Preaching Articles

When I finish preaching, the sermon is just beginning: I try to include “homework” in every sermon I preach. I think you should, too, and here are three reasons why.

1. I don’t want my listeners to be deceived. James 1:22 couldn’t be any more clear: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” If my preaching allows people to walk away without offering a clear plan of action I’m part of the problem, not part of the answer. A steady diet of preaching without a call to action sets our people up for spiritual deception. Rather than command people, “Love your neighbor” why not give them practical ideas about how to do it?

This is a big deal: our churches are full of people who are accustomed to hearing a message, judging the messenger, and going about the rest of their week as if Sunday morning never happened. And we preachers are often to blame. We’ve trained our listeners to be, well, listeners. It’s a preacher’s responsibility not only to provide application as part of the sermon, but also to give bold, practical steps for people to take during the week. Our congregations will never become accountable if we fail to ask for accountability.

2. I want to give my listeners practical ways to live out God’s word. Lots of preachers know how to suggest applications for their preaching, but how many of us give assignments? Providing application for a sermon is good step, but applications are generalized, like suggestions. What would happen to the life of your church if you asked your people to do something specific? Here’s an example: Jesus says, “Love your neighbor.” You preach on the topic, bringing out God’s heart for the lost and our responsibility to demonstrate that love. But how can you love your neighbor apart from knowing him? So, at the end of your sermon you say, “Here’s our assignment this week: let’s invite our neighbor over for ice cream—just to get to know him.” Then, as you prepare next week’s message, you listen for stories from your congregation about what happened when they actually did what you taught. You will end up with fresh illustrations, and these illustrations will be uniquely relevant to your church. You can use testimonies, videos, or even Twitter or Instagram share these real-life illustrations. And you will also reinforce the idea that you, the pastor, expect God’s people to do God’s word.

Do you remember what Jesus said to his disciples the night of the Last Supper? He said, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:17) As preachers, we would be wise to follow the Lord’s example in teaching. Years after that fateful night, one of Jesus’ disciples wrote, “If anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:5-6)

3. Finally, homework provides a better opportunity for feedback. It’s always nice to hear a compliment or two as people leave the sanctuary: “Good word, Preacher.” But short phrases and a handshake won’t make me a better preacher, nor will it make my congregation better Christians.

When we ask something more of our congregation (something like actually doing the word of God) we will quickly discover whether we are preaching for spiritual entertainment or spiritual formation. We will also discover whether our preaching has the ability to move people from ideas to action. Giving your congregation “homework” is a high-risk strategy for the preacher because you will learn who is listening and who is not.

In this respect, the pastor of a smaller-to-medium size church has a real advantage: if your church is small enough to know people by name, you are in a position to truly influence their lives, and share in their growth. It is a unique advantage to preach to people you know personally. Giving people an assignment for the week provides an opportunity to participate in their lives in a pastoral way—if we are willing to take the risk.

Ray Hollenbach helps pastors and churches navigate change. He's the founder of DEEPER Seminars, weekend leadership retreats focused on discipleship in the local church. His newest book is Deeper Grace, a guide to the connection between grace and spiritual maturity. Ray currently lives in central Kentucky, coaching and consulting church leaders. You can visit his blog at Students of Jesus.

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David Mcadoo

commented on Jul 26, 2015

Keith B

commented on Aug 11, 2015

Good article. My only concern is if people start to think the assignments are what makes them a Christian--thus blurring the line between law and grace. But it's a good idea I think I'll try to do more of.

Ray Hollenbach

commented on Aug 11, 2015

Hi Keith: I can certainly understand your concern about the line between grace and law. What has helped me the most was a quote from Dallas Willard, who said, "Grace is not opposed to effort, it's opposed to earning." Peace to you!

Tim Johnson

commented on Aug 11, 2015

Thank you for your encouragement. I give people a "7 Day Challenge", calling them to live the Word that week. In a series, I try to have the challenges build on the previous one. For example, when Phillip went to the Samaritans, even though they were socially and spiritually unacceptable, ask God to show you the Samaritans in your life. Next week, Speak the name of Jesus as His witness to one person He has shown you. The new challenge does not end the last challenge, but instead builds on and reinforces it.,

Rebecca Mpaayei

commented on Aug 11, 2015

Thank you very much for the encouragement and scriptural way of doing things and building the body of Christ. This sure helps us to be doers of God's word and not just listeners. Kindly explain what you mean by "Grace is not opposed to effort, it's opposed to earning." May God bless you.

Ray Hollenbach

commented on Aug 12, 2015

Hi Rebecca: Some people think that to make an effort to do what God says is (in a way) an effort to win God's approval. I believe Dallas Willard meant that putting forth effort to do what God says does not negate God's grace, but feeling as if we have somehow earned God's approval does, indeed, negate that grace. I hope that helps.

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