3 Questions to Help You Find Your Sermon’s Sweet Spot

Before you step behind the pulpit, turn on your wireless mic or fire up your iPad…
How do you know you have the right message?
 
Every preacher approaches their messages differently. We all have different methods and patterns and systems to help us create the final draft of our sermon. I’m not about to suggest there is only one way to do it (particularly because I use different methods just about every week); however, I am going to suggest three questions that might help you focus in on the most important things you need to say.
 
What has God said?
 
I don’t suppose this is a complicated question. What God has said is contained in His Word. I may be old fashioned, but I still think the content of every sermon ought to flow from the pages of the Bible.
 
If I want to preach the Words of God, I need to immerse myself in them. I need to study them, memorize them, meditate on them. I need to consult others to better understand them. Before I ever preach to others, I ought to have as clear an understanding as possible of what God has said.
 
Who are these people?
 
Not every congregation or audience is the same, and how I preach God’s Word to them ought to reflect who they are. Not everyone can always know exactly who their audience is, but if you are a pastor, you MUST spend regular time learning who the people are that sit in those pews every Sunday.
 
Every Monday I spend time reading notes, comments, prayer requests and praises from my brothers and sisters at The Gathering. They are kind enough to share their lives and thoughts with me by writing on the back of our “connection card” every Sunday. I try to email every one of them with a short note of encouragement so they know I enjoy hearing from them and want to hear more.
 
I also have other means by which I grow deeper relationships with the people in the pews. The method is not nearly as important as the outcome. If I am going to effectively preach to them, I must find a way to learn:
  • What is going on in their lives
  • How they are struggling
  • Where they have been victorious
  • When they have been disappointed
  • Why they are at our church
  • For whom they are burdened
How can I tell these people what God said?
 
I could easily spend 30 hours preparing for a sermon and then speak for an hour, dumping a massive amount of information on the congregation. I would walk away feeling good that I have taught and they have learned.
 
I choose to take the road less travelled.
 
For me, the most difficult element of sermon preparation is specifically crafting my words to particularly apply to my friends in the pews. I find it much more stressful to choose what I will not say, then to determine what I will say. Not everything I learn in my sermon preparation is what the people on Sunday need to learn. In fact, much of it is not what they need and could possibly distract them from what God truly wants them to hear.
 
(The Sermon on the Mount was NOT a 45 minute sermon!)
 
My general rule of thumb is as follows:
If I could preach this sermon to any congregation at any location; I still have work to do before I preach it to my congregation at my church.

Discover what God has said.

Determine to whom you’ll be speaking.

Discern what they need to hear from God.

Then trust the Holy Spirit to do the hard work!

Prepare Your People Before You Preach

Never forget that when you preach, you are preaching to someone. Have you ever grown weary of the attempting to deliver a life-changing message to people who haven’t prepared themselves to receive God’s Word? You should consider the concept that your sermon actually begins long before you stand up to preach. Provide your congregation with the tools they need to prepare themselves for Sunday morning. Below are some tools to help you accomplish this. Feel free to copy any of this material and distribute it to your own church:
Is Sunday morning the most important morning of your week? Most of us would say it is because Sundays are our time to come together with God and His people. Yet, I am often guilty of approaching Sunday with far less intentionality than the most important day of the week deserves. 
 
Today, I’d like to offer a few suggestions as to how you (and your family) can tweak your Sunday morning routine to make it the BEST day of the week!
 
HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR SUNDAY MORNING
 
 
Make your plans on Saturday night
It’s easy to sleep in Sunday morning, crawl out of bed, debate which service to go to and then finally decide to just take the morning off. Have a brief discussion with your spouse/family on Saturday night. Decide which service you want to attend (think about what the rest of your day looks like) and then set your alarms accordingly. You’ll be glad you did.
 
Spend a few minutes being quiet
Some time during the morning, find a quiet place in your home and relax for a few minutes. Spend some time talking to your Heavenly Father. Tell Him what’s on your mind and ask Him to show you what’s on His mind for you. Read a couple verses from the Bible. This time will empower you to have a calm and peaceful Sunday morning, which will enable you to have a meaningful and joyful experience at church.
 
Arrive at church early
Nothing is worse than arriving at the church, running in from the parking lot, racing through the child check-in process, speeding through the cafe and then sneaking into the service as the last song finishes up. By the time you catch your breath and your heart rate slows down, the service is over. Try to arrive early so you can enjoy your morning routine and feel relaxed and at ease when the service begins.
 
Enjoy coffee and a donut
Sometimes a Sunday service can be long and tiring with all the standing up and sitting down. Sometimes the preacher is less than exciting. You’ll have an easier time keeping your energy up and staying awake if you have a little energy boost before the service.
 
Find a seat before the service begins
If you get into the Worship Center before the service begins, you’ll have your pick of seats. Find something that works for you, but try not to isolate yourself. Once you’re seated, have a brief conversation with someone around you or take a minute and browse the information in your program. If the sermon passage is listed, you can read it before the service to give yourself a head start.
 
Make a new friend before you leave
Unless you know the name of everyone who attends your church (and none of us do), you always have a chance to make new friends. During the service, notice the people sitting near you that you’ve never met. Before you leave, greet them with a smile and introduce yourself. You never know what the outcome might be: you may never see them again or it might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Maybe all of these can be helpful for you. Maybe just one or two are beneficial for you. This Sunday is a great time to practice.

Is Eraser Day The Most Important Day of Sermon Preparation?

For four weeks, I compile as much information as I can. I study individual words, I brainstorm, I read commentaries, I create outlines, I dig around for quotes and stories. By the time I’m done, I have a thick stack of pages with charts, lists, drawings and web-clippings.

After a month of collecting, on Thursday, I start cutting.

By Thursday morning, I’ve narrowed my sermon down to four key movements and one main point. Anything that doesn’t fit into those movements or support that point gets erased. By the end of Thursday, I’ve erased enough to have a sermon that can be preached in less than 30 minutes and will hopefully equip people to take 1-3 next steps on their spiritual journey.

Someday I hope to write more about this process, but for now, it’s back to the eraser.

4 Simple Steps To Create A Preaching Calendar

File under: “What do pastors do with their time?”

Assembling An Annual Preaching Calendar.


Assumption One:
The Holy Spirit is active in my life and work in ways I can’t understand or identify.
Assumption Two: If my whole life is bathed in prayer, then my work will be bathed in prayer, as will this process.
Assumption Three: When striving to be faithful and obedient, I must first do everything I know to be right, and then what I believe to be wise, and finally what appears to be expedient. A preaching calendar is an expedient way to be wise about doing what is right.
Assumption Four: This type of thing, like virtually all ministry is not done alone. I think of myself as a clarifier more than a creator. I seek to hear many voices before beginning, and seek much refinement before ending.
Assumption Five: All this is flexible.

Step One: Ask four important questions

  • How do we understand discipleship? Can we identify clear discipleship elements we should address?
  • Who are we? How do we teach our people (from the Bible) about their identity as the church?
  • Where are we as a body? What truths do our people need?
  • Where am I? What is God saying to me right now? Why shouldn’t I share it?
At the end of step one, I should have a long brainstormed list of potential topics, book studies, theological issues, virtues, etc. which may be developed into preaching series.

Step Two: Identify key dates in the calendar around which teaching series may be built:

  • Easter
  • Mother’s Day/Father’s Day
  • National Holidays (if you must)
  • Thanksgiving
  • Christmas
  • Labor Day (this signals the end of the summer, which in many places means people come back to church the next week. It’s a big mistake to start a series right before or on Labor Day.)
At the end of step two, I may have tentatively plugged some of the brainstormed series into the calendar. While I may yet move them, I now have an idea of what other series may be helpful to effectively disciple the people of our church for the coming year.

Step Three: Consider means by which you can create a balanced year of teaching

As a general rule, I like to do Old Testament studies in the fall because they naturally lead up to Christmas. I like to do the Gospels after the new year because they lead into Easter. The rest of the year is a good time to look at the epistles, poetry, etc.

Step Four: Find the best places for the “Special Days” which need to be included

In many churches, the “special days” are things like baptism, communion, missions reports, etc. Baptism and communion particularly are days we try to set aside to really focus on the celebration. Sometimes these days fall naturally into a series we are doing, and sometimes they need to be placed as a stand-alone between series.

Conclusion:

Obviously, there’s more to it, but this is just a rough outline, and all this is just the opening activity. The next step is really where the hard work starts as I break down each series, determining the key teaching points and biblical truths which will form the main ideas for each week’s sermon. But that’s another post for another time.

Church Is A Team Sport

Several years ago, I came across a book called Church is a Team Sport. Written by Jim Putman, it was essentially a mashup of church philosophy and ministry memoirs. I didn’t finish it, because it slowed a bit in the middle, but I really enjoyed the beginning.

(I’ve noticed over time that many books start great, but fizzle in the middle and at the end. I think it’s because the author puts their great idea out there, explains it and then has to create enough filler stuff to get the publishing houses to bite. Like sermons, books should be short and to the point. That said, it could also be a me-problem. Maybe I just have too short an attention span)

I wrote down some of my favorite quotes from the book, and recently came across them. I’m always interested in thinking about how to be a better team builder, so I re-read them. I figured you might enjoy some of these also:

  • “When I speak of church, I mean a body of believers working as individuals and together as a team to achieve the Lord’s goals.”

  • “some say, ‘Well then, a small group can be a church.’ I agree, it can be, but a lot of small groups working together with accountability, organization, and good coaching can do more for the kingdom than one small group can. A team of focused and organized people in a local area can do something together for and with God that could not be done as individuals or even as a small group.

  • “Either Jesus is a liar because the gates of hell are prevailing against the church. Or…the church that is being prevailed against isn’t Jesus’ church at all. Jesus did not promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against a church but that it would not be able to stop His church.”

  • “As a result of a pastor’s ‘show’ mentality, many Christians have come to believe their job is to attend the show.

  • “When the paid-player mentality guides the church, everything becomes a show… So the answer is to pay big money for franchise players who will give a great performance that will draw the thousands of kids and youth in their area. They scour the land to steal a great player from another team, while their best players are being scouted as well.”

  • “if you love your people and help them grow in their relationship with Jesus and help them find relationships with others on your team, people will put up with less because they know they are loved.”

  • “God’s idea of a coach is one who creates a system that develops people into great players.”

  • “A pastor can’t do everything, but his responsibility is to make sure all the positions on the team are filled.

  • “Churches often have stated goals but behaviors that circumvent or work against them. For instance, we might say we want to reach the world, but we do things that keep us from being in contact with the world we want to reach. We plan an outreach, but it is really designed to attract people who already think like us (other believers). We don’t know how to relate to lost folks, so we pray and expect that God will bring them to us.”

  • Remember the church grows by word of mouth. No one will bring people to something that will embarrass them.

  • “To create an effective environment, you have to break down every part of what you do and ask some important questions: Is this biblical? Will this move someone to where we want to take them next? Is this as relational as we can make it? Is this relevant and applicable to life? The answers to these questions depend on your target audience.”

If you want to read the whole book, it’s available on Amazon. Click here.

In Defense of Topical Preaching

Several years ago I read this critique of topical preaching. In the mind of the author “relevance” was not a positive motivation for preaching:

The great advantage of topical preaching is its relevance. The preacher can choose topics he knows will be of immediate interest to his listeners. The assumption is that in a culture like ours only that information which can be put to use quickly and easily will engage people. The topical sermon meets that need.

I understand this idea, and I agree that this kind of topical preaching is done in many churches today. I also don’t think it’s wrong, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.

However… I think some/many pastors have a different (AND MISUNDERSTOOD) rational for preaching “topical sermon”. The assumption this fellow makes, as well as many others who are critical of topical preaching, is that the topics are chosen solely to interest and engage the congregation. This would be unhealthy, and should usually be avoided, but…

If a pastor, acting as a shepherd, observes an aspect of his church’s life which needs to be addressed (such as lack of evangelism, unfriendliness, forms of worldliness, etc.); isn’t it incumbent on this pastor to preach sermons which address this topic?

It is my contention that a good portion of any preaching schedule should include topical messages which specifically address the spiritual health of the congregation. While every section of God’s Word always has something to say to every believer, if a church spends an entire year working through the Gospel of John, they have neglected the opportunity to teach a vast amount of the Bible’s truth; and may not be adequately addressing systemic issues and opportunities which exist in the life of the community.

In closing, I’ll make a short observation. Read Matthew 28:20. There Jesus taught that discipleship is:

teaching obedience based on content

NOT

teaching content which leads to obedience

Of course, this is not a necessary dichotomy and the two should not be played against each other. Rather, we should recognize in preaching, that sometimes TOPICAL messages (which are, of course, biblically based and biblically coherent) are necessary to truly disciple a church body to obedience.