By Jonathan Mitchican
Let’s be honest: most sermons today are terrible. They are boring. They ramble. They sound like bad imitations of high-school book reports. Listening to a sermon today is often like listening to the teacher from the old Charlie Brown cartoons. We do not have good preachers because we have forgotten what preaching is for.
Like a great cello player or a great center fielder, a great preacher is born with a certain degree of raw talent that then must be trained toward excellent performance. But in liturgical churches in the contemporary West, we see preaching as less important than other aspects of ministry. We assume that anyone can be a great preacher and that the honing of preaching skills ought to be relatively low on the priority list, something to tend to once all the other fires are put out. We reap what we sow. We treat preaching like it is nothing, and thus it becomes nothing.
What I offer here are a few maxims on what makes great preaching. They are culled from my own experience both as a preacher and as someone who listens to sermons. I am no expert, and this list is nowhere near exhaustive, but it is a start. I hope that others will build on this. “Faith comes through hearing,” Paul says (Rom. 10:17). It is no secret that the Church in the West is in decline, and I see no scenario for its revival that does not include a renewal of great preaching.
Know Scripture: By definition, a sermon is an explication of Holy Scripture. That does not mean every sermon ought to go line by line through a passage, but the goal of the preacher should always be to help people know what the Scripture says, not merely what the preacher thinks. The Scripture should never be simply a device that we use to get to what we really wanted to talk about.
If we are going to preach Scripture, we need to know Scripture. Preachers need to have training in biblical languages. It is a crime that this is no longer required in many seminaries. Preachers also need to see Scripture in context, understanding how one part connects with all the rest. We need to know how the Fathers approached certain passages. Every preacher ought to be involved in Bible study. A significant portion of a preacher’s week ought to be taken up with simply studying the passages that the congregation will hear the following Sunday. Nothing is more important than this. If you are too busy to prepare, then you are also too busy to preach.
Prepare your sermons to be spoken: Far too many preachers think of sermons primarily as pieces of writing. I am constantly surprised by how many preachers post their sermons online before even preaching them. Sermons are first and foremost a form of public address. You do not only write a sermon. What you have written down on a page is not a sermon at all until you have delivered it.
There are many different ways of preparing one’s thoughts for preaching. There is nothing wrong with having a full manuscript, or just a few notes scratched out, or even no notes at all. But whatever method you use, you must know your material forward and backward. You must know it well enough to speak it with conviction. If you have no manuscript, you must not ramble, as if you were talking to yourself. You must know everything you are going to say and how you are going to say it. Likewise, if you use a full manuscript, you must not simply read it flatly off the page. You must deliver it with proper inflection and emotion. You must look up from your pages to see the people and to connect with them. Go through your manuscript ahead of time and make sure that it is written with contractions and other idiosyncrasies of speech. Pick out your best, most beautiful and poetic sentence, and lose it. You are not trying to show people how well you can write. You are trying to show them how much God loves them by what he has written in his Word.
Be particular: You would not speak the same way to your mother as you would to your drinking buddies. So why would you speak the same sermon to a poor, rural farming parish that you previously used at a gathering of urban elites? If you are the pastor of a congregation, then you are the physician of their souls. You know what they need in the moment. You know what is going on in their lives. You know what they will react to and what they will ignore and what they will not understand. Speak to them specifically. Do not repeat sermons you have used in the past. It does not matter if it has been a long time and they will not remember. Speak to them where they are now, not where they were years ago.
Practice: You ought to spend time every week going over the sermon aloud, if possible in the space in which you will be preaching. Preaching is a skill. It takes practice. You do not know how something will sound until you say it out loud. The space you are in determines so much about your effectiveness as a preacher. Some spaces are small and intimate, so you must modify your voice. Others are large and require you to speak up. The layout of the space will determine more than you might think about where you place your emphases, where you pause and where you speed up, and how certain types of body language may be received. The more you can work these things out ahead of time, the better your sermon will be received.
Focus on the cross: The job of the Christian preacher is to show people Jesus. It does not matter whether Jesus is named in the passage. In fact, it is even more important that your sermon be about Jesus when you preach an Old Testament passage, since otherwise people may not understand that the whole of Scripture is about Jesus.
However, be sure that the Jesus you preach is the Jesus who died on the cross for the sins of the world. It is all too common these days for us to make Jesus into a mascot for our pet projects. A sermon that says nothing about Jesus is bad, but a sermon in which Jesus is mentioned without any connection to his atoning work on the cross is much worse. What makes Jesus uniquely important to the people gathered to hear you preach is not that he was a swell guy who would have supported your political views if only he had the opportunity. What makes Jesus uniquely important to your congregation is that he died for their sins. And while Jesus is to be a moral example for us, if all we ever tell our people about Jesus is that they should strive to be like him, we will have effectively heaped a greater burden onto their shoulders than they had when they first walked in the doors. Your job, preacher, is to apply the grace of God to your people, to lift the burden of their sin. You do that by preaching Christ crucified.
Make one point: Forget all that business they taught you in seminary about the three-point sermon. Perhaps there was a time when such a thing could have legs, but not today. If you are in a setting where you may preach 45 minutes to an hour, then yes, make all the points you want. But for those of us in liturgical churches, we usually only have somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes, depending on the churchmanship of the parish. That is not enough time to make multiple points and have them stick. People do not have the attention span for it. They will not remember multiple points. They will only remember one.
Every passage of Scripture is rich enough to support many points. Part of your job, preacher, is to discern which one your people actually need to hear that day. Find that one and run with it. Make sure you are clear on it before you go looking for examples to support it. Repeat it over and over again. Make it the centerpiece of your sermon the way that a chorus is the centerpiece of a pop song.
Choose good examples: When I first started at my current parish, I gave a sermon in which I put on many different hats that I pulled out of a bag. It was a lot of fun. People still remember that sermon and occasionally will remind me of it. But what was the point of the hats? They cannot remember, nor do they remember the passage of Scripture I was trying to explicate. And the truth is, I do not remember anymore either.
Good examples are essential to preaching a good sermon. They become the hook that draws listeners in and helps them see in the Scripture what seemed obscure before. But the examples must always be in service of the point, not the other way around. Too many personal examples and the sermon becomes about how interesting you are as a preacher rather than about what God is trying to tell us through his Word. Make sure that your examples are direct enough that even if they are the only thing a listener recalls from your sermon, the listener will still see the point.
Be a pastor: Preaching is entirely contextual. If you are preaching to 30,000 people on television or radio, they may very well care about what you have to say simply because of the position you occupy. If you are the pastor of a small congregation, the people gathered each Sunday will not care what you have to say until you have baptized their babies and buried their dead. You are not the pastor the moment you arrive and are installed, regardless of the fanfare involved. You become the pastor as you slowly begin to take your place within the life of the congregation. The more pastoral care you give, the more people will listen to what you have to say from the pulpit.
Likewise, the preaching you do from the pulpit is not the only preaching that you do as a pastor. When you visit people in their homes, when you prepare them for baptism or matrimony, when you stand by their bedsides and pray with them before their surgeries, you are preaching. It is simply preaching of a different kind. You listen. You hear the concerns of their hearts. You understand where they are in their relationship with God in Christ. And you apply the Word of God to their lives based on that understanding. Sometimes that means offering comfort and giving people a sense of God’s love. Sometimes it means alerting them to danger and making them aware of God’s judgment. The good preacher learns which is needed when and applies the Word accordingly. Either way, though, good preaching goes hand in hand with good pastoral care. You cannot sustain one without the other.
The Rev. Jonathan Mitchican is rector of Church of the Holy Comforter in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. An earlier version of this essay appeared on TLC’s weblog, Covenant.