This is not a discussion about sermon style. Style is surface. We all have one: narrative, dramatic, monologue, monotone, calm, passionate, soft, loud, still, demonstrative. I have heard great sermons in every style and really bad ones, too.
This is not a debate about the sermon’s textual approach. Though I do have some favorites in this category, let me say that approach is preference. What’s your preference—exegetical, expository, topical, allegorical, biographical, historical? When it comes to approach, we all lean toward one, but we have heard great sermons in every approach and really bad sermons, as well.
Our conversation here is about effectiveness.
Effective [ ih-fek-tiv ]. Adjective. Definition: adequate to accomplish a purpose; producing the intended or expected result.
When it comes to effectiveness there are only two types of sermons: Type 1. Effective, or Type 2. Ineffective. It is possible for us to get style and approach correct and still be ineffective. Let us discuss six elements of an effective sermon.
An effective sermon must faithfully communicate the truth of God’s Word. Statistics, trends, illustrations, poems, antidotes, object lessons, pop artist rhymes, and dead theologian’s quotes can be helpful, but the truth is required. Not shades of truth, pieces of the truth, or truth mixed with lies. Like a witness testifying before a judge in court, we need to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
The sermon is not the space to just pontificate politics, polemics, or pablum. We are entrusted with the eternal truth of God. It alone is able to save souls and transform lives. It undergirds and guides. It comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. We need truth, so handle with prayer.
There are many powerful and wonderful truths in the Word of God, but knowing which one is the right one for this moment is the constant challenge. Holy Days, tragedies, and important occasions capture the listeners’ focus. Catching the emphasis of a kairotic moment can make your message soar.
Many a seasoned pastor has had to leave the preaching plan and inset a special sermon, a timely message, because what was happening in the lives of the people was so profound it could not wait. Proverbs 25:11-12 says, “A word spoken at the right time is like gold apples in silver settings. A wise correction to a receptive ear is like a gold ring or an ornament of gold.”
It was my second mission trip. I was a fairly new preacher. I had grown up in the urban center of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and I was preaching at a church in Runaway Bay, Jamaica. It was in the middle of my message that God made it plain to me that I was preaching, but I was not preaching to the people who were in the room. What I was saying would have resonated in a church back home, but in another country, it got blank stares and crickets. I was missing the target.
God’s Word is always good, but we have to share it in a way that connects with the people in front of us. We can have the greatest message in the world, but the people we’re speaking to need to be able to understand it.
A sermon is not a sermon unless it communicates, and communication is two sided. There is what we sent out and what they received. If we make a phone call and no one answers, or they answer, but the connection is so bad we cannot understand each other, then we may have heard each other, but communication has not occurred.
Learning styles are often categorized as visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. While there is not universal agreement of how many people fall into each of these categories, there is common agreement that we do not all learn the same way. Some studies suggest that as low as 5% is retained from lectures. Graphics, object lessons, notes, application, and groups participation can help to make sure the message is received.
Tell the truth: Have you ever left an event when someone spoke, and you could not remember enough to truly explain what the speaker said to someone else? Well, I have. So, is a sermon truly great if no one can remember it? I think not. Using tools that make the sermon, what I like to call portable is vital. Mnemonics, rhymes, repetition, acrostics, and visuals all help.
I know some of you purists are saying that it is unnecessary to use memory devices. Well, tell it to David in the psalms. Tell that to Jesus in the parables, with the woman caught in adultery, or in the Sermon on the Mount.
6. Responded to
No effective sermon is complete without a response. The goal of preaching is not just to put information into the minds, but to transform the hearts and lives. Maybe God used your message to encourage a person to keep going, to convict a person about the need to change, to strengthen a person for the task ahead, to transform a person’s life, or to refocus a person to give praise and glory to Almighty God.
Though I believe God would prefer each of us to always preach effective sermons, take comfort, God can even accomplish His will through an ineffective sermon. Isaiah 55:10-11 confirms this.
For just as rain and snow fall from heaven and do not return there without saturating the earth and making it germinate and sprout, and providing seed to sow and food to eat, so my word that comes from my mouth will not return to me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do.”
I’ve witnessed God use even bad sermons to work miracles. I know this because some of the ineffective sermons were mine!