“Vertical Church” preaching is all about the expectation that God blesses the unapologetic, Spirit-dependent heralding of His Word…
But is there more a preacher can do to be effective? Beyond the requisite faithfulness to Christ and His Word, can a preacher do more to amplify the sermon’s impact? If you want to see your message make a difference, reach the lost, heal the wounded, lift the discouraged, instruct the weak, etc., give attention to these additional elements of a high-impact sermon.
I remember being ‘ready’ for the weekend one Friday morning at 10:00 a.m. My first message in a series called The Father’s Song: Healing the Wound that Hinders Everything, was ready to go. My study was completed, and my exposition of the passage told a clear, compelling story. My textual comments proved the points, while my illustrations illumined the content and seemed likely to connect meaningfully with the hearers. My applications were written down in front of me as a logical flow of thought from each point. I had checked and rechecked that individual points all drove home the main theme and advanced the thesis of the series title. My sermon outline was even submitted for the bulletin printing of the message notes. For all intents and purposes, I was ‘ready,’ ‘ready as I’ll ever be’—and early in my ministry, I would have gotten up to preach at that point with an adequate sermon. So often sermons are adequate that are not impactful, and I have preached too many. This time, however, I spent the time from 10:00 a.m. until my wife picked me up at 6:30 p.m. locked away at my desk attempting to take the sermon to the ‘next level.’ Including a bit of work on Saturday, I spent almost 10 more hours working on the sermon after I was ‘ready.’ If you are wondering what I did, keep reading, but start here: Consider the possibility you are not ‘ready’ when you think you are. Not ready for a big impact, not ready for life-changing moments for your congregation, not ready to see God move in a powerful way—not yet.
In “The Kinds of Laborers Wanted” Spurgeon said: “He must not weary the people by telling them the truth in a stale, unprofitable manner, with nothing fresh from his own soul to give force to it.” Not everything we preach needs to be proprietary and perfect, but it needs to be impactful or people will find a place to hear sermons that are. Take the time to choose words and craft sentences that make your message significantly impactful, or don’t take people’s time with it at all. Effective word choice is always worth the time, and preachers should learn to love choosing the best words to express their message. Big words can appear eloquent or educated, but they are just a smoke screen for pride that substitutes poorly for lack of preparation. Occasionally, as I preach, I hear a quality sentence I didn’t plan, but not very often. Well-worded sentences may seem extemporaneous to the hearer but most often have to be prepared in advance. Recent examples include: “When we take care of the mission on God’s heart, God takes care of the burdens on our hearts.” “If I am wrong in the way I am right, I am wrong even if I am right.” “A true friend holds you up when you stumble and holds you down when you stray.” “We never regret the ground we cover with our grace shoes on.”
Passionless sermons happen because the preparation stops when the preacher knows what the passage means. You are not ready to preach when you know what it means; you must press through to ‘What does it mean to me?’ And because all Scripture is inspired and profitable (2 Timothy 3:16), the passage your sermon comes from can mean something very significant to you. Passion that is manufactured is obvious and wearisome to the hearer, but passion that is genuine as an overflow of the preacher’s own experience with the text is compelling and penetrating to the hearer. Again from Spurgeon, “[The preacher] must put heart work into his preaching. He must feel what he preaches and it must never be with him an easy thing to deliver a sermon.” You don’t get to that place without careful reflection upon the Scriptures. I find these questions helpful: 1) What is altered if this Scripture is believed? 2) What is gained if this Scripture is taken to heart and acted upon? 3) What is lost if this Scripture is not taken to heart? 4) What is understood that warns against calamity or welcomes my soul to greater joy in the Lord? 5) What is treasured about Christ and the gospel more deeply because of this passage? When you have these questions answered and embraced and prayed over, you are much closer to being ready to preach an impactful sermon.
In our culture, where so many fail to live privately what they proclaim publicly, it behooves the preacher to offer himself by opening up a bit. When Paul said, “We do not preach ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:5), he was condemning clever, Scripture-less, gospel-less sermons. He was not suggesting that the experience of the man preaching had no place in the sermon. In fact, he went on in that very passage to self-disclose the experience of holding gospel treasure in “jars of clay,” sharing further: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). In all sermons that teach, the preacher should tell what he has learned. In all sermons that exhort, the preacher should disclose where that exhortation intersects his own walk with Christ. The sermon is not about the preacher—we are just messengers. But as the first hearer of every sermon, the preacher should go first in stating how the sermon straightened him out. After you exegete the text and before you exegete the audience, exegete your own soul and share some of the results with your hearers. Share enough to be an example of needed application, but not so much as to be unqualified to give the message (at which point someone else should be up there).
A passionate sermon from start to finish, that flows from your lips like water from a fire hydrant, is wonderful once in a while. But to listen to you intently every week, your hearers need a little break every few minutes. A change of posture or position; a change of tone, pace, or volume; a point of humor carefully crafted and timed in the delivery; an opportunity to repeat a key sentence out loud; a prop that makes a point; a direct interaction with a single hearer, all of these are not nearly as spontaneous as good preparation will make them appear. Help your hearer by planning points of relief into your message. A moment to catch their breath, to hear a brief review of ‘ground covered so far’—these and many more, if you are watching your hearers well, will regather attention to the sermon and keep your hearers with you to the final, impactful conclusion.
Not all sermons are equally impactful, but all can improve if we keep working on these five things after we feel we are ready. Follow them carefully, and devote yourself to an extended time of kneeling, out-loud prayer before you preach this week, and I predict a greater impact upon your own soul and those who hear you.
1 Timothy 4:15