Improve your sermon prep with our brand new study tools! Learn all about them here.
Preaching Articles

After a lively discussion with students, I realized that this question was more significant than I had anticipated. 

What do people really remember about our sermons?  I studied homiletics in seminary with the late Larry Lacour. I can still remember the collective groan of the class when Dr. Lacour told us that people only hear about seven minutes of our 20-minute sermon (a disturbing statement when you think about all the time that we invest in them). 

What kind of sermon makes an indelible impression upon the worshipper? When I think about the most memorable sermons that I have heard, there are several generalizations that I can make about them:

Unique Perspective

"I never thought about it that way." Familiar texts are not occasions for the preacher to lean back on old notes or old clichéd interpretations of the text.  The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son and the Twenty-third Psalm still lead to unearthed treasure. You might start by looking at your familiar text from different angles until you begin to exorcise the specter of the last time you preached from it.

If your attention has always been on the magnanimity of the Good Samaritan, turn your investigative flashlight on the unsung generosity of the Innkeeper. If you have alternated between looking at the Prodigal and his Elder Brother, look instead at the neighbors who do not know what to make of the Father's love and forgiveness. Examine the Shepherd Psalm through the eyes of the sheep. 

Human Interest 

The Bible is about human relationships with God and with neighbor. Yet it is relatively easy for us pulpit exegetes to get so caught up in the excitement of our research findings that we objectify the text. In our eagerness to distill the text to five easy steps or seven principles (all beginning with the letter "L"), we often move away from the humanity of the text. The sermons I remember most did not shy away from the messiness of human relationships with God or with other people. When preaching texts that contain people, it is often helpful to do a mini-character study of the person, see if they are mentioned in other places, or do a study of the people group that the person comes from.

Your congregation may not know that the Canaanite woman was not a Jew, nor might they understand the flap over asking a woman for a drink of water in Samaria! Don't overlook elements of human interest like the messiness of Jacob's family tree or the presence of Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba in the Messianic family line.  These may not always become the focal point of the sermon, but they often offer important clues to interpreting the text.

Grounded in Scripture

The sermons that I most remember have also been firmly grounded in a Bible passage. Those memorable sermons were rarely based on one or two verses; they were based upon texts set in a biblical context and presented as such. Seen in their own context, they offered me an unsmudged snapshot of lives or church fights or national crises that often mirrored my own and then offered me ways to embrace the text in daily life. 

A couple of guiding questions:   

  • How do you use the text in your preaching? Is text like a springboard that launches you into a pool of ideas, or do you use the text more like a treasure map that leads to greater understanding of spiritual things? Robert Mulholland (Shaped by the Word) speaks of the difference between reading the text and having the text read us
  • What are hearers invited to do with the text you have just preached from? Text without some mention of application risks becoming exposition.  If the most frequent feedback you receive when shaking hands out the door is "interesting," sound an internal alarm to check your sermons for practical application.
  • Finally, is your sermon on the biblical text presented in an understandable way? Think of ways to word your revelations so that a fifth-grader, her parents and the visiting grandparents might be able to participate in a substantive conversation about your sermon over Sunday lunch.  Jesus spoke in the language of the people using illustrations and allusions that all would readily understand.

Safiyah Fosua is a clergy member of the United Methodist Church and assistant professor of congregational worship at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. She served as Director, Transformational Preaching Ministries at The General Board of Discipleship, an agency of The United Methodist Church.

Browse All

Related Preaching Articles

Talk about it...

Keith B

commented on Oct 3, 2012

What's wrong with exposition?

Billy Ford

commented on Oct 3, 2012

I found this helpful but I struggled especially with one part. In trying to provide a unique perspective, we need to be careful not to make Scripture say things that it isn't saying. The unsung generosity of the innkeeper in the Good Samaritan story? The perspective of the neighbors in the Prodigal Son story? How are these "grounded in Scripture"? Fresh perspective is one thing, but building sermons around speculation that has nothing to do with the points Jesus was making seems irresponsible. Maybe I'm missing something.

Prescott Jay Erwin

commented on Oct 3, 2012

All of this can be accomplished in expositional preaching. I do it several times each week. Good article. And Billy, I think you're right about some speculation being too extrabiblical or even isogetical, but the inkeeper and the neighbors can be useful tools to draw our congregants into the text by identifying with the bystanders or incidental characters, especially when issuing the call to action: "As a neighbor to the family, how would it move you to see the prodigal return and the father receive him?" Or in the case of the inkeeper, "What would your response be if someone asked you to help him or her minister to an outcast?" These are legitimate questions that can be posed even in an exegetical preaching context.

Manuel Parcon

commented on Oct 3, 2012

i agree in some points of the writer. it is important to have "fresh" perspective but to dwell on it too much might "be a stretch away from the main focus of Jesus (ex. neighbors in the story of prodigal son is not mentioned in scripture).

Dean Johnson

commented on Oct 3, 2012

I agreed with Billy's critique, but then appreciated what Prescott added--not just what he said, but the kind way he did it. You guys are an example for how dialogue on this website should take place.

Rod Dewberry

commented on Oct 3, 2012

Concerning new perspective I can see where the she's coming from .. .consider how many believers and nonbelievers think they know John3:16. If you ask the avg Joe/Jill to explain it they more than likely will focus narrowly on the love of God reducing Him to a spiritual ?Romeo? trying to woo us to Him?but not on the imminent threat of perishing eternally if God does not take the initiative to rudely interrupt the natural trajectory of humanity. Its simply distributing the sermons weight evenly across the verse and not just where we traditionally come up for air.

Prescott Jay Erwin

commented on Oct 3, 2012

Great insight, Rod. Church people should be allowed to feel the weight of what's actually IN the text -- and often it's about the eternal danger we face.

Gene Cobb

commented on Oct 3, 2012

Thank you for this wonderful advice. After years in the ministry I am always amazed at how the Lord can use the same verse in an untold number of ways to meet the needs of the moment. The scripture is alive and real and affects people down through the ages and will conitnue to do so. As far as saying what isn't in the Bible, after we read our text, everything else we say isn't in the Bible. But God in His timing uses our life circumstances to reach others and it starts with the timeless words of the Holy Bible. I have preached many sermons using the same verse, but never giving the same message. That's God, not me! Blessing, LaFern

Abena

commented on Oct 3, 2012

(Luke 10:34-35) He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins {35 Greek <two denarii>} and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.' (NIV)

Abena

commented on Oct 3, 2012

(Luke 10:34-35) He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins {35 Greek <two denarii>} and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.' (NIV)

Abena

commented on Oct 3, 2012

(Luke 10:34-35) He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins {35 Greek <two denarii>} and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.' (NIV)

Abena

commented on Oct 3, 2012

(Luke 10:34-35) He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins {35 Greek <two denarii>} and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.' (NIV)

Abena

commented on Oct 3, 2012

(Luke 10:34-35) He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins {35 Greek <two denarii>} and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.' (NIV)

Abena

commented on Oct 3, 2012

(Luke 10:34-35) He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins {35 Greek <two denarii>} and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.' (NIV)

Rod Dewberry

commented on Oct 3, 2012

Abena, there is certainly some vivid imagery of generosity spelled out in the text there ,not requiring any stretching or assuming ... thanks for bringing it to the discussion.

Rod Dewberry

commented on Oct 3, 2012

Gene, not sure if I follow you when you say everything we say after reading the text is not in the bible. That?s only true if the preaching method is to use the scriptures as a diving board into a list of ideas we impose on the passage. For the expository preacher all the points come from the passage ?even if they are packaged in contemporary language and highlighted by illustrations that reach the target audience? but the principles preach do indeed have a residence in the passage. ..how exactly did you intent for your statement to be taken?

Rod Dewberry

commented on Oct 3, 2012

Gene, not sure if I follow you when you say everything we say after reading the text is not in the bible. That?s only true if the preaching method is to use the scriptures as a diving board into a list of ideas we impose on the passage. For the expository preacher all the points come from the passage ?even if they are packaged in contemporary language and highlighted by illustrations that reach the target audience? but the principles preach do indeed have a residence in the passage. ..how exactly did you intent for your statement to be taken?

Gene Cobb

commented on Oct 3, 2012

Good evening Rod, First my husband and I share our Sermon Central page. So the comments you are addressing were written by me. I believe I made myself clear. After we read our text, every word we say is not in the scripture, but coming from our thoughts, our hearts, our minds, hopefully inspired by the Holy Spirit. And now I say a good night to all. Pastor LaFern

Billy Ford

commented on Oct 4, 2012

Thanks, Prescott, LaFern, Abena. I do understand your perspectives and I will definitely consider how to implement it in my own sermons. I'm not trying to be nitpicky , but in the case of the innkeeper ... the guy is being paid. Isn't he mentioned to demonstrate the generosity of the Samaritan rather than his own? It is the Samaritan who is Jesus' focus. I'm fine with the "putting ourselves in the shoes of the bystanders" approach, but as preachers of the Word, we need to be careful not to get too loosey-goosey with the text. This particular case isn't a big deal, but I bring it up because of the overall principle at stake.

Keith B

commented on Oct 4, 2012

I don't get why we have to go look for hidden meaning. What was the intent of the person that wrote it? Was the innkeeper supposed to be emphasized? By doing so you miss the point of the story--and that's a shame. Our people get out of bed on Sunday mornings and give us an hour or two of their time. We respond by ignoring the point and teaching something else?

Pastor Sandy .

commented on Oct 4, 2012

Safiyah - Thank you for this interesting and informative article. I generally attempt to give a little history, and some geographical explanation, related to the scripture, then always try to relate the scripture to everyday life. I attempt to make it seem real, sometimes by placing the scripture into a current situation. And the favorite comment of mine when they are going out the door is "Gee, I never thought of it that way!" or "Now I understand! Thank you!" So a lot of my sermons are not words straight from scripture - as a matter of fact, most are not. But God-inspired? - Yes. Prayer accompanies all my research and writing. Blessings to all.

Rod Dewberry

commented on Oct 8, 2012

@k b ... Don't think the point of this discussion is to preach anything "hidden" at the expense of the main point, but to preach "ALL" of the text especially in passages where we and the listeners may glaze over significant exegetical discoveries due to it being a "old familiar passage"

Keith B

commented on Oct 8, 2012

Rod...why do you think Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan? Was it to highlight the generosity of an innkeeper? Or was it to talk about the fact that even a Samaritan--a group the Jews despised--would be a better neighbor than most of the people listening? I have no problem with preaching the whole story...but if I have 30 minutes to expound on the text...I'm not going to waste any of it babbling on about something that the author wasn't trying to say.

Bill Williams

commented on Oct 8, 2012

@kb, I think your point is valid. As a lay-person, I've heard my share of sermons that, in an attempt to provide a fresh perspective, focused in on some obscure detail that was completely peripheral to the point of the text. Having said that, I don't think that's what the author was advocating. I didn't understand him as saying that we must look for some "hidden meaning." I understood him as saying that we should look at the truth of the text from an unfamiliar angle in order better to appreciate the fullness of that truth. As a literature teacher, I tell my students that details matter, even the obscure ones. Good writers include the details that they do because they are important. In the case of the Good Samaritan, Luke chose to include the innkeeper in the parable. The innkeeper is not completely irrelevant to the story. So, we must ask ourselves why Luke made that choice. As we look at the text, we notice details that make us think. For example, the innkeeper is told to care for the wounded man. Remember, this guy was beaten up pretty bad--the instruction to care for him might seem to innkeeper to go beyond his expected job description! Billy Ford also points out that the innkeeper was paid. However, in the instructions of the Samaritan to the innkeeper, the Samaritan anticipates the possibility that what he paid up front might not be enough to cover all the necessary expenses. He expects the innkeeper to pay the difference out of his own pocket; and he promises to reimburse him "when I come back", but he gives no indication whatsoever of when that might be! These are some significant observation, drawn from the text itself, which might never have been considered if we never took the time to examine the story from the perspective of the innkeeper. So, I agree with you completely about not babbling on about something the author had no intention of saying. However, if we dismiss the seemingly "insignificant" details too quickly, we may miss out on things that the author DID in fact intend to say! No, the innkeeper is not the main point of the story. But looking at the story through the perspective of the innkeeper can help us appreciate more fully the main point of the story. I think that is what the author of this article was trying to say.

Join the discussion