Sermon Tips That Can Help Just About Everyone Be a Better Preacher

Mike 2I get it. Each week it seems like you can’t find enough time to prepare a sermon for Sunday. Thinking about ways to be a better preacher is to overwhelming, because you can barely get from one Sunday to the next with another passable sermon, let alone carve out time to think about how to be a better preacher.

But one of the most important responsibilities of a preacher is to explain and communicate the Bible in a helpful way. Certainly there is a spiritual component to that where God works in ways we don’t often understand. However, God in his wisdom has also decided to work through the skill and effort of the preacher. So it stands to reason that we should view preaching as a craft and find ways to do it better.

Here are seven tips that will help just about everyone be a better preacher. And since I know you don’t have a lot of time, just pick one or two to try out in the next couple of weeks.

1) Slow down

One of the biggest critiques people have of my own preaching is that I go too fast. When you preach, you always will think you are talking slower than you really are. So if you think it’s a good pace, it’s probably too fast. Try slowing it down to the point where you think it’s too slow. In addition, try pausing about five seconds every time you say something you really want people to remember.

2) Study longer

I know this one might make you groan, especially if you feel like you’re strapped for time. But when you understand and believe what you are preaching, your delivery will go better. In fact, if you make a habit of not allowing yourself to start writing your message until you’ve studied a bit longer than you normally would, you’ll likely find that actually writing your message will take less time.

3) Watch yourself

Yeah, I know: it’s painful to watch video of yourself preaching. But the reality is that you are your harshest critic, and if you watch your messages (or at least listen if your church doesn’t record video), you’ll come up with at least a few things that are distracting to your audience you should stop doing immediately.

4) Ask someone to critique you

This one’s also pretty painful, at least if you find someone honest enough to do it well. But if you want to be a better preacher, why not ask someone to evaluate you who actually has to sit through your sermons. Extra credit: Ask someone who doesn’t go to church to watch or sit in on a message and give you some feedback.

5) Work ahead

If you find that you usually run out of time when trying to prep your sermons, why not try working on them more than a week in advance? Working ahead will allow time for God to shape ideas in your mind and heart, and you’ll be more creative. You’ll also have more opportunities to bounce ideas for messages off of other people, rather than locking yourself in your office at 9pm on Saturday night to try to crank a sermon out.

6) Don’t preach so often

If you’re a solo pastor at a small church, I know this one sounds impossible. But no matter the size of the church you serve, there are other people with whom you can share the pulpit. Taking a week off of preaching at least every other month—if not every month—is a great way to get ahead on sermon preparation and be refreshed.

7) Focus on one point

We’ve all done it at one time or another: preach a handful of sermons in one, single Sunday message. Every one of the five points you make might be true, and each one might even make an impact in someone’s life. But no one in the room—including you—will remember all five points on Monday morning. In addition, you won’t have done justice to any one of those points. Whatever text you are preaching from, focus on one thing God is prompting you to preach on. If you find you could talk forever on three or four things from that text, great news: you’ve got yourself a three- or four-week sermon series.


What else would you add to this list?

What Does It Mean to Preach the “Gospel”?

TheGospelImagine for me a preacher who is about to step onto a platform with a microphone over his ear and a Bible in his hand. A couple of friends approach the preacher, asking if they could pray for him. The preacher, grateful, nods solemnly and says, “I need it; I’m going to give them the gospel.”

Pause that scene for a moment. What do you assume the preacher is going to be preaching about? For most of us, what comes to mind is likely a message that centers around our sin, our need for redemption, and Jesus’ crucifixion. And such a message is absolutely the gospel, a message that we all need to hear, understand, and agree with in our own lives.

But is that all the gospel is? Or is there more that we sometimes leave out? The “gospel” is multi-faceted, able to be viewed from a variety of angles, each with its own beauty and magnificence. Each angle is important, though none gives us a clear picture of the gospel on its own. When we boil the gospel down to one simple message, we miss out on a large part of it.

It’s not that one can’t have a saving relationship with Jesus without a full understanding of each angle. In fact, no one this side of heaven could possibly have a full picture of the “good news.” Just as we grow in our understanding of who God is, we can grow in our understanding of the gospel. And doing so should give us a fuller appreciation of the beauty of a God who rescues us. Here are a few angles we can view the gospel from:

God planned

Ephesians 1:4 says, “…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” Before we ever were born — indeed, before the creation of the world — God planned to rescue and redeem us.

In fact, throughout the Old Testament God points to Jesus and the redemption that would come through him. Abraham was counted as righteous not because of his actions, but because of his trust in God (Genesis 15).Continue Reading

Video: Noah and the Ark Narrated by Kids

The awesome video production team at The Heights Community came up with a hilarious way to introduce each week in our current sermon series, “Kids’ Stories.” Think “Kid History” meets the Bible. This past week we covered Noah, and the intro video is epic. Enjoy:

Ten People You’re Preaching to on Sunday

Mike-2Prepping a message for Sunday morning takes a lot of study; a huge part of being a pastor who preaches most weeks is having a good handle on the Bible and faithfully communicating what it says. While many pastors study the Bible, it’s easy to forget to study the people we’re speaking to–the ones who are hearing what we have to say on Sunday. If we fail to consider our audience, the message won’t reach the minds and hearts of those who hear it, no matter how much we prepared during the week. Here are ten people you need to remember that you’re preaching to on Sunday:

The Skeptic

This person is usually not a follower of Jesus, and she’ll never believe you without good reason. If you assert something as true, she won’t give you the benefit of the doubt. Showing why something is true is as important as preaching the truth with this person.

The Consumer

This person loves your church. His kids enjoy the children’s ministry, and when there’s a good event, he and his wife make sure to attend. But this person needs to be challenged and stretched. He probably has been around enough to possess a good deal of knowledge; the trick is convincing him to get off his behind and do something.

The “I’ll Give Church a Second Chance” Person

This person had a bad church experience in her past, but she’s been convinced to try it again. She doesn’t care what you teach–she only wants to know if she can trust your community. Make sure you validate her experience and give her a good reason why she should give your imperfect Christ-centered community a chance to love her.Continue Reading

Jesus First, Everything Else Second

Occasionally, I’ll be contacted by a parent or someone else in our church who is concerned that we are “losing our teenagers” because of the prevalence of evolution being taught in public schools, the passage of some same-sex marriage act in another state, or some other “hot button” secondary issue they are worried about. Usually, I’m asked about what our youth group is doing to keep students on track. In the past, I didn’t have a really good answer, probably because I was more intimidated about the issue (and the person talking to me) than anything else. Now, my response is usually simple: We’ll continue to make much of Jesus, because Jesus is in the business of transforming lives, not to mention changing hearts and minds.

There are some secondary issues that youth workers should include in their teaching rotation. However, it’s easy to feel like we have to address so many of those issues that Jesus gets pushed to the margin in our teaching times and in small groups. The unintentional (or perhaps intentional, in some cases) result is that we communicate to teenagers it’s more important to know what the Bible says about homosexuality, popular music, and other “hot button” issues than it is to know Jesus.

Understand me clearly: Helping teenagers embrace a Christ-centered, biblical worldview is important. Part of maturing in our relationship with Jesus is learning to take God’s lead as we navigate through some of the “hot-button” issues of our day.

But when you talk about those secondary issues more than you talk about Jesus, you’re missing the point.

Here’s why you shouldn’t make a bigger deal about secondary issues than you do about Jesus:

Students who don’t know Jesus don’t care about your secondary issues. Really. And if you do decide to harp on those issues, you’ll either just 1) Tell them something they already agree with or 2) Anger them to the point they never want to come back. Stick with Jesus, and you’ll tell them something that might actually transform their life.

Majoring on secondary issues creates followers of YOU rather than followers of Jesus. If you give our favorite secondary issues more airtime than Jesus, eventually you’ll just have a group of teenagers who agree with you.

Following Jesus isn’t about having all the right opinions. Following Jesus is about…following Jesus. I’ve followed Jesus now for fourteen years, and there have been certain opinions I’ve held that I had to change my mind about because I grew in my understanding of the Bible. I’m sure there are things I believe now about Jesus, our world, and the Bible that I will eventually realize is incorrect. And I’m absolutely sure that I’ve voted for at least one candidate that perhaps I shouldn’t have. But those things don’t make me any less a follower of Jesus.

You don’t have to believe the whole Bible to be saved by Jesus. Seriously. Does following Jesus mean that eventually we will learn how to think through cultural issues with the Bible as our guide? Absolutely. But there’s nothing in the Bible that says if you have to believe the whole thing before you’re allowed to follow Jesus. Even Jesus’ first followers didn’t always believe the right things about him. We need to stop making it seem to teenagers that they can’t follow Jesus if they don’t agree 100% with everything they hear in our messages.

Majoring on secondary issues communicates to teenagers that they have to fit in at your church to be accepted. When you freak out at a student who doesn’t share your opinion about homosexuality, drug use, or the origins of our universe, the message you send is, “You have to agree with us to belong here.” Those conversations have a place, but make sure you allow students the room to disagree. You might find that they are more open to hearing you talk about Jesus when you don’t judge them for their views on other topics.

Majoring on secondary issues makes church about Us-Versus-Them. When we make a huge deal out of secondary issues, we communicate (sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not) that “we” are on the right side of the issues, and “they” are on the wrong side. When this happens, Jesus gets lost in the mix, and teenagers lose.

Students will stop inviting their friends. When you make it feel like anyone who doesn’t agree with your secondary issues isn’t welcome, students will stop inviting their friends because they’re worried about how their friends who don’t hold the same views as your church will be treated.

What do you think? Should secondary and “hot button” issues receive more or less airplay in youth ministry?

Helping Teenagers Respond to What They’ve Heard

“Who can tell me what we talked about last week?”

I’m really hoping that I’m not the only one who has asked that question in front of a group of teenagers—most of whom heard my message just one week prior—and received nothing but silence in response.

Or perhaps you’ve experienced this: you deliver a passionate message at youth group about how Jesus told his followers they would be recognized as belonging to him by how they love one another (John 13:34-35), only to later overhear a group of girls gossiping about another girl in the youth group.

These kinds of experiences can deflate, discourage, and sometimes even anger us. Isn’t anyone listening? Don’t my hours of message preparation and writing small group questions matter to any of these teenagers? What am I doing wrong?

Since I’ve had more than my share of those (and similar) circumstances as a youth pastor, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I can do to deliver messages that actually stick and actually matter. And after all that thinking, here is what I’ve learned: the hardest part about preaching to or leading a small group of teenagers isn’t the preparation, and it isn’t the delivery or leading the discussion.

The hardest part is getting your message or Bible study to make even one bit of difference in a teenager’s life.

The theologically astute of you will no doubt remind me that we as youth workers are simply the planters, the ones who water the seeds. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to make anything grow. That being said (and affirmed), I still think we can be better planters and watering cans by doing one thing better: making it crystal clear what we expect teenagers to do with what they just heard, read, and discussed.

It doesn’t matter if you’re leading a small group Bible study or preaching to hundreds of junior and senior high students; unless you help them understand what they are supposed to do with what they’ve just heard, they’re likely to disregard—or forget altogether—just about everything they’ve taken in. And if you’re not doing that, then all the hard work and time you put into your preparation is just going to waste. Here are some ways to help teenagers internalize and respond to what they just heard:

Teach and preach with transformation in mind, not just information. It’s easy to make the mistake of approaching a lesson or message by asking only “What do these teenagers need to know?” It’s just as crucial to ask this question as well: “How can God use this information to transform their lives?”

Choose one “big idea” and make it clear. Teenagers are more likely to know what to do with what they heard if they can actually remember what they heard. Too many messages are actually three or four mini-sermons stitched together. Make your main point clear and repeat it several times.

Connect the dots for them. Don’t assume that when students hear the parable of the unforgiving servant, they understand without a doubt what it means for their lives. Rely heavily on statements such as, “If this is true, then it means that I need to forgive someone who has hurt me, even if I think they don’t deserve it.”

Provide a doable “next step” for teenagers to take. None of us can perfectly live out any of Jesus’ teaching, so provide a simple but challenging “next step” that will help teenagers begin to live out what they’ve heard. “Go and make disciples of all the nations” can’t be done in one day, so help them start by challenging them to pray for one friend they can tell about Jesus.

Send reminders throughout the week. If you challenged your group to serve someone anonymously during the week, you might post on Facebook, “Praying for you all as you serve someone anonymously…keep putting others first!” You can also do this via text if you lead a small group.

What are some ways that you’ve helped teenagers respond to what they’ve heard?

Video of the Week: "Though You Slay Me" (featuring John Piper)

Love, love this from Shane and Shane. And the message excerpt from John Piper just completes it. Great song on God and suffering:

Video of the Week: Sermon Series on the Apocalypse

Roy, our lead pastor, started a sermon series this past week on the Apocalypse. I really enjoyed the first week; check it out and follow along in the coming weeks:

“The Great Tribulation”_Aug. 11, 2013 from The Heights Community on Vimeo.

Five Minor but Helpful Preaching Tweaks

Just like many skills, preaching is both a gift and an art. It’s a gift because ultimately it is God who gives the ability to speak (not to mention the gift of a sermon impacting someone even when it’s poorly delivered). It’s an art because while while there are things you can certainly do to preach poorly, there is no one right way to prepare or deliver a sermon.

I’m always on the lookout for ways to do a better job as a preacher, whether I’m speaking to eighty high school students every week or preaching occasionally at one of our church campuses or a ministry in our community. Here are five things I’ve been incorporating into my messages and preparation lately. They aren’t exactly ground-breaking changes, but they’ve helped me as a communicator a ton. Give a few of them a try this weekend!

Ask questions your audience is already asking. If you’ve read the Bible, you know that there’s some pretty weird stuff in there. People do some crazy stuff. God doesn’t always seem to do what we would expect him to do. Prophets Jesus himself told a few stories that left just about everyone scratching their heads. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes, and if there’s a question or objection they’re probably thinking, say it out loud. They’ll appreciate your honesty, and it’ll show that you care about connecting the message to their world.

Memorize the introduction and conclusion. I know that I just lost about half of you at memorize, but hear me out: If you don’t connect with an audience at the beginning, they likely won’t follow you (mentally) as you open your Bible. And if you don’t remind them at the end what they need to remember and why it should make a difference in their lives, it’s as if they never heard your sermon in the first place. There are times when I will memorize the entire message, but I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you at least open and close without looking at your notes, your audience is more likely to connect with you and want to believe what you say.

Teach the Bible like you were there. One of the preachers I love listening to is amazing at unpacking a Bible passage as if he was there when it happened. Take the text you’re preaching from and explain it as though you’re a story teller, not a seminary professor. This one takes a bit of work if you’re not used to it, but the payoff is huge.

Connect the problems of the people in you text with problems your audience is facing. One of the reasons some people believe the Bible is irrelevant is because they don’t connect with the problems that people in the Bible face. Lately, I’ve made an effort in each message to include a few sentences that begin with, “You probably feel the same way” in reference to an issue someone in our text was facing. For instance, this past week I preached from a section in Habakkuk where Habakkuk wasn’t sure God was being very fair to those living in Judah. While the folks listening to me probably haven’t ever had to deal with an vicious Babylonian army, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine issues they’ve faced that made them wonder if God was being fair.

Stick to one main idea. I’ve always been diligent about this, but there are times when I still preach my way down a rabbit trail because I couldn’t resist the urge to add another sermon to my sermon. Stick to one “big idea.” If you find another point in the text that’s important for your audience to hear, save it for another week.