Preaching Articles

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. Let me share about the research and my views on preaching at the same time.

In these 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.

4. The Word should be useful.

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:

1. 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).

2, Have someone you trust (maybe from outside your church) listen to a different one of your sermons and do the same assessment.

3. Read some books on preaching, like Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chappell or The Divine Mentor by Wayne Cordeiro, to help your personal approach to God's Word.

4. 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.

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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Rev. Phyllis Pottorff-Albrecht, United Brethren Communi

commented on Oct 3, 2013

This leaves me wondering about "sermons" which leave you wondering if the conclusion is correct. A case in point - my grandchildren recently watched an animated Bible story on TV, which was about Lot and his family escaping from the destruction in Sodom. In the Scripture text in Genesis 19, the angels warn Lot and his family NOT to look back, because they might be consumed by the destruction befalling Sodom. In Genesis 19:26, the Scripture relates that Lot's wife looked back - and became a pillar of salt. However, the authors of the animated Bible story concluded that Lot's wife became a pillar of salt because she was being punished for disobeying God. In my opinion, there is NOTHING in the text of Genesis 19 which indicates that Lot's wife became a pillar of salt as punishment for disobeying God. I read the angel's warning as being similar to a warning that people should not look directly at the sun, because it could damage their eyesight! The angel was giving Lot and his family good advice about not looking directly at the destruction of Sodom. Lot's wife disregarded the angel's good advice, and suffered the consequences. Surely pastors need to be cautious about adding their own observations to Scripture - and ending up with conclusions which are not really supported by the Scripture text.

Rev L. Baker

commented on Oct 3, 2013

The "advice" given by the angel was a command from God. Angels cannot give their own opinion or advice. That is the problem that led to the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. It was an fallen angel that gave advice to Jesus to change stones into bread and to cast himself from the roof of the Temple in Jerusalem. Simply put, the wife of Lot disobeyed the instructions of God relayed by the angel. The disobedience caused her to be turned to stone. In my mind this is indeed a punishment and not simply a reaction to her observing the destruction of Sodom.

Bill Williams

commented on Oct 3, 2013

The text of Genesis 19 is sparse, but Jesus does give us some further context. In Luke 17, he tells his disciples to "remember Lot's wife." Immediately before that he tells them, "On that day [the revealing of the Son of Man], let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back." The context therefore suggests that the problem with Lot's wife was not simply that she "looked back." Rather, the problem was that her intention was to return to Sodom to rescue her goods, and it was for that reason that she became a pillar of salt. I think this is what the author of the article was talking about letting Scripture interpret itself.

Jb Bryant

commented on Oct 6, 2013

@Phyllis - Your reasoning does not logical to me. The consequence to Lot's wife was not a natural outcome of her action. Looking at the sun can damage your retina and thus your eyesight. Looking at a city being destroyed does not turn you into a pillar of salt. The outcome was not natural, it could only have been supernatural - which suggests punishment.

Chris Hearn

commented on Oct 3, 2013

Super article! Thanks, Ed! I especially like the point of using Scripture as sub-points to the main point (also coming from Scripture).

Ferdinand C Nnadi

commented on Oct 4, 2013

This is very apposite to effective ministry. Moreso these days when, some preachers in a bid to sound sophisticated and intelligent, often interprete the scriptures beyond the main thrust of the passsage being shared. I love the methodology used by Apostle Paul in the Pauline epistles;he was circumspect enough to distinguish between what were strictly divine exhortations and his personal convictions on certain issues. By so doing, I believe he was not overruling discernment but the differentiated between what are certainties and what are probables.

Paul Porter

commented on Oct 7, 2013

I would add another great book on the subject: The Passion Driven Sermon by Jim Shaddix

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