Over the last two years, I’ve grown more as a biblical communicator than the previous ten.
Why? More opportunities? Nope. A bigger stage? Nope. Practice? Nope. All of these are true but they aren’t the main reason I’ve grown. The real answer is coaching.
In the summer of 2015, I was offered my first opportunity to preach from our main stage. But, the opportunity came with training wheels and I couldn’t be more grateful. Basically, I was given a preaching coach named Bob. I was required to turn in outlines, practice in front of him, and listen to his feedback and suggestions. I can say with confidence that his guidance has dramatically improved my sermon writing and presentation.
So, what did he teach me? Well, quite a bit. For the purposes of this post, I’ll share six key strategies I’ve picked up.
1. Share a Roadmap
Our hope for a sermon is that everyone can follow along, whether they grew up in a theologically heady church or just walked into church for the first time. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t mean you have to dumb down your content. It doesn’t mean you have to become a “seeker” church. However, it does mean that you have to be clear.
One of our strategies for clarity is to give people a road map. A few weekends ago, I preached on Mary and Joseph, as part of our Christmas Stories series. Here’s part of my introduction:
Today, we’re going to explore the story of Mary and Joseph and how they responded to this surprise pregnancy. Along the way, we’re going to stop at three scenes in their story and my hope is that we’ll discover some important lessons on how to navigate relational conflict, how to handle the surprises of life and also a little about the meaning of Christmas itself.
I gave them a roadmap: Here’s the topic. Here’s how many points. Here are my goals.
Ok. Mary and Joseph. Three scenes. And, this is going to help me with relational conflicts, surprises and remind me of the meaning of Christmas.
It might sound overly simplistic but this strategy really helps our audiences follow and along and even more importantly, remember the content.
2. Create Verbal Tags
Secondly, we hyper-focus on clarity around main points. We create what we call “tags.” A tag is essentially, a main point of your service condensed into a phrase. A sad reality of being a preacher is that by Wednesday, your congregation will have forgotten 90% of what you said. My hope is that my tags will be compelling enough to be remembered on Wednesday. When a person remembers the tag, their memory will be triggered and they’ll remember the Scripture passage and more of the sermon. Here are the tags I used in my last sermon:
My first point was about Joseph choosing to divorce Mary quietly when he could have chosen a public trial. There is great wisdom in choosing to address the people in our lives who disappoint and hurt us “quietly.”
“Obey what is clear”
Joseph’s world just got turned upside down. All his plans have been disrupted by this surprise pregnancy. What do you do when the plans that were clear become unclear? You obey what is clear.
“Christmas is about grace”
What made Mary worthy of this incredible honor? Nothing. She was a nobody from a nowhere town. Why did God choose her? Grace. Christmas is about grace.
What I’ve learned over the last two years is that clarity is critically important in preaching. Two of the ways we fight for clarity are creating a roadmap and crafting great tags.
If you’re interested in hearing how these strategies played out in my sermon.
3. The Art of Transitions
A rule of thumb that we live by is that you only have the audience’s attention for about seven minutes. After seven minutes you have earn it back. One of the ways we fight for attention is reintroducing tension through transitions. A good transition changes the pace of a sermon and reengages the mind. Generally speaking, we use three types of transitions.
Type 1: A Question
“So Joseph, you just found out your fiancé is pregnant…and you know it’s not yours. What are you going to do?”
By asking a question, even an obvious question like this, the audience is required to reengage their mind around the question.
Type 2: An Objection
A transition built around an objection voices what a skeptical member of your audience might be thinking.
“Wait. You just said Mary and Joseph are engaged to be married. Why is Joseph divorcing her? That doesn’t make sense.”
Type 3: A Reverse
In football, a reverse is a play that is designed to trick the defense into thinking the ball is going one way, when it will actually go another. This is exactly the idea behind a “reverse transition.”
So what was so special about Mary that caused God to say, “That’s the woman I want to be the mother of Jesus? The answer? Nothing.
In this case, I built up tension around the idea that there might be something special about Mary that we should be copying as Christians. In the end, the point was that Mary was completely average. God chose Mary because he wanted to. Because grace.
If you are a preacher or teacher, I would encourage you to experiment with transitions. We’ve found that well-crafted transitions are an effective tool in reintroducing tension into the sermon and recapturing the attention of the audience.
4. Embrace Tension
Our senior pastor, Jeff Manion, is a master of narrative preaching. His strategy is always to pull the audience into the drama and tension of the biblical story. One of the beauties of the Bible is that it is so full of drama, tension and complex characters that it practically preaches itself!
This approach sounds cool but how do you actually do this? Most of us were trained to exegete but not to mine a biblical story for tension and drama. In my experience, both skills are required to preach effectively.
Here are a few questions I usually ask to help uncover the natural drama within a biblical story:
What were the characters experiencing here?
I try to enter into what Joseph was feeling as he arrived at the decision to divorce Mary. Imagine the feelings rejection, betrayal, anger and disappointment. There is often plenty of natural application in what biblical characters are experiencing.
What am I missing here?
I grew up around the Bible so I’m constantly having to ask, “What am I missing?” In other words, how can I see this with fresh eyes. An example of this would be Acts 14. As I was preparing for a sermon last summer, I read these lines:
Then some Jews arrived from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowds to their side. They stoned Paul and dragged him out of town, thinking he was dead. But as the believers gathered around him, he got up and went back into the town. The next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe. (Acts 14:19-20)
Hold on… they thought he was dead? What kind of shape was Paul in?!? I mean, these are ancient people but they know what dead looks like. Then, Paul gets up and just walks back to town and gets back to work? You have to be kidding me. What motivates a guy to keep going after being executed? Go home Paul! You’ve done enough.
Details like this are critical to injecting tension into your teachings. This passage preaches itself if you let it.
What was the scene?
This is going to sound dumb but I try to imagine the story I’m reading as a movie. What is the scene? What does it feel like? What does it sound like? What does it smell like? The more we can pull our audience into the story, the better they’ll be able to relate to the characters and apply what they experience and learn to their own lives.
5. Talk About Someone
I typically practice my sermons on Thursday afternoons to whoever from our staff is willing to listen and provide feedback. After one of these practices, a co-worker told me that it was polished, the flow was great but he just didn’t believe me when I was giving my illustrations. That was tough to hear but I am so grateful he had to courage to tell me.
He reminded me of something that our senior pastor once told us:
“Unless you have a real person in mind when you give an illustration, it’s tough to emotionally connect with your audience.”
This advice has deeply impacted my preaching. It has helped me connect with my audience on an emotional level. Recently when I shared an illustration about what it means to be disappointed by life, I held in my mind dear friends who have experienced the pain of 60 months of infertility. 60 months of disappointment.
6. Talk To Someone
Another strategy I have used to help me connect emotionally is to ask myself:
“Who am I speaking to in this moment?”
If I don’t have a specific person in mind, the chances are good that I’ll come across as emotionally detached from the point. However, if I’m able to answer this question with a specific person or couple, I’ll likely deliver the point or illustration as if I am talking specifically to them. For me, this helps create pastoral moments in the sermon.
So there you have it, six important lessons on the art of preaching from my preaching coach. If you’d like to see how I used these principles in the teaching I’ve referenced, you can watch it below.
If you would like to improve as a biblical communicator, I would highly recommend seeking out someone you respect to serve as a coach. I’ve found it to be incredibly helpful.
If you don’t have a coach, go ahead and try out one or two of the lessons I learned over the last two years. I truly believe these ideas can improve your presentation skills. If you have any questions about these ideas or perhaps would like to share some ideas of your own, we’d love to hear them. Go ahead and leave them in the comments below.