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Ten Steps You Can Take to Make Your Sermons and Preaching Better! (Part 5)

Friends: This booklet will be done soon and I will be giving it away on this blog. You might want to download this pdf and share it with your pastor or preacher. Step One was entitled “Do the Work!” Step Two was entitled “Develop a Clear Outline!” Step Three was entitled “Expository Versus Topical Messages!”  Step Four was entitled “Begin with a Great Introduction!”  Here’s Step Five:

This may remind you of your old high school math teacher.

STEP FIVE: Illustrate. Illustrate. Illustrate!
Everyone loves a good story. You can see the heads of a congregation lift up when a preacher says, “Let me illustrate . . .” or “Perhaps you heard the story about . . .” We need truth illustrated!

But unfortunately many of us preachers seem to think that if we have a few extra minutes, we must pack in more Scripture or more doctrine into our sermon. However, rather than adding more material, ask (long before you get into the pulpit), how might I illustrate this point? If you get your study done early, you might look for useful illustrations during the week.

Here are several practices that have helped me: Collect good illustrations. Witty sayings. Great quotes. Strong (short) stories. Reader’s Digest is a gold mine of possible sermon illustrations. Start a Word file with your illustrations. Don’t panic over some complicated filing system. Just file your illustration under the first word that comes to your mind (“Anger,” “Theology,” “Second Coming,” “Babylon Bee,” etc.). I’ve been collecting illustrations for over forty years and my Word file, if it were printed out, would be about 300 pages. (Drop me an email if you want my file. I give it away).

Allow the Lord to use your personality in your preaching. And in your use of illustrations. You do not need to be a stand-up comic. But practice telling your story or delivering your appropriate joke. Make sure it fits your point.

I once taught homiletics to a group of undergraduate students. In one class session I talked about illustrations and how, if one messes up a quote or illustration, the preacher should just keep going. I remember one student in his sermon trying to use the famous Jim Elliot quote (“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose”). The student botched the quote at the very beginning. He said something like, “As the missionary/martyr Jim Elliot once said, ‘He is no fool who loses what he couldn’t find to gain what he thought he had’”), and he kept going! I was roaring with laughter (inside), but was very proud of him for moving on with his message.

If all of life illustrates biblical truth — and it does — be observant of your everyday surroundings. Be careful not to be the hero of all your stories. Congregations appreciate a preacher who (occasionally) admits his own foibles.

I’ve been helped by the adage “Quantity equals quality.” What I mean is, collect all the illustrations you can — and many will prove to be useful and helpful.

I love finding gems from past preachers. For example, C.H. Spurgeon said to his students, “Men, when you speak of heaven, let your face radiate with the glories of the very presence of God. But when you speak of hell, then your everyday face will do.”

Keep a count of how many illustrations you use in your sermon. Most of us illustrate far too little! Make a note of which illustrations you use and when. Some people don’t buy into the idea that a good story is worth telling more than once.

Be careful not to exaggerate in your stories, especially if some in the congregation have some acquaintance with the incident you’re describing. Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, tells about one time when he was preaching on Sunday morning. He was to preach the same sermon twice — once to those of the early service and again to those in the second service. Between services he would meet with an elder or two for feedback and any tweaking that he might consider.

In the first service, Hybels told a story about a six car accident he saw during the week and used the story to illustrate some point in his sermon. After the first service concluded, he met with one of the elders who asked him, “Bill, was the accident you described the one on Wednesday over at such and such an intersection?” “Yes,” Bill said. “Bill,” said the elder, “did you forget that there were only three cars involved in that accident? You didn’t inflate the number just for sermonic impact, did you?”

Hybels says that at such times, “I hate accountability groups!” But then he says, “I realized that I had committed a small act of cosmic treachery by exaggerating the details of that story.”

C.H. Spurgeon said, ”An apt illustration sticks in the soul like a hook in a fish’s mouth.” As we conclude this section, I’ve got to give you two of my favorite illustrations: Here’s one from Leadership Journal: “In 1981 a Minnesota radio station made an announcement about a car which had been stolen in California. The police were staging an intense search for the vehicle and the driver, even placing radio ads to contact the thief. On the front seat of the stolen car sat a box of crackers that had been laced with poison to be used as rat bait. Now the police and the car owner were more interested in apprehending the thief to prevent him from eating the poison than to recover the car. So often, when we run from God, we feel it is to escape His punishment. But what we may actually be doing is eluding His rescue.”

And another favorite: Many years ago a little boy and his twin sister became lost in a small community outside Boston. After they were missing for several hours, the police were called and a search party was organized. Meanwhile, the little boy and girl both showed up when they heard the commotion as the search party got organized. They asked what was going on and were told that a little boy and girl had been lost. For the next two hours they helped search for themselves!

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Posted by on June 27, 2017 in preaching


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Ten Steps to Make Your Sermons and Preaching Better! (Part 4)

Friends: My new booklet is entitled “Ten Specific Steps You Can Take To Make Your Sermons and Preaching Better!” It will be done soon and I will be giving it away on this blog. It will be a pdf or ebook that you can download and share with your pastor or preacher. Chapter one was entitled “Step One: Do the Work!” Chapter two was entitled “Step Two: Develop a Clear Outline!”  Chapter Three was entitled “Expository Versus Topical Messages!”  Here’s Chapter Four:

I hope I don’t look like this when I’m older. Wait. I’m already older.

STEP FOUR: Begin with a Great Introduction!
In his excellent book, Introducing the Sermon: The Art of Compelling Beginnings, Michael Hostetler says that in football the two minute warning is at the end of the game. For preachers, he says, it is at the beginning! We can win or lose a congregation within the first two minutes of our sermon. So we had better start out well!

Hostetler discusses four contact points that he says ought to begin each sermon. These four contact points are: the secular, the biblical, the personal, and the structural. Here’s what he means by each:

By the secular contact point, he means that we begin our sermon with something in real life, a need, an issue, a situation that cries out for the biblical truth we are wanting to present. Many preachers begin their sermon with words like “Let us turn in our Bibles to . . .” That is beginning the sermon with the answer before we’ve even raised the question! Start with where people are. What are their challenges, their dreams, their catastrophes? Begin with something “secular,” something of this world, before you jump into the biblical world.

By the biblical contact point, Hostetler is referring to the Scriptures. “The Bible has a great deal to say about this issue of worry . . .”, the preacher might say. “Let’s take a serious look at Luke 12.”

By the personal contact point, he is referring to how the truth of the Scriptures applies to my daily life. The preacher might say, “We will see in Luke 12 some truth that will help you and me conquer the waste of worry!”

By the structural contact point, one introduces the keyword which will steer the sermon from one main point to the next. The preacher might say, “We will see in Luke 12 five wastes of worry . . .”

We preachers assume that we should start with the biblical (“Let’s turn in our Bibles to . . .”), but even believers need to know why they are turning to their Bibles. You would agree (I hope) that the Bible is the most practical book in the world. But that conviction is squeezed out of a lot of believers by the maps, the cross-references, the genealogies, and the Shakespearean language in our Bibles. We preachers need to make the case for the Bible’s practicality. But we must first raise the issue for which the Bible provides the truth we need.

A solid, four-contact-point-introduction will take time and effort to compose. And I would recommend that your introduction be written out so that you don’t miss any of the four contact points. Writing out those four contact points helps you ask the right questions: What is the need I’m addressing? What does God’s Word have to say on this topic? How can I personally be helped by the truths of this text? How should I logically think about this subject?

Confession time: I don’t always use this Hostetler-type introduction in my preaching. But, if I took the time to craft a well-thought-out first few sentences, I believe my sermons would be stronger, more practical, and easier to listen to for the congregation.

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Posted by on June 25, 2017 in preaching


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Ten Steps You Can Take to Make Your Sermons and Preaching Better! (Part 3)

Friends:  My new booklet is entitled “Ten Specific Steps You Can Take To Make Your Sermons and Preaching Better!” will be done soon and I will be giving it away on this blog.  It will be a pdf or ebook that you can download and share with your pastor or preacher. Chapter one was entitled “Step One: Do the Work!”  Chapter two was entitled “Step Two: Develop a Clear Outline!”  Here’s Chapter Three:

This might have been my picture when I was younger. Not sure.

STEP THREE: Expository Versus Topical Messages!
I heard about one preacher who received a compliment after his Sunday morning sermon. The elderly lady didn’t realize what she said, but what came out was, “You are one of the best suppository preachers I have ever heard!” [She obviously meant “expository”].

Expository messages are a means of working one’s way through an entire book of the Bible. They typically focus on one main text — the next section coming up in that study. Topical sermons, on the other hand, seek to give the overall Scriptures’ teaching on a particular subject from a number of passages.

Topical sermons are often quite helpful for those who are new to the faith. They give the preacher the opportunity to briefly explain the overall teaching of the Bible on a subject. One danger of topical sermons is that the preacher might only preach on the subjects that are interesting to him. He might begin riding his hobby horse. [Someone has asked, “What is the difference between riding a hobby horse and riding a real horse?” The answer? “You can get off a real horse!”]

Expositional messages, however, focus on one main text at a time. They are seeking to expose the point the passage is making. Exegesis, a fancy term which literally means “to lead out,” is the art of unfolding what is truly there in the passage. We can read into a passage what isn’t there — and that’s called “eisegesis.” If someone says to you, “Your sermon was the best example of eisegesis I’ve ever heard!”, they are not complimenting you.

I would recommend that most of your sermons ought to be of the expository kind. One advantage is that you are working your way through an entire book of the Bible. So if you are doing a sermon series on the Gospel of Matthew, and this Sunday’s message is on Matthew 19, no one can really complain that you spoke on the topic of divorce. That was your next preaching section!


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Posted by on June 23, 2017 in preaching


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Ten Steps You Can Take to Make Your Sermons and Preaching Better! (Part 2)


My new booklet is entitled “Ten Specific Steps You Can Take To Make Your Sermons and Preaching Better!” and I will be giving it away in the next few weeks after I have finalized it.

It will be a pdf or ebook that you can download and share with your pastor or preacher. Chapter one was entitled “Step One: Do the Work!”  Here’s the second chapter.

This might well be your pastor. I just don’t know.

STEP TWO: Develop a Clear Outline!
Most sermons we preach should have a strong outline so the congregation can follow the progression of the passage. Outlining takes some practice, but there is a real joy in seeing the congregation anticipating your next point because your outline is easy to follow.

One of the many mistakes I have made in preaching is failing to have a KEYWORD for my sermon. A keyword is a word you use in each of the major steps in your outline as you announce your next point. For example, a word like “thing” should almost never be used by a preacher: “The next THING we notice here in Luke 12 about worry is . . .” If the message is on the sin of worry, a far better keyword would be something like “aspect” or “failure” or “mistake.”

If I were going to preach on Luke 12:22-31, I would probably use the term “waste.” Here’s the passage:

22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life[b]? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

I might say, “The first WASTE of worry is that it causes us to devalue our lives (vv. 22-24).” “The second WASTE of worry is that it is unproductive (vv. 25-26).” “The third WASTE of worry is that it causes us to forget God’s care for us (vv. 27-28).” “The fourth WASTE of worry is that it can make us look like pagans (vv. 29-30).” “The fifth WASTE of worry is that it is a barrier to our seeking God’s kingdom (v. 31).”

Of course I would want to elaborate on (and illustrate) each of those points, but you see the value of a well-chosen keyword? Apart from the separate points, you are making an overall statement that worry is a WASTE!

If you have studied your text sufficiently, sometimes a keyword will jump out at you. But please don’t use the word “thing.” Ever again. Promise?

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Posted by on June 21, 2017 in preaching


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Ten Specific Steps You Can Take To Make Your Sermons and Preaching Better! (Step #1)


I will be giving away my new booklet entitled “Ten Specific Steps You Can Take To Make Your Sermons and Preaching Better!” in the next few weeks as I finalize it.

This is not me. Nor is this your pastor.

It will be a pdf or ebook that you can download and inflict on, I mean, give to, your pastor or preacher.  Here’s the first chapter.

Ten Specific Steps You Can Take
To Make Your Sermons and Preaching Better!

The American humorist Will Rogers reportedly said, “I refuse to accept my religion from anyone who earns his living only by the sweat of his jaw!”

Preaching is a tough business, but it is a primary, God-appointed means of communicating His truth. As refreshing and helpful as group Bible studies may be, there is no substitute for the clear, authoritative proclamation of God’s Word. And in our western context, that usually happens up front, behind a podium or lectern, with a hopefully attentive congregation listening.

I grew up preaching after getting saved as a teenager. And I’ve made every preaching mistake in the book. I’ve also taught homiletics and public speaking and have evaluated scores of sermons from students who paid for the class (and unsuspecting preachers who didn’t realize they were being critiqued for free).

So, here are ten specific steps you can take as a preacher of God’s Word that may well help you become more effective and more confident in your preaching.

STEP ONE: Do the Work!
There is no substitute for spending the necessary hours pouring over your biblical passage to understand what God is saying. Oh, sure, you or I can purchase sermons off the internet, but that’s just spiritual prostitution, don’t you think?

One great temptation for preachers is that we have an idea of what we want the text to say, and might be inclined to force that point onto the passage. As one ditty put it, “Wonderful things in the Bible I see — When they are put there by you and by me.” Make sure you’ve done the hard work of observation and interpretation before you jump to application. The great commentator William Barclay wrote, ”You will find a certain type of preacher and evangelist who claims that he is entirely dependent on the Holy Spirit. It is a blasphemous thing to saddle the Holy Spirit with the blame for rambling, wearisome, and unprepared effusions.” (Fishers of Men, p. 18).

I believe it was Donald Grey Barnhouse who was asked by one of his preaching students his opinion of the young man’s sermon. Maybe Barnhouse was having a bad day, but the story I heard tells us that Barnhouse said, “Son, if your text had had leprosy, your sermon would not have caught it!”

Doing the hard work of study will increase your confidence as a preacher. Time, of course, is of the essence. And some of us need to carve out sufficient time to do what we were called to do.

I try to blog on topics or texts that I will eventually preach on, so I’m trying to think ahead and not wait to the last minute to prepare my sermons. I’ve recently been doing a sermon series entitled “Jonah: Belief Contradicted by Behavior.” And I’ve been writing posts every day as I go through that short book. This particular set of posts won’t be published until a couple of months after I’ve preached the series, but it’s been a very useful exercise for me each morning. Start a WordPress blog. It’s free and will help you in your labor.

Walter Burghardt in his book Preaching: The Art and the Craft, said, ”To me, the unprepared homilist is a menace. I do not minimize divine inspiration; I simply suggest it is rarely allotted to the lazy.” Do the work. Ask God the Holy Spirit to guide you in making wise decisions about the time you invest in studying the passage you will preach on.

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Posted by on June 19, 2017 in preaching


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Time for a Good Sermon Outline! The Foolish Farmer (Lk. 12)

Some of you might be interested from time to time in my preaching outlines. Here is one I plan to use this coming Sunday (April 23) as I preach on the topic “What Jesus-Followers Believe about SECURITY — and Why.”

One may seek security in his or her popularity or power or possessions. Here’s the story found in Luke 12:

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

Here’s my preaching outline from this great text:

I. This Man’s One Request (v. 13)
II. Jesus’ Strange Response (vv. 14-15)
A. “That’s not my job!” (v. 14)
B. “Watch out for greed!” (v. 15)
III. A Pointed Parable (vv. 16-21)

Now, of course, this foolish farmer did not have a TV remote in his hand, but he was kicking back in his LaZboy recliner, having had a conversation with himself about life and comfort and the future.

Let me know if you use this outline.  Here’s a prayer I am praying over this upcoming sermon:

“Lord, I’m not all that different from this foolish farmer.  You’ve blessed my ‘crops’ — and I can easily find my security in my possessions or the comforts of life.  Remind me of eternity, Lord!  And bless all who read this blog.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.”

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Posted by on May 26, 2017 in Luke 12


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Preparing for the Christian Ministry Seminars at Emmaus Bible College Feb. 6-7, 2017


I’ve been invited to speak at Emmaus Bible College’s “Christian Ministry Seminars” this next month.  Past speakers have challenged the college students to give themselves to camping ministries, justice organizations, etc.screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-5-34-42-am  Perhaps because I’ve been in academia for over thirty years, I’ve been encouraged to give a series on a teaching/educational ministry.  The theme that immediately came to my mind was “Anti-Intellectualism Isn’t Spirituality.”  Here’s what I hope to accomplish in my four messages to the Emmaus student body:

Message #1- Message Thesis: “Our own history & the mood of the moment mitigate against the Christian’s use of the mind to love the Lord.”  I want to define anti-intellectualism and spirituality, as well as reflect a bit on both our Brethren history which discourages theological training and our present culture which assumes the Bible and Jesus-followers are opposed to the life of the mind.

Message #2- Message Thesis: “The Lord Jesus Christ, as our divine/human model, extolled and modeled the use of one’s mind in loving God in this world.”  I will survey how Jesus challenged us to love God with our minds and examine some of His use of both offensive and defensive logic in His earthly life.

Message #3-  Message Thesis: “The Apostle Paul in screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-5-38-50-amActs 17 models for us an engagement with his culture which uses his mind, connects him with his audience, and advances the gospel.” I look forward to going through Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill and seeing how God uses his intellect in reaching a diverse group of thinkers.  Not only was Paul not wrong in his approach, but he provides principles for us in reaching our post-Christian and anti-Christian world.

Message #4- Message Thesis: “There are specific, practical implications of a mind devoted to loving God in our world.”
Here I want to challenge all of us to take steps to connect with our lost world, to develop relationships with our lost friends, and to advance in our commitment to the godly use of our minds.  Some of the practical steps will include:  getting serious about friendships, surrendering our academic aspirations to the Lord, courageously critiquing our culture’s rejection of God (including reading what I call “Boiling Books” and doing good research), and some of us pursuing positions of influence in higher educational institutions.

Would a few of you commit to praying for me as I prepare these messages?  Let me know in the comment section below if you will lift me up before the Lord for this opportunity to influence these young people.




Posted by on January 11, 2017 in the mind


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