By Bob Wilkin
Most of our readers are not pastors and will never preach in a church. However, all of you teach others about the Lord Jesus Christ in one way or another.
Many of you have taught, are teaching, or will teach Sunday school. Some teach home Bible studies. Some speak at the local Gospel Rescue Mission or Young Life or Campus Crusade for Christ. And, of course, parents teach their children.
We all teach. So we all can benefit from learning how to preach and teach.
The Bible Does Not Tell Us How
The first thing to realize is that the Bible gives no instructions on how to preach or teach.
While I took four courses at Dallas Theological Seminary on how to preach, none of them showed me any Bible verses that backed up the method we were taught. We were taught to use principles gleaned from modern communication theory.
Thus, freedom is possible in preaching and teaching. We are not locked into an introduction, three main points, each with an illustration, and a conclusion. We can please the Lord using various methods as long as we accurately communicate what God’s Word says.
The Bible Barely Shows Us How
There are examples of sermons in Scripture. Unfortunately, the examples we have are, for the most part, not full sermons.
And we do not have a lot of sermons in either the OT or the NT. We have some. Most are in Acts.
I do not think that the partial examples we have of sermons are meant to tell us how we should preach and teach. I think they give us principles upon which we can draw. But there is no indication that there was some formal way to preach.
Ideas from Communication Theory
Anyone who has ever taken a speech class knows that a message should have an introduction that draws the listener in, a body with one big idea, and a conclusion that reminds the listener about your big idea.
Most would suggest using illustrations as ways to draw readers in and keep their attention.
In Scripture, we find that most illustrations were examples of OT accounts. When Stephen preached in Acts 7, he covered: Abraham’s call and his journey of faith; Isaac, Jacob, and the twelve patriarchs; the journey to Egypt; Joseph; Moses in Egypt; Moses and the burning bush; Moses as deliverer; the tabernacle; Israel’s resistance to God; and then Israel killing Jesus the Christ.
Before I went to seminary, I spoke topically. If I wanted to give a message on giving, I’d draw together ten or more passages on giving and try to weave that into a message.
In seminary, I learned to preach passages of Scripture. Rarely do I speak topically anymore. Probably 80 to 90 percent of my messages are verse-byverse exposition of a single passage.
The advantage of preaching passages is that you are constrained by the context to preach what the original author intended. It is very tempting when preaching topically to take verses out of context to make the point you want to make without the need of dealing with the details of passages. But that means you end up preaching your thoughts, not God’s thoughts.
The Big Idea
Step one is knowing what it is that God is saying. You need to be able to reduce the entire content of your message into one fairly short sentence. Ideally, I try to make the title of my message the big idea. So the title of my message on Jas 2:14-17 is “Faith without Works Is Unprofitable (= Dead).”
You are not ready to write your sermon until you can summarize what your passage means. And, yes, I suggest you write out your sermon, even though I recommend you not read it to the audience. You just have it in front of you to remind yourself of your main points. But writing it out helps clarify your thinking.
Once you have the big idea in writing, it is time to produce your outline.
This step is often skipped. I know from experience that is a huge mistake.
Without an outline, the message is just a stream of consciousness. Words follow words without a necessary connection to the message. The audience can’t see where you are going.
Your outline will be your two or three main points, as well as possible sub-points under each main point.
A house is framed so that the rooms turn out right. A sermon or lesson has an outline so that the message stays on track.
The points of your outline might reflect the flow of thought in the passage.
Or, you might cover the entire passage under point one, and then points two and three might cover possible objections to what the passage is saying, and possible applications of the passage.
Your outline must produce your big idea. The points either build to the big idea, explain the big idea, defend the big idea, or apply the big idea.
Develop an outline before you start writing.
I like reading fiction. I find that reading the dust jacket summary makes it easy to get started.
In a sense, your introduction is like the blurb about a book or the trailer that movie makers produce to get people to go to their movies.
The introduction is attempting to tap into what is called a felt need. That is a need with which most people identify.
Your introduction should pull your listeners in, but it needs to go somewhere. A standup comic can pull the listener in, but he isn’t going anywhere with his jokes. Our introduction needs to pull your listeners into what the text is teaching.
I remember in my senior preaching course, my professor told me that my introduction was clever and got his attention. However, it was like a reverse in football. In the introduction, I had the listeners going in one direction. Then in the body of the sermon, I went the other way. I gained their attention, but the message itself did not deliver on what the introduction led the audience to expect me to say. Make sure your introduction pulls people in, then leads them in the right direction.
The body can have just one point—just your big idea. Or it can have two, three, or more points which are related to or which built toward your big idea.
Most of the time I like to outline the passage I’m preaching and make my sermon points correspond to the way the passage develops. For example, here is my outline for the body of my sermon, “His Promised Return Is Certain (2 Peter 3:1-9)”:
- Focus on Christ’s Soon Return (vv 1-2)
- Don’t Let Scoffers Distract You (vv 3-4)
- Remember the Flood (vv 5-7)
- The Delay Is Not Long from God’s View of Time (v 8)
- God Will Fulfill His Promise Soon (v 9a)
- The Delay Is Because Death Does Not Please God (v 9b)
Sometimes I write the introduction and conclusion before I write the body of the sermon. When I write the conclusion, I like to make sure that it links up with the introduction.
Did I raise some questions in the introduction? Then I answer them in the conclusion.
Did I raise a felt need in the intro? Then I need to explain how God’s Word answers that felt need.
Did the sermon challenge our worldview? Then in the conclusion I will talk about how this passage changes the way we view our world.
Ideally, I will mention the big idea multiple times in the sermon and multiple times in the conclusion, too. In my sermon on 2 Pet 3:1-9, I will often repeat that Jesus’ soon return is certain. It is guaranteed. It will happen any day now. It is imminent. We should be watchful because when He returns we long to hear Him say, “Well done, good servant.”
The Length of the Message
The length depends on where you are speaking. Most of the time I’m given 30 to 40 minutes to speak. For me, that is around 2000 to 2500 words in my sermon manuscript.
At times I’m only given 3 to 5 minutes to speak. Many of the little videos we’ve done for GES are that length. In those cases, I typically do not manuscript what I’ll say. Instead, I put down my big idea and three or four things I want to say about it.
In little messages that are topical and not based on a specific text of Scripture, I find it vital that I have an anchor passage. I will quote the passage in the video so that people can see that the idea comes from Scripture and not just from theology. It is not enough to teach the truth. We must teach the truth from Scripture.
Of course, in a 3-minute message, I will not give a detailed explanation of a passage. But I will quote it and at least give enough explanation so the listener can see that the truth I’m explaining does come from Scripture.
On the occasions when I manuscript short messages, I’ve shot for around 500 words for 5 minutes. For example, for my Logos Course on Free Grace Theology, I wrote up 72 short segments designed to be around 10 minutes each. I aimed to keep those to 1000 words or less.
Different Styles Can Be Effective
J. Vernon McGee simply marched through the Bible. He did not have much of an introduction or a conclusion. He used illustrations. But he did not use lots of illustrations. He taught the Bible verse by verse. And people loved it. They still love it today, long after he has gone to be with the Lord.
R. B. Thieme had a similar approach. However, he would dig in very deeply on every verse. Thus one message might cover only one verse. Or it might take several messages to cover one verse. He loved to teach people key Greek and Hebrew words. Doctrinal pastors today continue that method of preaching. And I’ve observed that it has a powerful impact on many people.
The string of pearls approach may be effective at drawing crowds, but it doesn’t really produce strong disciples. That approach was made famous by Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller. The string is a principle from the Bible. The pearls are illustrations. So the pastor might start his sermon with a story, then mention a verse or two, state a principle that comes from the verse, and then the rest of the sermon is illustration after illustration supposedly fleshing out the principle. While entertaining, not much discipleship occurs. People do not learn the Bible. They learn little ditties like, “Life by the yard is hard. Life by the inch is a cinch.”
Effectiveness in preaching is measured by what pleases God, not by what draws large crowds or raises large amounts of money. A small church that accurately proclaims God’s Word has effective preaching. A megachurch that does not accurately preach God’s Word has ineffective preaching.
Another style is dramatic presentations. Pastors with acting ability sometimes do a great job of this. While this can’t be done every week (unless you don’t care about teaching the whole counsel of God’s Word), it can occasionally be done with great interest.
I’ve been in churches where the sermon is linked to a skit. The skit is done by actors in the body who prepare the audience for the sermon. In a sense, the skit becomes the introduction to the sermon.
The Bible does not command us to preach or teach in a certain way. We might use different methods depending on what we are teaching or preaching. But the key we must never forget is that we aim to proclaim God’s Word accurately. We want to please Him. No matter who is sitting in the pew, He is our ultimate audience every time we preach or teach.
Bob Wilkin is Executive Director of Grace Evangelical Society. He lives in Highland Village, TX, with his wife of 41 years, Sharon. His latest book is Is Calvinism Biblical? Let the Scriptures Decide.