Chapter 155

Before You Preach

Questions you ask yourself now may save your sermon later

When I go to the store without a list, there's no telling what I'll bring home. Same with preaching. Without a list to go by, there's no telling what I'll deliver.

I have a three-by-five card taped to my desk with a list of questions on it. Once I've done my biblical spadework, I break for caffeine, then start in with the first question. I ask these questions every time I prepare a sermon.

In one sentence, what is this sermon about? When, on Tuesday, someone asks, "What are you preaching about Sunday?" I hope I can answer with one clear sentence. It may be similar to the big idea of the text, but it's more relevant.

What theological category would this fit under? Am I being theologically faithful? If the sermon is not theological, on some level, what is it?

What do I want my listeners to know? This question causes my sermon to engage the mind. What information does a listener need to know before he or she can act?

What do I want them to do? This is the application question, which focuses on my listeners' hands and feet. I must be as specific and practical as possible.

What do I want them to become? Now I'm going for the heart. What attitudes, priorities, and adjustments in lifestyle will this sermon address?

How does this sermon fit with the larger vision? This question helps me focus on the long view: How does this week's message move us toward our long-range goals? How does it fit into our church's vision statement? Is there a cohesiveness with what I've previously preached? A sense of direction?

So what? That is the relentless question of pragmatists: So what if the Philistines stopped up the wells dug by Isaac's father, Abraham? I didn't sign up for a class in ancient Middle Eastern history.

Oh really? Many people are conditioned by life to discount every promise they hear by about 90 percent. I try to imagine the broken promises and empty assurances people have had to face.

Do I believe this message will make a difference? Without this question, I could drift a long time before I'm conscious of growing cynicism or hopelessness. I can fake sincerity pretty well, but contrived passion is ugly to watch.

Has this sermon made a difference in my life this week? By this stage of preparation, I've spent many hours engaging the text and thinking about its implications for life. If it has not yet touched me, dare I believe it will touch anyone else in the thirty minutes I'll be in the pulpit?

Have I earnestly prayed for God to speak through me? As my friend Dennis Baker says, "Even a church service can get pretty interesting when God shows up." Have I met with him in the study? Am I expecting him to show up this Sunday?

Have I tried to make myself look better than I am? Who else besides us preachers can tell stories about ourselves without getting interrupted? If I'm not careful, I can abuse the privilege and select excerpts from my life that make me look smarter, funnier, and kinder than I'll ever be.

Will my listeners know I care about them? Love does cover a multitude of pastoral sins. If my flock recognizes my voice as that of a loving undershepherd, they will listen with ears of trust and faith. They'll know instinctively I have their best interests at heart.