You read that correctly.
This headline on Barna’s site caught my attention: “49% of U.S. pastors say the preaching at their church is ‘strong’.”
Two quick observations before we address the content.
- They asked pastors if they believed THEIR preaching was strong. I don’t know about you, but I’m the worst evaluator of myself. Asking pastors how they feel about their preaching seems like an odd sample.
- More alarming, only 49% of pastors believe their preaching is strong! That’s the worst part. If we surveyed the congregations in their churches, I suspect that number wouldn’t be higher. Odds are 49% is an exaggerated metric of success.
The question is what can be done about this? How can pastors who feel they aren’t strong in the pulpit get stronger, and how can the pastors who wrongfully evaluate their strength improve?
The secret to preaching is found in the purpose of preaching.
Let’s start with this question:
What is the purpose of preaching?
Ask 10 pastors, and you might get 10 different answers. But, ask a typical congregant, and I wonder what you’d hear.
From my years leading in the church and hearing a lot of sermons, I’m not sure pastors see sermon success in the same way as their congregation.
Pastors tend to major in the details: theology, hermeneutics, exegesis, original languages, and plenty of conviction. You see this all around the church world.
I have no research to back up what I’m about to say, but I’ll say it anyway. I suspect attendees are much more concerned with improving their lives than understanding Greek or Hebrew.
Digging below “a better life,” what people want is peace. They want hope and help in the areas that create stress.
Information alone is relatively unhelpful. But it is the first step to giving people what they want and need.
Information applied is what creates transformation. And that’s the purpose of preaching.
Preaching aims to communicate information that inspires application that leads to transformation.
I’m not removing God from the process. God is the only one capable and responsible for life change. Still, we are given the opportunity every week to create the best context for God to do what only he can do. Information isn’t enough.
Take a look at your last sermon. Where was your focus? What was your goal? Did you prioritize information or application?
I suspect the 51% of pastors who don’t believe their sermons are “strong” say so because they aren’t seeing the fruit of transformation. If you feel like this, I get it. I spent a good bit of time in student ministry as a volunteer and then as a pastor. I would preach about making wise choices only to see the students do the opposite all week! They’d come back Sunday, and we’d talk about it again. Rinse and repeat.
The answer might be as simple as refocusing on what to do with what we say.
Here are four specific ways you can improve your next sermon by refocusing on a greater purpose:
1. Always preach to application
If you can’t answer the question, “What do I want people to do?” I’m not sure you’re ready to preach the message. You may be enthralled by the interpretive work and the insights you see, but information that doesn’t lead to application negates transformation.
Part of my job is helping pastors and leaders grow as communicators. In my communications masterclass, I cover this in detail, but let me give you a quick overview of application.
When we think about application, we tend to think of direct “do this” instructions. And that is certainly one version of application. We call that imperative application. If you suggested everybody “does one good deed for another person each day for the next week,” that would be an imperative application.
But there are two other versions of application you can integrate into your sermon: Indictive and introspective.
Indictive application presents a new truth to believe. Introspective application provides people with a question to ponder. Both often lead to a more imperative application in time, but these versions of applications are potent pathways to transformation.
Make sure every message has application elements if you hope to see the fruit of transformation.
2. Give God the responsibility for the results
I mentioned my years speaking to students. They don’t listen well, and they follow even less. Unfortunately, adults aren’t much different, although they pretend to pay attention better than students.
Once a more seasoned pastor told me that I was responsible for the work, but God was responsible for the results. I’ve never forgotten that assertion. It has been so freeing for me as a pastor and communicator. I will always work hard on a message, but what people do with what they hear is between them and God. That’s not an excuse for me to be lazy. It is an opportunity to free me from all of the responsibilities outside of my control.
3. Create margin through a preparation system
Benjamin Franklin told us, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” That is true in every aspect of life, including preaching. You need a system for communication that brings in collaborators and anyone in supporting roles (like production), adds deadlines, and progresses in a systematic sequence through the content creation process.
When I teach masterclass or work directly with pastors and leaders on communication, I provide them a framework from “ideation” through “evaluation.” That’s an 8-week process that creates sufficient margin in the preparation process.
You can use my system or create your own. What matters is that you have a method of deadlines and accountability to get ahead and evaluate along the way.
4. Don’t work against brain science
It’s been proven repeatedly: People don’t want to listen. They are constantly looking for a reason not to listen. If you think people will listen just because you’re talking, you’ll be severely disappointed with the strength of your sermon.
How do you work with the brain rather than against it? Well, it’s simple: Communicate a journey, not an outline. Our brains are wired for stories, so when you take your sermon idea and build it as a journey, your audience can follow along without losing interest.
Again, I take an entire session in the Communication Masterclass to address content construction best practices.
If you’re part of the 51% who believe your preaching should improve, there are ways to maximize your God-given skills. You may never be as good as your preaching idol, but that’s not your calling or goal. Your goal is to be the best version of yourself. Focusing on interesting angles that lead to a straightforward application is one great way to improve.
If you are in the 49% who feel good about your preaching, here’s my challenge: Have people formally evaluate you. To get the most from the evaluation, make it anonymous and ask them to complete a survey a few days after you preach.
Again … I give pastors evaluation tools in my cohort, but for now, ask this:
- What was the message about?
- How well did I connect to people who may have been visiting our church?
- What about the content was interesting?
- Was there any time that you found your mind wandering?
- What was the “go and do?”
- Did you feel inspired to do it?
That’s an excellent place to start. You must ask specific questions if you want to get helpful answers. “It was good” isn’t beneficial!
I know I mentioned the Communicators Masterclass a few times. That’s not a sales pitch. I really love helping pastors and leaders maximize their potential. I’m constantly launching new cohorts on topics like this. Click here to access more on communication.