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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 need to hear it as the people in the pew will hear it. 

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).

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 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 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 and your exhortations to transformed life must be clear. Imagine your chairman of deacons falling asleep mid-sermon. His wife nudges him awake. In 30 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 meaning are only known 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 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 lives 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 you are preaching in 2015, and people 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 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 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 15 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 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.

Mark Mohler is the senior pastor at Second Baptist Marion in Marion, Ill. He is married to Shawna and has two children, Garett and Emma. His passion is preaching and leading believers into a missional lifestyle.

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Talk about it...

Jonathan Hughes

commented on Jun 7, 2014

Devils listen to themselves too. How can they not hear themselves? Loving truth must be in what is said. A sermon can have no words in it. A sermon can be preached by what a person does doing what Jesus did.

Mohit Robinson Sampson

commented on Jun 7, 2014

Thank you Mark, I agree with most of it but we can't preach and prepare sermon focused on every individual's physical need when we all have one common spiritual need which the word of God focuses on. A person brought in church guilted will still be fishing in his mind sitting on that pew. In my experience when one submits his will to God and prepare God led sermon, Holy Spirit is at work and it touches every individual sitting there in a way they need it. I test it like this " If my sermon has moved me and called me for acton it will surely move others and call for action". Thank you once again for reminding. God Bless!

Brenda Phillips

commented on Apr 26, 2015

Thank you Mohit you are so right without the Holy Spirit we cannot preach.( Acts 1: 8 )

Edward Fleming

commented on Jun 7, 2014

Interesting hat when Philip was sent to the Ethiopian eunuch the bible says that "he opened his mouth and preached Jesus". Also when Peter went to the house of Cornelius it says again "he opened his mouth and preached". In fact, no where in scripture do I recall anyone who preached (literally) without opening their mouth. I find the " preach without words" philosophy seems to fall tremendously short of the ministry modeled by Christ and the early church. It seems to be more of a cop out for those afraid or ashamed to "open their mouth and preach" Dr. Edward E Fleming, D.Min.

Edward Fleming

commented on Jun 7, 2014

"Interesting that" See Acts 8 and Acts 10

David Henderson

commented on Apr 25, 2015

"A sermon can have no words in it?" Well I guess that is true but the writer is obviously not talking about that kind of sermon. he is talking about the kind we stand and preach on Sunday morning. This is a great article Mark.

Haarl Bret Maukonen

commented on Apr 27, 2015

This might seem a little shallow and mechanical considering the five points of the article, but I literally listen to my sermon. My strength is in writing and so, I must be careful to prepare something that is clearly spoken and that comes across as understandable to an "average" hearer. I use text-to-speech software and play the script back asking, "Is this true?" "Is this what I mean to say?" I listen and try to put myself in the place of someone in the congregation who is hearing the sermon afresh. The process has resulted in some reorganizing and revising of sermons even to seemingly insignificant word changes and sentence division. Preparation and delivery (including this pre-pulpit check) are exciting parts of a Spirit-led process of bringing the word of God to people. Might their expectations and needs be met!

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