I have had lots of people ask me about preaching recently. Am I called to preach? How do I structure a sermon? How do I get better as a preacher? Over the next few days I want to explore and unpack some thoughts about preaching. Today, I want to begin with, “What’s the point?” and I want to challenge you not just to think about the general point of preaching but also to zoom in on a specific talk this coming up and challenge yourself to think about what are you trying to achieve on this day specifically? Why am I opening your mouth? What am I hoping to achieve?
Have you ever left church on a Sunday and are a having coffee when someone asks you the dreaded question: ‘what was the talk about today?’ and you were listening, but now… it’s gone. Your mind is blank. ‘Um… there was a great story about a dog that linked to Genesis… I think…’ Within minutes the message has evaporated from your mind completely.
There are some preachers who seem to open their mouths and we are hooked, hanging on every word and somehow remembering everything that they say. Verbatim. However, for the rest of us mortals, we have moments where it feels like everyone is with us and other times when we feel alone and nothing works and we are sinking without a trace in front of a large group of people. Preaching is a vulnerable and scary task. There is a lot of risk and hard work involved and we put ourselves out there because we believe that it helps people… most of the time… hopefully… when it goes right… except all too often it doesn’t.
The single biggest reason that I think that we fail as preachers is not that our jokes aren’t funny enough but that we don’t know the point. We stand up and have no idea what we are trying to achieve. Now, some people argue that you should simply read and unpack the Bible, “allow it to speak for itself.” However, if this is your intention then you might as well read the Scripture, starting at Genesis, and then just sit down. Let God do the work. The moment you open your mouth and add thoughts to the text, you have made a decision about what you chose to explain and where you focus our time. Even the passage that you chose, you are taking people somewhere. In which case, it is your responsibility as a preacher to know where and why. You can be a charismatic and gifted communicator and yet if you don’t know where you are headed nor will anyone else. We don’t want to leave entertained and unchanged. There has to be a point. Andy Stanley says, ‘Our approach to communicating should be shaped by our goal in communicating.’ So what is our goal? I believe that we preach for movement.
Write this in your journal: God wants to transform people’s lives and the point of preaching is to help facilitate movement.
Preach for movement
Lots of people debate the difference between preaching and teaching. I think that we teach for information and we preach for transformation. A good sermon should have a blend of both. Think of it like this: when you are teaching, you are aiming at our heads. You are giving us information to challenge and develop us. When you are preaching, you are aiming at our hearts. You are giving them inspiration to move us to change something. If we can become proficient in both then we will help people to understand and obey the scriptures. That isn’t to say that we do both equally, if our aim is movement then we should primarily be preaching with moments of teaching to support the change we are aiming for. The effects of this are, quite frankly, transformational.
One is more powerful than three
I will repeat this a hundred times, it is vital to know where you want people to move to so that you can lead them to that destination. We might look at the sea of diverse faces, different backgrounds, ages, cultures, and think that by having more points, more thoughts, that we might resonate with more people. Or perhaps you have done lots of research and want to bring it all. However, the more ideas that you have, the less that people will remember any of them. Everything must point in the same direction. One goal. The larger the group of people the less room for complexity that you have. We have to find that central idea, and ruthlessly remove anything that pulls us away from that goal. Hit one destination, don’t miss three.
The destination is choice
At the end of your talk everyone should be faced with a choice. Will I go this way or that? Will I choose to grow in faith or not? Will I obey or not? A or B? When we cut away all the distractions and distill our talks into a single idea the choice becomes focused and unavoidable. We must make a decision. No dodging. It is up to each individual to decide their path but it is our job to make sure that the question is understood and the choice is clear and present.
A single goal unites us
For me, one of the most inspiring things I have seen with good preaching is the unity that it brings. We become a single church on a single journey with every member wrestling with the same choice. Naturally, we find that the Holy Spirit will speak to different people in different ways. Often you will find someone bring something out of a sermon that you don’t remember saying and we want to encourage people to follow whatever God is saying to them. Also, not every topic that you share will be challenging for every member. we each have strengths and vulnerabilities. But rather than looking at ourselves get the opportunity to throw an arm around someone else when we are strong and feel supported by them when we are weak. It helps to negate the temptation of consumerism in the church and grows us as a community on a shared journey that is bigger than any of us. Focused preaching helps to unite us spiritually.
The practical way that I do this every week is by writing out a Big Idea. This is the main point from the biblical text and this will show me where we are taking people this week. Only when I know the destination will I be able to plot out the journey. I may spend as much time drilling this down into a single, focused idea as I do the rest of my preach. Nothing is more important than knowing the point of your talk.
All the processes, tools and ideas that we will explore over the next few weeks will come from this central idea, that God wants to transform people’s lives and the point of preaching is to help facilitate movement. I have lots of really practical ideas that I am excited to share with you over these next few posts (my favourite is how to share ideas that get stuck in people’s heads). Why not sign up to my email so that you don’t miss any.