This is the third and final part of our series on evaluating your sermon before you preach it. Our goal with this series has been to help you become better at what God’s called you to do. In Part 3, we look at four more areas for you to consider when preparing a sermon.
7. THE BIG IDEA: Every sermon must have one key objective that is the big idea for the entire message.
You ever ask your kids, “What’d they talk about in kid’s church today?” I’m sure you have. And have your kids ever said, “Uh…I don’t know?” But have your kids ever asked you that same question? Sometimes we forget what the sermon we just heard was about. But even if we do remember the topic when asked, that’s not really the point. The point is are we remembering and thinking about the sermon without having to be asked?
Most sermons could actually be a sermon series (see point 9 below). We have to build sermons around one idea. You know how you hear a preacher say, “If you only remember one thing today, remember this…” Every time I hear that, I think to myself, “Why didn’t he/she just tell us that???” That “one thing” is the only thing the preacher should have been talking about the whole time.
People are only going to remember one big idea (if that). It’s the law of diminishing returns. We end up sharing so much information that people end up not getting anything. When people are thirsty, they need a glass of water. They don’t need a bucket of water dumped on their head. They end up getting wet, but they’re still thirsty. I think this happens a lot in our preaching. We’re more effective when we give one small thing (a glass of water) than unloading on them everything we know or think about a topic (bucket of water).
It’s also important to give them a way to remember and think about the main theme throughout the next week. Sometimes they can sound cheesy, but clichés and slogans really can help with this. Try to come up with one phrase that summarizes what you want them to remember and work it throughout the entire sermon. Repeat it over and over. Then, you encourage them to think about that phrase throughout the week. You include it in the weekly newsletter, post it on the church’s Facebook page, etc. If done correctly, that one phrase brings to mind all the truths you presented in the sermon.
Questions to ask
- What is the big idea (central theme) of this sermon?
- What are things in this sermon that could distract from that?
- When a person from my church is asked, “What was the sermon about today,” how would I want them to answer that question?
- Does everything in my message point to the big idea of what I want my people to grasp?
- Have I given my listeners a practical way to remember, think about, and apply this one big idea throughout the next week?
8. PRACTICAL APPLICATION: Every sermon must have a clear, specific and practical call to action.
Okay, I need to warn you. We’ve reached a personal soapbox of mine. Every time we preach, the audience needs to be able to walk away with a specific application to the message. I have asked preachers to give me what they want the audience to do as a result of the sermon they are preaching, and I’ve heard things like “become more holy,” “trust God,” or “love others.” Those are wonderful goals, but how are the people exactly supposed to do that? What are three specific ways that I can become holy? What does trusting God look like on a Tuesday afternoon at work or at home with my family? Who is it specifically that I am supposed to love, when am I going to do it, and how am I going to show that love?
Instead of telling people to love others, we must give them practical ways to do it. For example, we could say something like, “I want you to think of someone right now that you know is discouraged. Can you think of someone like that? Someone that could use encouragement? I want you to spend 10 minutes praying for them before you go to bed tonight. Spend 5-7 minutes praying for them and the other 3-5 minutes listening to the Holy Spirit tell you how you could encourage them. If you aren’t sure exactly what to do, but they are on your heart, then try this. Before the end of the day tomorrow, send them a text, email or Facebook message to encourage them. Let them know you have prayed for them and just want them to know how much they are loved by you and God.” That is an extremely specific way to live out the message of loving other people, but we often fail to get specific like this. We tell people to pray but don’t teach them how.
We tell people to walk in the Spirit but don’t teach them what this looks like in everyday life. People need the eternal truth of Scripture to be applied to the routine nitty-gritty details of their lives.
Another crucial aspect that can greatly impact future sermons is giving people an opportunity to share how they have lived out the message. “I want you to try this and then email me this week to let me know how it went.” Using the example above, someone might email you saying they tried to encourage a friend and it turns out that friend was depressed, but this encouraging word let them know that someone does care and that God does care for them. When you get an email like that, you can include it as a testimony in your next sermon. You are celebrating the wins that people are experiencing. You are celebrating obedience to the message, and people learn to do what gets celebrated. Another added benefit is that you also get personal stories to share in future messages (which helps with point 10 below).
Questions to ask
- Have I made it clear how my listeners can live out this message this week?
- Have I given specific and practical steps for applying this sermon to their life?
- Have I given an opportunity for them to share with me how they are applying the message?
- In what specific ways have I been living out this message or need to starting living out this message?
9. PREACH IN A SERIES: If a message is important enough to preach once, it’s important enough to preach more than once.
Preachers spend a week (or longer) preparing a message. Even if the preparation time isn’t as long as it should have been, the things we preach about are often things we’ve been thinking about for quite some time. The listeners don’t have the benefit of that. They need time to think through, understand, and respond to the message. This is why a sermon series that focuses on one big concept is often the most effective way for sermons to actually change the way people live.
In addition to preaching in a series, it is important to continually reinforce the most important themes in every message. Whether you preach on trusting God, loving others or how to handle money, you can tie all of them back to the idea that these issues help them to become better disciples of Jesus. Every sermon is discipleship-based, but the congregation often needs that pointed out. If it is just implied, the church misses it. This doesn’t mean that we cannot or should not preach stand-alone sermons. There’s definitely a time and place for that, but the truth is that people have often forgotten most of what we say within a few hours of the sermon. We must find ways to engage people in the big ideas of our sermons throughout the week and over an extended period of time.
Questions to ask
- Is this sermon laser-focused in its theme and content?
- Should it be spread out over several sermons and made into a series?
- If this sermon isn’t important enough to talk about for several weeks, why do I feel it is important enough to talk about for one week?
- If this sermon is already a part of a series, does it tie in well with the other messages and stay on track with my big idea?
- How can I reinforce the theme of this message in future sermons?
10. ENGAGING: Every sermon should catch and keep the listener’s attention.
This is the part that many preaching conferences, articles, and newsletters will often focus on. You could make the case that it is “unspiritual” or the least important in the list, but even so, it is still incredibly important. It’s possible to preach truth but our listeners miss it because our listeners aren’t listening. In my mind, there’s 5 key things here.
First, you have to catch their attention early. If the first words out of your mouth were something like, “Today, I want to tell you about the worst day of my life,” then you’ve caught their attention. People make decisions on whether they will listen based on the first few minutes so the introduction is crucial.
Second, you have to talk about issues that people are actually dealing with. And it’s not so much that our sermons must be topical or deal with issues as the primary focus, we just need to be clear how the Bible is relevant to the issues they face in real life. If they feel it’s not relevant, they will tune you out. That’s true even if the message is actually relevant. We have to help them see that the gospel is relevant to the struggles and issues they face each day.
Third, people are engaged when the message is clear and concise. I’m convinced most preachers preach twice as long as they should. The goal of a sermon isn’t to be short but to be engaging. As an exercise, take a manuscript of your sermon. Take out all headings, spacing, etc. and just look at the actual text of what you plan to say. Then read through it slowly asking yourself, “Is this word, phrase or paragraph necessary to make my point? Take out the phrases, sentences and paragraphs that aren’t absolutely crucial and then see how long the sermon is. Whatever time you do preach it should be full of material that is absolutely necessary to the sermon.
Fourth, nothing engages people like personal stories. You have to find ways to make your point through personal and creative stories. Talk to people what you are going to preach about and see what stories they tell you about that subject. There’s lots of resources available that can help you become a better storyteller. One of Jesus’s primary methods of communication was stories (parables). He’s a pretty good example to follow.
Fifth, you want to come across as likable. I don’t mean this in a fake, slick politician sort of way, but likability is one of the most underrated aspects of public communication. You are more likely to listen to someone that you like. There’s a guy I listened to recently that was not a great communicator, but he was such a nice guy that I found myself rooting for him. A way to come across as likable is to be humble, transparent and self-effacing. Just be real.
Questions to ask
- Does my introduction immediately connect with my audience and draw them in?
- Are there any parts of my sermon where I ramble and get off track from the main point?
- Have I said too much? Could I be more clear and concise?
- Have I told engaging and personal stories that help my listeners grasp my main point?
- Do I come across as an authentic and humble person who is in the struggle with the listeners or as a know it all that everyone else just needs to listen to?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series on how to evaluate your sermons prior to ever delivering them. Use each of these steps and the questions that go along with them to help you evaluate your next sermon before you preach it. I’d love to hear your feedback. Contact me at [email protected] with your ideas, comments or questions.
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