The sermon: Is it still central to worship?
Strong biblical preaching is integral to the health of both the individual church and the world church. I would suggest that the current malaise among church members in Western society (though not confined to it) is due in no small way to the anemic preaching in the pulpit. Any study of church history reveals that no reformation, revival, or progress happens apart from strong biblical preaching.
In the Protestant tradition, since the Reformation, the sermon has been understood as the central act of worship. This idea came about when the pulpit replaced the altar; the Bible replaced tradition; and the preacher replaced the priest.
Historically, the sermon in Protestant worship was clear and uncomplicated: the minister entered the pulpit, bowed in prayer, opened the Bible, announced the text or passage, and then presented it to the waiting congregation, all done with the intention of communicating God’s message of salvation.
The modern sermon
In an age before computers, cell phones, and the internet, this task was relatively straightforward. Modern technology has changed everything, including the Christian pulpit. The contemporary pastor, persecuted by information overload, can find it difficult to escape the enticements of technology, some of which can have negative consequences for the sermon.
In many pulpits today, the sermon is degraded; some would say, destroyed. If we are to save our pulpit ministry, we must return the sermon—its message, content, structure, organization, and delivery—to its primary place in worship. As when Peter stood up at Pentecost, every sermon has the potential to be a life-changing experience—for both the listeners and the preacher.
The most useful way to create a sermon that will nourish and satisfy the preacher and congregation is by paying attention to structure. Whether expository, topical, evangelistic, biographical, or textual, all sermons benefit from a clear structure. Structure allows the congregation to follow and understand the preacher’s message. Lack of structure can confuse the hearers and the preacher.
One of the finest sermons I have heard, in more than 60 years of listening to and preaching sermons, was an exposition of 1 Corinthians 1:18–25. The preacher organized the passage under three heads: the Cross derided, the Cross dismissed, and the Cross depended upon.
The exposition was clear, introduced with interest, directed to the head and the heart, and applied with power as befitted the passage. Structure held it together from start to finish. That is why it was memorable. Structure is beneficial; it provides hooks upon which truth can hang in the head and heart.
Every sermon needs a good introduction. Contemporary homiletics likens the sermon introduction and conclusion to the takeoff and landing of an airplane. These are the two most dangerous moments in flying. Error or mistakes can be disastrous. The same danger is relevant to preaching.
Interest, interest, interest is the key that opens the hearer’s minds and hearts and gets their attention. As a proverb says, “Though the tongue never tires, the ear does.”1
In this respect many preachers work against themselves. They begin without an awareness of the need to gain the interest and attention of the congregation. They stand in the pulpit without a wide-awake awareness of why they are there. Some tell a dramatic story that gets interest but is not connected to the sermon. Others recount their experience during the past week (a flat tire, long line at the store, etc.). People come to church to hear a word from God, not to listen to what happened to the preacher or his or her family. They come to be encouraged, learn, and be confirmed in their faith.
The introduction should do just that—introduce the sermon. It is unwise to begin by stating there are six points in the sermon. After three are presented, their eyes may start glazing over. Entice, grab their attention, but do not drag on and bore them right out of the gate.
The body of the sermon
What should we preach? This question has particular relevance for Seventh-day Adventist preachers. “There is in truth only one religious problem in the world—the existence of sin; and one religious solution of it—the Atonement, in which the love of God bears the sin, taking it, in all its terrible reality for us, upon itself. And nothing can be central or fundamental either in Christian preaching or in Christian thinking which is not in direct and immediate relation to this problem and its solution.”2 The Cross is central in all Christian preaching. Ellen White pointed out, “Those who lift the cross will find that as they do this, the cross lifts them.”3 The only reason for preaching is to lift up Jesus before men and women so that they may be drawn to Him and be saved.
The core of all sermons worthy of the name will be composed of the great themes of Scripture: the atonement, righteousness by faith, God’s grace, baptism, Christ’s high priestly ministry, prophecy, our Savior’s return, forgiveness, the mercy of God, the efficacy of prayer, and the assisting and saving grace of the Holy Spirit. These and other wonderful themes of salvation com-pose the body of Christian sermons. No authentic sermons will neglect these teachings. That is why the sermon is the central act of worship.
Seventh-day Adventists have some distinctive biblical doctrines that are of the gospel. They are not to be understood as denominational beliefs but as biblical truths: the seventh-day Sabbath; Creation; the mortality of humankind; the immutability of God’s holy law; the sanctuary; the pre-Advent judgment; and the millennium. These are biblical truths centered on Jesus. They are salvific, evangelical, and Cross-centered. These truths form the content of our sermons. They should not be neglected.
The purpose of sermons is not only to lead men and women to saving faith and church membership but to guide them into the eternal kingdom of God. The majestic themes of Scripture are safe stepping-stones to direct people on their pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem.
The sermon needs to finish with a safe landing and take the listeners to a definite destination. Conclusions should grow out of the body of the sermon and be related to it. It is not a simple or easy task to introduce or conclude sermons satisfactorily. It requires hard work but is a vital element. Only after the body of a sermon has been constructed should the introduction and conclusion be developed.
A sermon cannot be developed from an idea about how to introduce or end it. These are added after the body, after the content has been worked out. Three or four minutes are adequate enough for an introduction and for a conclusion. If there is no planned conclusion, there will be no application. Sermons have to take the congregation to a definite place.
The delivery of the sermon
Structure and content are vital but so is the delivery of the sermon. Many a fine sermon flounders on delivery.
Speaking too fast or too slow, shouting, dropping the voice, poor pronunciation, and long and involved sentences are the enemies of the preacher. Solomon’s observation is more relevant for preachers than other mortals: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof” (Prov. 18:21, KJV). Words, and how they are used, have great power to influence mind and behavior. They can heal or hurt the soul, soothe and comfort the troubled minds; they can also wound and discourage. In the delivery of the sermon, the preacher’s word and voice are important. An effective delivery connects the preacher’s message and the congregation, and it should lead to a deeper, richer Christian experience for both.
Avoid being condescending or patronizing. Mind how you dress. Do not attempt to make a statement by your clothes. Avoid talking about yourself or your vacation, and do not give a long-winded greeting from a former member.
Do not forget to whom you are speaking. Youth, the elderly, children, singles, young married couples? Mold your sermon to your audience.
Even the sermons of powerful preachers can benefit from pruning. For the pastor who has the task of a sermon week after week, the length of the sermon is important. Only exceptional speakers can hold a congregation’s interest for extended periods of time. It is healthy to avoid falling in love with the sound of one’s own voice.
A well-thought-out-sermon presented week by week, within a time frame that befits the culture, will have a ready reception by most congregations. The rehash of the message in place of a short benediction is not good and can be an irritation.
Define what you want to say—and say it
As preachers, we should write down in a sentence or two exactly what we want to say. If not, then our minds are filled with nothing more than a head full of possibilities.
Thomas Long makes a valuable point when he says the aim of a sermon is its focus, what it attempts to achieve, its function.4 Sermons with clear aims satisfy congregations and those who deliver them.
Preaching is a privilege, not a right. This truth should inform and inspire our sermons. Ellen White puts it this way: “When we eat Christ’s flesh and drink His blood, the element of eternal life will be found in the ministry. There will not be a fund of stale, oft-repeated ideas. The tame, dull sermonizing will cease. The old truths will be presented, but they will be seen in a new light. There will be a new perception of truth, a clearness and a power that all will discern. Those who have the privilege of sitting under such a ministry will, if susceptible to the Holy Spirit’s influence, feel the energizing power of a new life. The fire of God’s love will be kindled within them.”5
Preaching is an essential part of training and growing the church, both spiritually and theologically. It, along with prayer, has been crucial in church transformation and revival. Therefore, we need to pay attention to the sermon’s structure, preparation, and delivery. Moreover, we must immerse it all in prayer, to make sure the Holy Spirit touches and transforms the hearers, responding to their very needs. We, the preachers, will then be a valuable tool in God’s hands to grow His church.
The sermon is the central act of worship; treat it that way.
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1 Richard Littledale, Preachers A–Z (Edinburgh, UK: Saint Andrews Press, 2008), 181.
2 James Denney, The Death of Christ: Its Place and Interpretation in the New Testament (London: Hodderand Stoughton, 1907), 326, 327.
3 Ellen G. White, Sons and Daughters of God (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1955), 247.
4 Littledale, Preachers A–Z, 101.
5 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 130.