Thursday 3 March 2011

How to preach - a beginner's guide

I'm very thankful to the Archdruid for her thoughts on whether people are preaching good sermons. I know I am! And she quite often manages to provide some useful thoughts when she preaches, too. As a service to all, I thought that it would be beneficial to everybody - even the Archdruid! - if I were to reflect on best practice in preaching, using my own experience as a guide.

  1. Ensure that you write out all of your sermons, because although some people say that they can preach without notes, they're wrong, and they will miss things out, and get confused - rather, always write down exactly that you're going to say and the natural cadences of your writing style, even if not as mellifluous as my own, will expose themselves to your audience, who will be uplifted by the beautiful language that you will be using, which will, of course, unless your first tongue is another, be in English, the most lovely of all. What could go wrong with a style such as this, which worked for John Hooker, that English Chrysostom, that pearl of preachers?
  2. By all means, use technical terms in your kauwhau, and use them in the original language: Greek, Latin, French, German, Maori, whatever. Do not insult your audience's intelligence: if you pause to explain these terms, your listeners will feel that you do not believe that they can cope with the nuances inherent in the original descriptive term.
  3. Repeat yourself. If you've got a good point, then come back to it. Several times. People are likely to remember it then. Don't let this stop you having multiple different points.
  4. Emotion is your enemy. All sermons should be appeals to the mind, from which the heart will take its cue. Do not attempt to use techniques from the salesroom: this is not what a sermon is for. Do not raise your voice. Do not get upset. This is not the Academy Awards, and people will respect you and your sermon more if you can keep everything completely cerebral.
  5. Related to my previous point: maintain an even tone and volume throughout. This will also help people who are using hearing aids to hear your voice. I suggest a G below middle C as a good guide. There should be no more than a quarter tone movement above or below.
  6. If you are unlucky enough to be born female, you should take note of what Margaret Thatcher did: speak in a male tone, which is easier to process, has more authority, and is more measured. I'm not Drayton - women clearly can have great authority - but in the absence of steel toe-capped boots or a spousal relationship, sermons should at least sound manly.
  7. Repeat yourself. If you've got a good point, then come back to it. Several times. People are likely to remember it then. Don't let this stop you having multiple different points.
  8. You should always quote not just a specific verse, but the entire pericope. If people don't have the entire context for each of the passages you're quoting, how can they fully understand your point? An entire chapter is a good Biblical size, in most cases. Each point you make should be backed up with a minimum of 2 passages. You can also bring to mind humourous occurrences from your own life, as long as you explain, again, the entire context for the story, including listing all those present, detailing the weather, noting the time and date, the location and other similarly important details.
  9. Related to my previous point: you don't want people to have a Bible in their pew. They may not listen properly to you, they might read other passages, they might be using the wrong translation, or they might go through the Song of Songs finding the naughty bits. Which is always wrong. Other props - slides, teddy bears, sweats, music, even, Chad preserve us, clowns - are never, ever acceptable.
  10. The number of points is a difficult one, and depends on your style and audience. You should use the Bible as a guide: there are a number of "special numbers" that reoccur throughout the Bible. Some suggest that 3 points is a good number, but this is clearly too low (and the Trinity is never explicitly mentioned in the Bible, so why use it as a guide in this context?). So, if 7 is a minimum, what others are alternatives? For a shortish sermon, I like 12: for something a little more in-depth, I favour 20. For more special occasions, 77 is an excellent number. I once managed 666 points: as one of the congregation noted afterwards, "that was a Beast of a Sermon". How I laughed!
  11. Repeat yourself. If you've got a good point, then come back to it. Several times. People are likely to remember it then. Don't let this stop you having multiple different points.
  12. "And finally". You should always use "and finally". Your audience will perk up and pay more attention. You can use this technique at several points during your sermon to see if people are paying attention, and then continue onto your next point. Just because you've said "and finally", it doesn't mean that you've got to your last point: just that you've got to the last part of your current point. Or the end of the beginning of your current point.


  1. Very funny, thanks for this. As I said, it is very funny.

    So thanks.

  2. Did you mention that repetition thing enough? I think that's very important. And it's important, as well.

  3. Good Biblical exposition (preaching) is best done in an extemporaneous style for most (not all) preachers. I currently preach without notes much better and I explain things more exactly when I preach this way on my feet than when I preached with a full manuscript. My experience tells me that most preachers would benefit of preaching extemporaneously, because if frees them from their notes to actually think and and prevents them from plagiarizing themselves in the pulpit. Preachers may make full manuscripts or notes or outlines or mind-maps in preparation for preaching. Writing is good and very important to get clear in your thinking, but full manuscripts makes a bad master in the pulpit. They can actually confuse the preacher and the audience. If you cannot remember the idea after spending about 15 hours in preparation, how can you expect you listeners to remember it. Extemporaneous Preaching will give you a better flow and provide better communication with the congregation. If all I wanted to do is give information, I would just pass out USB drives as people came into the church worship center. While extemporaneous preaching is not less that good information it is more.

    Good Biblical and expository preaching is best done by appealing to all aspects of a person - mind, volition and affections. In fact good exposition of a text of Scripture must make appeals to both mind and affections if one is to see a volitional change toward obedience to God's commands at all. Jonathan Edwards said that the use of affections in preaching should be in proportion to the passage you are preaching from.

    As I have read Jonathan Edwards, I was often stopped short by Edwards’ wisdom. Constantly surrounded by conflict, and often facing people who sought to undermine his ministry, Edwards had every opportunity to reflect on the task of a minister. One of these conflicts involved the question of whether sermons should primarily enlighten the mind or whether they should primarily stir the affections. Charles Chauncy, his opponent in this debate, believed that “an enlightened mind, and not raised affections, ought always be the guide of those who call themselves men; and this, in the affairs of religion, as well as other things.” Chauncy, as with many men of his day, believed that the affections were closely related to the passions of one’s animal nature and needed to be restrained by the higher faculty of reason. He wrongly concluded that the intellect was on a higher plane than affection.

    Edwards disagreed, teaching that one could not neatly separate the affections from the will. Both the intellect and affections are fallible and unreliable, he insisted, but both are given by God and ought to be exercised by the Christian.

    Good Biblical and expository preaching is best done taking the 1 point of the passage as the 1 point of the sermon. Then all other moves in the sermon (Sign Posts) are either an explanation, illustrations, applications, argumentation or celebration. Repetition is good for peaching for the ear instead of the eye. I agree that if you have a good idea then repeat it in relationship to your main sermon point over and over and over again.

    So in my humble opinion, my education, experience, and study of scripture leads me to embrace Extemporaneous Preaching as the best style for most preachers.


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