The other day I was pondering the question, “What makes a sermon good?” What makes it effective, memorable, inspiring, applicable and edifying? Can it even be all of those things at the same time? I know that some sermons are none of those things. Every preacher has a dud or two somewhere in their files. But if someone comments, “Boy, that was great!” what moved them to say that? Was it short, funny, convicting or reassuring?
I’ve come to believe that a sermon that touches my own heart will connect with others, too. Perhaps that’s the best quality for a sermon to have. It connects an ancient scripture with contemporary life. It moves from a page in the bible to a place in your mind. It connects the Creator with his creatures. It allows the thoughts and feelings of a prophet or a king or a fisherman to resonate with a parent, a waitress, a student or a welder.
The moment of truth comes when somewhere in my preparation, a word, a phrase, an image or an event suddenly strikes a nerve. It’s hard to describe, but I know it when it happens. It might be a moment of conviction, relief, surprise or joy. But at that moment, I know I have something to say.
For example, I’m preaching on the transfiguration of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel this Sunday (Matthew 17:1-9). The disciples get to see a side of Jesus they’ve never seen before and never get to see again. All kinds of glory wrapped up in a very plain human package. There it is. Great things like computers or gifts are wrapped and shipped and arrive at my house in very plain packages. Church and ministry might seem boring and unexciting, but don’t ever forget all that glory wrapped up in “the body of Christ.”
That’s the thought process that got me to Tuesday. Now I have something to say. I’m still putting it all together for Sunday. But I’ve made a connection. I pray that my hearers will, too.
I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been writing sermons and preaching weekly to congregations for nearly thirty-four years. Yes, a lot has changed since I first started preparing, writing and delivering sermons.
Today, I have a wealth of resources in the palm of my hand. With just my phone I have access to original language (Hebrew and Greek) tools, commentaries, and written and video sermons on every verse in the bible! Some of those resources are great. Some are so-so. Some are worthless. When I started in 1986, all I had was a study bible and just a few commentaries. I was mostly on my own to read, apply and proclaim the text. Actually, I prefer to work that way now. Most of the online resources are old, trite and not applicable to my congregation. In most cases, I’m better off just working with the text.
When I began, I wrote all my sermons out by hand. I still have a copy of my first handwritten sermon on lined looseleaf paper. It was tedious and took a lot of time. A computer and word processing software saved me a lot of editing and rewriting time. Now I don’t even write everything out, using powerpoint software to organize my thoughts.
I tell a lot more stories than I used to. Stories engage imaginations and stick in your memory. I have worked hard on coming up with and telling stories that illustrate my sermon point. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been enjoyable to learn how to be a better story teller.
I have reused very few sermons in my career. You would think that after ten or twelve years, you would have amassed enough sermons to last for the rest of your ministry. However, when I go back and read what I preached in the past, I usually don’t like the sermon. The words just don’t work twenty or thirty years later. Actually I only have one sermon I’ve used more than once, a wedding sermon from Genesis 2:25 about getting naked!
I’ve got about fifteen years of audio sermons preserved on CDs. Not that I or anyone else listens to them. Maybe I will someday, just to see if my speaking style has changed at all. Without really trying, I find that all my sermons still turn out to be about fifteen minutes long. I’m kind of a “get to the point” guy in my sermons (and my conversations.)
On my way to church early each Sunday morning, I always thank God for my voice (because I’ve been prone to laryngitis), the Word (so I have something to say) and for a congregation (someone who will come to listen). God has consistently blessed me with all those gifts for all the years I’ve been preaching!
Last Monday morning, as I was reading the bible and journaling, I jotted down a few reflections about Sunday morning. I preach twice each Sunday morning and one sermon always goes a little better than the other. Sometimes it’s the first one, sometimes the second. Anyway, I noted that I left out an illustration the second time around, one that really helped me connect with that morning’s text. Of course, no one knew this but me. I’m the only person who heard the sermon twice that morning.
So I started pondering what I could do to do better next time. Should I have reviewed the sermon between Sunday School and the second worship service? Should I have practiced more the week before?
And then I paused and mused to myself, “After all these years, I am still trying to do better next time.” If I include some of my seminary field work and my vicarage, I’ve been preaching for over thirty-five years. One might assume I’ve got it down by now. But weekly a little voice in my mind suggests, “You can do better than that!”
I like to read articles, books and blogs, and watch videos about speaking effectively. I love to watch TED talks as much to learn as speaking as about the topic. My radar is always on when it comes to techniques that get people’s attention, how connect with listeners, the power of storytelling, and what people remember. I rarely learn anything new, for there is still nothing new under the sun. But it never hurts to reinforce what I’ve learned and remember what’s effective.
At the end of my journal entry, I wrote, “Don’t worry. If you forgot to mention something, it probably wan’t that important anyway. I’ll do better next time.” And I will.
Second worship service is over, it’s hot and I’m walking out to my car. When I get in, turn the key and fire up the AC, I quickly check my email, just to see if there’s anyone I need to get in touch with that afternoon. There is an email from someone I don’t know that begins, “My family and I worshiped with you this morning at your 8:15 service.” Hmm. I don’t remember meeting any guests this morning. In my mind survey the morning crowd and no one stands out.
The email continued, “How refreshing it was to hear the Gospel this morning.” I can’t think of any other sentence someone could write to me that would touch my heart in such a powerful way. The words of Paul to Christians in Corinth popped into my mind: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16)
There are far too many afternoons when I wonder if I preached the gospel clearly enough. Did I take my listeners to the cross? Did I get them to the empty tomb? Did I faithfully proclaim the death and resurrection of my Lord? Is that what people heard?
When someone comes out of church and says, “Thank you for preaching the gospel,” I am relieved, affirmed, encouraged and thankful. That’s my task. That’s my goal. In fact, That’s all I’ve got. I can’t convince people to trust God. I can’t move them to change their behavior. I can’t answer all their questions or objections. All I have is the gospel, filled with the power of God to inspire faith, create new hearts in us, and calm our worried souls. All I can do is tell them about Jesus.
I wasn’t especially thrilled about my sermon this morning. I think I tried too hard to say too many things. I think I could have done better. Most of the people coming out of church wanted me to have a safe trip to Israel this week or offered consolation because my father died three weeks ago. But this one little bit of feedback reminded me that God can work through someone like me to bring the best news of all to people like me who need to hear it early and often.
You read that title right. I really didn’t feel like preaching today. For some reason, I just got up and felt like a blend of Jonah and Jeremiah. My sermon was ready, it spoke to me when I practiced it on Saturday, and I slept well. But frankly, I just didn’t feel like getting up and going to work.
But…but…Pastor Bill, you’re called and ordained and inspired and privileged to preach God’s Word every week. I know. I’ve been doing it weekly for over thirty-three years. Some days I can’t wait to get there. Other days I just wish it were over and it was afternoon nap time. Some days it’s a joy. Some days it’s a job.
Maybe the congregation could tell. Maybe not. Some know me pretty well and can tell it’s one of those days. I’m OK with that. The guys who run out on the field for 162 regular season baseball games aren’t always pumped. the football players who are still aching from last Sunday’s game line up at the line of scrimmage on a Thursday night because that’s what they do. The cast of a successful Broadway show do their singing and dancing over and over again, week in and week out, whether they feel like it or not.
I’ve recently been reminding myself that those who come to worship each week are hungry for God’s Word. They desperately need His words of forgiveness and grace. They are like the people of Israel wandering out of their tents each morning to gather manna from the ground. My job is to preach the word, essentially feeding them. It’s not about me. It’s about them. It’s my task to fill their plates, if you will, with some good news and food for their souls. It’s my job to speak to the bones, like Ezekiel, so that the Spirit of God might blow and bring dead bones to life.
I still have to thank a dear old friend and pastor, Roy Bohrer, for some of this wisdom. He was my pastor for the few months I lived in Austin, TX, when I was considering studying for pastoral ministry. When I asked him what he thought about me becoming a pastor, he said, “Remember, this is a job. Your job. Every week. Day in and day out.”
Noah spent many days, weeks, months and years building an ark. Moses led a nation on a trek through a desert for forty years. David got up day after day and went into battle against Philistines. Paul made tents six days a week. Were they excited about their job every day? I don’t know. Oh, yes I do. They had their good days and bad days. We all do. Even pastors.
I give thanks for both. Hey, I have a job. I have a job I enjoy. Most of the time.
I felt compelled to mention here that yes, for better or worse, I write all my own sermons. (I wonder how many think I don’t?) I once ordered a kit for some midweek Lent worship services that included bulletin covers, liturgies, and sermons. Even though I liked the themes and some of the ideas, I had to rewrite all of them. They just didn’t sound like me and needed to be adapted for my specific audience. I didn’t waste my money on any more kits.
It never occurred to me that pastors wouldn’t write their own sermons. My seminary professors — from the historical, exegetical and systematic departments as well as homiletics — spent a lot of time preparing us for the pulpit. Then again, I did have a colleague when I was of several pastors at another church who received some kind of subscription of sermon resources. He never shared them with us, so I don’t know how much he drew from them.
I may pick up some ideas, themes, titles or illustrations from stuff I read, but I have to shape them into my own words. Otherwise, it just doesn’t feel natural. I don’t even go back and use sermons I’ve written in the past. Although I have copies of just about everything I’ve written, I never like them as much as the new material I write.
Yes, I write my own sermons. And just in case you’re curious, here’s the process I generally follow each week as I prepare for a Sunday morning. It’s not a hard and fast schedule, just a routine that works for me.
Monday On Monday morning, I read through the texts for that day (Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel) and decide which one I will preach on that week. I’ll work through that passage mostly in English to come up with a title and basic outline of what I want to say. I usually use the “Lowry Loop” to accomplish this, since it moves my thoughts towards a goal or a “so what” for the week.
From time to time may preach a topical series of sermons, for which I pick the biblical texts. In the past I’ve preached series on the Great Commission, Tearing Down our Idols, Watching Your Mouth, Stewardship, Witnessing and lots and lots of Lenten series.
Tuesday On Tuesday, I’ll work on the passage again, checking other English translations and looking at the Greek or Hebrew to see if there are any interesting words or phrases that catch my attention. I try to anticipate any questions the hearer might have, too. I may look at a commentary to learn more about the passage’s context and interpretation, too. I like to have my introduction and conclusion figured out, too.
Wednesday On Wednesday, I put the sermon onto Keynote slides which will help me remember. I don’t write out the whole sermon but use bullet lists on each slide. My sermons will generally be eight to twelve slides. I style each slide to be more of a story at this point, and put a picture with it, reminding me to show not just tell. It’s also a great mnemonic device.
Thursday Thursday is practice day. The pictures on each slide will be mentally slotted into rooms in my house, which easily helps me remember each one. Then I practice the sermon out loud several times in the sanctuary as if it were Sunday morning.
Friday Friday is my day off, so I try not to work on church stuff at all.
Saturday (and Sunday) Sometimes I’m off on Saturday, sometimes I have stuff to do. But I will always practice the sermon once before bed and then once more early Sunday morning before anyone else arrives at church.
Granted, that’s an ideal week. Some weeks the sermon comes easily and is done early. Other times I feel like I’m Jacob trying to wrestle blessing from God and I’m actually still working on it on Saturday. But it’s always worth the effort. Most days I’ll block out a couple of hours to work on my sermon. Sometimes I have less; sometimes it takes more. Bottom line: it’s not really a message worth preaching unless it has touched my own heart. Then it’s ready.
And actually, the sermon isn’t ever done until I’ve preached it to the congregation. It’s always a little different in front of a live audience. The sermon writing task is rewarding, frustrating, stimulating, agonizing, frightening and exciting all at the same time. Sometimes I hate my sermons. Other times I love them. I can put people to sleep. Other times I can wake them up. Such is the preaching task and the power of God’s Word!
In the sermon this morning, I talked a little about being “indispensable.” It came up in the context of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he writes, “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12:22).
Who is indispensable in the life of the church? One might be tempted to say, “the pastor.” I would disagree. I am blessed to have a number of retired pastors worshiping with our congregation. I asked them, “When you retired, did they shut the doors of the church? Did the ministry fold?” Of course not. That church called another pastor. The ministry continued. Rather than being indispensable, we pastors are quite replaceable.
I think this is an important part of longevity in the ministry. The church was here before me. It will be here when I’m gone. What happens when you think of yourself as disposable, dispensable and replaceable? All kinds of good things!
First, you value God and other people much more. As your importance decreases, theirs increases. God’s eternal. He’s always around. He’s the one you want to depend on.
And other people? They are the reason you get to be a pastor. They are the ones you’ve been called to shepherd. They are the ones who need to hear the voice of their shepherd. And you are the one called to preach the word. You wouldn’t have a job without them. I so enjoy preaching, teaching and administering the sacraments. But I wouldn’t get to do any of it were it not for our Lord’s sacrificial love for his people.
Second, you let others shine. You are not the main event. They are. They reach many more people than I ever will. I spend most of my time with those who believe, who are already saved. But the congregation is out there in the world, where they live and where they work. They are out there on the front lines, living out their faith. They know, talk to and witness to people I will never meet. I may help equip them for that task, but they are the ones who actually engage in it.
Finally, you marvel at the work of his hands. You appreciate all those who come to listen week after week. You thank God for all those who daily pray for you. You are grateful for those who make it possible for you to do what you do. And you are motivated to do your best – for their sake. They need to hear,; you get to preach. Actually, you need to preach. It’s a part of who you are. But you couldn’t do it without them. They are indispensable.
This past Advent and Christmas, I experimented with setting my iPhone in front of the church so that the service and sermon could be on Facebook live. It certainly wasn’t an elegant solution, just easy. Those watching only saw me during the sermon, but they could hear the rest of the service. I figured there is always someone who can’t get out, who can watch and listen and worship with us. They can even watch later since the video is saved indefinitely.
Right after the first of the year, I did a memorial service in our chapel. Some who would have attended couldn’t, so I set up my phone and they got to join us virtually.
So I started setting my phone out on Sunday mornings, too. I discovered that I had an audience. Some were former members who had moved to Wisconsin. Other viewers’ worship service had been cancelled due to a big winter storm in the Midwest. There were some who were sick and stayed home to rest.
I’ve been to churches that had multiple television cameras in the sanctuary to broadcast their worship services. I never thought something like that would be possible with the phone I usually keep in my pocket. Yet here we are, broadcasting live.
As I began preaching yesterday, I mentioned that there are some in the congregation who believe I should more confrontational, more aggressive, more direct in my preaching, along the lines of John the Baptist. JTB didn’t pull any punches calling his audience a “brood of vipers” who didn’t take repentance seriously, basically trees bearing nothing but rotten fruit that should be cut down and burned.
I said that maybe I should zero in on our smug self-righteousness, our neglect of the poor, and our failure to witness. Rather than children of God we look more like the descendants of the serpent himself.
After each of those examples, many in the congregation smiled, snickered and audibly chuckled. As I spoke, I felt personally convicted about each of those offenses, but they didn’t. Either they really didn’t take it seriously, or I didn’t preach the law clearly. And if they didn’t get the law, did they get the gospel? Did they think I was kidding about that, too?
Feedback after a sermon is valuable, but rare. It may come in the form of a comment or question after worship or later in the week. But it might also come in the moment, from a look in their eyes or an expression on their faces. The latter was true yesterday, and it was humbling.
I don’t want to get caught in the trap of believing I’ve got this down, that I know how to effectively reach an audience. As soon as I do, I let down my guard, I don’t work as hard as I should, and I’m nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. You can either humble yourself and work hard, or you can let God humble you so you can get back to work.
Either way, by his grace, there’s another Sunday coming up. Another chance. Thank you!