Preaching Articles

Churches have changed dramatically during the past 50 years. Our music is different. In many locations, pews have been replaced with chairs. Technology has revolutionized the way we conduct our services.

However, some things haven’t changed. One constant that remains essential in every church is preaching. I’ve heard preaching called “the rudder that moves the church.” I think it is an apt description.

Most of you have 30 to 45 minutes each week to speak into the lives of every person who attends your church. You can’t spend 30 minutes each week with every person in the church personally applying God’s Word to God’s people, but you do have an opportunity to open up the Word of God and speak into their lives each week. It is the prospect that all teaching pastors have to make a message stick because they are applying eternal truth to earthly circumstances. The hope is that the time is used by God to shape lives and influence the direction of the congregation by clarifying who God is, what He wants from us, and what He has done for us in Christ.

Merely preaching a sermon is not enough. Truth encountered and truth remembered will result in truth applied. You want people to encounter not just persuasive words, but our persuasive Savior. To borrow a book title from business marketers Chip and Dan Heath, we want to deliver sermons that are “Made to Stick.”

People are distracted by thoughts of office projects, family commitments, and weekend football. They often miss the message. Our goal must be to engage them spiritually when they are present physically. How do you do that?

Let me suggest four ways to engage your listeners with God’s Word during your sermons: Enter their world, open the book, pull back the curtain, and call them to respond.

LifeWay Research did two surveys for Preaching magazine designed to shed light on how pastors are preaching. For the first survey, we interviewed 1,000 randomly selected senior pastors, ministers, and priests of Protestant churches in America about their preaching practices.

The second survey was designed to understand sermon content. We randomly selected 450 sermons from two prominent online sources for audio sermons. Our research team listened to each sermon, then answered objective questions about how the preacher engaged the congregation during the sermon. While this second survey is a healthy sample of sermons that pastors uploaded to Web sites, it can describe only those specific sermons. We cannot tell for sure if or how they differ from pastors’ sermons that were not uploaded.

I was happy to see that this research demonstrated an overlap of ideas for connecting one’s preaching to the lives of the people in the church. More detail on the questions and breakouts of the responses are available online at The four engagement methods showed up repeatedly in the surveys.

1. Enter Their World

Preachers who engage their listeners consider what their world looks like. Jesus did that. Preaching to a mostly agrarian society, His sermons were full of plowing, sowing, and reaping analogies. He knew His culture, and He preached into that culture.

Paul followed a similar pattern. In his sermon at Mars Hill recorded in Acts 17, Paul appealed to his listeners’ own spiritual system, to their “unknown god.” He also consistently used athletic imagery to capture the attention of his hearers. The Greek culture was obsessed with fitness and athletics. Paul’s references to contests (1 Thes. 2:2) and winning (Phil. 3:14) were designed to enliven the imagination of the engaged mind and gain the attention of the wandering mind.

How can we do the same today? Capturing the attention of contemporary listeners without trivializing our message is a delicate balance to strike. Popular culture constantly is engaged and experienced via a deluge of media; but we can provide rich, attention-grabbing ideas that create a bridge to God’s Word.

Entering the world of your listener may be as simple as starting your sermons with their personal context. Learn to ask the right questions in preparing your messages. How does the text interact with their lives? What real-world questions do they bring to church with them? What distracts and hinders them from obeying this text?

My preference is to take them to the text—by introducing them to why the text matters to them. According to our surveys, many of you are doing just that: The survey of pastors’ preferences showed that 37 percent prefer to start their sermons with their listeners’ context by addressing issues, such as a current question or decision their listeners are facing. Preachers in their 40s and 50s are most likely to do this. On the other hand, only a third of pastors under 40 prefer to start their sermons with their listeners’ context.

My guess is that many people say, “I start with the text,” but they do so with some contextual introduction. It’s what I like to do, as well. I would prefer to stand up, read a verse, and say, “No donuts, no coffee, just the Bible…come and get it”; but I realize humans—even our church attendees—are looking for the “So what?” factor in everything. To better engage your listeners, connect their daily context with the eternal Word. I think it matters that the text sets the agenda of our message and we find contextual ways to help people see why it always matters.

This reality may be reflected in the other study, the one focused on the actual sermons preached, which found that more than half (52 percent) of the preachers started most of their sermon points with today’s context. It’s safe to say more than half of our preachers are at least attempting to address the ever-changing needs, struggles, and issues of today with the unchanging truth of the Bible.

That’s good. We don’t have to make the Bible relevant; it already is. We do, however, have a responsibility to help people understand the Bible’s relevance as we preach. Connecting with today’s context does just that.

2. Open the Book

Entering our listeners’ world is only as meaningful as we make the connection between their world and God’s revelation. Majoring on heart-stirring stories, transparent confessions, and motivational injunctions are the paths of least resistance for speaking; a sermon devoid of the Word will not “stick” in a person and result in lasting transformation. Only the Spirit and the Word can do that.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:4-5, “My speech and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and power, so that your faith might not be based on men’s wisdom but on God’s power.” All of us want our preaching to have power—real power, but that only comes through the Word of God.

The point I’m making is to open the Book, but you cannot forget to open their hearts to the Book. The preacher should invite the listener to engage in the Scripture, and this involves more than being an expository or text-driven preacher.

How often do you have your listeners actually turn to the passages and read them as you preach? Sure, it complicates your sermons. You might be able to get one more point or illustration into your sermon time if you just read the Word without waiting for your listeners to look up the text themselves, but is it worth the cost of a passive listener?

Asking your listeners to read the actual text of Scripture brings them into contact with the Word of God and helps engage them with your message, as well. When listeners turn to the passage you’re preaching about and read it for themselves, they think through what God might be telling them.

In the second study, preachers only asked listeners to turn to their primary texts in 37 percent of the 450 sermons. When preachers mentioned other verses, they only asked listeners to turn to those passages 15 percent of the time. Another 6 percent referred to biblical passages displayed on a screen for their audience to read. The research supported the notion that perhaps more of us need to be sending people to the Word when we preach. We need to be mindful that the advent of video projection, PowerPoint, and all the rest are wonderful—to a point. Technological advances never should become surrogate participants for worshipers.

Do you point people to the Scripture as you preach? Your authority as a preacher comes from one source—the Word of God. Your power to speak into the lives of your listeners comes from His Word, as well. Look for opportunities to point people to the Bible as you preach.

3. Pull Back the Curtain

If you want your sermon to stick, you must pull back the curtain to reveal who God is, who we are, and what He really wants. It is too easy for preachers to slip into becoming moral teachers—religious instructors who pass out rules for spiritual living without pulling back the curtain on God and ourselves; pulling back that curtain is what our people need the most!

Your hearers need a clear word about exactly who God is in His character, work, and will. People have come to worship with assumptions, presuppositions, and all kinds of religious baggage that wrongly has informed their view of God’s character and what He wants from us. It is only the Word of God rightly explained that can show them the truth and confront these misunderstandings.

I’m not just talking about pulling back the curtain on who God is, but who we are, as well. Many need to see they are not what they believe themselves to be. Some need to be confronted with the hard truth that they are, at bottom, corrupt and ruined by sin. Others need to see they are created in the image of God and were made to know and enjoy Him. Yet others must come to grips with the fact that their faith is dead, and they are asleep in their faith.

Here’s the thing: You cannot pull back the curtain unless you can exegete their world (point 1) and exegete Scripture (point 2). While our study did not focus on these areas, I suspect they are areas of weakness in much of our preaching. We need to avoid preaching mere ought-to and how-to messages, and instead preach law and Gospel together. This displays God as He is, His law for our lives, our fallen nature, and how God offers us grace in Christ. In pulling back the curtain, we then can focus on the need for our hearers to respond to all that God has revealed in His Word.

4. Call for a Response

Preaching never should aim merely at the head, but also at the heart and will. Intellectual preaching changes the mind for a while. Convictional preaching changes the heart for eternity. God gave us His Word that we might be transformed, not just informed. Therefore, solid preaching always calls for a response.

On the simplest level, this response is faith and repentance. We are called to leave something and believe something; but calling for faith and repentance is only helpful when it is specific, clear, and seen in light of the gospel.

Jesus constantly was asking people for a response to His message. From the very beginning of His ministry, He gave specific instructions about how to live as a disciple. From “come and follow Me” to the Great Commission, Jesus didn’t just give His hearers talking points; He invited them to Himself and His kingdom. The first call from Christ is to transformation through personal relationship.

Most pastors say they typically ask their listeners to respond in some way as they preach. Make sure to ask for active participation during your sermons. We presented Protestant preachers with four typical responses to their sermons: providing sermon outlines, asking congregants to repeat a phrase or word, asking them to answer a question aloud, and asking them to raise their hands in response to a question. Four out of five pastors said they regularly use at least one of these methods.

Involve the congregation in repeating phrases from the text or provide a sermon outline for participants to fill in the blanks. The simplest (or liturgical) exercises help the congregation take part in the message. It takes listeners one step closer to applying the Word of God.

Despite the relatively high percentage of pastors who say they use at least one of these methods, the vast majority of sermons we studied in the second survey didn’t use response methods. Only 9 percent of those preachers asked their listeners to respond to a question aloud. Even fewer asked listeners to repeat a word or phrase (7 percent) or answer a question by raising their hands (6 percent).

As pastors, we often need help in the battle of perception versus reality with our preaching. If these latter statistics hold true, preachers are not engaging their listeners as well as they think. One way to get an accurate assessment of your preaching would be to design a growth plan that includes self-evaluation and outsider assessment of your preaching. I also would suggest you pair up with a friend in the ministry and swap audio or video files of your messages. A close friend can tell you where you’ve missed the mark and build you up at the same time.

There is another reason this matters: Preaching that doesn’t elicit listener response in some way—even in a tiny way—makes for passive listeners. Passive listeners at church will make for passive Christians in the world. That’s the opposite of our goal for engagement—and the opposite of what biblical preaching is.

Passive listeners who aren’t even making small responses to your sermon might not make the more important responses later. Teach your people to respond to the text, not watch it pass by them.

Response is the natural result when the Word is presented. Paul tells us in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is 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” (HCSB). The Word of God you preach is intended to do something in our lives. So do not hesitate in asking your listeners to do something with what they’ve heard.

James tells believers that we are to “be doers of the word and not hearers only” (James 1:22, HCSB). To engage people with His Word is what God intended. Though God desires for us to be informed with truth, He intends for us to be formed with it, as well. Our hearers should become “doers of the Word.”

A call to respond is biblical, but it’s also practical and specific. In my book Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them (B&H), we reported some unfortunately startling statistics when it comes to young adults and their openness to the church. I say “unfortunately” because we too easily have acquiesced to a false mythology of young adults’ spiritual interest in America. One of the things we found is that young adults—particularly churched young adults—want to know how to apply God’s Word in their everyday lives. They don’t just want to listen to you talk for 30 minutes. They want to be challenged to do something with what they’re hearing. Many of the preachers did this in the sermons we studied. Close to half (47 percent) asked their listeners to do something at the end of their sermons. Forty-six percent asked listeners to think differently and another 16 percent asked listeners to feel something different when they were finished.

What kind of things did preachers ask listeners to do? Nearly 15 percent asked them to stop doing something. As they concluded their sermon, 10 percent asked listeners to respond by coming forward during an altar call. Small numbers asked for listeners to fill out a response card or take communion. To what are these numbers adding up?

Often preachers have an application in mind as they prepare a sermon. We intuitively can see what would happen if listeners acted on what they’ve heard from the Word, but too often we leave this application unsaid. I challenge you to think consciously about what you want your listeners to do with your message. Ask yourself, “If my best friend were listening to this message, how would I want his or her life to change because of what I’m going to say?” Don’t just answer the question in your head before you preach again. Voice that application in your message. Don’t settle for the hope in your head. Seek commitment in your church.

Engaging listeners with your sermon is not optional; it is a must. People hunger for truth. The surveys we’ve done have shown that the unchurched—even the lost—long to hear a word from heaven. When we studied unchurched young adults for Lost and Found, we uncovered that many of them want to know more about the Bible. While God can use any situation for His glory, it will be hard for your listeners to hear from heaven if you don’t challenge them to become more than passive listeners.

The people who listen to you every week need to know what God wants to say to them. When you are not heard, the consequences for your listeners are real. The lost face a Christless eternity. Many believers face overwhelming personal and professional struggles. All of them long to know that God cares enough about them to speak into their lives. Through your faithful preaching of the Word, they can find out.

In his book Communicating for a Change: Seven Keys to Irresistible Communication (Multnomah), Andy Stanley says he often gives himself a pep talk before he preaches a message by asking, “How would you communicate this message if your 18-year-old son had made up his mind to walk away from everything you had taught him morally, ethically, and theologically—unless he had a compelling reason not to?” It’s a stunning question that would force any of us to engage our audience.

If your 18-year-old son were in that situation and listening to the sermon you are preparing now, what would you want him to be thinking about? Would you want his mind to drift to college applications, his girlfriend, or the big game on Friday night? Or would you want him to be engaged with the Word of God as you preached?

Someone’s son, father, wife, and daughter will be sitting in your audience next weekend. Will what you say stick? What will you do to take your preaching to the next level? Will you engage them with the Word of God?

Perhaps most importantly, when will you start?

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for EvangelismPreviously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Ed recently started Mission Group in order to create unique and practical resources for church leaders. He has trained pastors and church planters on five continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN.

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James Thompson

commented on Mar 28, 2011

I heard someone say just recently that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same things and expecting different results. You open with all the things that we as overseers of His Church have changed yet we seem to be right on key for the great falling away, and it is happening. I am only a bivocational pastor of a small church (15-20), I don't get paid to say anything, and so I am free on God's authority to speak the truth . . . I do. We have no church affilliations, not even nondenominational. The longer and deeper that I study the more I find that there have been great links missing from the real truth of God's Word being taught today, going all the way back to the days of the apostles. From cover to cover, not one messenger of God sugar-coated the message, never catered to the sinner's comfort, never water down the facts. They called a snake a snake, a hypocrite a hypocrite, no a/c or heat, and thousands were added to "the church," not the role. We have made Jesus God and that way we can excuse away our diliberate sin. God was not another Adam, Jesus was (John 8:40), and He came to do what Adam failed to do, to show us how we can live righteous in God's power. I believe God did something greater than to give Himself . . . He gave His Only Begotten Son. He was God with us, the brightness of God's glory, the express image of God. He came to glorify His Father. The glory of Jesus can not be removed, for He is The Only Begotten Son of God, He is our Lord and Savior, now seated at the right hand of the Father interceding for those who are placing (continuing) their faith in His finished Work on the Cross. When God called me to preach, I felt Him urging me to keep the people's sin before them (us), mine too. I have been an active Christian for 35 + years, a Gideon, Sunday School teacher, S. S. Superintendent, Deacon, now a pastor for 11 years, and I was always taught and/or allowed to believe that we were born sinners. Although we were born with a sinful nature, and born in sin, God made us without sin. We became sinners when we decided to go our own way. Much of that due to wrong up bring because the church failed in it's responsibility to stand on the Word of God. Jesus said that the TRUTH sets men free. I have been told that I don't know how to be a pastor, that all I preach is doom and gloom. I am reminded of the two Christian who stood on the corner with a sign that said turn back, while the people in cars kept ignoring the signs, one Christian said to the other, "you think we ought to tell them that the bridge is out?" The reason people church hop is because they are looking for a place of comfort in their sin. They are looking for a preacher that will tell them that God understands that we are human and we are going to sin, even though He commands us not to. Why would He command us to not do that which we could not help but do? We will never be sinless, but the closer I draw to Him . . . I sin less. We can be a vessel of light, but we must kind of clean the lens, so He can shine through our lives. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be lenghty, but I am tired of the devil winning at his game, and we need to set this world a fire with the truth of God's Word. It is not okay to sin. Only the righteous will inherit the kingdom. We all must workout (maintain) our salvation. Every man was/is deal the measure of faith (every person is issued faith), our responsiblity and accountability (not earning or purchasing), choose whom we will serve, this day, and tomorrow, etc. I know the responses that I will get and I understand because the church has been the receipants of indoctrination. In Christ, Bro. James Thompson


commented on Mar 28, 2011

Do we have free wills

Rev. Tracy Hinkel

commented on Mar 28, 2011

James, you say, "Although we were born with a sinful nature, and born in sin, God made us without sin. We became sinners when we decided to go our own way." Have you ever witnessed two or more toddlers playing together? Inevitably one will grab a toy that the other wants and a 'fight' ensues. This may be a silly example, but the reality is we are born children of a fallen humanity...that means original sin. As for your "doom and gloom" preaching, consider this - the gospel is a 2-sided coin: God's wrath and God's grace. Perhaps you should try a little more grace with the wrath. Just a thought...

Sean Harder

commented on Mar 28, 2011

How does anyone get "doom and gloom" preaching out of what James says. He is describing how Jesus preached, the author of grace. We can't know grace unless we know what we are being saved from. It is the modern preaching of "cheap grace" where nothing is expected of us that is causing the church to lose its credibility. We need to stop tickling ears and preaching like Jesus did, otherwise we are saying that his ways are not relevant for us anymore.

Ray Mckendry

commented on Mar 28, 2011

I work in a church which enjoys the input of many women and I appreciate the comment of Rev. Tracy Hinkel because while it is true that we do need to preach the Scriptures, in season and out of season, when it is inconvenient as well as convenient. We do need to warn people about the consequences of their actions but as many women point out we need to have compassion. Too little weeping over the text for our hearers is my biggest failing. We need to preach the warnings of the Bible but always with a clear and compassionate proclamation of the blessing and forgiveness of the compassionate God revealed to us in Christ. When you think of Jesus Christ do you think of a judge or a merciful Redeemer?

John E Miller

commented on Mar 29, 2011

Those who take the place of being Pastors should note Paul's description of divine gifts in Ephesians 4:11. He names apostles, prophets and evangelists, but then puts the final gift as "pastors and teachers". Someone once said that that shepherding wins the hearts of the saints for the teaching. Making a sermon "stick" may cause the listener to remember the preacher and his eloquence. "Sticking" suggests an external result. What is needed is the word of God to reach the heart. The first question that needs to be addressed is the constancy and consistency of the pastor's personal communion with Jesus. The second is his availability to the Holy Spirit of God through a sanctified life. The third is his personal belief in the accuracy, and adherence to the authority of the word of God. If these three principles are in place the pastors service, not only as a preacher but also as a teacher will be fruitful for the Master. I live in Scotland where historically there was once a great reverence for God's word. That is not the case today, not even in many so-called christian churches. The pure Gospel of God's grace, involving repentance and faith in Christ is lacking in the profession and sound teaching is rare. The door has been opened to false doctrine and immorality. What is needed is the Word of the Cross. It is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18)

Todd Baker

commented on Mar 29, 2011

Maybe I should take the time to read this article again, but I missed what fueled Bro. Thompson's comments. Ed isn't asking us to change, delete, or water down any part of God's Word, he's challenging us to work harder at getting people to listen and respond to it. In fact, he is calling some to get their people back in the Word so that they see God speaking, not the Pastor. Ed's point is that in a media saturated world, we have people who are geared to being passive listeners in our pews. He is telling us that we need to challenge them to be active listeners, showing them the importance of God's Word. The best illustration I've heard for this is cooking - 2 cooks can use all the same wholesome ingredients, but the one that just boils them and blends them in the blender isn't going to have many people eating his food. We need to be skilled expositors of God's precious Word and do the extra homework so that our people can see just how precious it is. Obviously we depend on God to change hearts and we must be in close fellowship with Him, but that doesn't relieve us of the importance of preaching well.

Myron Heckman

commented on Mar 30, 2011

Ed, It is a powerful point on application that you make. In response to your closing question, I want to start now!

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