What makes for a good sermon? Sound exegesis? An understanding of passage’s place in redemptive history? Quality application? These are necessary, of course. But you can have these things and still be a terrible preacher because your communication is incoherent and your organization sloppy.
The art of communicating the sermon—homiletics—is just as vital as focusing on exegesis and theology. As I try to hone my preaching, I’m working on two simple homiletical elements: being clear and concise.
First, ensure you are being clear. Have you ever heard a preacher begin a sermon by meandering for ten or even twenty minutes in an attempt to set up a tension (or try to be “relevant”)? The problem with this is that a congregation want to know why they should listen. Tell them–very often in the first sentence of the sermon! This is simple a big idea, a “thesis” that makes it clear to the congregation that this sermon has one main point. The thesis is clear and memorable. It’s a simple, one-sentence summary of the message.
A second aspect to being clear in preaching is to lay a road map for where the sermon is going. Good preachers build a framework for what’s coming. This may or may not mean having points in the sermon, but it at least means presenting the passage logically. Preaching is not a magic act that’s designed to surprise people. That’s entertainment, not preaching. Providing a road map will only help the congregation’s attentiveness and retention.
A second homiletical skill to sharpen is being concise. You want to preach for an hour. So do I. But if we want to go long, we need to master short. Why? It’s much more difficult to say something meaningful in a short amount of time. Therefore, this makes me more selective in my preparation with what I want to bring out of a text. It also makes me more selective with my words during the act of preaching. Being concise makes words matter more, not less, even though you will use fewer words.
While it may seem very short, I’m working on getting my sermons down to 25 minutes. I know what you’re thinking: “That’s so short! My introductions are ten minutes!” (That’s the problem—let the reader understand!) Twenty-five or thirty minutes, however, isn’t so short when my intro is my thesis statement, a few other sentences to build a tension, and then a roadmap of where I’m going (90 seconds tops!). This will be liberating for you, and it will help you practice not saying everything about everything in every sermon. Remember, master short before long means you will not always preach for 25 minutes. It means you will master 25 minutes and then incrementally speak longer. If I am not faithful with a few minutes, how will I be faithful with many?
These things do not make for fool-proof sermons. There will always be some people who reject God’s word and fail to believe and obey as God calls them to no matter how well a sermon is delivered. Homiletics do not change hearts. God does. It is the word of the cross, not human eloquence, that has power.
Nevertheless, this truth is not a free pass to slouch in our communication. Preacher, do everything you can by God’s grace to hone your craft in order to remove unnecessary obstacles to someone hearing and believing the gospel! The point is not slick communication in order to impress. The point is to be helpful to your hearers. So, for your hearers’ sake, be clear and concise!