On the second weekend of November, I had the opportunity to go home and preach at the Men’s Day celebration of the church that licensed and ordained me, the Macedonia Baptist Church of Newport News, VA. I don’t get to preach as often as I would like (what non-pastor does), therefore I find it essential to make the most out of every opportunity I receive. If I am not careful, this could result in me developing a sermonic message that tries to do too much, takes too long to give, or uses language that is far too erudite to be practically useful.
Thus, I developed a simple rubric to help me avoid these and other pratfalls of preaching intermittently. Using the “four C’s of effective preaching” is no guarantee of homiletical success, but it helps me preach in a way that is authentic to my personality, skills, an aptitude. For me, effective preaching adheres to the principles of being clear, concise, compact, and compelling.
Clear – Clarity in preaching comes before one word of the sermon is ever composed. Any pericope of scripture is sure to have so much quality information packed in it, that one can easily develop a message that has many great individual ideas that do not logically cohere. To avoid this, after doing the research work, it is helpful to develop a proposition statement. The proposition is essentially the gist of the entire sermon in one sentence (or two). It does not have to be explicitly stated in your sermon, though that would be nice. However, you want it to be the main takeaway that the congregation has from hearing your message. Therefore, every point you make in your sermon ought to have a direct connection to this proposition, if not then you risk incoherence.
Concise – The average adult attention span is 15 to 20 minutes. Why do preachers insist on preaching upwards of 30 to 45 minutes? Pastors can get away with preaching that long, assuming they have garnered the trust, authority, and respect of their congregations. Intermittent preachers, we do not have that luxury. I try to keep my messages between 20 and 25 minutes (though I am not always successful in this) because I don’t want to use up the good will of the congregation who is listening to someone who is not their pastor. The proposition statement is the key to concise sermons. If their is one major takeaway that I want the congregation to have from my message, then every point, every story, every illustration must explicitly relate to the proposition. The etymology of the greek word “logos” may be very interesting and thought provoking, but if it doesn’t illuminate your proposition, save it for another message, or better yet, the Bible study.
Compact – Being concise does not mean that you have to deliver a message without substance. You can get a lot accomplished in 25 minutes, you just have to be creative and judicial in your use of words. Do not draw out your sermonic illustrations, find the clearest, most articulate way to express your points, use mnemonic devices (such as alliteration) to help the congregation remember your points, and develop transitions that recall past points and connect them to the next. I also try to bring in one resource outside of the text and my personal reflection to help connect the message to something practical happening in the world. I can be accused of having too much content, but in doing this I increase the chances that more people will connect to and remember the sermon’s proposition.
Compelling – One of my pet peeves is listening to a sermon that does not teach me anything. If you cannot answer the “so what” question, why are am I even listening to you. This sounds harsh, but people only remember messages that resonate with real life (and they hardly remember those as it is). The key to making a sermon compelling is connecting it to real life situations. The “Word made plain,” as my homiletical professors always called it, is not merely a theologically abstract enterprise. It makes the precepts of God real and attaches itself to the challenges facing me personally, the community of believers, the surrounding neighborhood, and the world at-large. It allows you to not only explain the need for prayer, but also discuss how a prayer life can inform the ministry of caring for persons living with HIV/AIDS or facing foreclosure and eviction. A compelling message animates Christian life and inspires people to actually want to live one.
These four c’s of effective preaching presuppose that you are going study, pray, and be led by the Holy Spirit when developing the Word of God for the People God. My hope, is that by using this rubric, your message from the Lord will be well-received, well-applied, and well-appreciated.