Aun Quek Chin—Singapore
Editor’s note: Learning a new skill has never been easier—there are countless how-to-guides and online videos offering guidance on almost anything we may need for work or leisure, from the mundane to the esoteric. However, when it comes to serving God, there is no guide better than God’s inspiration—His word and His Spirit. With God’s guidance, we need not worry, but entering any ministry new to us can be daunting. In this new Holy Work Series, we will look at various ministries, duties and roles within the church, and ask experienced workers to offer practical advice for carrying out these works, as well as outlining, more importantly, the spirit we should have. We hope these guides will benefit both beginner and experienced workers alike.
It would be difficult to come up with a definitive method for preparing and delivering a sermon on the pulpit. In fact, there are probably as many ways to deliver a sermon as there are workers chosen to serve in this ministry. Nevertheless, there are important principles sermon speakers should follow. Most critically, we should do this holy work with the attitude God wants us to have.
THE CORRECT ATTITUDE
Sent by God to Preach His Word
As sermon speakers, we must understand that we are being sent by God to preach. God desires all men to be saved, but He does not force them to believe. Nor does He command angels to appear and preach, astounding men into immediate obedience. Instead, God sends His servants, so that whoever hears and believes will be saved (Rom 10:14–15).
Beginning the sermon in the holy name of the Lord Jesus reminds us that we are mere vessels for God’s word. We speak not for ourselves, but to glorify God’s name. God does not need great sermon speakers; He needs sermon speakers who can speak of His greatness.
Receiving and proclaiming God’s message are crucial to our faith. Yet, there are many today who do not esteem sermons, either as the speaker or the listener. This is not surprising, as the apostle Paul warns us: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine” (2 Tim 4:3a). As sermon speakers, we may occasionally find some congregants dozing off during our sermons. This should not discourage us, but remind us to review what factors could have contributed to their lack of attention and engagement. More importantly, we must resolve to put in the utmost effort to speak every sermon well. This is because we have been sent by the Lord to speak His word. If we do not esteem sermon speaking, we will prepare and speak sermons perfunctorily. Instead, we should give our best and treasure each opportunity we have to serve God in this ministry.
Sermon Speaking is Holy
As God’s messenger, we deliver His word to His people so that they can realize their sins and inadequacies, to repent and seek His forgiveness. Like the prophets and apostles of old, our responsibility is to explain the word of God, to lead man to come before Him.
As a holy ministry that brings man before God, sermon speaking must be revered and taken seriously. Paul said he labored and strived to warn and teach every man in all wisdom, to present every man perfect in Christ Jesus (Col 1:28). Our sermons should not be an attempt to display our intellectual ability or showcase our scriptural knowledge. Importantly, we must appeal to the listeners’ hearts. This does not mean that we use rhetoric to appeal to sentiment or manipulate emotions. Instead, it is a reminder that our eloquence will not truly reach the hearts of God’s children if we do not first prepare our sermons knowing that God is the Author of all worthwhile wisdom. It is His word, not ours, that must be shared.
Working with the Holy Spirit
Paul writes that he speaks not with words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches (1 Cor 2:4, 13). The Lord said that when the Spirit of truth comes, “He will guide you into all truth,” and “the Holy Spirit…will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (Jn 16:13; 14:26). Therefore, when we speak sermons, we ought to work with and rely on the Holy Spirit to understand and preach the word of God.
The common anxieties that beset the sermon speaker are many. A lack of original ideas or access to information can throw off even the most experienced speaker. But these worries are secondary. The first thing that should come to mind as we prepare to give a sermon is whether the Holy Spirit is present with us throughout.
When we are preparing our sermon script, there are times when we have to stop because we run out of ideas or cannot understand certain things; this is when we should seek the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. There are also times when we suddenly remember a relevant Bible passage we can reference, or verses that support our message. These are the small pleasures of sermon preparation—we experience how the Holy Spirit moves and guides us to understand and apply the truth.
From the very start of the idea generation process, to gathering information and organizing the message for the pulpit, we must seek to have the Holy Spirit work with us.
ESSENTIAL ADVICE: BRING THE RIGHT “PRICE”
Just as one pays a price for any quality product, sermon preparation and delivery also demands a “PRICE.” Below are five essential tests a sermon speaker should use to ensure his sermon is valuable in God’s eyes.
Passion: Touch People’s Hearts
Luke records Jesus meeting two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus, after His resurrection: as He spoke on the Scriptures, their hearts burned within them (Lk 24:32). Beyond eloquence, what truly gets the message across is being able to touch the hearts of the listeners.
Some speak eloquently, with well-prepared scripts. While listeners may enjoy these sermons, their hearts are not touched. Sermons that touch hearts are those that carry the authority of God’s word, and trigger a sense of awe and fear toward God. Such sermons make the listeners feel remorseful before God and bring about repentance. They are filled with hope, making the listeners yearn for the better home in heaven.
Hence, a touching sermon is not about eloquence. Ultimately, it is about whether the sermon speaker works with the Holy Spirit, and whether he puts his heart and soul into his sermon.
Relevance to Believers’ Lives
A sermon is not just about expounding biblical knowledge, it should also help the members grow and renew their faith. It ought to explain how this truth can be relevantly applied in the listeners’ lives; to this end, a sermon should have breadth and depth. The message delivered by Moses in Deuteronomy was one that was relevant to the congregation’s lives, teaching them to obey the word of God and, thereby, gain God’s favor instead of incurring His wrath (Deut 32:46–47).
If a sermon only focuses on depth (deepening scriptural knowledge), it will be too highbrow for many congregants, and is of no relevance to their lives. Believers feel that such sermons are dry and dull. Hence, one has to apply breadth—helping believers see the relevance of these scriptural precepts and concepts to their lives. Then, they will be edified.
Delivering sermons differs greatly from giving speeches. Audiences applaud the speaker if his speech is entertaining or interesting. They respond to his public rhetoric and have minimal expectations of his private life. But sermons deliver the word of God, so we have to live out the words we speak. While the congregants listen to our sermon delivered on the pulpit, they will observe our behavior off the pulpit. If the sermons we speak are unable to transform us, how can we demand that the hearers be transformed? Therefore, Paul encouraged Timothy to give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. One ought to pursue improvement, be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. By continuing in these, we will save both ourselves and those who hear us (1 Tim 4:12, 16). A sermon speaker was once asked how long it took him to prepare a sermon. “Fifty years,” came the reply. “Every teaching worth telling is built on a lifetime of practice, and we are also preparing to live out what we preach.”
Interesting: Capture Attention
During His earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus’ words were well received by His hearers. Apart from sparking initial interest with intriguing questions, the Lord often used characters, events and parables to explain the truth. This allowed the audience to understand easily, as well as sustaining their interest (Mk 12:35–36).
We do not speak on topics that interest us only. Rather, we need to stir the congregation’s interest so that we can hold their attention. This does not mean that we have to tell jokes or recount entertaining stories. Instead, the Lord’s example teaches us to explain the significance of the truth by using familiar and relatable characters and situations. This helps the listeners understand and sustain their attention.
To be able to do this, we must research, read and gather information. When we are not lacking in information, we can make the content of our sermons rich and interesting.
If we hear feedback that our sermons are too profound and hard for the congregants to understand, we are not being asked to stop speaking profound sermons. Rather, we should spend more time explaining any complex concepts using accessible words and examples.
When Paul repeatedly states that it is not eloquence or wisdom that redeems his message, he is not confessing ineptitude. Rather, he is reminding us that the basics—relatable, simple ideas, told in relatable, simple language—are all we need. Instead of copying and pasting everything we stumble across—an increasingly tempting option with technology at our fingertips—we ought to slow down and digest the gospel to the best of our abilities. This is a crucial first step.
Clarity: Organize the Message Clearly
In homiletics—the study and practice of preaching sermons—good organization and clear sermon structure are indispensable. Some speakers do not believe in organizing their sermons. They are of the view that to structure a sermon script based on man’s thoughts produces lifeless sermons; they are convinced that life-giving sermons are only produced through the Holy Spirit’s movement. They speak whatever comes to mind, claiming such to be the moving of the Holy Spirit. From the congregation’s perspective, this usually results in bits and pieces of scriptural exposition, stitched together in a haphazard manner, if at all.
Luke did not write the Gospel of Luke whenever he felt moved by the Holy Spirit, and stop writing when he did not. He carefully studied the words he had heard from the beginning, and wrote them down in chronological order (Lk 1:1–4). During the writing process, he prayed for the guidance and moving of the Holy Spirit. If the written word requires structure to convey a coherent message, what more the spoken word, which is fleeting and has to be processed at a faster pace. Useful techniques like not digressing from our central theme and signposting our main points are ways that can help us communicate our message more clearly. We ought to list the main points rather than mix everything up in one undefined chunk of information. In addition, the main points should be logically organized: each section should be coherent and flow smoothly to the next section. Logical structure and clarity will help the listeners stay attentive and focused, able to follow and understand the sermon.
Explain: Expound the Bible
Rather than simply reciting Bible passages or mindlessly rehashing well-worn clichés, sermon speakers have to do their best to break down the meaning of biblical passages, parables, and principles. When Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch if he understood what he was reading, the latter answered, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” So Philip explained the Bible to him (Acts 8:30–35). Sermon speakers are also sent to explain the Bible to the members, to help them better understand the word and, thus, strengthen their faith.
Apollos had good understanding of the Scriptures, but he only knew the baptism of John. Therefore, Aquila and Priscilla made the effort to explain the word of God more clearly to him. Similarly, some members may only have partial understanding of the Bible. It is thus the speaker’s duty to thoroughly expound the word to them.
In Colossians 1:25, Paul says that he became a minister according to the stewardship from God, so he had to preach the complete word of God. When we explain the Bible, we must do so completely, accurately and correctly. Paul reminds us to rightly divide the word of God (2 Tim 2:15); while Peter warns us not to interpret the Scriptures based on our personal interpretation (2 Pet 1:20–21).
Explanations have to be complete and biblically accurate. Incomplete truths and misleading messages are the source of much misunderstanding and confusion, and can wreak as much spiritual havoc as outright deception. Therefore, we ought to be cautious when we speak sermons. We should practice correct exegesis (biblical interpretation), backed by scriptural evidence, rather than eisegesis (reading our own ideas into Scripture). Do not, for the sake of novelty, deviate from the teachings of the Bible. And, finally, do not speak things which are pleasing to the congregation, in order to humor or flatter them (Gal 1:10).
A FAITHFUL PROPHET
The opportunity to serve in the pulpit ministry is a blessing from our Lord Jesus. We must approach this with the right mindset and heart. The pulpit is not a public platform for us to showcase our eloquence and increase our popularity with the congregation. It is a holy ministry for us to help our brethren understand God’s will and word, completely and correctly, so that we can all grow together as the body of Christ. Every opportunity to speak must thus be treasured, and every effort be made to prepare ourselves for this work. Let us ask God to guide us in our ministry as faithful bearers of His word to His children.