A long time ago, I remember seeing a cartoon (possibly Peanuts) where the character was messing around with a bow and arrow. Another character noticed that they were hitting a bullseye every time. When asked how they never missed the bullseye, the wannabe archer pointed to a paint can and a brush and said, “Easy, I paint the target wherever the arrow lands”. I wish I had saved that cartoon. It is a great reminder that shooting off a sermon and painting a bullseye around it after the fact does not mean you have hit the bullseye.
To have a great sermon, you have to have a goal for preaching it. Great preaching (like anything else that is great) has a specific aim. You don’t have a great sermon because someone says “Great sermon, pastor” as you stand around in the lobby. By having a measurable target, I can evaluate and improve my preaching.
Great preaching is something every preacher can achieve by asking three questions of their sermons:
- Did this sermon say what God wanted to say? God is the author of the text, and guided the process of the human writers so that what they wrote was exactly what He would say in that situation. While we preachers are not writing Scripture today, we are under a similar mandate as the original writers and prophets to speak the words of God to our listeners. If your messages will be great, say what God has said. That does not mean that you have to reiterate what God has said verbatim in Scripture. That’s reading, not preaching. You can be incredibly creative in making what God said clear and memorable so that the idea sticks like glue to the souls of your listeners.
- Did this sermon communicate the emotion in the text? You can say the exact same words and have a completely different result by missing the emotion of the text. For example, you would not say, “I love you” to your spouse with grated teeth and rolling eyes. It would be the right words but wrong emotions. Scripture has a emotional context that must be faithfully represented for your sermon to be truly a great sermon. The text tries to make you feel something, so make sure your listeners feel that.
- Did this sermon help my listeners apply what God said?Great sermons prime the pump for application. It gives your audience potential ideas to try. It is one of the benefits of incarnational preaching. No one knows your congregation like you do. You know how they are struggling and how this text can help them. (If you don’t, carve out some time and get to know them better). You can help them apply what they have learned, and you can do so in creative ways. It doesn’t have to be a big step, but great sermons always point the listener towards what that next step might be. Don’t be afraid to offer an idea (or even multiple ideas) on how they can apply what they have just heard. Be careful not to elevate your suggested step to having the same weight as the Biblical idea. They are suggestions, not Scripture.
Great sermons say what God wanted to say. Great sermons connect the listener to the emotional context of the text. Great sermons give suggestions for application. If you define these targets in your sermons, you will begin to see areas of improvement that can make a huge difference. You will move toward preaching great sermons.
What great sermons have you listened to lately? What steps would you add?