Fellow pastors and teachers and leaders: I know the frenzy of Saturday night when you’re scrambling to get your sermon just right. After you got your three points, consulted all the commentaries, and fit in your illustrations, here are a few checks to consider that have helped immensely.
1) Is God big? People can tell if your God is small. If you quickly browse through your sermon, either He’s big or you are. Either He is in total control, the supreme authority, and highest glory — or something else is. In my first year, I made the mistake of referencing myself too much while skimming the surface of God’s nature. I randomly plugged Him in to “baptize” the sermon. But people want to know that God is sovereign, powerful, wise, and loving. They want to climb the mountain of Isaiah 40 with you. God is the point of your sermon.
2) Is Jesus sufficient? Psychology is great, but not the answer. Stories will help, but are not sufficient. Doctrine is essential, but not enough. Jesus alone is the King of the Universe, the sustainer of galaxies and orbits and atoms, the fulfiller of biblical prophecy — but he’s also close to the heart of struggling believers, the single moms, the suicidal teenagers, the confused college student, the rebellious pagan. Your Jesus must have his feet to the earth. He is a person and not a concept. He must be for us, and more importantly, glorious in himself.
3) Is the cross visible? If there is no Gospel, you’re not preaching a Christian sermon. Period. There is Good News, which is the truth, or Good Advice, which is moralism. We do need Advice, but it must be built on the foundation of the News. Don’t be afraid to say words like sin, salvation, wrath, repentance, crucifixion, resurrection, and rapture.
4) What’s my one sentence? In seminary, we called this the 3 a.m. test. It’s when someone were to wake you up at 3 a.m. and ask, “What’s your sermon in one sentence?” If you’re not sure, try putting your sermon into a single question and answer. For example: “What does God say about my anger?” or “How do I know God loves me?”
5) Simplify. This is the hardest part for me. I always over-write. I try to cram all my findings and statistics and stories into one sermon. But over time, I’ve learned that this can kill the momentum of the message. While I still tend to fatten a sermon, I’ve been learning to cut anything that does not support the main point of the message. There is always next week. I don’t have to say everything on one Sunday. I also place all the deleted parts of a sermon in an “edit” file to save for later. As they say in the writer’s world: be willing to kill your darlings. Make every word count.
6) Do I love my people? As I prepare a message, I pray over the people. I think of their faces, their struggles, hopes, ambitions, hurts, and dreams. I ask God for a heart of grace and patience for them. If I don’t love my people, Apostle Paul says nothing we do matters anyway (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). There are plenty of preachers who deliver dynamic truth without loving a single person in the congregation. Instead of looking for a tweetable one-liner, pray for a heart of love toward your people. I pray for God to soften my heart so I remember who I’m talking to, and to remember they are like me: a sinner in need of mercy, thirsty for the Word.
7) Praise God after you’re done. I know the neurotic moment after a sermon when you regret all the things you’ve missed and all the awkward stuff that came out of your mouth. I know how it hurts to see people not listening to the fantastic truth of the Bible. I know the feeling of inadequacy and limitation and weakness, thinking, “I’ll never be as good as these megachurch preachers” — which is exactly what megachurch preachers think too.
My friend: You won’t get this preaching thing right every time. You will make mistakes. You will have missed opportunities. You will never preach a perfect sermon (only one did). But praise God for the mighty privilege to share God’s Word with your people. Praise God that a group of fellow human beings would even give you the time of day. And prepare better for next time. Pray up. Read more. Listen to good sermons. Sharpen your craft. Love your people. It’s okay to evaluate yourself, but don’t stay down. Even if you don’t see the fruit of your preaching, it’s not about that. It’s none of our business to know how God is working in people anyway. Preaching is for His glory, regardless of outcome, and God is working in you yet.