Bernie Parsons March 24, 2006
By Bernie Parsons March 24, 2006
Sermon Writing and Delivery for New Preachers
By Bernie Parsons
March 24, 2006
First, let me say that it is an awesome responsibility to decide to speak the words of God to the people of God. The scriptures warn that we are not to add to, nor subtract from, the word of God. That can be taken on several levels. It means that we are not to arbitrarily add our own words to those set forth by God, as if they are of equal weight. It further means that we are neither to diminish the intention of what God has said, nor are we to burden the listeners with more than that which God has authorized.
Those who are new to presenting lessons from scripture, whether preaching or teaching, often find it hard to know where to begin. This is my humble attempt to be of service in this regard. Based upon my own experience, I have found sermon writing and presentation to be similar to that of any good speech or paper. It consists, at the basic level, of three parts: the opening, the body, and the closing.
It is proper and wise to open by introducing a specific topic upon which one is to speak. There are several ways to determine what a relevant topic might be. If you are as devoted a student of the scriptures as a preacher or teacher ought to be, you will begin to notice subjects that stand out, almost begging for attention. It might be a noun, such as love, faith, or hope. It may be a verb, such as watch, pray, or suffer. Once such a word is located, a good concordance can point you to other passages of scripture that contain thoughts on the same subject.
Be sure to study the context of each passage that you research. Although the same word might appear in several different passages, the context of some of those passages may not be the same. In such cases, relevance to the chosen topic might not be strong. Of course, to determine relevance and context, examine the usual questions in regard to each passage: Who wrote it? When did they write it? To whom was it addressed? Why did they write it—that is, what was their purpose? And where were the writer and the readers located at the time? Answer as many of these questions as possible in order to secure a proper understanding. Avoid commonly accepted answers given by other men, unless substantiated from within the scriptures themselves. Many so-called scholars miss the mark on things like the date when a particular letter or account was written, and maybe where the writer was at the time. Conjecture is of little or no use, and can be a dangerous thing.
Commentaries are just that. Particular religious bodies holding specific beliefs, many of which are not scriptural, influenced many of the men who wrote them. Put little credence in them. The same holds true for various translations of scripture.
Once you have adequately researched the passages of scripture on a topic, prayerfully meditate about those things that you have read. Think back to the circumstances of the Christians of that first century AD, and picture the world in which they lived. Do your best to understand what was going on in their part of the world at that time, and seek to know what advice the writer was giving. Now, think about Christians today, particularly the ones to whom you will be speaking, and use what you have learned to understand how it relates to the needs of your listeners.
Some men build their lessons around a quotation from a poem, a magazine article, a song, or a famous remark. Resist this impulse. This might be appropriate in a meeting of a man-made club or other organization, but is not good presentation when studying the scriptures with your audience. Although it might be acceptable to make such a quotation, it should not be the thrust of your lesson. Remember that the sermon is a means of conveying the word of God Almighty to the listeners. Therefore, the theme of your lesson must reflect truth taken from the word of God.
Ask God to give you wisdom about the subject and to guide you in preparing the lesson in a way that will benefit His people. Allow God’s Holy Spirit that lives within you to bear witness to the words of Jesus and His apostles and disciples.
After a sufficient amount of reading, meditation, and prayerful seeking, prepare a simple outline. List two or more main supporting points that you have come across in your study. Keep them to a reasonable number so that the lesson does not become so long as to undermine its theme. Jot down the related scriptures that you will be using.
Depending upon your style of teaching or preaching, you may want to just record the places where the scriptures are located, and turn there and read during the lesson. Or, you may want to write out the scriptures, and read them from your sermon. If you use a computer, an extremely efficient way to do this is to copy and paste from a Bible program. If you are one of those men who are blessed with an excellent memory, by all means memorize the scriptures, and be prepared to recite them in the appropriate places in the sermon. It doesn’t hurt to have book, chapter, and verse written in your notes, sermon outline, or complete sermon—whichever you use—just in case you forget! You don’t want your lesson to become ineffective as you stammer and stutter, trying to recall an elusive scripture!
After thoroughly reviewing your outline, you are prepared to write your sermon. Remember that any good sermon, speech, or article consists of an opening, a body of evidence, and a closing.
You may wish to open your remarks with some pleasantries, mentioning some recent event, or with a general greeting. This helps establish a rapport with the audience. Within the opening remarks, you should emphasize your main topic and introduce your supporting points.
An example might be as this:
“Hello, brothers and sisters, thank you for allowing me to speak to you today. Isn’t this a beautiful day that the Lord has given us? I am so happy to be here. I wish to speak to you today on the joy that we are to experience as Christians. Oftentimes, it seems that joy is lacking in the body of Christ, so I wanted to share with you some thoughts on this important subject.
“The scriptures teach us that we have joy in the salvation that Christ gives us. They further show that us that we rejoice at the love that we share as brothers and sisters in the Lord. I also want to present the importance of rejoicing even during those times of suffering that we all encounter in this life.”
In this way, you have shown yourself to be pleasant, and appreciative of the opportunity to speak before a given audience, which helps establish a bond with the listeners. In short order, you have also moved on to present your topic—joy—and have reinforced it in the minds of the audience by repeating it several times in a natural way. You have also introduced three main points about joy that you are sharing: (1) The salvation that is found in Christ brings joy; (2) Joy is found in the Christian brotherhood and association; and, (3) Even in times of suffering we can rejoice.
This opening has prepared the listeners for the arguments that you are going to make. They now know that you intend to talk about joy, and that you offer several pertinent points supporting the importance of joy in the Christian life. By mentioning joy in the midst of suffering, you have also piqued some interest, as this is an aspect of Christian life that many seem to overlook. It may even be that some are presently in distress, or recently endured suffering, which will make the subject resonate even more.
You are now ready to move to the body of your presentation.
Having already introduced your theme in the opening remarks, proceed to present the main points of your lesson. Introduce them one at a time, citing scriptures to support your conclusions. Refrain from much commentary, other than that which serves to clarify the scriptures that you have presented. Don’t quote from what other preachers have said on the matter—that is their opinion, and does not rank with the word of God. Your goal is to inform the audience of the will of God, not the opinions of men.
Be sure to tie each main point to the overarching theme of the lesson by repeating the theme regularly throughout your speech. As each point is sufficiently made, transition to the next point, until points are covered. Again, I caution, the introduction of too many different aspects of a subject may confuse the listeners rather than driving home the main theme.
After all points have been discussed, transition to the closing argument or point that you wish to make.
If speaking to a body of believers, close with a plea to accept the points being made. Remind them of the truth of God’s word, and the personal or congregational value to be obtained from accepting that truth.
If addressing non-believers, issue the invitation to become a Christian. Warn them of the dangers of rejecting Christ, and remind them of the glory of eternal life.
If the audience is mixed, your main message may be directed to the larger Christian body, but you will want to ask the non-believers to become Christians at the end of the lesson.
In any case, be persuasive in your arguments and speech.
Presentation styles among teachers and preachers vary greatly. There is a difference between preaching and teaching. Preaching is primarily directed toward non-believers, while teaching is designed to build the faith and righteous activity of the believers.
Stay away from negativism as much as possible when addressing the body of Christ. Your role is to strengthen the faith and obedience of God’s people. If you constantly berate the Christians, you will beat them down rather than lifting them up. Teaching is meant to edify—literally, to build up—the congregation.
When addressing non-believers in Christ, a call for repentance is more appropriate than condemnation. A general warning about eternal damnation is more suitable than a judgmental pronouncement on the individuals. Remember the tact used by the Apostle Paul on Mars Hill—Areopagus—in which he called for the heathen to learn more about their “unknown god”, rather than condemning them as candidates for hell fire. He then proceeded to preach Jesus as the Christ, rather than mocking or denying their false gods and goddesses.
When speaking, if possible, avoid a monotone, which tends to lull members of the audience into distraction, or even slumber! However, if some fall asleep, especially the very young or the very old, understand that the young tire easily, and the elderly may be on medications that induce drowsiness or somnolence, or may have had a restless night due to pain. Emphasize words or phrases appropriately, in order to underscore an important idea, or to gain the attention of the listener. When reading or quoting scriptures, try to render them as naturally as possible. A monotonous or singsong rendition often obscures the important message of the scriptures.
Connect with your audience. I have often heard advice that a teacher or preacher should not look members of the audience in the eye, as that may make them uncomfortable. I suspect that it is the teacher that is most likely to become uncomfortable in these instances. It has been my personal experience that members of the audience react well to eye contact. The oft-given advice for a teacher to fixate his gaze on some inanimate object over the heads of the audience is ill given. When I see a teacher do that, I am left with the perception that he dares not look me in the eye, leaving me wondering what he is trying to hide, or what deception he is foisting on me.
When teaching, speak in a natural voice. Regard the audience as your friends—as those who are interested in what you have to say. Remember, you are delivering a message from God, not some self-aggrandizing speech. Your goal is to have them learn more of God’s will and put it into practice in their daily lives.
If you use words that are not often used in everyday language, be sure to explain them. I have often done this by using the word, and then saying something like, “That is,” followed by more commonly used words. For instance, if I were to use the word somnolence in a sermon, I would then say something like, “somnolence, that is, sleepiness, or drowsiness”.
I also employ this technique when using a word in the King James Version of the Holy Bible, from which I normally teach, that has seen its meaning change since that version was introduced. Some common examples of this are the use of communication to mean sharing, conversation to refer to one’s daily life practices, suffer in the sense of to allow or to permit, custom when referring to a tax, and so forth. When I quote a scripture containing such a word, I immediately explain it with the modern sense of the word. For example, in the scripture, “I suffer not a woman to teach”, I present it thusly: “I suffer not—that is, I allow not—a woman to teach.”
Strive for clarity, not only in enunciation, but also in meaning.
When preaching, the style is often different. Many of the old preachers from the foothills and mountains of eastern Kentucky, where I was reared, paced the pulpit and shouted into the air. Their voice would rise and fall in a rhythmic way. Oft-times, they spoke so fast, and so passionately, that they literally foamed at the mouth, and usually kept a handkerchief in hand to wipe away that foam. While this was a good show, it was often hard to distinguish individual words that they were speaking. Surprisingly, the intent and the content of the message were adequately conveyed.
One preacher I know liked to alternate between fiery shouting and low, deliberate vocalization, especially if he came to a point that he wished to drive home. (A few of the older members who had hearing problems complained that they could not hear these low intonations, and were quite disappointed.) As always, keep your audience in mind!
Believe it or not, some of my most enduring lessons came from a man who spoke in a monotone. Although his delivery was poor, the points that he made were valid, and so stuck with me. He was not afraid to embrace subjects that were controversial, as long as he had the force of scripture behind what he was saying. On the other hand, I—and other teachers/preachers—have been ostracized for speaking on controversial topics.
Develop your own teaching style. Perhaps in doing so, you will adopt some techniques or mannerisms of teachers and preachers that you admire. That is commendable, as long as you do not become an artificial clone of another. See what works to get the attention of your audience, and to hold it long enough for you to deliver your message. What works with a church in Alabama may not sit as well with someone in Iowa, or vice versa. Be aware of local sensitivities and habits. Be prepared to see a lot of varied practices from region to region.
In my own style, I tend to use humor lightly, on occasion, or anecdotes from my own past. These I weave into, or use as counterpoints to, the theme of the lesson. I look from one listener to another, letting my eyes roam the room. When my gaze encounters someone with an agreeable look, or a smile, I will often look at him or her when making a difficult point, or when injecting the humorous or anecdotal story. If someone seems to be in disagreement, I might speak more pleasantly, and persuasively, while looking that person in the eye. If a person appears extremely uncomfortable with such an intimate engagement, I might avoid looking directly at that person again during the sermon.
Something that I have seen pushed in recent decades is the 20-minute sermonette that contains little or no scripture. It consists primarily of comments and jokes, loosely based upon a Bible verse, or a portion thereof, or maybe upon a poem or song. The goal of teaching and preaching is not to amuse or distract, but to enlighten by the word of God. If, in the course of presenting that word, the hearers are entertained by your style of preaching, this is laudable. By the way, pay attention to the root meaning of words—it will broaden your own understanding. The word entertain, for instance, means to hold the attention of, and does not mean to amuse.
Persuade your listeners to respond to your message, whether it be a call for them to get closer to God, clean up their lives, strengthen their faith, or do more for others. Don’t be discouraged if the fruits of your labor are not readily evident. You are a sower of seed, or perhaps the one who waters the tender plants. God gives the increase. It is not about you, and your success in life. It is about the listener, and his or her success in life. If they succeed in service to God as a result of your teaching or preaching, then you have succeeded.