What makes a good sermon? Duane Kederman, of Christian Classics Ethereal Library, sought to find out some answers to this question, so he enlisted a target group to provide feedback. Listeners stated several variables which made some sermons better than others. Effective sermons are clear, well-organized, and communicate on the listener’s understanding level. They employ frequent use of images, stories, and word pictures which cause the sermon to flow toward a stated goal. They communicate biblical truth, not just pastoral opinions, and effective sermons are transformational. Listeners are changed as a result of hearing and engaging with the sermon.
Preaching to modern culture is a task which requires the empowering of the Holy Spirit along with the preacher’s hard work to become the most effective communicator possible. Today’s listeners are exposed constantly to the internet, television, and videos which sizzle in terms of communication. Communicational excellence is an absolute requirement of effective preaching today.
One characteristic of excellent communication today is through incorporating surprise into your sermon. Keep listeners engaged and desiring to hear more. Surprise them along the way so your listeners will hear the truth of the Gospel in fresh, innovative, inspiring ways. The worst form of preaching is the one that you use time and again with no variation. Vary your sermons, especially if your congregation hears you weekly. At times, preach a biographical or auto-biographical sermon. At other times, preach a narrative. Preach didactic sermons and then preach as a biblical character. Keep your congregation challenged through your preaching. Surprise them. Avoid going down the same, well-worn sermon ruts each Sunday.
For years, the old sermon cliché was that the preacher would have three points and a poem. Most likely, the points would alliterate. This style was effective preaching, according to many preachers and listeners. However, today’s culture processes information differently than previous generations. Modern sermons still have structure and flow toward an intended destination. However, surprises along the way will keep listeners attentive and engaged.
Other than style, what are other surprises which you may incorporate into your sermon? First, a surprising statement or quote communicates effectively with listeners. Sound bites are often what congregants remember from a sermon. They are what sermon listeners post on social media from the sermons they hear. For example, a statement such as, “Being in a valley does not mean that you made a wrong turn” will grab attention and speak to hearers. If you work hard to develop such sound bites, they are welcome surprises along the way to the hearers and will have them listening throughout the sermon for more sound bites. Often, a powerful quote from a respected theologian or authority surprisingly drives home truth in an effective way.
Second, humor is a way to incorporate surprise into the sermon. A well-placed touch of humor keeps the attention of the congregation while developing warmth between the preacher and listeners. Humor for the sake of humor is never appropriate, nor is off-colored humor. There is no place for either in a sermon. However, a humorous story or one-liner may punctuate a point and surprise the congregation while making them want to listen further to what you say. If the listener has drifted during your message, humor often brings them back.
Third, videos and drama may be welcomed surprises in the course of a sermon. Again, the video or drama must not be unrelated to the sermon topics, but a well-placed drama or video may speak directly to the hearers while keeping the sermon fresh and applicable. These break up the sermon’s flow of simply words being spoken to engaging more of the senses in the Gospel message.
Fourth, a slow reveal of information may be a surprise to incorporate into your sermon. As you reveal more information about the sermon topic, the hearer learns more while processing spiritual truth and applying it to life. For example, our church members mention frequently to me one of the sermons I preached at Christmas. In the sermon, I preached on the city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. The sermon was a slow reveal of information, going from what the city was known for in the Old Testament, to what it was known for in the New Testament, to what the city is known for today. I spoke of how sacrificial lambs were born and raised in Bethlehem to be the sacrificial sheep in Jerusalem. I spoke of how they ewes would be taken indoors into a manger, or Tower of the Flock, to give birth. Then, how the perfect lambs without blemish or spot would be wiped down with swaddling clothes and then wrapped to keep warm. As I slowly revealed the information, the congregation drew the parallels to the birth and mission of Jesus, even without my saying anything. The information
Surprises which enhance the sermon may be accomplished within the message itself. There is no need for antics, such as preaching from a rooftop, swallowing a goldfish, or riding a Harley onto the platform, in order to surprise the congregation. I believe such antics or theatrics cheapen the Gospel message. Instead, work hard to incorporate surprises into your sermon text and delivery. Keep listeners, who are accustomed to sizzling communication in our culture, engaged and on the edge of their seats, not knowing what is coming next in the sermon. Surprise them along the way as they are hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Greg Ammons is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Garland, Texas, and Adjunct Professor at Dallas Baptist University.