The cure for the common sermon

“Now when they heard the preaching of Peter and John, they were marveling and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.”  (A free paraphrase of Acts 4:13)

Hey, pastor, next Sunday let’s hit one out of the park.

Let’s preach a sermon that will thrill your own soul, knock the dozing member out of his lethargy and onto his feet, and bless the hearts of your sweetest, finest people.  Let’s have a sermon that will stun your critics, surprise your mama, gladden the heart of God, and grab the undivided attention of the unsaved.

Let’s put an end to the common sermon.

You know what a common sermon is, I’m sure.

It’s uninspired in its conception, boring in its plan, and dull in its delivery.  In preparing it, you have to force yourself to stay awake.  When you preach it, the congregation takes a holiday. When it’s over, you wonder if you shouldn’t find some other line of work.

When common sermons follow common sermons like rail cars behind the locomotive, the preacher is probably in a rut.  And we all remember what a rut is–a grave with the ends knocked out.

In a “common sermon,” the outline is often uninspired and may look something like this: 1) The Power, 2) The Point, and 3) the Product.  Or, pehaps 1) The Application, 2) the Attraction, and 3) the Adoration. The introduction, the message, the conclusion.

Bo-ring.  But then, you knew that.

Pity those poor church members who dutifully copy down sermon outlines with the mistaken notion that this is a spiritual exercise with eternal benefit. They have nothing more when they finish than when they started.

Throw that sermon away, pastor. (Or perhaps, file it away and come back to it a few months from now to see if anything in it is salvageable.)

If it doesn’t excite you the preacher, if it doesn’t convict you or inspire you or motivate you, it’s a safe bet the sermon is not going to touch anyone in your audience.

Junk it and go back to the drawing board.

That proverbial drawing board, incidentally, is your prayer closet. To your knees, preacher!!

What can we do to lift our preaching out of the routine, to elevate our sermons to another level, to bring them to life?

Here are some suggestions…

1) Get serious about praying over your preaching. Start believing that God in Heaven really does have something to say to His people who will be gathered before you next Sunday morning. Ask Him to tell you what it is. Claim Jeremiah 23:22, which promises, “If they had stood in my counsel, then they could have announced my words to my people, and would have turned them back from their evil way.”   Ask Him and keep on asking until your spirit gets the message that you are not going to do this without Him.

Once you know the central message and the text, now kick your prayers up a notch and pray the Lord will show you what to do with this.  Do not attempt this on your own. You’ve seen the kind of run-of-the-mill sermons that produces. You want something from Heaven, something with God’s own touch upon it. Your people are crying for something more also, and doubtless many are praying for you.

2) Quit preaching sermons just because this is on the ecclesiastical calendar or next in your series or a catchy idea you picked up somewhere.  Get serious about preaching the heart of the Gospel message sent to you from the heart of the Heavenly Father.

Look at the sermon you’ve been working on. Ask yourself if this is why God called you into His service. If it is, go with it, no matter what it looks like.  The Lord can do something with nothing (a fact most of us found out when we took a long look at our own inabilities!).  But if everything inside you cries out, “There has to be something more and something better,” listen to it.

3) Read your Bible with one ear cocked to the Holy Spirit. “What are you saying to me, Lord?”

The Lord often attracts us to a text by having it snag our attention. The scripture may puzzle, intrigue, or even anger us.  That’s when we need to stop and focus on it, to read it again and again, then think about it, talk to the Lord about it, and continue to reflect upon it over the next few days until it opens up. Then and only then do we have our text.

4) Next, phone a friend. That is, pull together a few of your most respected brothers and sisters in the Lord, two or three at the time, and share it with them. Have them discuss it among themselves while you sit there in silence, taking notes. If something about the text is a puzzle to you, ask them for their take on it.  (Understand, we’re not saying you are going to preach anything they say.  That will be up to the Lord later when you lay this before Him in your study.)

The whole idea here is to break out of your usual system, to open up your preparation process to input from others.  You will learn all over again how God speaks to us through godly friends.

5) Rehearse the sermon again and again, trying various approaches.  Try culling out the weak or less interesting parts, and strengthening the main, essential points. Find a way for practicing the sermon that works for you. I enjoy taking a walk early in the morning or late at night and preaching it softly out loud.  Driving on a lonely interstate or country highway also works.

James Taylor, our preaching professor, used to say the worst kind of preaching is the kind we do most. He urged us to vary our approach, to be open to new ways and different ideas.

6) The idea is to retrain yourself in preparing sermons. To do that, sometimes we need to return to the drawing board, particularly when we have picked up some poor habits.

I’m a sketch artist. I draw hundreds of people every month and thousands each year. And because I try to do this quick–two minutes is typical, one minute is not unusual–I sometimes get into a pattern of something that works against the overall success of the drawing. The eyeglasses may be too large, the eyes themselves are out of proportion to the rest of the face, or a smile line is all wrong. When that flaw keeps showing up repeatedly, it’s time to take action.  When that happens, I make myself do two things: I pray about it, asking the Lord to help me get this right, and I slow down and try to work harder and wiser.

7) Be patient with yourself. If you see signs next Sunday that you are improving, give thanks to the Lord and pat yourself on the back.  Then, stay with the program.

Never forget that as the pastor of a church, you have ten thousand jobs, but one really huge one: Preach the Word.  Do this well and you will be amazed how enjoyable all the others become.

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