In his classic On Christian Doctrine (Book 4), Augustine extols rhetoric as the handmaid of truth. Rhetoric must never degenerate into the role of court jester in preaching. We have all witnessed the preacher who “with conjuring adroitness keeps producing fat rabbit after fat rabbit out of an obviously empty hat” as Arthur Gossip put it. The abuse of rhetoric should not necessitate the rejection of rhetoric. Otherwise we might be a not-to-distant relative of the young woman Bunyan told us about, “whose name was Dull. Ah! Poor soul, can’t you see her, flat-faced, flat-footed, a mere vacant lump of a thing? Too many preachers spring from her family. . . .”
Here are 10 lessons to make your sermon interesting and memorable:
- Learn to avoid excessive points or divisions in the sermon. A sermon should have only as many main points as the text, lest clarity be buried beneath a mountain of minutiae. On one occasion, Richard Baxter said: “Sixty-fifthly. . . .” Whether anyone recalled the preceding sixty-four points or whether anyone was still awake, or even alive at that point . . . history does not record. Avoid the proliferation of points and especially sub-points.
- Learn to preach retail not wholesale. “Christ did something or other, which, somehow or other, had some connection or other with salvation.” Though the quote originated with John Duncan about the somewhat amorphous liberal preaching of F. W. Robertson, it applies just as well to lack of clarity in some of today’s preaching. Be specific. Specificity breeds clarity.
- Learn to be an engaging storyteller when preaching biblical narrative. Craft the story into a fine-honed masterpiece that draws people into your sermon. Don’t just say: “The street was crowded when Zacchaeus tried to see Jesus.” Say it something like this: “The Jericho road was lined with people ten deep. Elbow to elbow, graybeards on crutches and mothers with babies in arms, thronged into the street. People pushed and pulled, jostled and jockeyed for a glimpse of Jesus.” Turn the ear into an eye. Don’t dabble in stick figures; paint the canvas with colorful detail.
- Learn to distill the argument of the NT letters into bite-size chunks that people can aurally consume without choking.
- Learn to develop opening sentences and sermon introductions that grab the audience like Rhett Butler clutching Scarlett O’Hara. Legendary writers do this well. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .” (Dickens). “The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees; the moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas; the road was a ribbon of moonlight across the purple moor; and the highwayman came riding, riding, riding; up to the old inn door” (Alfred Noyes).
- Learn the power of rhetoric for interest’s sake. If you heard him preach it, you would never forget Gardiner Taylor’s powerful words about salvation: “God wrought it, Christ bought it, the Spirit brought it and, thank God, my soul caught it.”
- Learn the value of making the sermon as much dialogue as monologue, even if the dialogue is mental on the part of the listeners. Jesus asked or received 153 questions in the Gospel accounts. Interesting preaching asks and answers listener’s questions.
- Learn the value of restatement—saying the same thing in different words. This is the verbal equivalent of letting their eye read it more than once. You can say: “God created the stars,” or say: “God spoke and the stars scurried to their respective orbits like sparks off the anvil of omnipotence”—an exaggerated example to make the point, but similar to how Spurgeon once said it.
- Learn the value of making every second of the sermon count. In today’s world, even presidents get less than 8 second sound bites. There are no throw-away lines . . . or throw-away words. In preaching, like the Olympics, seconds matter.
- Preachers deliver the greatest news! Learn to deliver that news in a creative and compelling way. Don’t forget the message in your effort to find an unforgettable way to say it!
I have always been fascinated by the communication skills of Fred Craddock and the writing skills of Eugene Peterson. Though not an expositor, Craddock was a gifted preacher. He grew up with three books in his childhood home: his mother’s King James Bible, his father’s Complete Works of Shakespeare, and The Life and Times of Billy Sunday. What a combination! Perhaps that’s why Craddock could recount a conversation with an overweight sparrow that didn’t know it could fly, or imagine bored teenagers sitting on the hoods of their camels while listening to a shaggy John the Baptist preach in the desert. A Craddock sermon lingers in the mind.
Eugene Peterson’s writing lingers in the mind as well—he lived by the maxim: “Good writers are people who pay attention to language. . . .Words work together to bring out truth, not just facts. . . . Pastors don’t realize how much we owe to our congregations, to the public, to learn how to use words rightly and skillfully and truthfully.”
If the three great sins of preaching are lack of truth, lack of content, and lack of interest, don’t be content to be sinless only in the first two.