What makes a good sermon? This is a question that bugs preachers from their first sermon to their last. Nobody has all the answers for being a perfect preacher, but AoP Founder Dr. Dwight Moody has a few helpful suggestions based on his years in the pulpit and teaching future preachers. They are not absolute rules, and many successful preachers don’t follow all of them. But these nine points, which are discussed deeper in his book, are helpful both for preachers just starting out and for experienced preachers who continue to refine their skills.
1 – One Clear Point
“How many points should a sermon have?” is the setup for an old ministerial joke: “At least one,” is the traditional reply. I certainly have heard many sermons—including some in recent days by seasoned ministers—whose main point I could not identify; and I have preached my fair share of sermons that brought this puzzled query from my wife: “What exactly were you getting at today?” One clear point is such an elementary rule of public speaking that it almost goes without saying. Most handbooks of preaching require young practitioners to write, often at the top of the sermon manuscript, a thesis or subject sentence. Most sermonic themes can be written as either a declaration or as an exhortation: God is merciful; Life is a struggle; Jesus is alive; the Spirit dwells in us: these are all examples of simple, biblical points that are worthy of sermons on a regular basis. Or if you prefer the exhortation: Trust God; Follow Jesus; Be constant in prayer; Forgive one another; Show hospitality. One, clear point is the first rule of preaching and even experienced preachers need to be reminded of this rule once in a while.
2 – Arise Naturally From a Biblical Text
“To take a text” is, in some Christian traditions, a euphemism for preaching—“Rev. Jones took a text today” is the same as saying “Our preacher today was Rev. Jones.” There is good reason for this phrase: good preaching is connected to the Bible from start to finish; good preaching takes its inspiration and its message from the Bible; good preaching shows evidence of constant dialogue with the vast range of materials in the Bible. Whole books have been written on this rule of preaching and I have no intention of summarizing the common arguments for its centrality. I simply have it as a rule of young preachers that they take a biblical text—and I recommend a familiar text and one that touches upon the great themes and questions of the spiritual life—and study the text, so that when they preach, they explain what the text means to us today. Preachers are always tempted to settle on a preaching theme then search for a text to support their message; others take a text and read into its words things that never were there and should not be there. Learning how to read and interpret the biblical text is the first discipline of good preaching.
3 – Respond to Needs
There has been much written recently about the pros and cons of need-based preaching and need-based evangelism and need-based church programming. This can be overdone; we can end up simply catering to the whims and desires of people. But sermons that do not connect in some way with the hopes and despairs of the people, with the grit and glory of life as it is being lived by the people, with the victories and defeats of those who sit in the congregation—sermons that do not connect with this, with these needs, will fail to move and comfort and warn and instruct. It is tempting for ministers to preach to and from their own needs; I have done this often, especially early in my ministry. I look back and bemoan the lost opportunities to bring the gospel to bear upon the things that matter most to those who heard me preach. When speaking to committees seeking an interim pastor I frequently point out how pastoral contact with the congregation is needed even by interim preachers to make the Sunday sermon useful in the life of the church.
4 – A Story
The Bible is full of stories; people like stories; Jesus told stories; stories are powerful avenues of communicating whatever is true and useful and of good report. People are more apt to remember a good story than any other part of the sermon. So why would any preacher neglect to tell a story? Yet many do, but I insist on this—that every sermon include a story. It can be a biblical story, and often should be; our people are very ignorant of the Bible and great good can come from simply telling from the pulpit the stories of the Bible. It can be a personal story, and I encourage preachers to use occasionally an episode from their own life. Movies, books, magazines, television, conversation, even songs are wonderful resources for stories. Any sermon is made better by the inclusion of a good story; and good sermons come close to greatness when they include a good story well told.
5 – A Question
I once designated one of my Bibles as my “Question Bible.” As I read through that Bible I underlined (and counted) every question. There are approximately 2,550 questions in the NRSV of the Protestant version of the Scriptures. Most surprising to me was the number of questions in the book of Psalms—What is man that you are mindful of him? How long, O Lord? Why have you forsaken me? Where shall I go from your spirit?—and also in the speech of Jesus—Which one was neighbor to the man? Whose image is on this coin? Why are you bothering this woman? Who is the wise and faithful servant? The Sermon on the Mount has no fewer than 17 question marks! Jesus knew that few things are as powerful as a question: as the title, as the introduction, as a transition, as a conclusion. It is very difficult for the listener to avoid the seemingly automatic and perhaps momentary search for an answer to a question posed by a speaker. Every preacher needs to know this, as well, and to take full advantage of the unique rhetorical power of the question.
6 – A Metaphor
Metaphors are figures of speech, and Jesus was the master of the metaphor: I am the good shepherd, Broad is the road that leads to destruction, Let your shine before men. Hardly a page of any of the Gospel narratives is void of some use of the imagination to communicate the truth. Some preaching traditions—especially the African American—emphasize the use of picture language and this gives their young men and women an advantage in developing sermons; other young ministers come from more rationalistic or didactic environments and will need to be very intentional about metaphors. Training the mind to see with metaphors (and the voice to speak with metaphors) will pay rich dividends in memorable and useful language, and the gospel of our Lord deserves every verbal advantage at our disposal.
7 – The Story of Jesus
Preaching that sidelines Jesus is not Christian preaching; it may be excellent speech or effective motivation, but when it fails to present some part of the Jesus story it fails to be gospel preaching. The prime examples of Christian preaching are the sermons in the book of Acts, and every preacher would do well to use them as a pattern. Jesus can be the theme of the sermon; Jesus can be used to illustrate the sermon; Jesus can be invoked and quoted in the sermon. There are many ways to incorporate Jesus into Christian preaching. In some cases a preacher is wise simply to tell an episode from the life of Jesus; we must not assume that our people know the basic events of the life of Jesus. The most powerful resource at the disposal of any preacher is simply the life and teaching of Jesus; his story consistently inspires admiration, devotion and imitation—and this is the aim of gospel preaching.
8 – Clear Call to Action
The fundamental and repeatable message of Jesus was some version of this: “The rule of God is near. Repent and believe this good news.” “Repent and be baptized” is the way Peter responded when asked by his hearers, “What shall we do?” The call to action can be: Trust God; Confess you sins; Welcome the stranger; Pray without ceasing; Search the Scriptures; Take hold of eternal life; even, Be Still and know that I am God—these are just a few of the many invitations that can punctuate or conclude a good gospel sermon. Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have complained, upon leaving church one Sunday: “He never tells us what to do.” I too have departed many a sanctuary unsure of what the preacher was calling me to do. “Put aside the sin that clings so close,” Hebrews urges us, “and run with patience the race set before us.” There is a call to action—using a powerful metaphor! Let every preacher be clear as to what he wants the people to do—or else be silent!
9 – Your Own Passion
Not all sermons need a double dose of urgency, but every one needs to be full of conviction—not intensity, necessarily (and many confuse these two features of public speech)—but conviction: the feeling that the speaker is giving voice to what he or she really believes, to what is true and useful and important, to what will make a difference in life and death. Passion does not require volume or length or anger or a demand that people think or live in a certain way; passion requires a level of enthusiasm and a wellspring of energy—enough to convey to the congregation that the preacher is speaking from the heart as well as the head. Passion is an emotion, and preaching that suppresses the emotional element of speaking or hearing is not doing justice to the gospel ministry. Good preaching—as the rhetoricians stated long ago—has an appeal to the reason, the will, and the emotions, and the good preacher will leave none of these in his pocket when he or she stands to preach.
What do you think? What are your marks of a good sermon? Comment and join the conversation!
Copyright @ 2012 Dwight A Moody. This article based on an article previously published by the Academy of Preachers.