In an increasingly unchurched and biblically illiterate society, preaching is the only biblical education many ever get.
Preaching is also a primary factor in many newcomers' decision about whether to return for a second visit.
As a result, the quality of your sermons matters both to your congregation's spiritual growth and to your church's ability to become a spiritual home for those seeking one.
That sounds like a lot of pressure, particularly when preaching is only one part of the job. Fortunately, it is possible to improve and grow in your craft.
Consider these seven suggestions as you prep your next sermon to help you become a better preacher.
1. Read Scripture & Pray
Read Scripture and pray regularly and often—not for your congregation, but for your own sake.
Read Scripture and pray so you get to know God better—and so you grow comfortable with the fact that God knows you even better.
Read Scripture and pray outside of sermon prep and group bible studies—for the joy of personal revelation and discovery.
Read Scripture and pray so your soul rests in the knowledge of God's love for you.
And if you'd rather listen to Scripture, rewrite a passage, have someone read it aloud to you, or otherwise soak in the words, do. Any engagement that facilitates your connection to the text and to God is worthwhile.
2. Preach with Empathy
Who are the people who listen to you? What are their challenges to believing and living the Gospel?
Everyone knows they're supposed to love their neighbor. But for some listeners, certain neighbors might be harder to love than others.
- Where does that reluctance come from?
- What experiences influenced them?
- If listeners were to have a change of heart, what price might they pay? That is, if they come to love someone whom their family continues to disparage, what might living the Gospel cost their relationships?
The more we understand the barriers between our listeners and the freedom Christ offers, the better we're able to craft messages that authentically address our listeners' fears, worries, hesitations, and resistance.
3. Acknowledge the Hard Parts
Years ago, I conducted a bible study about the Passover (Exodus 12:1-14).
In response to the Egyptians whose innocent first-born children and animals were "struck down" by God to make a point to the Pharaoh, one young woman had this advice to offer the Egyptians: "They shouldn't take it personally!"
I beg to differ. Scripture is nothing but personal.
Slavery was a normal part of biblical culture.
Women were property.
The Gospel of John has Jesus criticizing "the Jews" at every turn.
And when Elisha was teased by some "small boys," Elisha "cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys" (2 Kings 3.23-25).
When we don't address these difficult aspects of Scripture, we send the message that people's adverse experiences of God don't matter.
Our silence can be confusing at best, or received as encouragement to "go and do likewise" at worst.
For example, one unchurched young woman attended worship for the first time in her life as a family guest. The Hebrew Scriptures told that story of Elisha, and the children's deaths weren't mentioned in the sermon. After the service she turned to the family who brought her, outraged: "Who the hell do you people worship?"
Based on the story without further context, that's a fair question. A sermon needs to respond to it.
These acknowledgments of difficult content don't have to be the subject of a whole sermon, but silence can be misconstrued as approval.
4. Believe What You Preach
Ouch. Or wow. Or both.
At some point when we prep every sermon, I hope we say one or both of those things.
"Ouch" because we've discovered a way we're not living up to the Gospel, so we feel remorse and ask God's forgiveness.
Or "Wow!" because we've learned something new about God's being, or discovered the joy of being forgiven.
At some point during our prep, the Gospel speaks to, convicts, frees, or enlightens us.
That's what allows us to bring the Good News to our people with integrity: we believe the Good News, and we hope they do, too.
5. Pray for the Humility to Learn
Appraising our sermons is a tough go.
A sermon is not only a creative medium, it's something we believe with our whole hearts. It's deeply personal, so it can make our cheeks flush when we learn our intentions to offer a great sermon weren't met in the sermon itself!
Yet, if we don't look at our sermons with a critical eye, or receive the critical feedback of a trusted parishioner or colleague, we will only repeat what we know—good and bad—without improving our craft.
Humility is necessary to learn. We can pray for the humility to wear the identity of "Learner" instead of "Great Preacher."
By God's grace, we can see each weakness, mistake, or flaw as an opportunity to learn, as an invitation to communicate the Gospel ever more effectively.
6. Listen, Read, and Write
Listen to sermons offered by someone other than you or your clergy staff.
www.DayOne.org offers sermons online every week from the Mainline Protestant tradition. Many preachers now upload their sermons to their church website. Accessing audio or video files is easy in the internet age.
Or, choose a preacher whose style you admire and study him or her the way an artist studies Pablo Picasso or Mary Cassatt. Listen or watch their sermons. Read the transcripts if available. Pay attention to the nuances of how they use language, when they raise or lower their voice, how they use pauses.
Read. Read literature, poetry, and short stories. Read nonfiction and pithy magazine articles. Read books about writing. The more you read, the more the literary devices of excellent writing will enter your bones. You'll more naturally incorporate the rhythm, imagery, and rhetorical strategies of great writers in your own sermons.
Write. Want to get better at writing? Then write. Write for just five minutes on a regular basis and see the results build over time. Choose one writing technique to consciously apply in your next sermon, and see how it improves.
7. Trust Your Call
Most important of all, trust your call.
God asked you to preach, and that call was confirmed by your denomination and congregation.
Trust God will give you as many messages as you have sermons to preach. The message you have matters and we need to hear it.