Preaching Articles

It takes more than a good story, good actors and good visual effects to make a hit movie. Think of a movie you particularly liked. In most cases, that movie could have been made in the form of a 10-minute featurette. It would have been a whole lot cheaper to make, but it never would have made any money. Why is that?

What is the difference between a 10-minute featurette and a full two-hour blockbuster? The answer is not padding. It is almost the opposite. It is careful development of characters and scenes, giving space for the audience to grow into the plot. But it is also numerous scenes cut and omitted to keep the flow from being too dense or too long. All padding is typically cut out, but room to breathe is carefully included.

The same is true of good preaching. You could take a decent sermon and hammer out the bottom line in a 10-minute sermonette. You could include the main idea, the outline, etc., but you’d be missing a lot. And the difference between that and a fuller version of the same sermon shouldn’t be 20-30 minutes of padding, nor should it be 20-30 minutes of dense information.

It is only the beginning preacher who wonders how they will fill the time. Experienced preachers know the real challenge is in what to leave out.

This week, I was speaking with a good friend who has trouble keeping his sermons from becoming overwhelming monsters of content—all good stuff, but too much to take in for the listener. We spoke of the main idea and its role in sermon development. And we also pondered the possibilities of having a three-step process: First, define the main idea; second, work out a 10-minute development of that idea; third, move up to the full length.

So how do you get from the 10-minute to the full message? The temptation here is to cram in the information. But when information is crammed in, there is a real problem for the listeners. Actually, there are several problems:

1. They will have to be selective in what they take in. It isn’t possible to grasp everything when there is too much. Do you want listeners to pick and choose, or to be gripped by the whole?

2. They may select elements as take-home material that was incidental in your eyes. The passing remark, a humorous illustration or a side point could all become their memorable take-home gems.

3. They may check out altogether if it is overwhelming. While some may selectively choose highlights, others will switch to something their mind is motivated to cope with: their plans for the afternoon, their challenges at work, etc.

4. Their hearts are unlikely to engage. This problem suddenly takes us to a whole new level. Not only is the issue with their ability to mentally grasp information; there is an issue with their experience of that information. When information is crammed in, it is not just information that will be lost. 

For example, I used to have a laptop that allowed me to watch DVDs in normal speed and 1.2x, 1.4x and 2x, and all without losing sound. This was great.  It meant I could watch a 40-minute episode of some crime drama or other in less than 30 minutes. I saw everything. I heard everything. But something was different.

The faster transfer of information somehow meant that, while I could follow the story and get the details, I didn’t feel it. That tense moment when the detective entered the abandoned warehouse, gun drawn, eyes wide ... it wasn’t tense. That shocking moment when the body was found ... well, it wasn’t really shocking. All of the emotion seemed to be drained by amping up the content transfer density.

What is our goal as preachers? Is it to transfer information as efficiently as possible? I was reading about Jonathan Edwards and his preaching style. He wasn’t flamboyant and flashy like his contemporary, George Whitefield. Edwards had a quiet intensity. His goal wasn’t just that people learn or even act on what they heard. He wanted them to feel the truth of the doctrine being presented.

But is the Bible meant to be felt? Or is it just good for information transfer? It seems to me every genre incarnates truth in the non-vacuum of reality. Narratives, poems, prophecies, letters, etc. are all theological truth wrapped up in human experience and story and description. It seems as if the Bible wasn’t given as an inspired collection of abstract truths but as theology in concrete.

So how do we preach sermons to be felt? This is a question worth pondering. Here are some suggestions:

1. Recognize that cramming in information squeezes out feeling. I am not reducing the value of information. Hopefully our exegetical work generates great information. But putting too much information in the sermon will not only make it harder for people to take any of it in; it will also mean they won’t feel the truth of it. We are not in a race to speak all truth as exhaustively and as rapidly as possible. We need to grow in our ability to be selective.  We will not be exhaustive every time we preach. There will always be more good information that could be said. But there has to be a balancing of content density with other factors for maximum effectiveness.

2. Take the time to let images form. Whether you are explaining the context, making sense of the text, telling the story or even illustrating a point, let the images form. Imagine that inside your listeners, there is a screen. That screen is covered by smoke. Quick propositions and statements won’t register on that screen. It takes good description and a bit of time for the images to form there. But once those images form—once people can see what you are saying—then something powerful starts to happen. They empathize with characters. They experience the plot. They begin to feel. And once they feel, then the truth being preached is a truth experienced, a truth driven deep. It goes beyond cognition. Truth felt tends to lead to lives changed.

3. Develop the skill of painting with words. I mentioned this in passing, but it is worthy of its own point. We need to develop our ability to describe. Stories need to be effectively told, poems need to be carefully described, contexts of letters need to be engagingly presented. Wherever we are in the Bible, we need to keep growing in our ability to describe effectively, vividly and engagingly. Vocabulary matters. Pace matters. Expression matters. I can describe something with 100 percent accurate facts but leave you completely underwhelmed. A good preacher can describe something so you feel like you see it.

4. Find the balance between time/pace and content. This is the challenge. Every element of a message could potentially benefit from more time and slower pace. But there is a balance to be found. It is like the moviemaking situation we pondered earlier. Too much time, too slow a development, too drawn out a scene, and the momentum is lost. Too fast, too much information and too rapid a transition, and the viewers are left behind.

The difference between a summary and the real deal should not be padding, and it can’t be just information crammed in. There has to be careful planning to engage not only the heads of the listeners but also their hearts.



Peter Mead is involved in the leadership team of a church plant in the UK. He serves as director of Cor Deo—an innovative mentored ministry training program—and has a wider ministry preaching and training preachers. He also blogs often at BiblicalPreaching.net and recently authored Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation (Christian Focus, 2014). Follow him on Twitter

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Talk about it...

Andy Doerksen

commented on Oct 19, 2014

Thanks for this post, Peter. I can't rationally disagree with a lot of your points, and I certainly agree that the issue is how much to trim. That said, I'm a little troubled by the line "So how do we preach sermons to be felt?" I'm troubled by that because it seems to rely more on me injecting an emotional punch into my sermon - than on the convicting power of the Holy Spirit. Secondly, did the Apostles or early-church preachers have to learn such sermon-crafting...?

Chris Hearn

commented on Oct 20, 2014

Andy- All sermons need an emotional punch. This is not to say that the convicting power of the Holy Spirit is not needed, for it surely is. But few will be moved to action if the sermon does not touch their hearts.

Charmine Durrant

commented on Oct 20, 2014

such wonderful information, will sure to work with these great ideas, thank you

Mike Abrahams

commented on Oct 24, 2014

Thanks for the post. I relate to your post as well Andy. The difficulty I have when preaching is the need to cover all bases. It is just to easy to take one verse, make a point. Then the next week take another verse and make a point which contradicts what you said the previous week and hope no one notices! So my aim is to deal with the 'Yes, that's all very well but what about?.' type of question. - Consequently I cram a load in to the dismay of some but not all of my listeners.

Andy Doerksen

commented on Oct 28, 2014

Chris - Thanks very much for the reply. I agree with you in principle, but with respect I think you missed my point: Isn't it precisely *the Holy Spirit* who must cause the sermon to "touch their hearts"?"

Chris Hearn

commented on Oct 28, 2014

Andy- interesting. We may be talking about two different things, let's see. There is the emotional affect that a sermon can have on someone, which I see as not needing the Holy Spirit's involvement. This can touch someone's heart in the emotional sense. But the Holy Spirit seems more involved in convicting that what is being said is true and needs to be acted on in some way. One could say that this too is touching someone's heart, I think that it goes beyond emotions and into action. Whereas the first part may just stay as a powerful emotion, but not get translated into action.

Andy Doerksen

commented on Oct 28, 2014

Mike - Thanks for the feedback. "Cramming" has always been my problem, right from the very first time I preached. I've never had a problem thinking of "what to say," but rather what to leave out! Nowadays I go by timing: whatever I can reasonably fit into, say, 30 minutes (without talking fast!), and no more.

Andy Doerksen

commented on Oct 28, 2014

In my experience, I've found that if I just be myself AND become passionate about the Word in my own life, I can expect the Holy Spirit to "transmit" that to the congregation. I wasn't taught this, I don't "aim" at an emotional response - but I get one anyway because I'm relying on the Spirit to produce it (AND an intellectual response).

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