Some of Jesus’s final words are found in Mark 16:15: Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.
What a privilege and honor that our Savior and Lord would entrust such a powerful tool to us ordinary human beings! Historically, preaching has played a prominent role in building the church and changing individuals and communities.
At the end of 2016, Pew Research completed a study that determined the top reasons why people chose a particular church. Coming in at number one, chosen by 83% of the people, was the quality of sermons. If sermons are that important, we need to ensure that we are giving it our best.
I’m a 4th-generation preacher who has been fortunate to deliver more than 1000 sermons in just over a decade. I love to preach. I know what it’s like to preach 50 times in a year, and I know what it’s like to preach 15 times in a year (and trust me, there’s a difference). I have preached in rooms filled with ten people and to an audience of thousands. I’ve preached 5-minute sermons, and there was this one time that I preached a 53 hour and 18-minute sermon (yes, that’s true). I joke that Jesus had the greatest sermon of all time, but, according to Guinness, I have the longest sermon of all time.
So, today, I want to give some tips that I’ve learned in my preaching. They are extremely practical. If preaching is truly that important to so many people, we need to continue developing and growing in our preaching. My list is certainly not exhaustive, and I would love for you to add a tip or two in the comments below that you have found helpful in your preaching ministry.
Without further ado, here are ten tips to help you preach incredible messages:
- Block time in your calendar for sermon preparation.
People expect a quality sermon from you every Sunday, but not once in my ministry has anyone in my church ever reached out to me to tell me to take time to prepare for my sermon. They will reach out to me if they have a need, want me to jump into a meeting, or need to fill me in on something they deem vital for me to know.
I remember the adage from Seminary that you should prepare an hour for every minute you preach. I’m not entirely sure the numbers make sense. The average sermon in America is 37 minutes, and so that would literally mean a regular full-time week of 40 hours would leave you no time to do anything else! And for most pastors, that’s not reality, nor intelligent. However, the flip side is also unwise.
The more time you spend on your sermon, the higher quality your sermons will become.
When I was preaching every week, I found it exhausting to “fit in” preparing for a sermon. My sermon preparation got the leftovers and was often at the expense of my relationship with God or my family. Because I was tending to the needs of others and not intentional with my time, I neglected what people statistically say is the most important reason they chose to come to the church I pastor.
So, if you read nothing else, give yourself permission to spend time on your sermon. It wasn’t until about eight years into my ministry that I began blocking time in my calendar every week for sermon preparation, and it was a game-changer. So, whether it’s three 3-hour blocks or five 2-hour blocks, whatever it is, block that time, and be diligent about protecting it. Likely no one will ever applaud you for doing this, but it’s a massive step in preaching more quality sermons.
- Listen to many preachers—some like you and some who are not.
As someone who loves to deliver sermons, I also love to receive sermons. But, to be fair, I cannot turn off my Seminary brain when I listen to a sermon. Nearly every sermon, I find myself critiquing, discerning, and studying. But, listening to a wide variety of preachers allows me to hear God’s Word differently, discover unique delivery techniques, and find lines, ideas, or illustrations that relate to the audience.
Through podcasts and YouTube, we live in a day of age where we can consume great content. Thus far in 2022, I’ve listened to or watched more than 40 sermons a month. I maximize my time exercising or driving to consume most of these. Without a doubt, the quality of the sermons you preach will only get better if you listen to many sermons.
Also, as a bonus, it happens to be one of the best places for me to discover new sermon or sermon series ideas.
- Watch and listen to your own sermons.
It’s not vain to watch and listen to yourself. It’s smart. After I preach, I will watch or listen to nearly every sermon. It’s one thing to have a gut feeling about your sermon before and even during preaching, but receiving your message as an audience member is another thing. I have found that sometimes I’ve been too hard on myself for a word or phrase that came out wrong (only I noticed), and other times, a point I was trying to make that I thought went over well fell flat. Also, reviewing your own sermons helps uncover some tendencies in your delivery. For instance, early on in my ministry, I noticed I was saying “um” way too often. Then, when I kicked that, I went through a season where I said, “you know,” a lot. Most pastors have a word or two that they use way too much. So, um, you know, review yourself!
- Let others preview and then review your sermon.
Nearly every Sunday, you’ll have a handful of people that tell you, “Good sermon today.” I’m sure some of them genuinely mean this. But, I’m also sure that some people don’t know what else to say, so it’s the first thing that comes out of their mouth!
Getting regular critique or thoughtful feedback both before your sermon and after will only improve the quality of your sermons. In some settings, this may be easier than others, but truthfully, I believe most pastors can make this happen with some intentionality. Even if you are a solo pastor, there is another solo pastor that you could team up with and give feedback to each other every week.
Each week, I have my messages reviewed leading into the Sunday. We do this on a Tuesday. I have made very few changes in some of these meetings, and the team gives me great confidence in my message. Other weeks, they could help me see glaring changes, difficult transitions, Bible passages, or an illustration that would help bring home the point that much clearer. This feedback ensures that the message I deliver is that much stronger.
After I preach, we review the previous sermon at that same meeting. We talk about what went well, what didn’t go so well, and anything else necessary. They’ve helped me see some of my natural strengths and weaknesses. This is crucial as I move forward and plan more sermons in the future.
- Write more, not less. But don’t read what you wrote.
I believe the key to quality sermons is preparation. Preparation for me is twofold.
1.Getting words on paper
Even after preaching more than 1000 sermons, I still write out full manuscripts. Every week I try to hit a 4000-5000-word count for a first draft. Then, through collaboration, edits, and maybe a few days to let it simmer, I like to land in the 4000-word count world. In the end, I know that will equal about a 30-32-minute sermon.
2.Getting those words on paper into my head.
Once I’m confident in the words on paper, I rehearse my entire sermon at least three times before delivering it live. This allows me to understand the pace, the cadence, and the flow. It lets me know when to raise my voice and lower it. When to speed up and to slow down. Doing all of these rehearsals allows me to feel comfortable with my sermon. It also gives me flexibility when I deliver the sermon to be spontaneous or make any changes that I think are necessary as I respond to the audience.
I still bring up a complete manuscript, but I don’t read it. And neither should you. I like to have it there, primarily because in my writing, I’ve got specific phrases or words that I’ve spent considerable time crafting, and I want to get them just right. But, by being comfortable with the sermon, I can usually hit about 75-80% of my words just right without even having to look. I also know the 2 or 3 times in the sermon that I can get away from the preaching stand for several minutes and the 2 or 3 times in the sermon when I likely need to be close to get the words just right.
Every preacher is different, but the quality of sermons comes in the content and the delivery.
- Preach data-driven sermon topics.
Sure, there are times when God is working a message inside of you that needs to come out at some point. There are a few sermons that I’ve developed over time that made me feel like Jeremiah, like I got this message inside of me that must come out! But, more often than not, it is wise to let data drive sermon topics.
One practice that I have found particularly helpful is polling our specific church once a year to discover what questions or topics are on the top of their mind? We call the series, like many other churches, “You Asked for It.” We’ll send out a list of 20 questions that we often hear as pastors and ask them to vote on which ones they’d like to hear. Again, it’s a way to ensure that we are listening to the needs of our people. Whatever the top 5-7 selections are will then form an extremely relevant sermon to the people in our church and community.
I’ve recently written a blog on the number one reason for church decline, and I genuinely believe it’s because the church, and present-day Christianity, are perceived as irrelevant.
If the sermon topic is relevant, then guess what? They are far more likely to not only attend but invite others. So, speaking of relevance, number 7.
- Include some “you’s” with your “we’s.”
This one might get some debate.
For a long time, I’ve heard as a communicator that I need to be preaching not just to those in the room but to me too. As pastors, we want to help our people see that we understand what they are going through. So, it’s essential that we include ourselves in the sermon. When we are speaking a hard truth, calling out a sin, or even proclaiming grace, we must include ourselves in those moments.
But do you know what the most powerful word in marketing is? Hint, I used the word in the last sentence. I also used the word in the blog title. The most powerful word in marketing is “you.”
People are asking, “What’s in it for me?” WIIFM.
So, as vital as it is to include “we” and “us” and not elevate or minimize yourself in your sermons, ensure that you speak to the needs of the people in the room. Answer the question “what’s in it for me” in each message to ensure you stay relevant.
- Ask God, “What do the people need to hear?”
After spending a total of 10-25 hours preparing a sermon, every Sunday morning, I spend an extra 5-10 minutes asking, “God, what do the people need to hear?”
Of course, I ask it during the week leading up to it. But I’ve found returning to this question at the very end, in the hours leading up to delivery, to be extremely helpful. Usually, it’ll come out like this, “God, I’ve done what I know how to do. I feel like I’ve been faithful to give my best time and effort, but remind me, what do the people need to hear today?”
Then I just spend time listening and quieting my soul. I can’t tell you how many times God will give me something new in that 5-10 minutes or encourage me to reinforce a particular segment of the message. But, do you know what I’ve found more than anything with this question? Nearly every time I ask this, I feel the Spirit put it on my heart to give grace. It’s almost always a reminder to preach more grace. It helps me to remember that preaching is, as Jesus said, “Gospel.” It’s Good News!
- Stories matter, but they don’t all have to be about you.
Perhaps nothing is more critical to preaching engaging sermons than incorporating stories and illustrations. A story or illustration at just the right time can help the audience understand in new ways.
Just this past week, there was a message that I was connecting with, but not completely. Then, a well-told story, shown with a couple of images on the screen, helped me see this entire message come together. I was inspired, I was encouraged, and I was moved. God’s Word had me intrigued, but it was the preacher’s illustration that helped me see God’s Word in a new and refreshing way.
It’s essential as a preacher that you engage with your audience and that they see you as a real person. That’s why illustrations from your life, family, and experience are important.
But, can I be honest with you? So often, we can lean so heavily on our own experiences that there could be more robust illustrations or stories elsewhere. Sometimes when I hear a preacher’s own experience, I can highly relate, but other times, that may work for the preacher, but not for me.
So, include stories and illustrations about yourself. But, if all your examples are your own, not only could your audience feel disengaged at times, but there could also be more helpful illustrations that exist elsewhere.
- Give a clear and specific call to action.
God’s Word is not only about relaying information; it’s meant to produce transformation.
One of the most fruitful sermons ever preached was by Peter in Acts, chapter 2. After preaching, a number of God-fearing Jews from all over the world were “cut to the heart” and wanted to know what to do. Peter gave a clear call to action, “Repent and be baptized,” and that day, more than 3000 people were added to the church.
If God’s Word is preached, trust that it still cuts people to the heart today. The audience may not vocalize it as clearly as the original Pentecost, but people want to know what to do and how to respond.
Many preachers are incredible at proclaiming the justification of Jesus but leave a lot to be desired when it comes to sanctification. I genuinely believe this is one of the most missed opportunities in our preaching. So many in our churches simply don’t respond, grow in their faith, or take the next steps not because they don’t want to but because we don’t ask them to.
I encourage you for every sermon that you prepare to process and proclaim what you want the listener to do in response. What’s their takeaway? Is there a challenge that you could issue based on the information presented? Is there a next step that lines up with the sermon? Then, in your message, at the appropriate time (it doesn’t always have to be at the end), I urge you to use straightforward, non-confusing language. Things like:
- The one next step I’d like to encourage you to take today is __________.
- The practical takeaway from today’s message for you is __________.
- Based on today’s message, I’d like to challenge each of you to do _____________.
- You may be wondering what do I do with today’s message. Here’s what you can do ___________.
Sermons, when delivered from God’s Word, do not return void. Isaiah 55:11 reminds us that they accomplish what God wants them to accomplish. Praise God! This reminds me that as important as my best effort and attempts are at preaching quality sermons, His Holy Spirit turns hearts at the end of the day.
Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten regarding preaching is from my great-grandpa C.R. Zehnder. I never met him, but he passed on a statement to my grandpa Ron that was passed on to my dad Mark that was then passed on to me: “Preach the Gospel and love your people.”
I hope these tips help you to become a more effective preacher. What tips would you add?