A Sermon on Sermons

By Mal King

No sermon is effective that does not lead to action.  Surveys reveal that sermons rarely result in people taking the action implied or suggested in the sermon. Why?This article describes and analyzes some of the reasons.

Lengthy Sermons

The first reason is that some preachers mistake quantity for quality. They talk so much that the point of the sermon is lost in the many words of the sermon-a sermon which continues long after the hearers have stopped hearing.

Some of the best advice I have heard is that given by an old country circuit rider to a minister just out of college:

New minister: “What should I preach about in your church?”

Old circuit rider: “About God. And about 20 minutes.”

Some preachers overlook the first rule of sharing information with others: Finish talking before your listeners finish listening. Some of the most effective preachers pray some variation of the following prayer:

Lord, please fill my mouth with worthwhile stuff,

And then please nudge me when I’ve said enough.

Little Feedback

Few pastors really know whether their sermons are providing the spiritual nourishment needed by their flocks. When I teach at national institutes the feedback is immediate: at the end of my series of lectures the students evaluate my performance.

While evaluation of each sermon would grow tiresome for congregation and pastor alike, periodic evaluation could prove invaluable. Some evaluations will be critical, but if the pastor resists the temptation to be defensive and simply asks, “What can I learn from this?” he can learn much.

But the only evaluation some pastors receive is when they are voted out. Could it be that such pastors would rather be praised and fail than to be criticized and succeed?

One young minister asked his grandmother, a college speech teacher, for some feedback on his first sermon. The grandmother told the vain young minister that there were just three things wrong with his sermon. The young minister was delighted: “Only three things wrong with my first sermon; what were they, Grandmother?” “Well, first you read it. Second, you read it poorly. And third, it wasn’t worth reading at all.”

Could it be that some preachers do not seek feedback because they fear that they will hear the same kind of assessment?

Poor Speaking Habits

Asked why they had gotten rid of a pastor who had been with the church for 30 years, a farmer-member of the church replied that they hadn’t realized what a poor preacher they had until they saw his competition on television. The truth is that preachers must gain and hold the attention of a congregation that is used to watching professional performers on TV.

Today’s congregations expect—nay, demand—more from their pastors. All preachers would benefit from seeing one or more of his sermons on video. One minister tells about playing golf with the poorest speaker he has ever heard. Invariably, the poor speaker tells him that his sermon was outstanding.

Why this gap in perception between speaker and hearer? Perhaps because there is a gap between what the speaker wishes to convey and his capacity to convey it. He knows what he wishes to share but does not realize that he has failed to do so.

No Visual Aids

We learn more from what we see than from what we hear. Studies conclude that perhaps 85 percent of what we learn, we learn by seeing. If the optic nerves are four times as effective, it is a sin against the congregation for ministers to fail to use this knowledge. Visual aids would improve almost any sermon.

Jesus, the Master Teacher, often used such aids: “See this mountain. . . .” The most memorable sermons are those in which the minister makes effective use of visual aids. “What you see, is what you get.” And the congregation that sees, understands.

The Rut Syndrome

A road leading into the rain forest of Washington and Oregon contains this admonition: “Choose your ruts carefully, you’ll be in them for the next 30 miles.”

Some preachers select one approach to preaching and they stay in that rut for 30 years. For some this means commenting on a given set of scriptures verse by verse. As effective as this might be, it would be more effective if it were not used all the time. Just as the children of Israel grew tired of the same diet, church people grow tired of the same approach.

We sometimes fault formal churches for ritual, yet ministers can become so ritualistic that there are no surprises—only more of the same. This sameness can lead to boredom. Some ministers might protest that their congregations would not approve of new or unconventional approaches. But Christ was an unconventional preacher who shocked the Pharisees. So, shocking the modern generation of Pharisees should not be something that inhibits His disciples.

A sermon can be a series of questions such as Christ used. For example, a minister preaching on “What is wrong with the church” might use the following questions:

Minister: “How many of you believe that the Bible teaches that we ought to visit? Please hold up your hands.”

Congregation: All hold up their hands.

Minister: “By a show of hands how many of you believe that this Bible teaching applies to all Christians?”

Congregation: All hold up their hands.

Minister: “By a show of hands, how many of you believe that this includes rest home visitation?”

Congregation: All hold up their hands.

Minister: “And by a show of hands, how many of you will be at the rest home at 2:00 p.m. for our rest home visitation and service?”

Congregation: Four people hold up their hands.

Minister: “See what happened? That’s what’s wrong with the Church universal; it is full of people who are not involved. The universal Church is like a football team that never leaves the huddle to play ball.”

Then give an altar call or ask the congregation to take notes on what they are doing at 2:00 p.m. that is more important than the rest home service and ask them to view this as if God were calling them to account for doing it rather than going to the rest home.

Lack of Preparation

Henry Fosdyck claimed that one of his secrets to success was that he spent 30 times as much time preparing for a sermon as he spent delivering it. Thus, he spent 10 hours preparing for a 20 minute sermon.

He would find or develop illustrations for each of his points, he would pray for understanding and for ways to help his audience understand, and he would pray for ideas on how to encourage the audience to apply that which was learned.

One of the great musicians of an earlier generation was asked why he still practiced every day for six hours. His response: “lf I were to fail to practice for a month, my audience would know. If I were to fail to practice for a week, my wife could tell when I play. If I were to fail to practice for a day, I could tell.”

And not only does God know when a minister fails to prepare, so does his audience.

Irrelevant Sermon

Too many clergymen are so isolated from the lives of their flocks and the lost that they fail to preach sermons that are relevant. By doing so they violate one of the first rules of teaching: “Start where your pupils are (not where you are).”

To deliver an eloquent sermon about tithing when an audience of tithers is dying for a message that will comfort and uplift those who place spiritual things above physical ones is to preach a biblical but irrelevant sermon.

When I attended the FBI National Academy in 1968, the Washington Metropolitan Police were demanding relevant training. If congregations were asked what the church needed, many of them would say “relevant messages—messages that deal with what we have to deal with at work, on the street and at home.”

Through the leadership of the Holy Spirit, relevant sermons can (in ways known only to God) comfort the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable.

I have never heard this topic preached, yet it is probably the one young Christian parents most often think about: “How can I pass on Christian values to my children during this time when Christian values are everywhere under attack?”

Lack of Enthusiasm

“Nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm,” according to Emerson. The minister who is not enthusiastic about the topic of his message had best pray for enthusiasm or for another message.

The minister’s attitude is contagious; if he is bored with the message, he will bore the congregation. Conversely, if he is afire, he will inspire his audience. And that contagion will spread.

It has then been rightly said that the minister who is not fired with enthusiasm, should be fired—with enthusiasm!

Failure To Challenge

Abraham Lincoln was asked by an aide about the church service he had attended. Lincoln responded that the minister was inspired, interesting, well-prepared, eloquent and the topic relevant. The aide said, “Then it was a good service?”

Lincoln responded, “No.” The aide protested,

“But, Mr. President, you said that the minister was inspired, interesting, well-prepared, eloquent, and that the topic was relevant.”

“Yes,” replied Lincoln, “but he didn’t challenge us to do any great thing.”

The best sermons are those which conclude with a challenge. Sermons that do not lead to reflection and action are simply ineffective. Surely the goal of almost all sermons should be Christ-like behavior and action.

As St. Francis deSales wrote, “The test of a preacher is that his congregation goes away saying, not, what a lovely sermon, but, I will do something!”

Failure To Explain By Example

According to scripture, Christ taught by parable so the people would understand. Principles unexplained by earthbound example often remain principles which are neither understood nor applied.

Christ’s preaching manifested his constant awareness of this principle. Why then do so many of His followers today fail to use the technique used by the Master? Could it be that they do not invest the time to find appropriate examples?

Poor Example

Christ was our example. He realized that He was an exemplar whose every act taught those around Him. Ministers can preach about soul winning until they are blue in the face, but they will not have a soul winning church until they set the example.

Thomas Carlyle was once asked by a young man how he could become a great teacher like Carlyle. Carlyle’s response: “Be what you would have your pupils be. AII other teaching is but apery and mockery.”

A minister must be what he would have his congregation be. The story is told of a stranger who called a small town and asked the operator to speak to Dr. Smith (the town had two Dr. Smiths, one a minister and the other a physician). The operator asked, “Which one, the one that preaches or the one that practices?” The minister must be both as this poem suggests:

I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day;

I’d rather have one walk with me than merely show the way.

The eye’s a better pupil and more willing than the ear.

Fine counsel is confusing but example’s always clear.

And the best of all the preachers are the ones who live their creeds

For to see the good in action is what everybody needs.

I can soon learn how to do it if you’ll let me see it done;

I can watch your hands in action, but your tongue too fast may run

And the lectures you deliver may be very wise and true,

But I’d rather get my lessons by observing what you do.

For I may misunderstand you and the high advice you give,

But there’s no misunderstanding how you act and how you live.

I’d rather watch a sermon than hear one any day.

Failure to Make Impact

One study found that only one-fifth of the congregation could recall the main idea of the sermon. Why? Sermons were too lengthy, the minister used the same old approach, no use of visual aids, no use of interesting stories, failure to involve audience through questions, failure to rely on the leadership of the Holy Spirit, failure to practice what was preached.

Lack of Humility

According to one leading educator we should approach learning as a little child: “humble and with an open mind.” Satan can blind the eves of even the most spiritual to the need for improvement; this he accomplishes when God’s ministers lack the humility to admit that they can learn.

People have been bored so often by irrelevant, boring long-winded messages that they turn-off mentally as soon as they enter the church or immediately after the special singing. The worst sin against God’s Church is not those Communists who attempt to bar its service-for God can be worshipped in the heart anywhere rather the worst sin against the Church is the dull sermon.

Why? Sinners are not touched by such sermons; Christians are not challenged by them, and young people are not inspired to become servants of God. Well might Christ have said, “A little child shall lead them because the child is enthusiastic.”

Ministers who reach their congregations will be men of prayer and study, men who ask God to reveal His truth to them and then ask Him to reveal to them how they can best convey the exciting, exhilarating and eternal Truth.

Any time you see a turtle on a fence post, you know he had some help. And any time a message touches the spirit of man-not just the emotions-it is because the messenger had some help. The ideas recommended in this article will not benefit others spiritually unless the man or woman of God spends time with God.

The main point of the message should not be the visual aids, if they are used, or the illustrations-the most evident fact should be that he who brings the message has been with Jesus, and that the message delivered is His message and that it is carried and blessed by His Spirit. Then, every word will be a benediction.

May God help us all. Help those in the audience and those who preach to realize that the sermon ought not to be just another sermon, but a sacred link between God and His creation.

Article adapted from Contact magazine, March 1986.