How can a sermon that looks so good on paper be such a flop Sunday morning? Your exegesis was flawless; you would have been proud to present it to your seminary hermeneutics professor. Your advanced homiletics professor would have raved over the mechanics, outline, illustrations, introduction and conclusions. You even practiced your voice inflection and stage movements. So why didn’t anyone listen?
I have a hunch that you made the mistake many preachers make: in an attempt to write a grade-A sermon, you forgot your task was to preach it, not produce it on paper.
Sermons are not made for paper; they are made for people. They are to be listened to. Just like Ford test-drives any prototype before they produce the vehicle, you should test-drive your sermon by listening to it before you preach it. Either audibly or silently, you must seek to hear it as the people in the pew will hear it, listening for the following aspects, knowing that when they are clearly identified you will be one step closer to preaching a sermon people will listen to.
Listen for Content
What Biblical content are you presenting? People want to hear a message from the Lord through a sermon based on Scripture. It could be that people are losing interest because they do not hear the voice of God coming through the expounded Word of God. You must “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2) before you step into the pulpit; listen to your sermon—are you hearing a clear presentation of Biblical material?
What else are you saying? Unless you stand and read Scripture for the allotted preaching time, you will be adding something else. Listen to your spoken content, the “body” of your sermon. What are you saying that people need to hear? Does your sermon’s body match the Scripture? It could be that people stop listening because they do not feel like there is anything to listen to. Before you preach, imagine a husband whose wife guilted him into coming to church instead of fishing with his visiting Navy buddy. What content are you presenting that will make him leave feeling glad he was there?
Listen for Clarity
Have you ever noticed a vast difference between traveling with a GPS and stopping to ask for directions at a gas station? The voice-enhanced GPS instructs you with phrases like, “At the next intersection, turn left…now turn left.” The gas station attendant says, “Go down the road a bit, you will see a big tree…” Clarity. People stop listening when they are no longer able to follow. Your sermon must be clear, your explanation must be clear, your illustrations must be clear, your exhortations to transformed life must be clear. Imagine your chairman of deacons falling asleep mid-sermon. His wife nudges him awake. In thirty seconds, at any given moment in your sermon, will he be able to jump in and know exactly what you are talking about? People will listen when they hear clearly.
Listen for Connection
I have a three-year-old little girl who we jokingly say speaks “Emmanese.” She has the habit of making up words whose meanings are only known only to her. Listening to her is amusing, but it is frustrating because you really have no idea what she is attempting to communicate. There is no connection between her message and her listener. For people to listen they must hear the connection. Here is a surprise—most people do not care that George Mueller prayed and started orphanages. They are not starting orphanages. They have teenagers whose lives are going bust. Next Sunday, there will be in attendance a wife whose husband told her the night before that he has been having an affair. There is a man who's just received lay-off papers. Your task as a preacher is to declare the Word in such a way that you connect their life to the Biblical message. Illustrations about dead saints are good, but people must hear something that looks very much like their life if you are going to hold their attention.
Listen for Creativity
Other than your Scripture and subject, what is different about your sermon this week than last week? People listen when you are creative. You must remember that people these days are engaged visually much more than intellectually. Proof—do you remember film day in your second grade class? When my second grade teacher showed a film, the projector displayed still images and the audio came via a record player. When my son, who is starting kindergarten, has film day, he will watch a flat-screen television displaying computer-animated characters. We must be creative, adding visual elements and variation in our presentations. The sermon should not depend on them, but enhancing it with these elements will help keep people engaged.
Listen for a Call for Action
What is the ultimate goal for the listener? What do you want people to do? While conversing with a lady from my church, she said, “Brother Mark, I really liked your sermon, but I am not sure what I am supposed to do.” People might not want to be told what to do, but they appreciate your efforts in suggesting how life can be “real world” different on Monday based on the Scripture they studied Sunday. For example, if your subject is a deep appreciation of the relationship we have with Jesus, which of the following calls to action would make a greater impact? (1) “Now go home and spend some time thanking Jesus for your relationship with Him” or (2) “On your way home today, look for fifteen things that you see that you would enjoy but do not have and cannot afford. When you pull in your driveway, ask yourself which of these things, or the combination of these things, would you forfeit your relationship with Jesus to attain?”
As preachers we are given a great task: proclaiming the inspired Word of God. Our part in the process is to allow the Spirit to lead us into sermons that connect and to which people listen. It will enhance your effectiveness if you listen to your sermon before anyone else, seeking to ensure that the necessary elements are in place. Do not do this so you will be a better preacher; do it so people will listen to the life-changing message of the Bible.
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