There are some basic principles I would suggest for any special occasion. Spiritual sensitivity needs to be at its highest level, especially for opportunities that are not in a specific Christian context. Compromise of biblical truth is not an option, but doing one’s best to extend Christ-honoring grace and goodwill should be at the front and center of our agenda. What then should we consider as we prepare and then deliver our message?
1. Biblical exposition is always appropriate.
Indeed, it should be the norm and not the exception. God’s Word has a word for any occasion and every situation. It is truth, and people need truth, even if they may not want it. Preachers may often discover that the scheduled text for exposition holds legitimate application for the special occasion at hand.
2. Biblical exposition of a short text or familiar passage is a wise course of action. Most likely, you will be the only person with a Bible.
This even includes occasions like a graduation ceremony at a Christian school. The audience is not going to have before them a Bible by which they can follow your explanation of the text. Therefore, a short text, one with one to three verses, or a popular text (e.g., “The Good Samaritan”) is a smart way to go. Give them something they can hear, digest and take home.
3. Brevity in your preaching is normally expected, and the wise decision in most of these situations is to meet this expectation.
It will almost never get you in trouble, and it will foster goodwill and enhance the odds for a return invitation. Fifteen to twenty minutes is about the right length for your sermon, though we recognize on some occasions you can preach much longer, even an hour, with no one becoming upset. Of course, we (and they) are counting on your being interesting and engaging. Remember that it is a sin to make the Bible boring!
4. The power of a good story or powerful illustration will never be more important.
As noted earlier, illustrations are windows into the house of your message that allow your audience to see what is in there. As we all know, this part of your message is the one that they are most likely to remember. Therefore, make this illustration a key component of your address on these special occasions.
5. Principled exposition that is reflected in the life of Jesus or a biblical character is usually a fine strategy to consider.
Leadership principles drawn from the life of Jesus, Paul, David or the Proverbs, for example, can be very effective. Sometimes exploring negative or anti-examples will powerfully make the point. Think about the squandered privileges of Cain, Jephthah, Saul or Judas. Work hard to strike a balance in your message so that it is appropriate to the occasion but also lifts up the Lord Jesus. You may find this task is sometimes quite challenging, but it may also be spiritually fruitful as people see the significance of Jesus both for now and eternity.
6. We should always be focused on the application of our message when we preach, but this is especially crucial when speaking at special occasions.
Lost people need to see the power of biblical truth and its relevance to everyday life.
7. The use of humor, if appropriate to the occasion, can be extremely valuable in pressing your message upon your hearers.
Of course, you have to use humor well. Most persons have a sense of humor unique to their personality. Therefore, just be you, and allow yourself to be humorous in a way that fits who you are.
8. Never betray the trust of those who have invited you to speak.
Follow their instructions as to the time and the address. Going beyond the specified time is rude and irresponsible. It is probably sinful. Not honoring the particular instructions and expectations concerning your message is dishonest and arrogant. Their expectations may require you to turn down some invitations because you are asked to compromise your convictions or expected to be silent when you know you must speak. Integrity demands honesty and transparency, even if it means saying “no” to a lucrative speaking opportunity and a generous honorarium. Do the right thing in the right way, and God will honor you.
9. Finally, always speak of Jesus and His gospel.
You will need to be sensitive to the context and creative in your presentation. Nevertheless, you are a gospel herald, and so herald the gospel.
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