30 Sermon Do's and Don'ts

Some personal guidelines, observations and suggestions for the individual preparing for public ministry and preaching:

  1. Don’t preface any scripture reading with “…you’ve probably heard this before…’ or ‘..you’re probably quite familiar with this scripture….”.  Instead, read your scriptures boldly and without excuse.  You thought it was important enough to include—then it must be important enough to read confidently.  Don’t give the congregation a reason to tune you out.


  1. Don’t tell stories and then just throw in a scripture to ‘make it seem like a sermon.’  Instead, let your scriptures be the basis of your message—let your stories have the purpose make your scriptures and spiritual lessons come to life.


  1. The greatest of all scripture teachers use metaphors and analogies—you do the same. When God created us in his image—he divided our brains into two parts—right and left.  The right side possesses the emotions, arts, feelings, etc; the left, our reasoning skills, logic, etc.  Jesus knew that effective teaching speaks to BOTH sides of a person’s brain—the feelings and the logic.  He never taught a principle (housed in the left side) without relating it to a situation in life that people had felt and experienced (right side).  Engage the right brain/left brain when you speak, that is speak to the logical and emotional sides of people’s brains.  When both halves ‘understand’ the message, true learning occurs.


  1. Teach from God’s word.  It is your primary responsibility.  Choose the more difficult task of changing the culture to conform to God rather than transforming God’s word to fit the culture.  Don’t be afraid to teach.


  1. While it may seem personally significant to you, don’t spend the first ten minutes telling how you really weren’t sure what you were going to talk about.  Instead, introduce your talk with a spirit-catching introduction, and get down to business.  (That is, start telling what it is you came to tell).  When you’ve only got 20 minutes to share the message, don’t use 10 minutes telling about how you really weren’t sure what you were going to talk about.  It may seem profound to you, but, like the old saying goes ‘..you had to be there…’  If the congregation wasn’t ‘there,’ little spiritual value exists in rehearsing this.


  1. Never, Ever, EVER say ‘I really didn’t want to be here today.’  Oh sure, you might get some sympathetic snickers from your wife or kids, but in doing so, you’ve just tuned out about 70% of the listening congregation.  You are there.  It is your calling.  You are on God’s errand.  Don’t waste their time, and don’t excuse yourself from performing your very best for the Lord.  What’s more, if you combine this excuse with the bombshell of ‘what I’m about to say, you’ve heard before…’ you’re guaranteed to tune out another 29%.  The 1% left listening may be your spouse (…maybe).  Don’t give anyone a reason to believe that what you came to share is not important, worthwhile, or beneficial for ones spiritual/emotional/social livelihood.  Share instead that you are happy to have opportunity to serve our God by sharing His good word that day.  If sincere, you will catch the heart of the listeners.


  1. Focus your message.  Sometimes you hunt with a shotgun, sometimes a rifle.  Sermons can be like these hunting tools:  one spreads out in a broad direction, covering a large area hoping to hit something in the general direction of the shot path; the other focuses a specific projectile toward a specific object.  Sermons that touch multiple topics can have a great purpose, but should still fall under an obvious umbrella of thought.  If no central theme seemingly exists to unrelated stories, the talk can ‘go all over the map’ and leave your audience with little to grasp.  Also, the overall message of sermons with focus tend to be remembered more that messages which wander.  Before your sermon, try to summarize your purpose in a single sentence.  Do your scriptures, stories, illustrations, object lessons, words, all reflect this purpose? 


  1. Pretend each hearer who came to your sermon had to pay a $10 entrance fee.  Time is the most perishable of all goods.  People gladly buy tickets to hear a good musician perform, or hear a motivational speaker engage his audience.  Why?  Because they value the benefit derived from spending time listening to this person is worth more than the price of the ticket.   While people are not ‘paying’ you for speaking, you are in control of that hour of their life.  Is your message going to make it worth their time?  Know that people are giving you something more dear than their money—they are giving you their time.  Make them not regret how they spent their hour with you.


  1. Know your audience if possible.   A sermon for non-members may be different than one for a priesthood retreat, for example.  Knowing the spiritual/social/emotional needs of who’s listening can increase your sermon’s effectiveness.  At the same time, yield to the Spirit.  If you’ve had experiences with God’s Spirit moving your thought process, follow it.  You may be witnessing to people who need your message, whether or not you are aware.


  1. Preaching by the spirit.  This phrase has been known to cause some consternation in preachers.  This statement, while profoundly true, does not mean you don’t prepare ahead of time and does not mean you can not make notes, if desired.  Preaching by the spirit connotes more than just an impromptu message to people, hoping God steers the verbal ship instead of you.   Instead, preaching ‘by the Spirit’ implies that God has formulated every thought and principle you share via His Spirit—and it is His thoughts that you represent, not just mans’ thought.  This process can and does start well before the appointed time to speak, if we are living in the Spirit.  Certainly, there were those who God said to take no thought beforehand what to say, but bear in mind he was also talking to his disciples who had lived and walked and talked with the Master.  They lived in a level of the spirit that we may or may not attain.  These men spent the good hours of their day (each day) in focused prayer (Acts 6).  If the Spirit of God is upon you (only you can know), then you will have mountain-top experiences—piece by piece, little by little, directing your thoughts to the sermon, talk, study, etc.  You can write these down and organize them.  This is not contrary to God.  God said that His glory is intelligence—in other words, we also can glorify God by using the intelligence He gave you to put your thoughts in a logical pattern.


  1. If you have a ‘message’ you really intend for people to hear—not really God—don’t use a prayer as a means to encapsulate the message you really intended for people.  If you’ve been in any congregation long enough, you’ve probably heard it—more than once.  A person’s prayer (supposedly) to God contains much verbage seemingly directed more towards the people (perhaps chasetisement) than God.  This is not the way to pray or to preach.  Don’t direct hidden messages in a prayer to a person, ‘hoping’ they are listening to you because you really just want to expose their flaws, faults, hoping they will ‘get the point.’  Never ‘preach’ to people during your vocal prayer.  Scripture gives much better direction in dealing with interpersonal issues like these.  For instance, rather than preaching through prayer, what would be more appropriate (and scripturally correct) is for the priesthood member to make personal attempts to resolve conflict with the individual(s) prior to occupying the pulpit.  Don’t pretend to be sharing a matter with God if that isn’t your 100% only reason for praying it.  Think God doesn’t know the difference?.  ‘Prayer without real intent profits nothing (Moroni 7:8).  Keeping God’s commandments invites God’s spirit to reside in power within us. 


  1. Discern between emotion and the spirit—within yourself.  This one may sting a little because it is both sensitive and indicting. Discerning between God’s Spirit and our own human emotion takes spiritual maturity.  Now when the Spirit of God rests strongly on a person, human emotional expressions most certainly accompany:  perhaps tears may flow, volume may increase (or decrease), passion may swell.  All of this is good if it is ‘Spirit induced.’  However, it is perfectly within our capability as humans to display these emotions when the spirit is not influencing us.  This can actually happen during a sermon.  Emotional responses in the absence of the Spirit can leave a listening congregation inwardly confused.  It is good to be aware of the subtle differences as a speaker as well as listener.


  1. Prayer and fasting is good in preparation for a sermon, but try the prayer and fasting before you’re even asked to preach.  For many, it is easier to pray and listen to the still small voice before a sermon assignment has been added to your workload.  If you maintain regular prayer and fasting, the workload of a sermon will not be work at all.  The purpose of fasting is to allow us to have a greater portion and awareness of God’s Spirit (DC 42:5b, DC 63:16a).  If we are in the spirit, we can be in tune with the mind and will of God.  If we are in tune with God’s mind and will, spiritual thoughts will abound--sermons will not be a struggle.  Prepare when you don’t have to!  The best time to start preparing for a sermon is before you are asked to speak!  Never let yourself get caught with the ‘What am I going to speak about’ blues.  Keep in a daily spiritual frame of mind and your problem will not be ‘what do I say?’ but ‘how am I going to narrow down everything the Lord has shown me!’


  1. You might not need to recite every scripture you studied in preparation…  Often, many scriptures support a prophetic point or spiritual principle.  During ones study and preparation, one may read every scripture available on a particular subject.  Now, the fact that you’ve looked them all up, highlighted and have your books’ pages dog-eared to every one, does not mean that you necessarily NEED to use EVERY ONE in your sermon.  Don’t misunderstand:  This is not suggesting that a lot of scripture is not appropriate; rather, the point is that scripture needs to be delivered in a manner that helps the listener’s mind to follow the progression of thought.  For instance, don’t read six disjunctive passages in row without intermediate comment (for example) and expect your audience to follow your thought process.  It might make sense in your head, but…..Much of your study may simply be for your spiritual preparation in order to speak on a subject.  In other words, don’t feel obligated to include each of the 150 verses you looked up the week before when you deliver your message.  Use the ones that say it best, and people will get the idea.  Besides, don’t count on people to retain every verse you recite.  (Now in a teaching setting, where handouts are prepared, or enough time allows the looking up of many scriptures to cover a point, providing exhaustive lists is very appropriate.  Just beware that in a sermon setting, an audience can be lost if many disjunctive scriptures are pasted together without enough verbal glue to hold them in the listener’s mind.)


  1. Make sure your sermon calls for action and response from the listeners.  Good sermons offer a purpose and call the sinner to action.  Not only calling for change, but offering steps to change—this is the heart of ministry—teaching application, not reciting theory.  Change might mean repentance and baptism; change could encourage mending of relationships, etc.  In either case, don’t just ostracize—offer guidance.  Especially if this is an area you’ve had personal experience—for instance, when you offended someone, then went to him/her to correct the breach.  People want to, they need to hear your successes/failures if it can help then walk a more Christ-like life.



  1. Don’t bemoan your inadequacies as a minister for God from the pulpit.  Not that we don’t confess our weakness, but don’t spend the whole talk on it.  It may be appropriate to ask for prayers in your behalf, but if you’ve got a spiritual fence to mend with someone—mend it before you get in the pulpit.  We are all weak and sinners, but if we spend all our breath expounding our faults, there comes a time when the hearers need to respect you for what you bring.  You can be your own worst enemy.  You don’t really want the congregation rhetorically agreeing with your every personal cut-down, or self expression of inadequacy.


  1. Pray John’s prayer—that Jesus may increase and we may decrease (John 3:31).  Don’t look for personal glory from humans for your pulpit ministry.  If they benefit, give God the glory.  It can be hard to take a compliment if someone received ministry, but don’t judge ‘success’ by the quantity of comments made in the foyer after your ministry.  A big head is a serious spiritual handicap.  Cloak your shimmering spiritual armor with the mantel of Humility.


  1. Look to God’s spirit for your (only) reward.  Again, don’t base your success on comments—quantity or quality.  Book of Mormon servants received for their ‘wages’ the Grace of God (Mosiah 9:59).  They also didn’t choose their message based on what would make them ‘popular.’  Their message was God’s Word; their wage was God’s Spirit—the most awesome power one can possess.  If you would rather trade God’s reward for peoples’ words, ….well, Jesus said ‘you have your reward.’  You have your reward—comments from humans rather that strength from God.  Don’t misunderstand--it is bad to get good feedback either—we all inwardly desire to know that what we share can be useful to others.  The issue becomes this:  desire. When the purpose becomes trying to get people to ‘like you’ or be impressed with you, or revere you because of your God-given ability to speak publicly, you are in the first steps of diminishing your own gift.


  1. Be aware of time.  A noted public speaker was asked by a beginning speaker ‘How to deliver a good speech to an audience.’  The seasoned speaker responded ‘First, you develop an attention getting introduction, then you add a dynamic conclusion….then you put them as close together in your talk as possible!’  Remember the adage, ‘The mind can only absorb as much as the seat can endure.’  Be aware of time. 


  1. Make eye contact—watch the non-verbal expression of your audience.  You can learn to tell if they are following your thoughts.  If direct eye contact feels uncomfortable, a speaker does not have to always look directly at the congregation—focusing 1-2 feet about the heads of all who are seated gives the appearance of direct eye contact, and will leave the people to knowing your focus was on them and not the pulpit.


  1. Use object lessons to illustrate your point.  Here is an example.  If you wanted to illustrate the skills one needs to be an effective witness for Christ (such as having God’s word, Spirit, following his leadings, being willing to teach, etc.) you might show two fishing poles.  One could be complete with rod, reel, line, lure, hook, etc; the other may be a broken rod with no line, lure, broken reel, etc.  Then compare the points of a functional fishing pole to the elements a missionary needs.  If one of them is missing, one may not be able to catch fish in the lake; likewise, if a spiritual principle is lacking in a missionary’s life, he or she may not be able to catch souls for Christ.  You get the idea.  Object lessons can be very effective.  While not needed for every sermon, an effective object lesson, familiar to the hearer and well taught can remain in a hearers mind for the rest of their life.  Use them sparingly, but don’t be afraid to use them.  Every Biblical parable of Jesus contained an object lesson of various types.  Know too, that object lessons will reach a wider audience—kids will get your point, not just adults.


  1. Commit scripture to memory.  Develop the ability to ‘read’ a scripture while making eye contact with your congregation.  (I.E. don’t make them follow the top of your head while your eyes are buried in your bible or notes.)  Sometimes an effective, non-verbal way to convey sincerity is by demonstrating your commitment to the scriptures you’ve selected.  If you share some from memory during your talk (even paraphrased is OK), it conveys to the listener your added earnest, and simultaneously solidifies your understanding.


  1. Do resolve interpersonal conflicts before you preach.  In other words, don’t abuse your power of a captive audience and ‘grind a public or personal axe’ during your sermon.   Unfortunately it happens:  a person asked to preach has an unresolved conflict with a member of the congregation.  Don’t ever use your position of authority from preaching to decide to get the ‘upper hand.’  Don’t smugly believe that no one else knows your ‘hidden message’ and can air dirty laundry and the pulpit will protect you.  A person in this trap thinks he is getting the last word in, but disguising it so no one else knows.  While no one else may know, the person it was directed it towards will know, and may resent the speaker for evermore.  Again, resolve your personal conflicts before you preach.  If not, you may injure someone for life.


  1. Don’t waste time or words.  Be succinct.  Pray for this ability.  Mentally practice describing spiritual principles in as few words as possible.  Enough said.


  1. Remember, YOU Represent Jesus Christ as His appointed emissary.  Look the part, speak the part.  This does not require sophistry, but sincerity. 


  1. ‘When in doubt….Don’t’  This means, if you share a story that may be too graphic, or embarrassing to your companion, or suggestive or in any way could make someone feel uncomfortable, if there is the least bit hesitation in sharing it, this may be a good sign not to share it at all.  (For instance,  don’t embarrass your wife from the pulpit by telling a private health problem of hers).  Also, be aware of the appropriateness of topics or examples with young children present—you don’t want parents covering their children’s ears in fear they will hear something ‘too old’ or inappropriate for them.


  1. Remember the need to call sinners to make their covenant through faith, repentance and baptism according to Jesus’ gospel.  If not you, then who?  Preaching is the basis for bringing people to Christ.  You need to know that essentials of the plan of salvation, God’s covenants and purpose in this world.  Sort out the difference between social topics and spiritual ones.  Your time behind the pulpit is God’s time—be sure to use it for His cause and purpose.  (If the plan of salvation is a little fuzzy, read The Plan of Salvation in Two Minutes).


  1. If it is your first time to preach—give yourself some ‘pre-game’ confidence.  Go to the church the day before, for example, and see what it looks like to stand in the pulpit and look out on the (empty) pews.  Up till now, you may have spent your whole life comfortably looking up at the rostrum from the pews, and never had the mental picture from ‘up front.’  If so, don’t let the first time you view the congregation from the pulpit be the first moment when you stand to begin your sermon. Even a small congregation can seem much larger than you imagined—don’t psych yourself out if that view may daunt you.  Go to the church ahead of time and give yourself a confidence boost.


  1. Be prepared for Satan to thwart your efforts.  Seems like many ministers confess they suffered their hardest week of work ever the week prior to preaching.  Any coincidence?  Be aware that Satan will keep your name on a bulletin board somewhere and work overtime to bog down your spiritual process.  Call on God for help.  You are in God’s service.  He can and will overcome and be victorious through you.  Your public ministry can do immense good for Christ—don’t let Satan’s most victorious tool of despair overcome you.


  1. And for the best idea, Pray that God would bless you with the great gift of preaching.  This is not a ‘one-time’ prayer; pray it throughout the life of your life of ministry.  Scripture records that certain individuals had such a gift of speaking the word, that those who heard could not stand in their presence. Many people tend to shy away from pulpit ministry, perhaps it’s because few desire the gift.  Surely, our Heavenly Father desires to bless those who seek to magnify Him through the spoken word, by outpouring His gift upon those who ask.   God will answer this prayer if you desire it with all your heart.