I always have six phrases at the top of every sermon I preach. Here they are, explained.
1) Always, always, always preach the cross and resurrection.
If a sermon does not preach the Gospel, it is not a Christian sermon. Good advice is good, but by itself is only moral conformity. Jesus came to destroy that. We need the Good News of his work on the cross.
2) God = big, big, big. The story of God = the glory of God.
God must be big, or something else is. Sermons can very quickly run into psychological self-help or dire warnings, and while these can be helpful, we need a Trinitarian vision of an awesome, holy, gracious God. We need the story of a God who stepped down into humanity that speaks of His glorious nature — and it’s His story that sets us on a mission for His glory.
3) Love your people. Set them free.
Don’t bash your people with ranting. Please don’t throw snarky mean homing missiles that are aimed for the one guy you can’t stand. Beg God for a heart of love that wants the church to be unburdened from their cycle of guilt and sin. Speak truth in love.
4) Why? Because of grace. How to? By the Spirit.
No one in the history of anywhere has ever been successfully shamed into following Jesus. Those scare tactics are marks of a lazy fear-mongering preacher. A guilt trip can move someone for a little while, but it’s only an external apparatus that exhausts itself. While preaching grace might take longer to see change, it is the only pure sustainable motivation that can truly become a part of someone. It tenderizes hearts and softens calloused souls. It is not driven by flesh, but relies solely on the Holy Spirit — a spirit of love, power, and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7).
5) Relatable Application: Right Now.
A sermon is like building a bridge between the world of the Bible and the world today. Some preachers stay in Bible-land with fascinating facts and cool excursions into grammar, but it remains a history lesson. Others will preach applications that sound good, but are not biblical. I believe the Bible is a timeless truth that speaks to us today, right now, and meets us where we are.
6) Question. Objection. Breakthrough. So What?
We all have a built-in resistance that mentally argues with a presentation. My favorite preachers are the ones who anticipate my questions and objections, and then finds the point of breakthrough.
This doesn’t mean I need a lecture on the Christian subculture or on every false preacher or why these other Christians have it wrong. I need to know that Jesus is real and relevant, and that this is all about him.
As a listener, I’m constantly asking, “So what? Why is this important? Why do I need to know this?” A great sermon will shed light on the essentials and point to The One who is bigger than my own life. A great pastor knows he has nothing great to say on his own, but has brought his very human questions to Christ, has sincerely wrestled with them, and is ready to travel with fellow Christians on this journey together, at eye-level, hand in hand, as Jesus does with us.
“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”
— C.S. Lewis