A burly husband sitting stage left released a yawn, stretched his arm around his wife, and cocked his wrist to check his watch. About twenty minutes had passed in my exposition of “the fear of the Lord” in Proverbs 1:7. I explained how God has made himself an object of human knowledge and that we must live “in the fear of Lord” by reorienting our lives around that revelation. I was studying at Dallas Theological Seminary and my sermon would have earned an “A” in my position paper on special revelation, but I didn’t preach it in a relevant way for my hearers.
Instead, I used technical language friendly to seminarians and academics without connecting the divine text to the living bodies in front of me. So, I learned my lesson from the bearded, no-nonsense church-goer who became more interested in the long-hand of his watch after my second proposition.
My lack of gestures, exuberance, or intonation didn’t bore him—I feel like I preach as if I’m in the closing act of an Avenger’s movie. My diction, seemingly irrelevant truth-statements, and illustrations were all disconnected from their common experiences. Years later, his yawn remains etched in my memory and has led me to study and reflect on what makes a relevant sermon.
The four principles outlined here provide a simple method for engaging, equipping, and encouraging your hearers with the Word of Life. They’re meant to help you refine and shape the raw, spiritual gold of your study into shiny coins your people recognize, want, and can have freely to take with them.
Speak their language
Your hearers will not know what you mean when you invite them into the divine, perichoretic dance between Father, Son, and Spirit just like they won’t understand when you illustrate your point with a chi squared distribution model. Let’s face it—it’s hard to preach in the language of our hearers, but we can do it as long as we practice it diligently.
During your exegesis and theological study, you’re converting the language of the academics into your own language of understanding. It’s tempting to stop translating there, but we mustn’t. The language by which you understand the text will not be the language by which your hearers will understand it. So translate your sermon content into their language the moment you begin creating your main points and outlining your sermon.
Paul exemplifies this principle in Acts 17:16–34 when he stayed in Athens and preached at the Areopagus. He didn’t preach only in Hebrew categories, but used Greco-Roman language and culture to convey Jewish theology and Christ’s place in it. Notice what he did:
-He entered the city observed their way of life (Acts 17:16).
-He listened to them and understood them (Acts 17:17).
-He used their language while preaching divine truth (Acts 17:23, 28).
Like Paul, we too must swim in the linguistic and conceptual world of our listeners. Read their newspapers, watch their favorite movies, eat at their favorite restaurants, play at their favorite parks, and devour their favorite books. Use the stories and images they’re familiar with. What language do mothers, businessmen, or teachers use? Let’s learn, and preach the gospel to them in their own language.
Address their problems
If they are able to understand what you say, then they need to know what you say is for them. Each face staring at you on Sunday morning represents a problem-filled, broken life. Some problems may be small: “I’m irritated at my neighbor because his cottonwood pollutes my yard with its gobs of seeds.” Others may be big: “My ten-year-old has Leukemia.”
Biblical, gospel-centered solutions do not necessarily make problems go away, but they equip us with a better way of thinking an unshakable hope, a light for our paths, and the strength to make it to the next hour. Only God through his Word and by his Spirit can give these things. Discover their problems and preach with their problems in mind.
I caught glimpses of this important principle when I began my preaching journey speaking to teenagers in central Texas as a college student. The more I addressed their problems—like combative siblings, absent parents, unreliable friends, bullies, etc.—the more their eyes glued to mine, their minds weighed my words, and their hearts opened to receive God’s message. Addressing the teenager’s problems gave me a far different response compared to the time I spoke to a youth group in Lorena contrasting worship in the Spirit (John 4) with the beliefs and practices of Buddhism.
So, as you brainstorm and outline the content of your sermon, think of their problems—big and small. Consider how they are struggling and where they need hope or strength. Some may even need a sharp rebuke (Titus 1:13). Use an illustration or give them a promise from the text that will impart what they need.
The gospel you preach waits to heal, restore, and renew the lives of your hearers through the pressure-points they face. Often, it’s their problems that form the table at which you can sit and share the good news. Learn their issues and allow God to instruct your tongue to sustain the weary ones with his Word (Isaiah 50:4).
Answer their questions
Every Sunday inquiring minds will read the text you’re expositing and discover puzzles that lead to difficult questions. How are Caiaphas and Annas both high priests? Does science nullify Adam and Eve? Is it wrong to invest in mutual funds with alcohol manufacturers? Can non-Christians take the Lord’s Supper? Then they will ask, “Why?”
Recently, I’ve prepared a sermon on Psalm 139. The illustrious praise of this cherished poem turns on a dime to imprecations like, “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God” and, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord … I hate them with a complete hatred” (Psalm 139:19, 21–22). Certainly the non-Christians in the audience will ask, “Do Christians pray this today?” while the Christians will ask, “How does this relate to Jesus’ command ‘Love your enemies?’” To keep my hearers from dwelling on these intense questions throughout the sermon, I chose to answer them at the front end—which also provides a bit of context for the whole psalm.
Read the text through the differing lenses of your congregants. Choose a few important questions they may ask. The Holy Spirit may work through answers of stated questions to answer unstated ones. Then find the best place to address them in your sermon outline and do so.
We should follow Paul’s example in 1 Corinthians. Much of 1 Corinthians consists of Paul addressing problems and answering questions as he responded to the elders of Corinth who wrote him a letter filled with their questions and updates on the church. Even if they were simple, he respected the people and took the questions seriously. He displayed how the gospel is relevant in their lives by using the gospel to answer their questions.
Also, don’t be afraid to tackle the difficult questions/issues. Jonathan Edwards, America’s brilliant philosopher-theologian, made it his habit to anticipate the most difficult questions or rebuttals against his arguments, and then he addressed them. Of course, sermons aren’t philosophical treatises, but posing and answering those difficult questions displays to your hearers that you take the Bible seriously and that you are preparing your sermon with your hearers in mind. They will love you and respect you for it.
Fill their hands
The fourth principle differs from the first three because it is not a response to your listeners. It’s what allows your hearers to respond to the text. In the first three principles, God’s Word travels to the life-dirt they’re standing on. The last principle gets them moving out of that dirt onto the trail of spiritual growth by giving them a new way of thinking or new habits. But they won’t grow spiritually unless you give their hands something to grab.
Paul does this in Romans 12–15 after his longest exposition of the gospel in Romans 1–11. In Romans 12–15, Paul attaches handle bars to his doctrine. In practical fashion, he tells us how we should respond to the truths we’ve learned: “Celebrate with those who celebrate … pay taxes … welcome the weak in faith ….”
For your sermon, keep the propositions and applications short, precise, concrete, and stated in the affirmative—whenever possible. Rather than telling them what to let go, encourage them to grab something better. Teach them sin is ugly by showing them the attractive beauty of godliness. Instead of saying, “Don’t lie,” say, “Mirror your words to what happened.” Use negations when you unfold your point’s meaning, but build your outline upon the affirmative.
To briefly illustrate, here are my three points from a sermon I preached on Hebrews 13:15–25.
-Preach to yourself God’s promises (Hebrews 13:20–21)
-Posture yourself in praise (Hebrews 13:15)
-Press on in doing good (Hebrews 13:16)
I aimed for visual verbs stated in the affirmative which allowed me to fill them out with colorful applications as I expanded upon the point. It was just icing on the cake that they all started with the letter P.
Cement actions and beliefs to the truth of your text using illustrations from everyday life. Repeat the short points so that they imbibe meaning from your illustrations and explanations for your hearers—this will stick your point in their hands like Velcro.
We also do our hearers a huge favor if we limit our core ideas and imagery to just a few. I’ve listened to a godly man pour out his passion on Sunday morning giving us five points of doctrine, twenty-five illustrations, and seven points of application. It was like watching a ten-minute movie with two hours of commercials. We could understand him, some of his sermon might have been helpful, but we could hardly grab any of it. People duck when you throw twelve rocks at once.
Your hearers want to walk out of the church doors carrying spiritual gold they can use. We can make it easy for them by doing the arduous work of crafting our words.
William Brohaugh, in his book Write Tight, says a writer should, “… talk about what they [the readers] want you to talk about; once you have their attention, tell them what they need to hear.” If preachers follow a similar strategy, people will listen more attentively as we address what they don’t want to hear so long as we are relevant in what they do want to hear.
Think through each principle as you brainstorm the content of your sermon as well as when you outline and manuscript it.
Apply each principle by answering these questions:
Principle 1: How can I make this message clear and simple in their language?
Principle 2: What problems do they have which this passage addresses or can even solve?
Principle 3: What questions might they ask if they were reading this passage?
Principle 4: What truths or actions should they carry with them when they leave? How can I craft them to make them memorable so they can carry them?
Aaron Massey serves as a staff writer for Insight for Living Ministries, preaches regularly in Texas churches, and blogs at agmassey.com.