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Six Days to Sunday, Part 7 – How to Write Compelling Sermons

Sermons are boring.

People fall asleep during sermons. The jokes exist for a reason. The best speakers in the world have hearers fall asleep on them. It’s happened to everyone from Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama to Andy Stanley, Tim Keller, and you. It happens.

But it doesn’t have to happen. And you can do something to make sure it happens rarely. What you can do doesn’t happen as much during delivery as it does during the writing process.

Good sermons are the product of good writing. But compelling sermon writing isn’t technical as much as it’s philosophical.

A compelling sermon begins at 20,000 feet:

  1. Write a full-manuscript. Word for word. This will give you clarity of thought, plus you can give a copy to a co-worker or proof-reader to determine whether or not it flows and makes sense.
  2. Write in the Quiet. When you write a sermon, you’re a writer:  Think like one. That means writing when you’re at your best. Morning people should write in the morning, night people should write at night. The key is that you should write when you’re undisturbed. For instance, I work every Thursday. I’m never in the office on Thursday. It’s my writing day. And come Sunday morning, my church is grateful I can’t be found on Thursdays.

Yet all that is meaningless without compelling content. There are other things you need to know to strike a cord with your audience.

  1. Write like you talk.  It’s not a research paper. It’s not a vocabulary test. You’re not trying to impress anyone with your acumen. Your audience hasn’t been to seminary and they don’t want to go. They see you as a spiritual leader. While your heroes may be your college and seminary professors, your congregation doesn’t even know who they are. A sermon cannot be compelling if no one knows what you’re saying.
  2. Write your new bliss (conclusion) first. Force yourself to know where you’re going. You’ve already created a map using your storyboard, now is the time to precisely articulate your “new bliss”.  What’s more, writing the end first is a powerful editing tool and will keep you on track.
  3. Tell Stories. At some point someone will complain that you tell too many stories. Ignore them. Those folks are few and far between. If you were to sit down and ask 20 people about what they remember from their favorite sermons, they would remember stories, illustrations, and object lessons.
  4. Emotion Is Your Friend.  People feel things. I was raised and trained to do my best to exclude emotion from the worship service. That is stupid! When your hearers hear your sermons they are going to feel something. It’s your job to make sure that feeling isn’t boredom.
  5. Create A Tweetable Point: If you cannot distill the central idea of your sermon into one strong, compelling sentence it’s too dense. A thick sermon helps the speaker feel good but hearers are less interested in that than you would imagine. Adults only learn what they have to learn so leave out the unnecessary.
  6. Include a Call To Action. One reason people tune out sermons is the feeling they are irrelevant. A message that is little more than a thought experiment is nearly useless. Give your hearers something to do. You can’t make them do it but you can make sure they know what to do.
  7. Embrace Object Lessons. I know you think you’re a great speaker, all preachers do. Anchoring your sermon in a well used object lesson doesn’t take anything away from that. In one of my most well reviewed sermons, I used two jars and a bunch of small and big rocks. It hit the spot. Now, don’t go crazy! Using objects every week can become as stale as a week old cracker in the desert, but the judicious use of object lessons will take you far.

Compelling sermons have life-transformation at their core. Unfortunately many sermons are preached for information transfer. Everyone in your congregation can read. Everyone can look up information and cute stories about cats on the Internet, and the most dedicated lay-persons can buy their own Accordance software to look up that pesky little Greek word you might be tempted to conjugate during the sermon.

You’re needed for something else – lift, inspiration, to paint pictures of God’s ever-present goodness. You are there to reveal how compelling the gospel really is.

Go do it!

  • Sean,

    First, ditto on number four, and “stupid” may not be strong enough.

    Second, as a relatively new follower and preacher, when you write on Thursday are you writing for the following Sunday? I think from previous post you are preparing for the Sunday 3 days from Thursday. Have you ever tried to be a week ahead? What would be the pros and cons of preparing this Thursday for “10 days for now” Sunday. I hope this question makes sense.

    Daniel

    • It’s a little of both concerning Thursdays, Daniel. I’m ALWAYS doing revisions, edits, etc…for the week at hand. When things are going well, I’m also reading/writing/sketching sermons down the road. This allows the sermons, for me, to marinate for a while. I’m not terribly far ahead, but i find that I can make sermon series cohere a little better when I have the full series (text, stories, creative elements, etc…) in view. So, it’s a little of both. I recently saw a video of Tim Keller’s process, I was amazed that he is writing on the Saturday before the Sunday. I just couldn’t do that, but he seems to doing pretty well. 🙂

  • I find it compelling/engaging when the speaker bangs on the podium and waves his or her fists in the air. It’s all in the delivery. “Blood alone moves the wheels of history!” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXbbGycK_L4

  • daniel

    Sean,

    i learned a few months ago that Charles Stanley always finishes his sermons on Saturday night as well. I have done that, but it restricts my creativity.
    Brandon, what a great episode.

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