sermon. Structure helps them to get from point A to point B.
Too many sermons are like the Israelites, wandering in the desert for forty years in search of a point. DON’T PREACH LIKE THAT. Have an outline.
And of course, the best outlines grow out of the text. So let the passage shape your sermon. Draw your points from the important words, usually verbs, that carry the meaning of the biblical text.
THIRD: the most listenable sermon outlines have three points. There’s something about our brains, we respond to threes better than twos or fours. We’re just wired that way.
What usually happens to me is that I start with 4-5 points and then consolidate them into three points. Or I’ll have a complicated two-part structure and realize that if I jettison 40% of it, I can have a strong, clear, logical three point sermon.
(I wouldn’t have believed it when I was starting out, but what you take out (or leave out) is as important as what you leave in.)
The best three point sermons have points that are somehow parallel or sequential. I remember a cartoon in Leadership magazine where the preacher’s outline was “pituitary, propitiation, and papyrus.” That’s not parallel. That’s not fun to listen to, either.
But consider a sermon that could come from several passages in Acts:
“The church is the place where 1. Jesus continues his work 2. through his people 3. until he comes again.”
See? Three points, here sequential more than parallel.
Or a sermon from 1 John 1.5 that I preached two Sundays ago, with parallel points:
“What does John mean when he says, ‘God is light, in him is no darkness’? He means that God is:
1. honest (he’s not out to trick you, he keeps his promises,
2. wise (he has a plan, and he will make it happen), and
3. good (he is acting for your benefit).”
FOURTH: the best sermons always have a “so what?”, a call to action. Always preach for change–changed behavior, changed beliefs, changed hearts. Don’t be the salesman who forgets to ask for the sale. God has spoken to you through the text. God wants to speak to your people through the text. TELL THEM WHAT HE WANTS THEM TO DO.
The best preacher I know for the call to action is my friend and my pastor, Chris Seidman, from The Branch Church in Dallas TX. Every week, half of his sermon is application. Always well thought out, always practical, always things that stay with the listener.
The best calls to action come from the text. Don’t know how to find the call to action in the text? Google “Rick Warren” and SPACEPETS. There’s your list of things to look for.
FIFTH: brevity. For most churches and most preachers, 20 minutes is enough. For some churches and some preachers, 15 minutes is enough.