What Makes a Sermon a Sermon?

While I have not polled preachers personally, I would imagine that they all believe they are preaching when they give lessons in the assembly on the Lord’s Day. After all, they are using some scripture, they are imparting biblical information, and they are doing so in the midst of Christians. They have studied for the occasion, prayed about it, and prepared themselves for it. However, these things provide only the broadest classification for a sermon–somewhat dependent upon the preacher’s intent and motives. 

To appreciate a sermon–and preaching–it is essential to distinguish it from other types of public speaking. A sermon is not an academic lecture, though it should have solid biblical research at its core. A sermon should not be concerned with the opinions of theologians and purely academic questions of minimal interest. A sermon should present God’s point of view on issues highly relevant to the people present. On the other side of the issue, rambling for half an hour with little organization (and seemingly little thought)–even on a biblical topic–does not a sermon make. Also, a sermon requires far more than just an explanation of a text–no matter how accurate the exegesis. Neither a running commentary nor a well-organized explanation fulfills the purpose of preaching a sermon. A sermon should go beyond providing information to point to specific purpose and application. However, rants filled with “red meat” fomenting anger on one hand and self-righteousness on the other can hardly qualify as a biblically sound homilies. Additionally, a sermon differs in both purpose and style from a Bible class lesson. In the latter the goal and appeal focuses on growing knowledge; in the former the goal and appeal points to taking action. There is overlap, to be sure, but these are distinct categories that preachers should recognize and all Christians should appreciate.

Every preacher probably has an opinion about preaching. But this is far different from having thought through the process beyond personal preferences. After all, according to his critics, Paul’s preaching style was too calm and conversational to qualify as quality public speaking. On the other hand, some people act as if any sign of confidence in the truth of the message presented does not carry sufficient humility. These extremes–which exist among preachers in the brotherhood–show just how much opinion and style differ even among those proclaiming truth. Nevertheless, biblical sermons should have a biblical purpose, and they should present the gospel in a manner consistent with inspiration’s own design. 

1. A sermon should have the Bible at the center. God’s message should not be a peripheral or a mere ornament but the core underlying the totality of the lesson given (2 Tim. 4:2).

2. A sermon should provide clear organization with distinct divisions. While a sermon should have a clear main idea, the outline should maintain distinct points for greater clarity for the hearers (See Matthew 5).

3. A sermon should address the needs of the people present. A sermon presenting the plan of salvation to well-grounded Christians has little benefit. Similarly long tirades about a problem of which the congregation knows nothing is unhelpful (See Paul in Acts 17).

4. A sermon should be a call to action–even when the subject matter is doctrinal or theological. If a sermon does not call on people to take action, it has failed to serve its essential purpose. The proper response should be closer to “Let’s go!” than “That’s nice.” The purpose may be greater faith, improved attitudes, or growing people’s understanding of God so they can draw closer to Him, but this should be stated–not just implied (Acts 2:40).

5. A sermon should have points–not headings. Headings provide information; points require application. “Obedience” is a heading; “Do What God Says” is a point, though I would push for greater specificity. Sermons require decisions and action (Acts 17:32-34), and wording should reflect that. 

6. A sermon should have passion and conviction as elements of the presentation and as the aim for the hearers. Jeremiah did not have a fire in his bones for his own opinions (Jer. 20:9). This does not require yelling or going into “preacher voice,” but it does mean a preacher should match the intensity and tone of the scriptures when preaching them.

7. A sermon should reach not just the head but also the heart. Sermons should challenge people spiritually rather than assume they have no spiritual need. They should challenge them to repent, challenge them to work, challenge them to grow, or challenge them to reflect, but they should not give the impression they can do nothing and be good with God (Acts 26:28-29).

Gospel preaching is equally comfortable preaching about heaven and  preaching about hell. It stands for the truth, reaches out to the lost, builds up the saved, and glorifies God. But a sermon should not just talk about heaven; it should help people go there.

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