I've heard thousands of sermons. Good ones and bad ones.
I've preached thousands of sermons. Good ones and bad ones.
When you hear and preach that many sermons, you stop being impressed by the flashy things that don't matter and you start noticing the fundamental things that do matter.
I'm not opposed to a good illustration to make a point memorable. I've been known to use video clips, have a skit 'interrupt’ my message, climb up a ladder and more to drive a point home.
This is not a “what do seekers/millennials want to hear when they come to your church” list. Although those are fine. I’ve written and spoken about those important issues in the past and I probably will again.
This is more personal. It’s what matters to me after hearing so many sermons that the fluff starts feeling repetitive and the cream starts rising to the top.
But, as I wrote in my companion post, 9 Things I Love to See When I Visit a Church, I don’t think I’m alone in this. I suspect that a lot of people – both seekers and saints – would give us a similar list if we knew how to ask them the right questions.
1. I want to be taught God's Word, warts and all
I can get self-help anywhere. I come to church for God’s help – and for his glory. The only place I can be assured of hearing that is between the covers of the Bible.
But please don’t clean the Bible up for me. You’re not helping it or me when you do that.
The Bible wasn’t handed down from a cloud between fluttering angel’s wings. So we need to stop preaching it as though it was.
It was written in the grit and dirt of people’s real lives. So it speaks to me in the grit and dirt of my real life.
We don’t need to clean the Bible up. It doesn’t need our help. It’s never wrong and it never contradicts itself. But it is filled with paradoxes.
It’s messy. But it’s true.
When we acknowledge that mess, our preaching feels more real.
Real is better than tidy.
2. I want to be told how great Jesus is (Not how great I am. Or you are. Or America is.)
I love America. And you. And I’m not into self-abuse.
But it’s not my church, your church or America’s church (or whatever nation you may be from). It’s Christ’s church.
Tell me how much Jesus loves me, not how much I should love myself.
No church has ever gone wrong by talking about Jesus too much.
3. I want to hear a sermon you didn’t find online
When I hear someone preach, I only want one degree of separation between the Bible and me.
That doesn’t mean preachers can’t learn from each other, use their denomination’s preaching calendar, or other tools. But taking someone else’s sermon and passing it off as your own is lazy. And it’s theft. Anywhere outside the church, it’s called plagiarism. But pastors joke about it. It’s not funny. Our standards should be higher, not lower.
Plus, if you found your sermon online, so can I. And if I can find it online, why am I coming to your church?
4. I want to hear about the preacher’s struggles as well as their certainties
I don’t like being yelled at by someone who acts like they’re better than me. They might be better than me. A lot of people are. But the fact that you think you’re better than me means you’re probably not.
We need more humility in the pulpit. A humility that tells me, “God and the Bible are always right, but I’m not.”
5. I want you to speak from your heart and your head
Preparation, study and research are essential elements in the pastor’s toolkit.
So are prayer, passion and experience.
Most pastors are stronger on one than the other. But all preachers need to bring elements of both every time they preach.
6. I want to hear from a pastor who knows and loves their congregation
I’ve been inspired many times by preachers speaking to massive, faceless crowds.
But when a pastor is speaking to a congregation that they’re serving, that they know, that they love, it shows. And it makes the message matter that much more.
When I preach, I know some deep things about a large percentage of the people I’m preaching to. Some deep, wonderful things and some deep, dark things. I don’t ever exploit what I know, but the fact that I know it makes a difference to how they hear the message.
As a church gets bigger, that personal touch gets lost. That’s not a slam on big churches, it’s just the way it is. And, for many people, the personal touch isn’t needed for them to get everything they need from the church service.
But for a lot of people, the relationship matters. I’m one of those people. And one of those pastors.
7. I want you to take a biblical moral stand (without getting mean or politically partisan)
You can preach the Bible without being a jerk about it. Truthful without getting mean.
Yes, the Bible contains difficult truths. And we can never shy away from them. Sin is real, hell is hot and eternity is long.
But I want to hear from a preacher whose heart breaks over sin and its consequences, not one who denies it – or delights in it.
The same goes for partisan politics. Just because we have the right to preach politics doesn’t mean we should. For more on this, check out my post on Why I Don’t Preach Politics from the Pulpit.
8. I want mercy to triumph over judgment
“Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13) may be the greatest sentence in the Bible.
It acknowledges the consequence of sin and offers the solution – in four simple words.
That’s what I want a great sermon to do. Acknowledge the problem. But point me towards grace. Sin and hell are true. But they are partial truths. Grace completes the truth.
9. I want to be able to do something about it
No, I don’t want homework. But I do want to be inspired to action.
Great preaching doesn’t just inform us about facts, it inspires and equips us for action.
Equipping the saints (Ephesians 4:12) is the pastor’s prime mandate.
I love an eloquent sermon. But a less-than-perfect sermon that equips me is better than an eloquent sermon that doesn’t.
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