Let’s face it. We have all seen their faces. Bill looks likely to snore at any moment. Cindy seems to be staring off into outer space. John’s iPhone has him on lock. The youth giggle flirtatiously. Even worse, you watched at least a dozen folks who attended Sunday School slyly exit the building before the service. You labored all week to deliver to your people a message from God’s Word, and it looks like three people appreciate it.
Eliminating the problem of disinterest includes returning to some simple concepts that are often taken for granted. For example, consider the “functional elements” of preaching. These elements constitute what the sermon does during the course of its delivery such as explanation, argumentation, illustration, and application.
- Explanation: Be as clear and concise as possible.
Preachers typically begin the body of the sermon after the introduction with some explanation of the text. This is as it should be. Yet, so often, we intrude on our own sermon with theological jargon or with Hebrew or Greek expressions from which no one will remember or benefit. Nobody cares that you can pronounce a Greek word. The look on their faces says so. What they want to know is, “What does this text mean for my life in 2018?” Strive to explain the meaning of the text as clearly, simply, and concisely as possible. Also, do not repeat yourself unnecessarily. Say it and move on. You will retain more listeners.
- Argumentation: Engage the doubters.
Admit it. You deal with a text that you know many in your audience will have questions about or perhaps even doubt is true. Unbelievers in the audience do not believe in the resurrection. Believers are scratching their head about what fish could have biologically handled the logistics of swallowing a man, etc. Stop and argue for the truth of the text. Engage unbelief and doubt. Avoid an over simplistic take-it-or-leave-it mentality. People disengage when it appears you do not care enough to persuade them with the truth.
- Illustration: Think Creatively and read widely
Illustrations are crucial to effective communication. However, I have found they can be a doubled-edged sword. Good illustrations grab the listener’s attention. They draw the congregation into the sermon. Ineffective illustrations, however, work just the opposite. If an illustration lands flat or (worse) it just does not connect, you can bet you have lost much of your audience. Diligently seek to secure the best possible illustrations you can. Dwell on the possibilities. Ask for help from others. Ensure you are reading widely to expose yourself to as much illustrative material as possible. Even ask church members what they are reading to glean from what is familiar to them.
- Application: Be specific!
Your introduction to the sermon was stellar. You can see it in their eyes. The audience is with you. They stay with you through your explanation of the text, and the illustration you chose connected. Then all of the sudden a communication warning light is blinking on the dash of the pulpit. The application the audience anticipated left them wanting. This misstep is one of the most frequent for beginning preachers in the classes I teach. They take for granted the need for specific application. Stellar explanation and illustration are often for naught if the sermon cannot stick the landing with clear, relevant, and specific application. The sermon must give specific answers to “so what?” and “now what?” or they are not worth listening to in the minds of many listeners.
- Finally and most importantly, infuse all of the above with passion.
We have all heard why Benjamin Franklin went to hear George Whitefield preach. To paraphrase, Franklin’s interrogator asked, “Why do you hear Whitefield preach when you don’t believe what he says.” Franklin replied, “I don’t believe what he says, but he does!” In short, Franklin saw a fire in Whitefield. Something was burning inside the man. It was a heart set on fire by his unquestionable conviction of the truth. It is good to seek to connect with one’s audience. However, as preachers, we often seek to connect more with our audience than we do with our God. We often fail to realize that an intimate walk with God will be obvious in the pulpit, and when it is obvious people will not be able to take their ears off of it. Sermons are set on fire when they are forged in God’s presence and by His power. If the sermon is set on fire, the audience will listen to it burn.