Effective Preaching?

Here’s a question I’ve often pondered.

Is preaching actually effective?

We live in a world literally bombarded with information. Tools like Twitter, Instagram, texts, news alerts, Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, Snapchat, and Slack shove information at these computers we carry around in our pockets. Many of us are information weary – and then we tell people to come to worship, sit still, and let us talk at them for 20 minutes 1.

In this environment, is preaching effective?

Believe it or not I actually think it is, but probably not in the way most preachers want it to be. Here are some ways I think preaching can continue to be effective in our information weary world.

Less is more

I know the “big names” in preaching can go on for an hour, have TV Shows, and are far more influential than I. But I’m convinced anything over 20-25 minutes is really about the pastor than it is about the message. We’ve just got to cram in that great story, or clever anecdote, or Greek definition 2 so we can show how studied we are in the ways of God’s word.

Less is more. It requires extreme focus on one thread of a Biblical passage, which is tightly applied to a congregation’s life. Personally, I’m not terrific at it 3, but I am trying to be ever more disciplined as a preacher. It’s important to note the most celebrated forum of public speaking in our culture today, TED Talks, requires speakers to be eighteen minutes or less.

When less is more, the content is king and the presenter is the servant 4.

Be yourself

There is no need to set oneself up as an expert on “everything Godly and good” to be a preacher. Admit your foibles, and be honest when you’re uncertain 5 by something you’ve read in your preaching preparation. The goal of preaching is not to get people to latch on to the preacher, it’s to come together to latch on to Jesus. The preacher can’t save anyone, a sermon can’t save anyone, Jesus does that.

When we attempt to position ourselves as the local God-arbiter we tend to be viewed as meat-space versions of annoying Internet know-it-alls. Just relax, and let people see you. You’re a fellow pilgrim on this journey, you simply have a peculiar calling.

Stop trying to be clever

I enjoy writing, and coming up with titles is a particularly enjoyable exercise for me. I used to spend a huge amount of time coming up with just the right title for a sermon to satisfy this creative impulse.

No one cared.

Maybe, once in a blue moon, I got a comment on a sermon title. But mostly, people just left saying, “Nice sermon pastor.” After a while, I found it kind of depressing. But over time I learned something. Why on earth should I care if people were impressed by the title of a sermon? Caring about such a trivial thing wasn’t about people’s spiritual growth, or Jesus’ glory – it was about stroking my ego. I had to let it go.

I think this goes for the content of sermons as well. The more clever we try to be, the more likely it is we are making the sermon about how great the preacher is. I’m not saying we shouldn’t string our words together well, we need to do this in order to communicate. There are times, however, when we may find ourselves thinking, “Oh that’ll make them laugh/clap/cheer!” Those are times were we might need to step back and ask ourselves, “For whom are we doing that?”

Play the “long game”

There are times when we preachers think we’ve written the best sermon ever, but it gets no response at all. Sometimes it’s enough to get pastored depressed enough to sit in their bathrobe for the next two days, wondering what went wrong.

Well, aside from remembering it’s Christ who saves people, and the Holy Spirit who moves them, we preachers really need to stop being so impressed with ourselves 6. No single sermon is all that important, in the grand scheme of things. Nor, really, is any one series.

Preaching’s effectiveness is seen over months and years of going over the themes the Holy Spirit brings to light. It’s not that the same thing is said over and over and over, but that the Spirit highlights same angle over and over and over. In fact, I typically call my sermons “meditations,” and a common metaphor for meditation is “chewing cud.” That is, going over something important again and again as it sinks into our souls and nourishes our being.

If we preachers pause and consider what themes the Holy Spirit wants the congregation to ponder, we will be better able to help the congregation ruminate.

Simply love

There are times when I will share with other pastors the types of things I’ve said during a sermon, and they look at me as though I’ve lost my mind. Some are boggled by the way I’m honest about my shortcomings, others are flummoxed when I admit my own confusion with a particular text, still more wonder how I get away with preaching the passages I do 7.

The reality is, I don’t “get away” with any of this. I have the freedom to preach difficult passages, or challenge long-held theological assumptions, and admit my own broken-nature because the folks here know I love them. It took a while for that love to mature, and even longer for some folks to trust its depth, but in the end that’s what matters. Folks know I love them – and they can disagree with me, or challenge me, or ask questions. They’ll still be loved. That, more than anything on this earthly plane, is what gives people the wherewithal to listen and make preaching effective.


  1. Or, in “serious churches,” an hour. 
  2. Which is frequently wrong, and things get even stranger when Hebrew is involved. 
  3. I like my rabbit trails too much. 
  4. And, to be clear, Jesus Christ is Lord. 
  5. Or even unsettled 
  6. See the cleverness section above. 
  7. My second sermon series at Central was eight months in Ecclesiastes, that was twelve years ago. 

3 Comments

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  1. I Usually come away from service with something to chew on . Some times I need a sermon twice.

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  2. Brother,

    Also, obedience. I think the sermon is to encourage obedience. Not for the sake of obedience alone, but because we learn by our failings, and when we fail trying to obey, we learn and grow Godliness. Not always, some texts are straight up doctrine, and should be presented as doctrine. But most of our growth (one could almost say all) happens outside of Sunday mornings, and a sermon which point your feet in the correct direction have more power than one which makes you feel good.

    And feeling good, by the way, is the point of the TED talks. They trivialize knowledge and equate it with cool. Not a good model for sermons, though (from the things I’ve seen people post by famous pastors) they do seem to be a model.

    • I’m not sure I agree.

      Having encountered pastors who have “obedience” as a sermon focus, I have to say the language makes me nervous. Mostly because whenever it comes up it’s typically the pastor yelling at people to be like them. In our culture, the language of obedience has become the language of manipulation and control. In the public sphere I see it often as people yelling at other people about sins with which they do not personally struggle. Whereas Jesus’ obedience to the Father was beautiful (as well as heart-breaking), our calls to obey are too often ugly (as well as heart-hardening).

      Do I bring up the concept which could be interpreted as “obedience.” Heck yes, we are called to follow the example of Jesus and be his disciples and obey his teaching and make disciples who follow him into the garden and say, “Not my will, but yours be done.” I always describe it in terms of holy introspection – it’s the Holy Spirit scrubbing us raw from the inside out.

      I’m not certain about “some text are straight up doctrine.” I’d need to see what you mean by that because I’m inclined to strongly disagree. The New Testament is about half Gospel narrative and half circular letters, with one awesome apocalypse at the end. Hebrews seems to be a straight up sermon, so I suppose you could call that “straight up doctrine,” but even then I’d be leery of the designation (and Hebrews is my 2nd favorite NT writing). The OT is even more mixed, even the Torah is mostly narrative, the Prophets are a mix of narrative (what Christians mis-label “the historical books”) and poetry (the bulk of what we Christians call “the prophets.”). I’d never call the writings “straight up doctrine” as it would completely undermine the point of wisdom literature (which makes up the bulk of that section of the Tanakh). So if some text are “straight up doctrine,” as I look at it, they are an extreme minority.

      I’m also not sure why you make an huge gap between feet being pointed in the right direction and and a point which makes you feel good. The joy a repentant sinner feels is, after all, a pleasure for them even as they pour out their tears of sorrow. Did you mean, “a point which people’s itching ears want to hear?” If that’s the case, sure – but I’d argue the pastor who rails obedience and makes people angry about “those people” is giving people what their itching ears want to hear every bit as the wishy-washy pastor who gets up and says, “Isn’t it nice being together, we’re all just so wonderful and don’t need to change at all – God loves us just like we are.” Frankly, I think both approaches are spawned from hell.

      I absolutely disagree with you about TED talks. The point of a TED talk is to inspire people to think and explore and make connections between different points. This is exactly that model I think makes sense for a sermon in this world. Of course a sermon adds to this model (much as early Christian preachers added to the model of Roman rhetoric) the call to follow Jesus and devote oneself to being like him in his life, death, and resurrection.

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