How to preach the perfect sermon every single time
“Who does he think he is?! There is no ‘perfect’ sermon! Only God determines that. And besides, who does he think he is?!”
If that’s what you’re thinking, then maybe I can’t convince you. But, here’s to trying.
I’ve sat through and studied thousands of Christian sermons, speeches, and talks. I’ve given hundreds myself. I’ve had a Master’s-level class on how to prepare and deliver a sermon. I’ve studied how people in the New Testament delivered sermons during my three degrees. I’ve sat under great preachers and horrible preachers. I’m learned from them all.
Through all of that, what I come back to over and over again are some basic “Movements” and “Features” that make really outstanding sermons. One might call them “perfect.” Why?
Because they do exactly what a Christian sermon is supposed to do (which is different from a lecture or inspirational talk).
The perfect sermon has three “Movements”: (1) exegesis (= ancient context), (2) hermeneutics (= modern application), (3) homework. These Movements guarantee you're preaching a biblical sermon and not a "motivational speech."
Then there are three “Features”: simplicity, modern analogies and stories, repeat the main points. These three Features help guarantee they'll grasp and remember your points. It's about how the brain works. I’ll briefly explain each.
Movement #1 = Exegesis
Exegesis is the close, systematic study of the biblical text which is (typically) greatly concerned with the historical and narrative contexts.
I cannot overstate this case enough. If you, the preacher, have not explained what was “going on back then” so that I know why in the world that biblical text was spoken/written, then you have failed the listener horribly. Look, I don’t care how much you say you believe in the “authority of Scripture” or “inspiration.” Whatever your definition of this phrase or term means, it certainly means that God spoke to and through the original author of the text to an audience that would actually benefit from what God said. When you ignore what God was saying to them, then it screams out to me that you don’t care what God’s original intent was. I love how Professors Douglas Stuart and Gordon Fee say it: “A text cannot mean what it never meant.” Abso-stinkin’-lutely.
This is called “exegesis.” It doesn’t matter if one person in your entire audience knows the term, “exegesis.” What does matter is whether or not you help the listener understand what God was saying to the original audience in their ancient contexts.
You get good at exegesis by getting a Masters and/or PhD in biblical studies, biblical languages, or the like. Also, you get good at it by reading the right commentaries. The right ones actually care about what was going on “back then.” If your commentary doesn’t spend a significant amount of time on ancient context, donate that commentary to a homeless shelter. For example, you should be using commentaries like Sacra Pagina or Smyth & Helwys or numerous independent commentaries by reputable scholars (e.g., NT Wright, Ben Witherington, III, etc.). You should also be using supplemental books like Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. You don't need to use sixteen commentaries for your sermon. But, you should be using at least three to four on every sermon.
To say it again: your sermon must explain to the audience what was going on back then, how ancient people thought, and what the point of the book/letter/gospel/etc. was in the first place. Don’t read one word or one phrase or one sentence and then preach for 30 mins. This is a really horrible way to preach. It teaches your people that verses are completely irrelevant to what comes before and after. It teaches them to pick the texts they want to read. It makes the Bible a big pile of random “favorite verses” to put on Facebook with no historical grounding at all.
Your people need to time travel. That's what exegesis does. And typically, I do this first, before I actually read the text. Paint the picture. Explain the terms and concepts. Help them know what to look for like an ancient person would have done. Then read the text. Through the years, above all else, people praise me the most on this “movement.” “Dr. Pendergrass, the text came alive! I never read it that way before, you know, in context!”
You’re welcome. :)
Movement #2 = Hermeneutics
Hermeneutics can be used to mean broadly, “biblical interpretation.” Here, I mean it in its specific use as the process by which we apply a biblical text to a modern situation. This process answers the question, “why in the world does this text matter to me right now in my world?” If you want to nail Movement #2 you should ask the question, "how does this point meet their need?" You're looking for accurate, biblical application that actually meets a real need your audience has. You can rant for three hours about the danger of idol worship. No one cares. What they care about are their needs. They have needs to feel accepted, to be forgiven, to have a purpose in life, to handle their stress, to process their grief, etc. So, make your application address their needs and you've scored!
Of the three “Movements” I hear the most in sermons by others, it’s this one. And it’s usually wrong. Why? Because they skipped Movement #1. They have no idea what the text meant so they don’t know how to apply it.
This is a huge topic. You need to read texts like How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (and I have a great video course on this book here) or get a graduate degree in biblical studies to learn good hermeneutic skills. The Church doesn’t have one way to do this. We Christians disagree. What Christians did in the first several centuries of the church is not the same as what all Christians do in modern times. Moreover, Orthodox Christians in Russia and Roman Catholics in New York and Joel Osteen (bleh!) all use different “methods.”
Whatever. Here are some typical criteria modern, Christian, Western scholars use in applying the biblical text:
Promises to individuals and nations are promises to individuals and nations. That’s it. For example, stop applying promises to Abraham and Sarah to all people at all times. Stop applying God’s promises to the entire nation of Israel, like “If my people will just pray and humble themselves…” to any other nation in the history of the world. God wasn’t talking to America. We didn’t exist back then. Promises to individuals and nations are promises just to them and only them. They do not apply to any other person or nation. We can learn about God's character in these instances, but we should not apply promises that do not apply to us.
When a commandment is given to specific person, it applies if and only if the exact same situation fits the modern person. For example, when God says to stop eating pork, it applies today if we’re Jews living in Israel under the Mosaic covenant. When Israel takes up 10-30% of the nation’s produce and resources to collect at the Temple (= “the tithe”), it applies today is we’re Jews living in Israel under the authority of the Jewish Temple.
When a commandment is given to broader audience, it applies if and only if the commandment fits our modern context. For example, when Jesus commands that “anyone who wants to be His disciple” must deny themselves and pick their crosses, that applies to “anyone who wants to be His disciple.” When Jesus commands the group of people to sit down so that they can eat loaves and fishes, modern Christians are not supposed to travel to Galilee and eat there each day. Just follow commonsense.
In general, we should be looking for application that involves God, His character, and what He wants from us.
This means that whatever the application is, it must sound just like something Jesus would have said during His ministry. This includes “denying our wills” and “picking up our crosses” and “loving God and neighbor” and “seeking the Kingdom first” etc. If your preacher talks about how the application is that God wants you to be rich, blessed, wealthy, promoted, etc. etc., then your preacher has failed miserably and has missed the point of the text.
The teaching of Jesus is the main criterion of application. Always ask of your hermeneutics (= application), would Jesus say this kind of thing from the cross?
Again, Movement #1 really helps you here. Also, to see both of these movements at work really well, use John Walton’s book, The Bible Story Handbook as often as you possibly can. He nails it perfectly.
Movement #3 = Homework
Homework is straight forward.
Give them some examples of how to apply what they learned in Movement #2.
I have learned this indefatigable fact: people are not good at “connecting the dots.” They can nod and shout and cry at Movement #2 (“Amen! That’s right! I can trust God because He’s trustworthy!”), then have no idea whatsoever to put that fact into practice at work, home, Kroger, the gym, or wherever. They just can’t. You, the perfect preacher, will help them. Connect the dots for them.
So, this Movement is where you give them real world, practical steps to take. Maybe it’s real world reflections they should make this week, or deliberate conversations with people, or practical steps to loving their neighbors, or feeding the homeless, or talking about Jesus, or defending their faith. Real world. Practical. Explain it simply. Then, the following week, ask them how it went.
You’ll know you’re giving good homework when you say something like, “Here are some ideas to make our application really stick this week.” Or, “Here are some things I want you to do tomorrow morning that will help you apply what we’ve explored this morning.” Write something down. Text a person right now. Commit to doing something. Sign up on your way out. Something tactile and real.
OK. That’s the three main Movements of a perfect sermon.
I have three main Features a perfect sermon displays. These Features are applied as necessary within the sermon, no matter what Movement you’re in.
1. Keep it simple.
Really. I know it’s frustrating to study for 15 hours on historical context and only say ten minutes worth. Oh well. That’s the way it works. If your sermon has more than 2 or 3 major points, you’re wasting your time. I don’t care how world-shattering it is. Most people will simply not remember everything you said. Here’s a tip: prepare your own PowerPoint pages or write the main points down on your notes. If you can’t say, “The main point(s) I want you to really understand and put to use this week is/are…” then you’re sermon is too big. People will simply not remember all of your clever points, no matter how many times you can come with a “B” sound in your 32-point sermon. Keep it simple.
Again, keep all the Movements simple. Every single thing you say in Movement #1 (ancient context) must lead directly to Movements #2 and #3. Don’t quote random Hebrew words. Who gives a rip! Only bring up ancient issues and language issues if it makes a difference to Movements #2 and #3.
This keeps it simple. Don’t put all this on the PowerPoint. Only put the main historical points you really want them to get. A sentence or two will suffice. You can say more words, but you need to only display the main, simple points.
2. Use modern analogies and stories.
As often as you can, draw some kind of analogy or modern story that helps the person “connect the dots.” You can’t talk about Canaanite gods or ancient cosmology without throwing your people some kind of bone. Of course, this is where I hear some of the most ludicrous examples of preachers trying to make analogies. Unless you’re naturally good at analogies, you need to read some books on how to make them or books on logic. Get the analogies right. Really. If they’re not right, then don’t say them. If you doubt yourself, tell your analogy to a really smart person and see if it works. It needs to actually be a great comparison or story of the point you’re making in the Movement. Being accurate is vitally important!
Why do we need modern examples? Because it’s how the brain works; it’s neuroscience. Here’s why: The brain has the hardest time learning information for which it has no comparison. It has the easiest time learning something when it is associated with something you already know. So, giving modern analogies is incredibly important for their brains to learn the information. They can associate what you’re telling them with something they already know. They will not be resistant to hearing it if they can already relate. This is why modern analogies and stories are so important (especially in Movements #1 and #2).
Also, whenever possible, the analogy or story needs to invoke a strong emotion. The reason why evoking strong emotions is so important is because brain studies demonstrate that the mechanism in your brain that determines if the knowledge is stored short-term or long-term is based largely on the emotion connected with the knowledge. The greater the emotional impact, the greater chance your brain will store that information long-term.
So, give people modern examples and stories of your point(s) that they can relate to something they already know. And do your best to make it emotional. They’ll remember it longer.
**What about using props? They can be helpful, but also distracting. I know of a large church that builds huge, elaborate props on stage (like huge piles of dirt so that a biker can ramp 40 feet). This screams of gimmick and terrible preaching. Use props and pictures and video clips and audio clips as often as you can,
but only when they directly serve to elucidate the Movement you're in. Use the prop or video clip and then explain how/why it helps us, then move on. (Most preachers I know build their entire sermon series based off some some story, prop, or gimmick they want to use. Absurd. Do the real work of preparing a solid, biblically-based sermon. Leave the gimmicks to inspirational speakers.)
3. Repeat the main points over and over.
That’s it. Repeat it over and over. Once is not enough. Twice is not. Three times is getting closer. Why is repetition so important? Again, it’s because it’s how the brain works. Very few people memorize what you tell them the only time you say it. Say it over and over and over again during your sermon. It’s much more likely they’ll remember it.
Depending on the biblical text, I spend roughly 10 mins on each Movement. But, that does depend on the text. Also, really fight the temptation to be "fresh," or get convinced the Spirit "just gave you a word." Please don't try to be novel each time you preach the same text. It's OK for Scripture to stay the main authority. God can use the same text with the same point to the same audience and change the world. Stay faithful to the Movements and let the Spirit do His work. Don't ever think God needs novelty (which, in turn, is how so many church legends get started).
Notice how I didn’t say that you need to get your people all hyper; or they need to scream; or they need to cry; or they need to shout, “Jesus!” every few seconds; or they need to dance; etc. These might happen. Sure. But they simply cannot be anywhere close to your main criteria of a perfect sermon.
Three Movements: ancient context, modern application, homework. These three Movements are what distinguishes "positive thinking" and "motivational talks" (like Joel) from actual sermons.
Three Features: simplicity, modern analogies and stories, repeat the main points. These three Features are tips that help your people grasp and remember the earth-shattering points of your sermon.
The perfect sermon.