30 Sermon Do's and Don'ts
Some personal guidelines, observations and
suggestions for the individual preparing for public ministry and
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Focus your
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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!’
- 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.)
- 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
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.
- 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.
- 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
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.
- 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
the adage, ‘The mind can only absorb as much as the seat can
endure.’ Be aware
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- Don’t waste
time or words. Be
succinct. Pray for
this ability. Mentally
practice describing spiritual principles in as few words as
- Remember, YOU
Represent Jesus Christ as His appointed emissary. Look the part, speak the
part. This does not
require sophistry, but sincerity.
- ‘When in
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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- And for the best
idea, Pray that God would bless you with the great gift of
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.