The entire book stems from the author’s view that sermons must be engaging in order to be effective. This laser focus results in a book that is powerful and immediately useful, concise and purposeful. It is a book for every preacher.
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About the Author
each of those congregations has seen significant—sometimes extraordinary—growth. Charley’s passion is helping other preachers, and he speaks and teaches nationally on the topic. He is also the author of That’ll Preach! 5 Simple Steps to Your Best Sermon Ever from Abingdon Press.
Read an Excerpt
5 Simple Steps to Your Best Sermon Ever
By Charley Reeb
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2017 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Problem and the Solution
If you are unhappy with the results of your preaching it is probably not your fault. Chances are you went to a seminary (or currently attend one) that was great at teaching you how to interpret the Bible. Your professors were probably excellent at helping you discover the nuance of a biblical text and the original meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words of the Bible. Most seminaries are fantastic at equipping preachers to be interpreters of scripture.
But here is the problem. Most seminaries are ineffective at equipping preachers to communicate to average listeners in a local church. In fact, many seminaries hardly attempt to teach preachers how to be effective communicators. The seminary I graduated from was superb in many ways, but they only required one introductory preaching class. If you wanted to learn more about how to become an effective preacher, you had to rearrange your schedule and take elective courses when they were available. Unfortunately, my experience is not the exception. Many seminaries only require one introductory preaching class to graduate with a master of divinity. That's hardly enough training in a discipline that is paramount to the role of a local pastor.
Unless seminary students grew up in churches with good preachers, their professors have the biggest influence on their preaching. Many seminary professors have little-to-no ministry experience in the local church. This includes preaching professors. They are far removed from the texture of parish ministry and generally preach to those in the academic world. So it follows that many seminary students get the wrong impression about what it takes to preach effectively "in the field." A highbrow sermon may stir those in a seminary chapel but it will not work in the trenches of a local church.
Over the last forty years inductive preaching has become very popular in mainline seminaries. The impact of preaching revolutionary Fred Craddock and the rise of the "new homiletic" has led to a variety of inductive and narrative preaching styles. This style of preaching is known for turning "three points and a poem" upside down. Instead of beginning with the main idea of the scripture text and breaking it down into specific ideas, an inductive sermon begins with specific ideas and questions and concludes with a main idea. Quite often inductive sermons arrive at "open-ended" conclusions so listeners can draw their own conclusions about the message. This is a noble thought, but it's not realistic for most listeners.
There is a great deal to learn from inductive preaching. The sermons are clever and imaginative but the style and message are typically lost on average listeners. Novelty sometimes sacrifices clarity. Unless you have a congregation filled with preachers and seminary professors a steady diet of inductive preaching is not effective in most local churches. Most preachers don't have the time to create such novel art every week. More importantly, most listeners don't have the patience to sit through it. Listeners keep asking, "Is there a point?"
What I have discovered as I have taught other preachers is that many of them prepare sermons designed to reach the crowd at a seminary chapel service. They imagine their seminary professors sitting in the back pew critiquing their sermons. They have been rigorous in their research of the biblical text. They are diligent in communicating exegetical material. They quote biblical scholars and theologians to demonstrate their education. Basically, their sermons sound like a "research dump." Other preachers sound like they have just come from a creative writing retreat. They have read everything Barbara Brown Taylor and Fred Craddock have written and seek to imitate what cannot be duplicated or appreciated by most listeners.
If you are preaching every week to other preachers and professors, stick with this approach. However, if it is your goal to reach the majority of listeners in churches you must change your approach. You will never become an effective preacher looking over your shoulder for your seminary professors. If you want the gospel to connect with real people who have real needs in real life you must apply the secret. Am I saying to forget what seminary taught you? Absolutely not! All of your knowledge must be reframed in a way that connects with your listeners. With that in mind, let me tell you a secret.
So what is the secret to great preaching? It is three simple words: Engage your listeners! You know, those people you are talking to in worship — the ones who chose not to do a thousand other things on a weekend so they might hear a relevant word from God for their lives. Let me repeat that: engage your listeners! Stick those words on your computer. Put them in your Bible. Type them on the top of your sermon notes. Write them on a card and put them on the dashboard of your car. Get a tattoo that says it ... well, just kidding. You get my point.
I know. Looks too simple, doesn't it? To tell you the truth it is deceptively simple. Many preachers ignore the secret by assuming their listeners will be engaged regardless of what they say and how they say it. This is a fatal mistake, and it's the mentality of preachers who have difficulty connecting with their listeners.
This may sting a little but if you want to be a great preacher you must accept it: "If people aren't interested they're not listening." The great pulpiteer J. Wallace Hamilton said that quote over fifty years ago. If it was true then, it is especially true today. If your listeners are not interested in what you have to say they are not going to pay attention to you. Oh, they may look like they're listening but their minds and hearts are far away. They are thinking about the talk they must have with their bosses on Monday, their grocery lists, where they are going to lunch after worship, or the texts they have received that look more interesting than anything you are saying. They have checked out and the opportunity for them to be transformed by your message has been lost.
So how do you get your listeners interested in what you have to say? Engage them! And how do you engage them? To begin with, stop thinking about your seminary textbooks, commentaries, and professors, and start thinking about the lives of your listeners. To be blunt: Don't be selfish when you prepare sermons. Think of others when you preach! Ask yourself, how will this biblical message engage those who take the time to get up, dress up, and show up to worship?
When you preach there may be a woman sitting in the back who is going through a bitter divorce. There may be a teenager who has been dragged to worship by his parents. He is texting his friends and can't wait to get out of there. There may be a man sitting near the front who hasn't been to church in years because of how harshly he was treated by his Christian friends. He is giving it another try. There may be a college student who scurried in late to the service. She grew up in the church, but now she is questioning her faith. There may be a nervous mother in attendance whose baby is in the nursery for the first time. You may also have a young family checking you out. They have just moved into your neighborhood and are looking for a church home. How will your sermon connect with each of these people? Will it connect? Be honest. Will they remember what you said thirty minutes after worship?
Here is a good exercise. If you are currently serving a church, spend ten minutes writing down everything you know about your people, both good and bad. If you are not serving a church make the same list about your family and friends — health issues, peer pressures, questions of faith, marital problems, graduations, family problems, issues with kids, issues at work, births, deaths, personal struggles and temptations, new jobs, job layoffs, money problems, great achievements in sports, and so on.
When you are finished with the list, take a good look at it and ask yourself this question, "Have any of my sermons in the last few months touched on most of these experiences?" Now ask yourself this question, "What difference do my sermons make for people who are going through these experiences?" And then ask yourself a third question, "Why should the people on the list care about the messages I preach?" Finally, ask yourself, "Is it easy for the folks on this list to understand my sermons?"
The Curse of Knowledge
The previous exercise exposes whether or not you are connecting with your listeners. Many preachers are plagued with something that often becomes an obstacle to engaging listeners. It is called "the curse of knowledge." Chip and Dan Heath use this phrase in their book Made to Stick to describe the greatest obstacle for any communicator: making the assumption that your listeners know as much as you about your subject or will process and understand your message like you. In other words, you assume your listeners have your frame of reference.
Have you ever heard really boring speakers and asked yourself, "Are they aware of how boring they are?" Perhaps you were amazed that they continued to drone on completely unaware that their listeners were bored stiff. Why does that happen? Well, when those speakers prepared their speeches they assumed their listeners would hear and understand the subject with their frame of reference. They were as happy as can be giving the speech thinking, "Yes, this is great. This has to be great because if I were listening to a speech on this subject this is exactly what I would like to hear!" These speakers are typically dumbfounded when they find out their listeners were less than impressed. It never occurred to them that their listeners didn't have the same experience with their subject matter.
The hard truth is that the same thing often happens in worship services every weekend. Preachers preach sermons they would love to hear, and that's the problem! Most listeners don't share the same frame of reference as their preachers. However,many preachers don't recognize this important fact, or they ignore it. When listeners don't connect with a message, preachers don't blame themselves — they blame their listeners. These preachers will whine, "My congregation just doesn't have ears to hear. They are shallow people. I'm casting my pearls before swine. If I had a more spiritually receptive congregation they would appreciate my sermons." The truth is their listeners would be very receptive to their messages if their preachers made the effort to engage them. Instead, some sermons might as well be lectures on computer programming. The listener is thinking, "Preacher, what are you trying to say and what difference does it make in my life?"
Speaking the Language
I can hear those voices in the back of your head asking, "Isn't this suggestion just pandering to the crowd and entertaining them? And where does the Holy Spirit come into play in all of this? Isn't preaching the gospel enough? Why should I have to work so hard to be heard?"
First, engaging your listeners is not pandering to them or entertaining them; it's respecting them and caring about them. When you engage your listeners you are showing sensitivity to where they are in their lives and offering something that could help them. Average listeners today don't care what you have to say if they don't sense that you understand them and care about them. Jesus knew this, which is why he was such an outstanding communicator. The Bible says of Jesus, "The large crowd listened to him with delight" (Mark 12:37). Why? Because he engaged them. He walked among them, listening to them, caring for them, and healing them. He told stories and illustrated his messages with everyday examples they could understand. Jesus's listeners knew he cared, which is why they probably hung on his every word. Jesus was figuratively and literally "the Word ... made flesh" (John 1:14 KJV).
Second, the Holy Spirit plays a critical role in helping you engage your listeners. In fact, given what occurred on the day of Pentecost we can be certain the Holy Spirit desperately wants the gospel spoken in a language everyone can understand. Read the story in Acts 2. When the Holy Spirit came upon the church everyone heard the gospel "in their native languages" (Acts 2:6). I believe that is what preachers are called by God to do: communicate the gospel in a language people can understand, to allow the word to become "flesh" for them. In other words, engage your listeners!
Third, if you think preaching engaging sermons is some newfangled idea or product of a watered-down church culture, read these words of John Wesley about his own preaching: "I labour to avoid all words which are ... not used in common life; and in particular those kinds of technical terms that so frequently occur in bodies of divinity."
If you read Wesley's sermons you will observe that he knew his audience. He realized he was not preaching primarily to seminary students and professors or "bodies of divinity." His sermons were heard and read by people from all walks of life, which is why he often described his preaching as "plain truth for plain people." He addressed relevant issues of average people in his time and context. Wesley's sermons may seem pedantic to us today, but for his time Wesley was a very engaging preacher. He was intentional about preparing sermons that were accessible to his listeners.
Finally, to those who believe preaching the gospel should not require any extra effort to engage listeners, why have a sermon at all? Why not just read a text of scripture and then give the benediction? If sermons don't need to engage listeners to be heard, reading scripture should suffice, right?
We all know that is not enough. If we are to penetrate the lives of our listeners with the word of God we must interpret scripture and proclaim the gospel for our time and context. This requires using the tools of effective communication. The Bible itself contains various rhetorical devices and other persuasive strategies. Biblical writers were inspired by God to engage people, and they used their gifts as communicators to do it. When we engage listeners we are simply taking our cue from biblical writers.
We must be as prepared as we can be as communicators of the gospel. Don't our sermons deserve our very best? Of course we must allow the spirit of God to work through us. We are channels, not the source. But some channels are more prepared than others. God communicates through us best when we have done our part. As Augustine is attributed as saying, "Without God, we cannot; without us, God will not."
Before I show you the five steps to great preaching you must understand the essential characteristics of engaging sermons. This is vitally important. You can't apply the five steps without them. So turn to the next chapter. I have a "point" I want to make.
The secret to great preaching is to engage your listeners.
"If people aren't interested they are not listening."
Avoid the "curse of knowledge" by never assuming your listeners have your frame of reference.
Preaching is making the "word become flesh" for your listeners.CHAPTER 2
And Your Point Is?
One of my favorite comedies is Planes, Trains and Automobiles with Steve Martin and the late John Candy. Martin plays Neal Page, an uptight business man trying to get home to his family for Thanksgiving. His flight home is delayed because of the weather. This delay begins a chain of hilarious traveling fiascos that will have you laughing until you cry. A huge part of the hilarity is Del Griffith, an obnoxious and chatty travel companion played by Candy, who Neal gets stuck with along the way. Del is a real blabbermouth. He talks incessantly, which bugs the daylights out of Neal. Finally, Neal can't take it anymore. He blows a gasket and shouts something to Del that every preacher should commit to memory: "You know, everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You're a miracle! Your stories have none of that! ... Here's a good idea. Have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!"
It is funny, but like all good humor there is much truth in it. In the case of preaching it is painfully true. In fact, preachers should have this quote engraved, framed, and prominently displayed on their desks. Neal's rant names one of the most prevalent problems in sermons that do not engage listeners: lack of focus. Some preachers don't "discriminate" and put too much information in their sermons, and a lot of it is not funny, mildly amusing, or interesting. Most importantly, all this vast information often lacks focus, which makes it very uninteresting for the listener.
When I began my ministry my problem was that my sermons had too many ideas and illustrations. They lacked focus and development. I mistakenly thought that in order to keep people interested in my sermons I had to fill them with as many clever points, insights, and stories as possible. Those poor people! Thankfully, a sarcastic remark from a wise lady in my church taught me otherwise. I had just preached what I thought was a pretty good sermon. It was chock full of points, quotes, and anecdotes. As I was shaking hands with people leaving worship, the lady approached me with a slight grin on her face. I was looking forward to hearing the wonderful things she might say about my sermon (Come on, you know you've done the same thing!). Instead, she shook my hand and quipped, "Nice sermon series." Those three words turned out to be one of the greatest lessons I ever learned about preaching: less is more.
Excerpted from That'll Preach! by Charley Reeb. Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Problem and the Solution 1
Chapter 2 And Your Point Is? 10
Chapter 3 The AGAPE Method: Five Simple Steps to Your Best Sermon Ever 30
Chapter 4 Step 1: Anticipation-Create Tension 33
Chapter 5 Step 2: Grace-Offer Hope and Guidance with Scripture 43
Chapter 6 Step 3: Answer-Relieve Tension with Your Point 50
Chapter 7 Step 4: Proclamation-Proclaim Why and Call to Action 55
Chapter 8 Step 5: Explosion-Create an Explosion of Inspiration 61
Chapter 9 Putting It All Together 67
Quick AGAPE Guide for Sermon Preparation 83