I’ve thought about that conversation ever since.
A friend whom I know only from our internet exchanges wanted to know if in all the articles on my website, there was anything on a text he was researching.
I responded that I could not recall dealing with those verses, but suggested where he might find help. Then, I said, “Are you preaching on that text?”
I had no idea whether he was a pastor or not.
It turned out he was a layman and had been asked to bring a message that Wednesday night to his church. The Lord had laid on his heart a text, and he was trying to find out all he could on it. Good for him.
Then he said something which has lingered with me ever since: I want to give the people truths from this passage which they will remember the rest of their lives.
Wow. Big assignment he has given himself.
My first thought was: “Yeah, me too. Every time I stand to preach, that’s one of my goals.” I suspect his pastor would say the same.
Pastors love it when our sermons convey truths which people never forget.
However–and this was my second thought: That’s hard to do.
Church people hear hundreds of messages, lessons, and sermons. They are fed such a relentless stream of revelations, insights, truths, principles, and biblical information in sermons that I suspect very few walk into the sanctuary, take their seats, and look toward the pulpit expecting to hear something life-changing. Most will be satisfied to receive something interesting or thought-provoking.
That said, I come before you this morning to declare that it is indeed possible to deliver a message to your people that will never be forgotten. I might add, with as much humility and gratitude as I can muster on this Friday morning, I have done it a few times in nearly sixty years of preaching.
1. Start early.
You have given yourself a big assignment. If today is Friday and you’re just getting started on a sermon you’re preaching Sunday morning, chances are this message is not going to knock their socks off and win you a place in the sermonic hall of fame.
If you are a pastor and delivering multiple sermons each week, the SOS–the “sermon-of-sermons” which is what we will call this “life-changing message containing never-forgotten truths”–must stand out from all the others you preach. For that, it will need special attention.
2. Start on your knees.
Look at it like this: a) The Lord wants your sermons to succeed far more than you ever will, and b) He knows every message that has ever been delivered in history. (In fact, He has inspired quite a few of them. Smile?) So, He is your obvious starting place.
Pray. Ask Him. Ask what He wants you to preach, what the people need, and how you should go about it. After asking, don’t rush away. Stick around for the answer. If your experience is like mine, it will come in a still small voice. What that means is an idea pops into your head on what you should do.
Start on your knees and go there often.
3. Pay attention to what the Lord has been burdening you with lately.
The sermon-of-sermons (SOS) will probably not be something you thought of Monday, researched Tuesday and Wednesday, wrote Thursday and preached Sunday. This one will be as much a part of you as your bones and marrow. This subject is as near and dear to you as the very fiber of your body, as one of your own children.
You will care deeply about this subject. In some ways, you will have been preparing for it all your life.
4. Listen now. Listen very closely.
As you prepare, listen to what your people are saying in their unguarded moments, what they’re saying in hospital rooms, what they ask you on the way out the door on Sundays, what they say when reading the paper or watching the news.
Listen to your family. Listen to your children when they get serious, your spouse when she gets worried, your elderly mother when she reminisces.
Listen to your heart.
God is speaking.
God uses all of these–usually not at the same time–to send messages and insights to the preacher/teacher working on the SOS.
5. Keep it simple.
If it’s complicated, forget about anyone remembering it the rest of the week, much less the rest of their lives.
Here’s my story….
Some years ago, I was asked almost at the last minute to speak to the annual recognition banquet for the board, supporters, adults and children at our state denomination’s children’s home. The challenge was to deliver a message which would pertain to the hundred or so children of all ages as well as to their benefactors and house parents. Quite an assignment!
The message the Lord gave me I called “Four Things The Lord Wants You to Know About the Rest of Your Life.” It became the most memorable sermon I had preached in years.
In the years since that banquet, I have revised that sermon repeatedly and preached it a dozen times in several states. In every case, some people walk away declaring they found it helpful, will not forget it, and will pass this on to others. After my wife Margaret went to Heaven in 2015, going through her Bible, I found in her handwriting the outline to that sermon. (When a pastor’s wife retains a sermon, you have a right to feel good, preacher!!)
Eventually, that sermon became “Five Things God Wants You to Know About the Rest of Your Life.” I used Jeremiah 29:11 as the text.
1. God has big plans for your life. (Two kinds: Earthly and Heavenly.)
2. He’s not going to tell you what they are. (Two reasons: The good you would mess up and the difficult you couldn’t handle.)
3. He’s getting you ready for the future right now. (Which explains the boot camp He’s putting you through.)
4. Your job is to be faithful today where He has placed you. To bloom where you are planted.
5. You must choose His will each day; He will not force His blessings on you.
One day I thanked the executive director of that children’s home for inviting me to do that banquet all those years ago. I told him that I had preached it all over the place. He smiled and said, “Me too. Except I got it down to three things the Lord wants you to know.” We had a good laugh. (Preachers understand.)
6. Preach it several times.
My strong hunch is my layman friend who wanted to deliver the SOS on a Wednesday night is asking for what never was and never can be: a single shot message that knocks the ball out of the park.
Most (ahem) great sermons–and by that we mean the most highly effective ones–are worked on and refined and tweaked for years before they become the definitive sermon for a preacher. They are constantly prayed over, revised, and thought about. Points are thrown out and replaced, ideas are sharpened, illustrations are improved.
7. Get feedback.
We’re tempted to say one should get responses to the sermon from the sharpest Christians we know, the ones whose judgment we most respect. However, while that’s a good idea, we do well to listen to our spouse, to the children, to anyone with a word about that sermon. Not to change anything, but simply to know what they are saying.
Ask the Lord for feedback. No one knows preaching better than He.
8. Never consider that sermon “finished.”
After preaching it today, even if the sermon felt practically perfect, bear in mind that if you preach it next month, your setting with be different, the audience will not be the same, and the Lord may have something special in mind. So, you will regularly come back to this message and think it through. Does that story still work? Would it work better in the introduction? Was that point clear enough? Is something going on in the news that pertains to this?
9. Finally, accept that you may never know which of your sermons people found most helpful and most unforgettable.
The pastor search committee had just interviewed me that evening. Before I got into my car to drive home, the chairman said, “Pastor, our committee would like to come hear you preach. However, we will not tell you in advance. My experience is that every preacher has at least two good sermons. If he knows a committee is coming, he’ll pull one out and preach it. And we don’t want that.”
It was a long time before I thought of an appropriate answer to what he said. While it is true that every preacher has at least two good sermons, the problem is, he doesn’t know which two they are. He thinks it’s these, his wife thinks it’s some others, and the congregation is all over the map in their choices.
Best to just leave it with the Lord. Do your best on every message, preacher, then let Him take the truths home to the hearts and make them fit and endure as He wills.
Only when we get to Heaven will we find out which of our sermons were the really good ones.
Until then, we will pray and labor with the expectation that it will be the next one.