We’ve all been there right? You’re putting together a message for Sunday and you’re thinking to yourself, “Man, this is really coming together. But I don’t want it to be too good. I wonder what I could do to make this sermon less effective.”
Hopefully that’s never been what you’re thinking. I know there are a lot of sincere pastors out there who still preach less than stellar sermons, but I don’t know of any who are consciously trying to be bad. Everyone should be striving for excellence in preaching the word, regardless of how well equipped they may feel for the task.
Though it may be a bit presumptuous of me, a lowly high school Bible teacher to offer advice on preaching, I’ve listened to my fair share of sermons and took several preaching classes in my Bible school/seminary career (from which I retired as a back-to-back-to-back graduate). I’m also a freelance theoretician and have to keep many of the same principles that undergird a good sermon in mind when I’m teaching. I’m a hopeless analyst (kind of like a hopeless romantic, but less songs more blog posts) and so continually think about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to preaching and teaching the Word.
So that being said, here is my tongue-in-cheek advice for how to take an otherwise good opportunity to preach the word and ruin it.
I mean you can read the text and all, but definitely don’t explain what key words mean in context or how the different phrases and clauses fit together. People don’t have the attention span for that kind of thing, much less the grounding in English grammar and syntax. Definitely don’t have a single big idea that you’ve drawn from the text by careful study and then cross-referenced it with reliable commentators. Who has time for that? Just get up there and read the passage and then kind of comment on whatever sticks out to you in the moment.
Then, use some part of the text you’re supposedly preaching as a spring board to talk about some bit of doctrine you’ve been really into lately or connect it to some popular theological book you’ve been reading. Sprinkle in adjectives like “gospel-centered” and “missional” for good measure. Your sermon will be so theological, it will hardly be noticed that you didn’t really unpack the text you started with. Do this often enough, and you’ll perfect the “Start with the text, expand to a rant” approach.
Serious preachers of the word don’t have time to tell personal stories, much less draw connections from current events, history, sports, or pop culture. If you’ve only got 40 minutes to an hour to hold people’s attention, you better explain as much of TULIP as possible, or at least make sure everyone’s on-board with substitutionary atonement. Taking time to tell stories instead of teaching theology is what those postmodern emerging church types do. People came to hear you bring it and the more doctrinal heat you can throw the better. They get enough personal interest stories on the news and social media, they don’t need you wasting time in your sermon when you could be explaining the finer nuances of covenant theology.
Mainly this is because knowing sound doctrine is an application in itself, but also because you shouldn’t need to make concrete applications in your sermon anyway because if people just knew theology better, they’d live better. If you help them grow in knowledge and teach doctrine well, application will take care of itself. If you just reckon more and more with your justification, you’ll naturally grow in sanctification.
Do This Instead
Now, while hopefully nobody reading this will take my advice seriously, I don’t think it’s too far off the target of how some young preachers who are restless and Reformed think when it comes to preaching. Often this is the case with a certain type of pastor, one who is heavily into doctrine and might be more on the self-taught well-read end of the spectrum. What is supposed to be an occasion to preach the Word ends up turning into a theological lecture. Nothing against theological lectures, but that’s not what the Sunday sermon is supposed to be. Interestingly enough, if you lean toward theological lectures, you’re reducing your sermon to imparting knowledge, which means you’ll probably lose anyone in audience more knowledgeable than you. If nothing else, you’ll only challenge people who know less than you, instead of faithfully expounding the Word in a way that challenges everyone.
Also, a sermon will seem longer than it needs to be if it is just relentless exposition or theological explanation. Maybe you don’t struggle to clearly explain and stay focused on the text. But, part of exposition is illustrating the text in a way that enhances modern understanding. Not only that, but it will really help boost your audience’s attention to illustrate the text well. Not every little part of the text, but as many of the main points as you can. Don’t be afraid to tell stories and use other connection points your audience would find meaningful.
Lastly, don’t get up, exegete the text, illustrate it well, and then fail to draw any clear and concrete applications. Building on the previous two points, don’t get up and just try to impart knowledge, either in a bland, un-illustrated sense, or even in a fully developed picturesque sense. Imparting knowledge and teaching information in a sermon is good, but not enough. The goal is not just to show people more things (like additional facets of doctrine), but to show people how to see things differently (like how this particular text comes to bear on this particular cultural context). If you major on the latter, it doesn’t really matter if people in the audience know more than you. They might have read every commentary on the passage you’re preaching, but the way you illustrate and connect the passage to the daily life of your church is unique and potentially life changing. In fact, it’s really the only unique thing you have to offer. Your exposition should be tried and true. Your application should be fresh and new. If you shoot for that, you can’t go far wrong.