Four Essential Decisions for Keeping Your Sermon on Message

My brother is a journalist who has written longer than I have preached. He now teaches journalism at a university. When I was getting ready to teach seminary homiletics the first time, I asked him a question that plagues writers of any ilk: "How do you teach writers not to wander and stay on message?"

I thought that since he's a writing professional and educator he would tell me the "secret," the right set of questions that any author needs to prevent verbal self-meandering.

His response?

"That's what editors are for."

Thanks a lot, Big Brother!

Per last week's post about clarifying your message, yes, that is exactly what editors are for. But without an editor what can preachers rely on instead? A very simple question with three principles.

Is it necessary?

That is:

  • If the words are necessary and sufficient to support the message, keep them.
  • If the words are unnecessary, cut them.
  • If the words are necessary but insufficient, add some.

(Get the "3 Essential Principles" graphic free!

When you edit your sermon, ask whether every word serves the message. Does every sentence and paragraph provide something essential? Does each one illuminate an aspect of the message that if deleted, would cause the message to be weakened, confusing, or out of context? 

As you work toward writing an effective sermon, here are four sample decisions to put to the test.

Decision #1: Parenthetical remarks

A parenthetical remark is a literary tool that needs to be considered as carefully as any story, explanation, or transition.

Parenthetical remarks can be used well. However, by their nature they're side notes. Side note leave the main message for a moment, like exiting the freeway briefly. Perhaps you get off to stop at the gas station, or you get mixed up and take the exit ramp by accident, or you get off deliberately to drive parallel for a minute on the frontage road. 

The problem is that preachers don't drive solo. Preachers are the first car in a caravan. Every listener is driving his or her own vehicle, and you want them to follow closely so they don't get lost.

It's a lot more work to lead that caravan off the highway for a little side trip and lead them back on again than if you stayed on the highway. A parenthetical remark requires a transition to get off topic and another one to get back on, and everyone has to remember what was said right before the exit.

In addition, during side remarks we drop our voices and speak more quickly, so people have trouble hearing or understanding what we say.

Is that side remark worth the effort? Is that remark important enough that everyone hears it?

If it is, then it'll be easier for you and the listeners if you make that side note its own paragraph with its own transitions and consistent vocal range. If it's not necessary to the message, then should it disappear into the computer netherworld?

Decision #2: Biblical Explanations

Every preacher and congregation has its standards and expectations to explain a biblical text. Some are lengthy and detailed, many are not.

How much history, character development, geography, Greek, and supporting texts are needed? Like Moses who talks God down about the number of faithful needed to save Sodom, what if the draft starts with ten fascinating facts? Will the message be spared if there are only five facts? Or three? Only one?

Try to remove one fact at a time and see what happens. For instance, offer the meaning of a word without mentioning the word, "Greek" and see what difference it makes. Offer one supporting text instead of two, and see whether it matters. Give three details about the geography instead of five; is a sufficient picture still drawn? 

I'm not suggesting that in each instance leaving facts out is the best call. I am suggesting that we hone our skill to decide what's enough and what's more than enough.

Decision #3: Stories

I had a different story at the beginning of this article. It was funny, had a great punch line, and used a celebrity for some extra oomph. I loved it.

But not only was the story itself longer, I also had to explain longer to bring its purpose around for this post. 

I cut it because that particular story wasn't necessary and I was asking you to read even longer. 

That does neither of us a favor. 

It might not do your listeners a favor, either, to offer longer or more stories or anecdotes than are necessary to illuminate the message.

Or maybe it will. 

The point is to consider carefully what best supports your message. You want to make it as easy as possible for people to hear, remember, and live it without wearing out your welcome.

Decision #4: Colloquialisms

I don't know that there's much decision to be made in this instance. Colloquialisms add words with little meaning at all, let alone add meaning to the message. For instance: 

  • I don't know about you, but...
  • When I was preparing for this sermon...
  • It seems to me that...
  • I think...
  • The fact of the matter is...
  • modifiers like, "pretty," "a little,", or "kind of," for instance, "When Jesus rose from the dead it was pretty great, kind of radical, and a little amazing." 

Maybe the decision is this. If you want to "just talk," then decide how, when, what, and where this serves the message, and choose deliberately. The message is always the "star attraction;" everything else exists to make it shine. 

There are other decisions involved in editing our sermons to keep them on message, but in every case, the decision can be made by asking:

"Are these words necessary to support the message?" 

  • If the words are necessary and sufficient to support the message, keep them.
  • If the words are unnecessary, drop them.
  • If the words are necessary but insufficient, add some.

(Download the free graphic.)

As I am also running the race that is set before me—in this case, as a writer without an editor publishing these posts—use these posts for practice. What supported the message "to stay on message?" What could I have left out? What needed more explanation? 

This is the third post in the series about Backstory Preaching's definition of an Effective Sermon

"An effective sermon has a clear message of Good News that is authentic to the preacher, relevant to the Listener, keeps their attention, and invites transformation." 

We might be getting closer to a clear message, but what's so Good about it? That's next time. Want to get it delivered to your inbox? Sign up for our newsletter below. 

Let me know about your preaching. Where do you need help? What do you wish were easier? What works well for you when you edit to stay on message?

I'm here to help you,

Be Good News to Preach Good News.



P.S. News is coming soon about our Holy Week and Easter Sermon Bootcamps. Prepare your sermons as a spiritual gift to yourself with other preachers online, finished ahead of time and without the stress. 

Preach courageously.

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