Preaching is a lot like baking. There are some basic ingredients and principles that everyone needs to follow in both. You need yeast to make bread rise. You can try to make a cake without flour, but it’s just not the same (sorry, my gluten-free friends). You can try to preach without the Scriptures, but let’s be honest – Christians shouldn’t eat that.
From my perspective, there are seven essential ingredients, seven necessary elements of good preaching (yes, they all start with “P”). These are things I try to do. These are things I look for in good preaching:
1- Purposeful: The preacher should have a clear direction and central theme.
A preacher might say lots of good things, but if it is not all tied together with a central theme – I don’t think it’s the best meal for the congregation. A professor in seminary used to say, “If I wake you up at 2am the night before you preach and say, ‘What’s your sermon about?’ you should be able to immediately answer in one sentence.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that. If the preacher doesn’t know what the sermon is about, the congregation won’t either! As the pastor studies the text and prays, he should look for a central theme. Then he can develop 2-4 subpoints, but those subpoints should all work to reinforce the key theme. The sermon needs to stay focused.
2- Penetrating: The preacher should dig deep into the truth of God’s living Word.
There are two main kinds of sermons: expository and topical. An expository sermon is unpacking one passage of Scripture verse-by-verse. A series going through a book of the Bible is an expository series. This is the meat-and-potatoes of good preaching because it gives the congregation a consistent, regular diet of biblical truth, guided by the Bible itself. But there is also time for topical sermons. Topical sermons should be no less biblical, just biblical in a different way. A topical sermon is like systematic theology; rather than starting with one passage, it starts with a concept and then looks to see what the Bible has to say about it in a few different places. A good pastor should be listening to the Spirit and congregation and prophetically addressing pressing issues with topical sermons. Whether an expository or a topical message, the sermon should penetrate the depths of biblical truth. Don’t go over people’s heads; dig deep.
3- Prepared: The preacher should be organized and ready.
There have been a couple times I was asked to preach without any time to prepare – usually on the mission field – but this is the exception. Usually the preacher should invest hours in studying, note-taking, planning, writing, and praying. Jesus often spent time alone to prepare for ministry. There is a misnomer out there that if you plan and prepare too much, then you’re not relying on the Holy Spirit. The power of the Holy Spirit should (and must) fill and guide the pastor’s preparation just as much as his presentation. A prepared preacher will have organized notes and be familiar enough with those notes so that he’s not reading. Being prepared means you can engage with the congregation, look at the people, and – when the Spirit leads – go off your notes. Of course the first step of preaching is to prepare your heart. If the preacher hasn’t done that, he should just stay at home.
4- Personal: The preacher should know his people and share his life.
When I first felt called to the ministry, I knew I wanted to preach, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to pastor people. “Can’t I just tell people about Jesus without having to care for their messy lives?” No! Preaching is an essential tool in pastoring, and pastoring is an essential tool in preaching. It is much, much harder to preach a good sermon if you don’t know the congregation. A good preacher should know the Word and know his congregation. And if preaching is an act of shepherding, then the congregation should know the preacher as well. This means you share yourself in the day-to-day of life, and you share yourself in stories and examples when you preach. As Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy wrote, “we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (1 Thessalonians 1:8). Of course you could take this too far; remember the sermon is not about you. “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Corinthians 4:5).
5- Practical: The preacher should lead the people toward life-change.
The Sunday sermon is not a running commentary of a Bible passage. That’s part of it, but it’s so much more. Like any good Bible study, the sermon should follow the interpretive method (hermeneutics) of Observe, Interpret, Apply. The preacher should help the congregation observe what is in the text and provide insights and interpretation about what it means. But if it stops there, it’s not a sermon- it’s a lecture. There needs to be application. The goal of the sermon is heart-change and life-change. Every passage of the Bible leads to some growth in belief or action. The pastor who trained me used to ask, “How are you going to challenge the people? How will they walk away different?” A sermon must have practical application which calls the people to believe and live differently. This is where Examples, Illustrations, and Analogies are crucial. This is not fluff – the Bible itself is littered with these crucial teaching tools. We are called to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22).
6- Passionate: The preacher should be excited about what he is saying.
When I get excited, I get loud and animated, and I talk fast. This is how I preach most of the time. I need to be purposeful to calm down and slow down (people have told me this!). Not every preacher is super high energy; that’s OK. But if you don’t care about what you are saying, no one else will either. If the preacher looks bored, I assure you everyone else is too. The preacher should believe what he is saying with all of his heart! He should believe that the Gospel and the truth of God’s Word have the power to change people’s lives! That is something to be excited about! Passion can be expressed with loud volume and animated gestures. But it can also be expressed in a calm, intense tone and a caring, focused look. A gifted, passionate preacher will know how to vary his volume, tone, and pace to connect with his audience.
7- Powerful: The preacher should rely on the Gospel and the Spirit to change lives.
It might surprise you to know that in the lists of spiritual gifts in the New Testament, Preaching is not mentioned. I think good preaching is a combination of the gifts of Teaching (targeting the mind with clear insights from the Word), Exhortation (targeting the heart with stirring, challenging, encouragement), and Evangelism (targeting the soul with a clear, powerful presentation of the Gospel – both believers and unbelievers need this). The power of preaching doesn’t come from the pastor’s loud voice, eloquent words, or witty anecdotes. The power of preaching comes from the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. He is the one with the power to transform lives. This was the apostle Paul’s approach:
“And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” – 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, NAS
Christian, look for the kind of preaching that nourishes your soul! Preacher, let’s give our people a meal that will truly satisfy!