AIthough it is said that data, and knowledge in general, doubles every eight months or so, the primary source material for preaching remains the same as it has been for thousands of years: the Bible.
The cognate source material for preaching is, however, a different story. There is an unlimited spectrum to explore, and different preachers are drawn to diverse disciplines for sermon material. I use history, philosophy, psychology, education, biology, art, and music to provide illustrations and metaphors. With a different focus in every pulpit, preaching offers variety that can be exciting and rewarding.
Sermon content, a major component of good preaching, depends on quality in formation cogently presented. The only way to maintain a consistent flow of relevant and stimulating information is by reading. There is no shortcut. What a wonderful privilege the minister has: getting paid to spend a good part of life reading the Bible and other material of interest.
If one were to ask What's more important, form or content? I would place content first. Despite the short-term appeal of an entertaining, charismatic preacher, the long-term impact of preaching depends on substance. The substance must achieve consistency with sermon objectives, management of the worship hour, and evaluation protocol.
Constructing clear sermon objectives
Sermon objectives will change with each situation. The objective must relate to the age, comprehension level, and ability of the listener to deal with the abstractions that characterize most preaching. A set of generic questions is worth asking during sermon preparation. The correct answer to one or more of these is likely to yield one or two objectives to work on. A sermon with more than two or three well-honed objectives will be too scattered to provide focus during the delivery. This list of questions can be expanded to fit a preacher's congregation and concerns.
What formal applications will my hearers be enabled to make from the sermon? What is the best way to represent God, Jesus, and salvation? What long-term value will the listeners gain by listening? Do the sermon illustrations have a cutoff date when they become obsolete? What do I want people to feel, think, and do as a result of hearing the sermon?
While preaching, I sometimes announce goals for the sermon. This puts me on the spot because sometimes my objectives are not transmitted. Remembering this possibility helps me see just how fragile the transmission network often is. Stating the goals is good for my listeners because they are introduced to the strange concept that preachers do have objectives established for the sermon.
Because the listeners' attention wanders, the preacher-stated objectives can help the listener stay on target; in addition, each listener picks up and encodes incidental information ("I didn't know Jericho was that close to Jerusalem!" "Sounds like God changed His mind!"). Much of this incidental information is quickly forgotten---and has no integrative function with the sermon's objective.
What voice should listeners have in defining sermon objectives? In a formal sense, not much, because most listeners do not know the sermon material as well as the preacher. On the other hand, objectives for sermons often arise from questions, life situations, and issues that prevail in the congregation or community.
Managing the worship hour
Worship has been and will continue to be the subject of study, argument, and enlightenment. Without obviously attempting to, the sermon and the preacher manage the worship hour. There are others: musicians, children, Scripture readers, and others. But the management of the hour of worship is so crucial to the life of the church that, especially in larger churches, it deserves about as much time as the sermon does.
Questions for the worship hour
A set of questions should guide decisions about the worship hour: What traditions of worship do we want to maintain during the service, and why? What variations (interview with a member; change in order of service; slides from school, Junior camp, or Maranatha trip) will be introduced? What's in it for the single mother of two, the teenager, the member who lost his job, the first-time visitor? What significant items can "fill" otherwise dead spots when people are approaching or leaving the platform? What participation are we providing the congregation in addition to the singing of hymns and taking of offerings? How should we improve the "blips" that occurred in last week's worship service (interminably long prayers, a section un attended by deacons during the offering, musicians practicing in the basement while we wait for their entrance)? How can we streamline some tedious moments (i.e., extended remarks during baby dedications and baptisms, weather remarks during morning greetings)? What notice should we take of the calendar (Did we honor mothers on their day and neglect fathers on Fathers' Day)? How should we provide for varying musical tastes and talents so that we achieve balance and quality?
Evaluation of the sermon
Most of our members, confronted with our greeting after church, will offer a perfunctory "I enjoyed the sermon." A better assessment of effectiveness arises when listeners offer a serious question about what was said (this includes a reasonable disagreement) or want to talk about their own lives in progress. A preacher can count this as a signal that the message got through and engendered substantive response.
Preaching and teaching have much in common. Both are directed toward behavior change. Learning is behavior change, so surely teaching the congregation is a worthy goal for the preacher. Though factual information itself is important in its own right, evidence remains that information does not change behavior. If it did, the AIDS epidemic would generally be under control, people would stop smoking, and war would cease.
Worship styles have come and gone, but meaningful time spent in the Word in the worship service remains. The preacher can be an inspiration, an examiner of values, and the source of biblical knowledge, along with a positive outlook on life. Thus our continuing concern must be that the sermon arouse interest, initiate life-altering action, and challenge the attitudes and beliefs of the listeners.
This article is the first in a series of three.