According to no less an authority than the Apostle Paul, the spoken message of Christ crucified is one the ways God has chosen to bring his message of salvation to the world (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
Because preaching matters, those of us who are entrusted to do so need to engage in it with all we have. Never being satisfied with our current skill level. Always seeking to preach the Word with greater skill, authority, anointing and effectiveness.
In response to this mandate, I’ve made several big changes to the way I deliver the Sunday sermon in the 25+ years I’ve been preaching at my church (over 30 years of preaching all together).
First, because people hear differently now than they did 25 years ago. And it’s not just that they have shorter attention spans, or that they watch video more than they read. Giving into those realities often does more to dumb things down than lift the message up.
Simply put, people process their information in different ways than they used to. Our language keeps changing, our common experiences are fewer, illustrations that used to be universal no longer are, and so on.
Second, I have to keep growing and learning. Like writing, bricklaying or guitar-playing, preaching is a skill. We either get better at it or we become stale.
So, given those reasons, I’ve gone through 5 major preaching methods over the last 25 years, in the following order:
1. The Classic Three Point Sermon
This is how I was taught to preach in Bible College:
- Intro: Let the listeners know what the sermon is going to be about.
- Body: Deliver the message. This is where the three points come in. A beginning, middle and end.
- Conclusion: Recap your message by reminding them of what your message was about.
In other words, tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.
I preached that way for a lot of years, and it was effective in an era when things moved slowly, people sat quietly and repetition was an aid to memory.
But soon, it wasn’t enough, so I moved to the next way of preaching, which included a cool, new handle.
Oh the joy of making your points rhyme. Or all start with the same letter. Or spell G.R.A.C.E. or F.A.I.T.H.
We were told this was a very helpful way for people to recall the sermon later. And it made sense. But it didn’t work. Certainly an alliteration can be helpful for remembering a principle that you have to use every day, but it’s not much better than a three-point sermon when you’re throwing a new alliteration at them every week.
The alliterative sermon was probably my shortest-lived preaching style. And I was glad to get rid of it, since I often spent as much time designing the alliteration as assembling the content.
After abandoning the alliterative style, I started looking at the sermon like an architect designing a house or a novelist writing a story. Instead of taking 3, 4 or 5 points with a common theme, I decided to build something. To take people on a journey with me, usually from a commonly-held question towards a biblically-based answer.
In this style pf preaching, the order of the points couldn’t be changed. One had to lead to the other. They started in one place so I could bring everyone to a new place.
I still believe this ought to happen to one degree or another in every talk, whether a sermon, a story, or a speech.
I thought I might have arrived at my final approach to preaching, until I realized that all my preaching formats all had something in common. They started with a structure, which I forced the content to fit in to.
Style was coming before substance. If not in priority, at least in the chronology of my sermon preparation.
So I asked myself, “what if I abandoned all formats, dug deep into the content, then used whatever style that fit the content?”
So that’s what I did next.
4. Content First, Structure Later
Every week, as I sat down to prepare for the Sunday sermon, I started with the text, studied it, took notes on it, and went where it took me. Then I arranged it in the best, most understandable order that I could (unless I was doing a verse-by-verse study, in which the verse order decided that for me).
After that, I’d look through the assembled content asking “what are the most significant points for the congregation to remember?” and I would highlight them in their handout notes and on the screen (something I didn’t have the ability to do for my first two sermon styles).
No alliterations. No rhymes. No necessity of fitting a specific style. Just the best possible content presented in the most understandable way I could make it.
If a video clip drove a point home, I’d use it. Or a poem, a song lyric, an item from the news, a lesson from history, a look at the geography of the biblical narrative, you name it.
I used what fit and didn’t worry about the format.
I still do that to a large degree in my preaching today, but that doesn’t mean my preaching style remains static. In the last couple of years, I’ve added one more ingredient that has changed my preaching style yet again.
5. From Knowledge-Based to Progress-Based
Just like styles 1-3 were all structure-based, styles 1-4 are all knowledge-based.
I was doing a good job at helping people move from ignorance to knowledge – even understanding. But if I wanted the church to do more than increase in knowledge, I needed to do more.
If I wanted to help the church move from one season to the next, from inaction to action, or from shallowness to depth, my preaching had to move from knowledge-based to progress-based.
It isn’t enough to help people know something new. They have to be ready, inspired and equipped to do something new. To be someone new.
To grow, not just to know. (I guess I haven’t abandoned rhymes, after all).
Certainly, in order to get somewhere new, we need to provide people with good information. So studying scripture and designing a solid message based on biblical content will always be a priority. But that knowledge must serve a greater purpose. Namely, where does it take us?
As pastors, we’re not called to be content-providers, but disciple-makers. The pastoral prime mandate in Ephesians 4:11-12 is not just to teach God’s people, but to equip them.
Preaching isn’t the only step in “equipping of God’s people for works of service”, but it’s an essential element.
More To Learn
There’s always more to learn.
For the congregation, and for the preacher.
When the preacher stops growing and learning, the people stop growing and learning. Or they go to a church where they can grow and learn.
But if we keep growing, learning and stretching ourselves, then sharing it in fresh new ways with others, there’s no end to where God can take us.
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