Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Europe to speak to pastors, missionaries, and church leaders. Europe is one of the most difficult—and often discouraging—ministry contexts in the world. Yet, the trip was incredible. Along the way, I met courageous men and women who were faithful to Jesus and his Great Commission within a culture that largely rejects their faith.
I visited worship services there and on four other continents. In every worship service I visited, no matter what country I was in, I had a simple expectation: the preacher would use the Bible in the sermon. God's Word is certainly (at least some) part of the vast majority of Christian sermons. If a Christian preacher doesn't use the Bible in the sermon, in fact, I'd be hard-pressed to call it Christian preaching.
But that's where the sermon similarities end. Pastors handle God's Word in many different ways depending upon their ministry context. In some ways, this variety can actually be good; after all, preachers are charged to preach the Word to a particular audience. Jesus himself taught in different ways at different times in his ministry. When he preached to the religious leaders of his day, he preached forcefully. In the Sermon on the Mount, he preached to his core group, the disciples, and he challenged them to go deeper. To the crowds, he preached differently still. So preachers who preach differently in different contexts should not surprise us.
At LifeWay Research, we recently studied the variety of ways pastors use the Bible by looking at 450 different sermons (all by different preachers). We gave our research team the audio files of these sermons and some objective questions about how the preacher handled God's Word.
Thus, let me share about the research and my views on preaching at the same time. Later, we will release a standard report; in the meantime, let me share some of the results.
First, a bit about our methodology. The sermons were randomly selected from two prominent online audio sermon sources. The dates the sermons were preached fell between August 31 and September 14, 2008. A percentage of sermons were even checked a second time to verify and confirm that the research team was accurately reviewing the material.
Our sample certainly impacted the results of our study (which is why we reveal the sample source). We know that those who upload their sermons to online sites are different than those who do not. Are they younger, more evangelical, better educated, and more computer literate? We do not know for sure. But this is not an analysis of ALL preachers, only of the sample described.
Sure enough, in these 450 sermons, the preachers handled God's Word differently. The way pastors organized their sermons varied widely. Half of pastors traveled verse-by-verse through a passage, and almost half organized their sermons around a theme. Almost one out of five pastors named and explained a Greek word in their sermon. More than half explained verses by using other verses in the Bible.
Even though different preachers handle the Word differently, I believe they're all obligated to teach it as authoritative, not merely as a scriptural footnote proving something they already wanted to say. Four things have to be true about a pastor's handling of the Bible if that pastor is to preach authoritatively.
1. The Word should be heard
Our central task as preachers is to present God's Word. Paul asked a series of questions that should haunt all of us who preach: "How can they call on him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe without hearing about him? And how can they hear without a preacher?" (Romans 10:14 HCSB) A preacher isn't a self-help guru. A preacher is not a political activist or an entertainer. Those who preach are truth-dispensers, proclaimers of the Word. If we don't do our job as preachers, people will not hear the good news and therefore can't respond to it. What we do is crucial.
At a surprisingly high level, most of the preachers we studied seemed to understand the need for the text. Four out of five of these sermons conveyed the correct meaning of the chosen text according to our research team's analysis (which was not denominationally specific). I'm encouraged by this. People will not really hear God's Word in our churches if we're not preaching it accurately.
Of course you can preach the Word accurately and still no one will really "hear" it; we must share God's Word in the way our hearers will understand it. No matter how accurately the Bible is preached, our message can get lost behind jargon and phrases that mean nothing to our congregations. This doesn't mean that we should gloss over difficult words within scripture. But we do need to explain the original language and "churchy" words we use. Words we only hear in church—such as "holy," "righteousness," and "propitiation"—can help hearers understand God's truth only if properly clarified.
Many of the preachers we studied did this. In fact, 41 percent explained at least one church or theological word during their sermon. Another 21 percent avoided such words altogether. This means more than half of the preachers we studied either avoided or at least explained some of the church or theological words they used. While this is notable, it still means that one out of three preachers are not speaking in the vernacular of their audience—at least if the uninitiated or unchurched are in attendance.
Paul could have just asked, "How can they believe without a preacher?" But he didn't. Without people hearing—really hearing what you say—they will not believe the message.
2. The Word should be organized
If God is orderly, and the story of creation suggests he is, then the preaching of his Word should be, as well. Having a good sermon structure matters as listeners try to make sense of your message.
A good sermon structure simply allows your listeners to more easily grab upon truth. It's like a well-organized toolbox: If you know where everything in your toolbox is located, you can go find a tool even when your lights are out. Why? You know where everything is. A good sermon structure can do the same thing. If you've organized your sermon well, your listeners will be able to understand the Word more easily—even when you're dealing with difficult subjects.
But different people and different cultures think differently and organize their thoughts differently. Not everyone looks for their tools in the same places. Your task as the preacher is to know how your listeners organize their thoughts and to organize your sermon likewise. (And you should note that our sample was in English, which limited the cultural diversity of our study group.) As we studied these 450 sermons, we saw three main categories of biblical preaching. Each category pointed to an important element in biblical sermons.
Half of these preachers focused their preaching around one block of scripture text, moving verse-by-verse through the passage. In truth, every sermon should strive to explain scripture. If the sermon fails to do so, it's hard to say the Word is central to it.
Another 46 percent of preachers focused their preaching around a main theme, question, or topic using multiple Scriptures to support it. Themes may address issues that listeners deal with throughout their life, or they might highlight a biblical principle or doctrine that should impact the listener's thinking. Again, this method effectively helps listeners apply the Word to their lives, no matter what organizational method they use.
Finally, the other 4 percent organized their message around one main biblical character using multiple Scriptures to support the theme. This demonstrates the necessity of personalizing biblical truth—letting listeners see the truth lived out in someone else's life. (Wayne Cordeiro does a helpful job unpacking this approach to scripture in his book, The Divine Mentor.)
All of these examples are appropriate ways to structure a sermon depending upon your audience, and all point to essential elements in a good sermon.
3. The Word should be sufficient
Preachers today can be tempted to use all sorts of extra-biblical resources to make their sermons more interesting to the unchurched. Much of those efforts are good: For example, a movie clip may make a nice illustration. A quote from popular culture may show listeners the relevance of what you're teaching. What a commentator says about a verse may help explain the scripture better.
But, the best way to explain scripture is with scripture itself. Sometimes it isn't the most convenient place for us to go, but the Bible is simply far better equipped to explain itself than popular culture. More than half of the sermons we studied (56 percent) used cross-references to explain the Word.
I am not saying that cross-references are the only way to help us explain the Word. In many of the sermons we studied (just under half), the preacher gave contextual background information on the biblical book being studied to help listeners understand the text's meaning. About four out of ten preachers explained their text by talking about its context or what came immediately before and after the passage. Almost one in five preachers gave little to no background information to help explain the texts they preached upon.
God's Word should make a difference in the lives of our listeners. When God's Word is preached boldly and authoritatively, people change. Paul told Timothy, "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16, HCSB)
Paul says God's Word is useful (or profitable) to equip us to do his work. In fact, he says all of God's Word is useful for this—this includes Leviticus, Amos, and the lineage of Jesus. He doesn't give any exceptions.
The preachers we surveyed had a definite preference for the New Testament. Nearly three quarters (71 percent) of the main biblical texts were found in the New Testament. More than a third (37 percent) of the sermons came from the New Testament letters alone. A quarter came from the Gospels.
When preachers flipped through their New Testament looking for a passage to preach upon, they didn't flip far. Matthew was the most preached-upon and the most referenced book in the entire Bible. Genesis was the most preached-upon Old Testament book. Luke, John, Acts of the Apostles, and Romans—all from the New Testament—were the other most likely biblical books for preachers to use as a main text.
Every book, every page of the Bible is useful to make us more like Christ and prepare us for ministry, not just our favorite books or pages. In fact, an important part of authoritative, biblical preaching is helping listeners discover "the whole counsel of God." (Acts 20:27) This means we have to flip further into our Bibles if we're going to be completely obedient to our call.
How we handle the Word of God matters. As preachers, we have a limited time with our audience every week. The question is, how will we use that time? Will we handle the Word of God in a way that demonstrates its authority in our lives and over the lives of our listeners?
How important is this issue? God's Word is bread to a spiritually lost and hungry culture. The issue is urgent. Here is my challenge: Over the next 90 days, take action steps to make your sermons more biblically relevant. The following steps will help you get started:
Listen to one of your recent sermons and assess how you handled the Bible (start by listening for how your sermon addressed the four points in this article).
Have someone you trust (maybe from outside your church) listen to a different one of your sermons and do the same assessment.
Read some books on preaching, like Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chappel or The Divine Mentor by Wayne Cordiero, to help your personal approach to God's Word.
Create a list of clear and measurable goals to strengthen the biblical content of your preaching.
My prayer is that God would do something new and deeper in all of us who have the honor of communicating his life-changing truth. May every man, woman, and child in every community truly see and hear his Word as a result. It's really the most important concern we can address as we prepare to preach.