What makes a sermon sing?

October 31st, 2016

When I began preaching at the age of nineteen, I had no idea then how to structure a sermon, how to do exegesis, or even how to deliver a sermon effectively. These skills were learned later in seminary and under the tutelage of such great preachers at Richard Lischer and William Willimon. But even then — and after thirty-five years of preaching — I find that sermons remain elusive creations, a difficult work that looms as a weekly challenge and still forms the centerpiece of pastoral ministry.

Although sermon preparation techniques abound — and there are myriad methods and ideas about how to structure, compose and deliver them — there are several elements of preaching that remain essential. These elements, I’ve learned, are not so much tied to the way sermons are composed (manuscript, outline, thematic) or the way sermons are delivered (standing behind a pulpit with notes, speaking without notes, using a whiteboard). Nor are these elements tied to theology, nor any of the various preaching methods (expository, inductive, narrative).

Rather, many of the most important elements of a sermon — or what makes a sermon “sing” — are more intangible. These intangible elements, especially for pastors, can turn a mediocre sermon into a message that changes lives — or they can redeem a tired preacher and transform the message into a powerfully delivered Word of God.

I’ve been delivered by these elements more often than I care to admit; I thank God that, as pastors, we have these remarkable gifts of grace to rely upon. In short order, I offer a few of these elements here for reflection and help.


I would remind pastors of our leadership roles, but also the higher roles born of friendship and trust and integrity as we prepare any sermon. At the center of our pastoral work is relationship. Pastoral care is about relationship. Leading Bible study and giving oversight to administration is relationship. Stewardship is relationship (our ability and willingness to talk to people about time, talent and treasure). And sermon prep and delivery, no less, is about relationship.

Every week as we prepare sermons, we are privy to an array of information about our parishioners' families and so much more. We are aware of triumphs and joys (new jobs and births), of disappointments and failures (personal struggles, parenting issues, divorce) and of deeper sorrows (illnesses and death). All of this is a privilege afforded to the pastor; these are relationships that we should cherish and nurture. We should never take pastoral privilege for granted.

Likewise, our relationships with our families in the parish and in the communities we serve can be some of the most effective elements of our sermons (but I’m not talking about using this information as illustrations). At the very least, our relationships may inform how we will preach a sermon, or what we will address, or even how we will interpret a particular passage of scripture for our communities of faith. We never preach in a vacuum.

These relationships — because we know and love the people — comprise the most profound difference between being a guest speaker and the pastor. There is a huge difference between being the pastor and being an evangelist. In other words, our very voice, and the authority afforded us to speak to the people, is one born of familiarity, friendship and the concern of a shepherd. 

This is not to say that pastors cannot, or do not, speak to difficult themes or challenge their friends’ comfort and ease. Quite the contrary. But in point of fact, pastors can speak far more effectively to these struggles than can others, even those who might be superior public speakers. Pastors should never doubt this. We should trust our relationships.  

I have been reminded of this essential element to the sermon on innumerable occasions. There have been times when I did not have adequate time to prepare a sermon, for example. And yet as I worshipped in the community and spoke from the heart, the Spirit moved. Likewise, there have been times when I have preached what I believed to be a stellar message only to discover that it was my pastoral prayer, or my concern shown at the coffee fellowship, that moved someone toward a decision or to a deeper level of discipleship.

No sermon could survive without relationships.  In fact, people don’t attend to hear a sermon (who would?). They come to church, and always have, because they believe their pastor will speak a word from the Lord. Our people look to us as guide and friend. Sermons have impact because of relationship, not because we are in and of ourselves great speakers. 

Asking the Essential Questions

Every sermon can have an impact if the pastor asks the proper questions about his/her congregation. Some questions to begin with might include:

  • What does the church need to hear right now?
  • Where does the church need to move, or be moved?
  • What comfort/challenge/or uncomfortable truth might we need this day?
  • Where are people hurting, serving, growing or being faithful?
  • What needs to be said? Confessed? Challenged? Encouraged?
  • How can I get out of the way and let God speak through me?

These questions and many others are not about techniques or methodologies. In fact, we might assume that pastors can use a variety of techniques, methods and presentation styles in an effective manner. But we cannot do without the questions as we prepare our messages. The questions — which again are born out of relationship and pastoral concern — are essential for helping us shape the message around our scriptural passages and the greater love of Christ.

We begin with questions before we establish answers. And if we are honest, we might not answer all of the questions as we preach. It is a good thing to live with these tensions, these various ambiguities of life and the pastoral concern we demonstrate even when we don’t know the answers. Great sermons are born of questions. Let us begin with them.

Preparation and Practice

As a child, I never wanted to practice the piano, so I was never prepared when it came time to have a recital. To do our best — to give our best — in anything in life we must practice. Preaching is, among other things, an art. And art takes time. It takes practice.

Again, this is not so much about methodology or a discussion of “how” to create the sermon; nor is it about delivery. Rather, preparation is about discipline — having a routine, a dedicated time, a space for study, a quiet zone, or perhaps even a “pre-game” ritual that maximizes our ability to focus and deliver a sermon to our highest potential. This is not about “rating” a sermon against someone else’s delivery or their giftedness in the pulpit ... it is about practicing what we preach. Literally. We need to practice.

Here, however, we should not confuse the method of that practice with the time or the focus itself.  Some pastors may create an outline and then memorize it. Others practice key turns of phrase or scroll the message over and over in their minds prior to delivery. Still others may literally do a “walk-through” at the pulpit, speaking aloud to a vacant sanctuary the night before.

The essential element here is preparation. Is the preacher ready to preach? Is she “prayed up?” Has he done his homework or offered his best (even within the confines of a busy week or personal stresses or congregational tragedies)? Is the message ready to be heard?

Learning how to use the microphone effectively is also worthy of practice. Hand movements can be practiced. So can the inflection of the voice or eye contact. There are dozens of nuances of body language that can be observed and touched up, and every pastor can learn how to overcome some of his/her noticeable ticks and distracting habits up front. 

It all seems daunting; but again, go back to element number one. Remember: you are among friends. Friends help friends. The pastor is always on a journey of self-improvement in the pulpit, but must ultimately rely upon grace. We may not have all of the right words, the best words, the perfect illustration, the best exegesis. But we do have people we love and people who love us.

In the end, the preacher comes around to understand that a sermon is, simply put, hard work. But it is good work. And when a sermon is clicking and people are receptive, it is always a lovely thing. You know that feeling. You know it when you hear it.

Now, go and do it again. And again.

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