Preaching Articles

Have you ever read something that made all the bells go off inside you? You yell, "That's it! That's what I've been thinking!" because it seems the author has been reading your thoughts. It happened to me this weekend. Warren Wiersbe did it.

Dr. Wiersbe put his insight in the form of a story. I suspect it's a parable, meaning he fictionalized it in order to make a point. (He has good precedent; our Lord did this.) Briefly, the story he told was this:

Grandma Thatcher sits in church with a number of hurts and spiritual needs. Although she's lovingly known throughout the congregation as a saint, she gets nothing but harassment and trials at home for her faith. When she gets to church, she needs a word from God.

On this particular morning, the pastor stands at the pulpit and preaches from Genesis chapter 9, the main thrust of which is his outline, with all the points beginning with the same letters. The outline is excellent, as those things go:

Creation Presented—Genesis 9:1–3

Capital Punishment—Genesis 9:4–7

Covenant Promised—Genesis 9:8–17

Carnality Practiced—Genesis 9:18–23

Consequences Prophesied—Genesis 9:24–29

As she departs the sanctuary, Grandma mutters to herself, "Last week it was all Ss. Today it's all CPs." She walks out of the church that day with her hunger unabated and returns home to face a hostile husband and another week of trials.

Not long after, the pastor has to be out of town and invites a missionary to fill the pulpit. Oddly, the missionary preaches from the same text, Genesis 9. But he takes an entirely different approach. The speaker begins his sermon by describing a rainstorm he'd experienced while on a missionary trip in the mountains. The congregation chuckles when he says, "I wish Noah had been with us. We could have used him!"

Then he starts talking about the storms in human lives, and the compassion in his voice convinces the congregation that he's been through more than one storm himself. "Storms are a part of life; God made it that way," he says. "But I've learned a secret that's helped me all these years, and it's still helping me: Always look for the rainbow. The world looks for the silver lining and sings 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,' but we Christians have something far better than that. Did you ever meet the three men in the Bible who saw rainbows?"

His outline and the message that morning centers on Noah, who saw the rainbow AFTER the storm (Genesis 9); Ezekiel, who saw the rainbow IN THE MIDST of the storm (Ezekiel 1); and John, who saw the rainbow BEFORE the storm (Revelation 4:1–3).

He closes his Bible, smiling at the listening congregation, and says, "Dear friends, you and I will experience storms until we are called to heaven, and then all storms will cease. Expect the storms and don't be afraid of them, because God is always faithful. Just remember God's message to us today: Always look for the rainbows. Depend on the faithfulness of God. Sometimes He'll show you the rainbow after the storm, sometimes during the storm, and sometimes before the storm. But He will never fail you."

Now there, Grandma Thatcher thinks, is a word from the Lord that nourishes her soul.

What was the difference in the two sermons? Here is how Dr. Wiersbe analyzes the difference: "The pastor took skeletons into the pulpit and ended with cadavers in the pews—undernourished saints who had nothing to chew on but outlines. The guest missionary speaker took both concepts and images into the pulpit and wove them together in such a way that his listeners' ears became eyes, and they saw the truth. In seeing the truth, their imagination was cleansed and nourished, and they were spiritually satisfied and encouraged within. I can't prove it statistically, but I have a feeling that many, if not most, of the people in our churches suffer from starved imaginations."

Your listeners are moved and touched when they can make a relevant connection between the sermon and their everyday lives. Pastors can achieve this connection in all kinds of ways, such as narrative, imagery, metaphor, multimedia, and other forms that engage the mind, soul, and heart as well as the brain. Alone, catchy points on sermon outlines cannot move people any more than a skeleton will move with no meat on its bones.

As a young pastor trying to find my way in the ministry, I gradually found myself eschewing neat little sermon outlines, each line beginning with the same letter of the alphabet. Had you asked, I could not have told you why. But even then I knew a message that just talked about the Principle of something, the Power of that thing, the Purpose of it, and the Practice of it seemed lifeless. Take the dictionary down and you can find another dozen Ps to use as points of that sermon. Doubtless, untold numbers of pastors have done just that.

The outlines of my best sermons are commonly made up of principles and not "points" at all. For instance, in the well-known story of the four men who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus and tore up the roof to get him into the room (Mark 2), the three parts of my "outline" are:

—People are more important than things. (They tore open the roof.)

—The spiritual is more important than the physical. (Jesus forgave the paralytic before healing him.)

—A demonstration is more important than a profession. (Jesus backed up His words with the demonstration of His power.)

Years ago, I began collecting and comparing sermons on that story in Mark 2. No two were alike, some more creative and helpful than others. All reflected the individuality of the preacher, which is how it should be. But they also revealed the wide variety of listener personalities out there, the different ways people grasp concepts and learn from them. As I studied each message, it brought to mind different ways I could bring home the principles to different people in my own audience. And, I'm sure you'll agree by definition, the more people I reach—the more imaginations I can connect to the text—the more successful the sermon.

Calvin Miller, retired professor of preaching from Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, is unquestionably the most creative preacher of this age. His mind is brilliant and his preaching style without parallel. This, more than one of us have told him, is the problem. "We're not Calvin Miller. We can't preach the way you do." But the good news—and Calvin is quick to point this out—is that we don't have to preach like him. Nor do we have to preach like Warren Wiersbe. (Not that I didn't try 30 years ago when I first began listening to his taped sermons!) God made you and me as individuals, and He made each of us creative. He gave us imaginations and minds to use them. And He also gave us countless daily opportunities to be provoked, blessed, terrified, amazed, confused, and otherwise inspired to illustrate our sermons!

To this day, I instruct my audiences to take notes not of the outline I'm using (if they can find one!) but of whatever the Spirit says to them, perhaps something they want to remember or look up or do after the sermon's over. I also strongly suggest that a minister begin his/her sermon preparation early—weeks or months in advance—and talk to the Lord incessantly about that message. "But I can't give weeks to preparing one sermon," I hear a pastor say. My answer is, "Sure, you can!"  You can begin thinking and studying and praying about a message weeks in advance, probably at the same time you're working on other messages.

Remember who you are praying to: The Most Creative Force in the Universe. If you doubt this for a second, look around at the marvelous world He made. Consider the varieties of flowers, of animals, of humans, of trees, of anything. God clearly does not like to repeat Himself. He loves variety.

So ask Him to help you see that sermon, that message, that Word He has given you in a new light.

After all, when you ask the Holy Spirit to assist you in preparing a message, you are in contact with the Head Librarian of all the sermons that have ever been preached. He knows and remembers every single sermon anyone ever delivered on that text.  He is the Ultimate Source. Suffice to say, when you ask the Lord for help, you are going straight to the Top.

Give God time to work, time to get through to you. After all, the best sermons you will ever preach are not microwaved but marinated. But be prepared—be ready to jump out of bed in the middle of the night and jot down that great insight the Holy Spirit sends your way on a text. Why doesn't He send them earlier in the day when you are sitting at your desk or computer? Perhaps your spirit was not quiet enough to listen. Now that you are in bed with your mind relaxed, you are ready for Him to penetrate your subconscious with His insight.

Cut yourself some slack now. This is a lifelong learning process, and the results will be spotted, especially at first. Don't be surprised if some of your sermons are duds while others impress you as the best things ever said on that text.

Most importantly, remember that Grandma Thatcher sits in your congregation. She appears saintly and everyone adores her as the godliest person they know. But inwardly and privately, she fights battles unknown to all but a few. She's in church today not for a neat outline, but for a word from God. For her sake, pastor, let's bring no more skeletons into the pulpit.



Dr. Joe McKeever is a preacher, cartoonist and the retired Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Currently he loves to serve as a speaker/pulpit fill for revivals, prayer conferences, deacon trainings, leadership banquets and other church events. Visit him and enjoy his insights on nearly 50 years of ministry at JoeMcKeever.com.

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Cliff Freeman

commented on Sep 22, 2011

Tremendously thought provoking

Joseph Walter Richardson

commented on Sep 22, 2011

All i can say is it sure makes you think about what you have been Preaching.

R.l. Wilson

commented on Sep 22, 2011

Enjoyed this! I thank God for all of the pastors that post insightful and thought provoking articles on Sermon Central. It has definitely helped me since becoming a member.

Lori Broschat

commented on Sep 22, 2011

One of the finest articles on preaching I have come across in a long, long time.

John D Jones

commented on Sep 22, 2011

phenomenal article. thanks for sharing your insights on this topic. i use outlines because that is how my mind works. several years ago i read a statement that went something like this: "true preaching begins in the application of the truth being presented, everything else is introduction." i think there is a lot of truth to that. the only comment that may need adjusting is describing God as a creative force. but the meat of this article is great!

Jeff Chitwood

commented on Sep 22, 2011

Great reminder of what preaching is all about!

Israel Kelly

commented on Sep 22, 2011

One of the best articles in this page. He did mention God, cause he spoke about the Holy Spirit

Edward Peterson

commented on Sep 22, 2011

Great article. thank you.

Robert Sickler

commented on Sep 22, 2011

Excellent metaphor using Skeletons and Cadavers ? I like it

Anonymous

commented on Sep 22, 2011

For preaching classes everyone would do the cute outlines, pass out the fill in the blanks, and if a guy didn't, the class would comment on it, negatively. I quickly learned outside of college that the 3-4 "P's" just weren't going to cut it, I threw that idea away. I still stuck with the fill in the blank out line, but eventually I thought I would try something new. We just provide a blank notes page now. I found one someone accidentally left behind and was amazed at what they took away from the message.

Randall Starkey

commented on Sep 22, 2011

Great article! Only balancing thought I'd bring is it really is not so much if the points all start with a letter, let's not automatically disparage that, it's a whole lot more on what you preach under those points and how you preach it. The actual outline is in the background to what the preacher is really putting forth out of his/her heart and how they are communicating that. Rick Warren I know sometimes uses all one letter for his points and he communicates pretty well :-)

Casey Scott

commented on Sep 22, 2011

AMEN! Thanks Joe!

Don White

commented on Sep 22, 2011

Brother Joe - you hit it out of the ball part with this article. One of the best I've read from you on ministry. THANK YOU, brother! God bless you. - Don

Fernando Villegas

commented on Sep 22, 2011

Ditto on what everyone's been saying, with the following reminder: as anxious as we are to minister to Grandma Tatcher, let's not rush too quickly to the application before placing our passage in its larger, biblical context. Genesis 9 is not simply about looking for rainbows in the storms of our lives. The entire flood narrative (Gen 6-9), interpreted in the larger narrative of Gen 1-11, reveals that the flood is ultimately about the reversal of creation (death) and new creation (resurrection). The flood returns the earth to a state of being without form and void. The separation between the waters and the dry land, as well as between the waters above and below the firmament, is undone. But after the flood, once again the wind (Spirit--same word in Hebrew) blows over the water (Cf. 1:2), and God performs a new creation. The rainbow is then given as a sign of the covenant between God and mankind, that he would never destroy the earth with water again. Moving on, then, to it's larger, biblical context, we see in 2 Peter 3 that although the earth will never again be destroyed by water, it is being stored up for fire, after which once again God will bring about "new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (v.13, ESV). Interestingly, both Ezekiel and Revelation, the other two books that refer to rainbows according to our fictional missionary preacher, also deal extensively with the issues of death and resurrection (Cf. Ez 37, Rev 21-22). These have just been some preliminary thoughts based on the overall biblical narrative, as I haven't really studied this issue in depth, but I'm curious to see what Ezekiel and Revelation have to contribute to Genesis 9--I'm sensing a sermon I need to preach someday! Obviously, all of this needs to be processed by the preacher through prayer and meditation, so that the preacher can discern what all of this actually looks like when it is actually lived! Otherwise, the sermon will be no more profitable to poor Grandma Tatcher than the alliterated skeleton she received a couple of weeks ago! And, like Mr. McKeever says, this takes time--lots of time. Weeks or months is not an exaggeration! But perhaps a more biblical focus of application would be something along the lines of: "Most of us here have had a difficult week. We have faced problems, disappointments, personal setbacks, broken relationships. There have been times when we've wanted to shout out: 'THIS ISN'T THE WAY THINGS ARE SUPPOSED TO BE!!' And you're right. It's not. This world is broken. But God has a plan to bring this broken world, including our own broken lives, back to new life! He did it before through the flood. He will do it again, soon; and this time the world will be put back together permanently, and forever. Until that day, every time you see a rainbow, just remember: God is faithful to fulfill his promises!"

Nancy Grace Marquez

commented on Sep 29, 2011

Excellent, Thank you!!!

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