Do’s and Don’t’s of Sermon Introductions

Do not:

  1. Make your introduction disproportionate to the sermon. Your intro is like a porch to your sermon (the house). Make the porch fit the house.
  2. Cram details into the sermon that should more properly be placed into the sermon under a main or sub-point.
  3. Avoid eye contact or read your intro. Eye contact is important to engage your listeners. Know your intro so well that you will not need to read it. With that said, lengthy quotes are seldom appropriate in an introduction.
  4.  Introduce your first point, or a sub-point or idea in your sermon. This is confusing. Introduce the main point, which should cover your proposition and outline.
  5. Introduce the book, genre, author or audience. This material is background, but not the main idea of the text.

Do:

  1. Be clear, and concise. Make an impact that will leave your listener wanting more.
  2. Be creative. Introducing every sermon in the same manner gets as tedious as a bologna sandwich every day for lunch. Mix it up.
  3. Be careful in your use of sensational or shocking introductions. They may distract from the message proper, and if over-done will desensitize your listeners over time.
  4. Be brief. Don’t repeat yourself or use multiple illustrations. Get to the main idea and transition into your proposition as quickly as possible. Your job is to exposit the text—so move on to it!
  5. Be energetic. Nothing invites a wandering mind and a good nap than a boring preacher.

Preaching for a Verdict

An important concept that cannot be ignored in sermon preparation is the fact that the sermon needs to have a purpose–a reason for existing. A meandering monologue that seems to wander to and fro can be muddy, disorganized, frustrating, and unprofitable to the listener.

Each of the biblical writers had a reason for why they wrote their biblical texts, so too the biblical expositor needs to have a purpose as well. He must enter into his sermon preparation with a clear understanding of what he is expecting his hearer to do when he has finished explaining, illustrating, and applying the biblical text.

Whether it is to glorify God, come to repentance, understand a theological concept more clearly, obey a command, or some other purpose, the sermon needs to have a clear purpose.

Can you imagine what it was like for the Israelites to wander in the wilderness for forty years? If you’ve ever sat in a sermon with no point, then you may have felt like an Israelite for 45 minutes, and it probably felt like you were suffering for over an hour!

One way to help yourself not be “that guy” is to think about your sermon as an apologetic argument. You are seeking to prove to your listener your main premise. Not every sermon will benefit from this idea, but there are some sermon texts that will be particularly suited for this concept. I have made a graphic to help explain the idea:

If you think about your sermon like an inverted funnel, with the premise to be proven in your introduction, each successive point will develop and build up to the conclusion. The conclusion should leave your hearer with the strong evidence that your premise is true. You want them to understand that they should either accept your biblical premise or they must deny the clear teaching of Scripture.

A simple example of this type of sermon outline is:

  • Premise: Jesus Christ is the Son of God
  • Point/Proof 1: His virgin birth prophesied
  • Point/Proof 2: His sinless life practiced
  • Point/Proof 3: His resurrection proven
  • Conclusion: Therefore, you must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ

In this form of sermon organization, the conclusion is what you are seeking as your verdict. You state it, prove it, and then call your hearer to act. And this action may be simply a change of thinking as much as it could be a change of behavior.

This does not mean that your hearer will necessarily respond as you expect–heart change is the work of the Holy Spirit. But by organizing your message in this way you will make your expectations clear and prove your premise. Hopefully your making it irrefutable from Scripture.

The sinful heart may still reject the truth, but you will have accomplished your goal as an expositor to deliver the message faithfully and compellingly.

How Preparing Your Sermon is Like Spaghetti Sauce-And I Don’t Mean that it’s Spicy!

If you’re a pastor, you’ve more than likely heard the analogy of your sermon being like spiritual meat or spiritual milk. After all, those are pictures taken from the New Testament. But have you ever considered that your sermon has some similarities with spaghetti sauce?

My wife is part Italian, but she learned how to make spaghetti sauce from my dad-at least the sauce I prefer. I’m not sure where he learned to make it, but it is so good that my mouth is watering as I write this. Anyways, I have noticed something about spaghetti sauce—it is always better the second or third day after it is made (assuming there is any left over).

I think is is most likely because all of the ingredients—the spices, tomatoes, and meat—all have time to meld together in a way that they don’t have time to do when the sauce is fresh. Sure, the sauce is good when it is freshly made, but when it has time to sit for a while, it is so much better.

The same is true for sermons. A sermon that is preached is good when all of the “ingredients” are present—solid exegesis, helpful application, a pinch of humor, a sprinkling of illustration, a solid introduction and a passionate conclusion. But if you let that same sermon sit for a few days in the mind and heart of the preacher, the Holy Spirit will continue to do His work and the Word will become richer and deeper as all of those ingredients continue blending together in harmony, resulting in a richer sermon.

So, the next time you go to preach a message, make sure that you have some time to let it sit and soak in for a while. Don’t become a preaching machine that simply spits out sermon after sermon. Not only will it become less appetizing to those that listen, it is dangerous for your own soul.

For those of you that have listened to your pastor preach for a while, have you noticed that there are days when God really grips him and it affects his delivery and excitement? What do you think made the biggest difference? Share this with us in the comments.

Putting the Cookies on the Right Shelf

Have you ever sat in church and been frustrated by the sermon? How about bored? Have you ever been completely confused? If you have been any of these things, you’re not alone. Although we preachers sometimes like to think that only those who are “less spiritual” or aren’t interested in “the deep things of God” are the problem–but truth be told, many times its the preacher who is at fault. It reminds me of the pastor who stopped his sermon to tell a little boy to wake up his sleeping father. The little boy replied, “You put him to sleep, you wake him up!”

If you’re a pastor or preacher and you have seen the stifled yawns and the impatient looking at watches, I’d like to help in one area that you might need to consider–your target audience.

I have been blessed (and not-so-blessed) to hear hundreds of sermons by seminary students as a professor of preaching for 12 years. Some were confusing, others were boring, while some were too scholarly, and others were simply biblical history lessons. A good strong cup of coffee was helpful in getting through some days in preaching lab.

J. Vernon McGee used to say that a preacher needs to put the cookies on the bottom shelf where they can be reached. By this he meant that preachers and teachers need to make sure that their sermons are accessible to the common man. Dr. McGee died over 30 years ago, but his radio teaching is still popular all over the world because he made sure to teach at a level that was easy to understand.

One way to help sermon preparation hit the target of listeners is to make sure that the cookies are not only on the lower shelf, but also on the right shelf. By this I mean that every teacher and preacher should understand his audience’s spiritual maturity in order to teach in a way that everyone is fed. In a healthy church there will be several levels of spiritual maturity–unbelievers, new believers, spiritual “teens,” and spiritually mature. If you aim your teaching only at the mature, the unbeliever and the immature will be confused and not get anything out of the teaching. If you aim at the unbeliever or the spiritual infant, you will find that your more mature listeners will become frustrated, and bored.

If you are stubborn and only supply a steady diet of spiritual steak (sometimes raw) or spiritual baby food, you will find that those that are babes in Christ or those that are mature will eventually leave your church because they are not being fed in a way that benefits them. That’s not their fault, it’s yours. So what is the answer?

Put the cookies on the right shelf. In each sermon, and I’d even say in each teaching point, make sure that you speak to every level of maturity. Make sure you use theological language for the mature, but define it for the immature and growing. Give application for those that are still learning how to apply the Bible for themselves. Stretch the younger in Christ, but make sure you patiently explain the difficult concepts. Use illustrations to shed light on abstract truths, and make sure that you point to Christ so that the unbeliever can hear the message they need most: how to be saved.

When you put the cookies on the right shelf, everyone will be fed. And a well fed congregation is a happy congregation.

How to Use Bible Commentaries More Effectively

Commentaries are a huge blessing to those who study the Bible. From them we can glean from the years of hard study of thousands of Christians who have come before us. Their knowledge of culture, language, grammar, background information, and theology can fill out our understanding of the biblical writers. For pastors, Bible students, and scholars, Bible commentaries act as a check on their own study, allowing them to see if they are coming to similar conclusions as those who have studied the same passage. This helps to make sure that our own conclusions aren’t going off in a direction that might lead to error, or even worse. But there are a wide variety of commentaries out there, and it is often difficult even for those trained in seminary to know which to use and when to use it. I thought it would be helpful to describe each type of commentary commonly available, how it is helpful, and then what order I use commentaries to best help me develop my sermons and Bible studies.

Like a lot of Christians, my first experiences with Bible commentaries were mixed. Some seemed to be written in a foreign language, even when they were written in English. They were so complicated and hard to understand that they were frustrating and useless to me. Others were understandable, but they often read like sermons. This made them enjoyable to read, but they often skipped over large portions or failed to explain the one verse I was needing help with!

Later, after attending seminary, I learned that there are different categories of commentaries for different purposes. And I learned an incredibly important lesson: commentaries should be used after I have done my own study. The temptation can be to take a great teacher’s study and sermon outline from their commentary and teach or preach it as if it was my own. Not only is that unethical, it robs you of the blessing of encountering the Word for yourself when you do the hard work of studying.

To help myself, I came up with a simple system of when to read the types of commentaries I use in a specific order. I’ll give you that system a little later, but first I think it would be helpful for me to lay out some of the different types of commentaries out there. This will help you know what you already own, their strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully it will give you a better idea of what you should buy the next time you purchase a new commentary.

Types of Commentaries [1]

  1. Devotional-These commentaries are written for the average Christian and are heavy with application. They are broad in scope, meaning they cover a lot of Bible in a little space. Often, they are a short book written to cover a whole Bible book. Warren Wiersbe’s “Be” series and J. Vernon McGee’s Thru the Bible Commentaries are of this kind.
  2. Expositional-These commentaries are based upon the preaching of a particular pastor’s sermons. They may or may not be heavily edited, but they often include coverage of a preaching portion: illustrations, application, and explanation of the text. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary series and James Montgomery Boice’s commentaries are good examples of this type.
  3. Exegetical– These commentaries rely upon the original languages of the biblical text, and aid the Bible student in understanding the significance of the language, grammar, and syntax. Additionally, the exegetical commentary will give large sections of study to introductory matters, translational issues, contextual matters, and interpretive challenges. Although useful without the knowledge of biblical languages, they are most helpful to those who have a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. The Hendriksen New Testament Commentary set and Word Biblical Commentaries are representative of this type of commentary.
  4. Critical/Technical– As far as traditional commentaries go, these are the most specialized. These commentaries deal with original languages, biblical manuscripts, and many other issues that are important to biblical scholars. Many (although not all) of the contributors to these commentaries are theologically liberal, and they are usually very expensive, although they often contain gold when the student knows how to use them profitably. Some examples of these commentaries would include the International Critical Commentary (ICC) series and Hermeneia Commentaries.
  5. Background-Normally biblical background information is included in most commentaries, but there are some commentaries that focus on this aspect in a commentary format (using book, chapters, and verses divisions). An example would be the IVP Bible Background Commentary.

So, how do I choose which commentary to use first, and does it really matter?

My System for Choosing Which Commentary To Use First

After I have studied the passage for myself, I usually will have several questions and observations about the text. But because of my study, I will have a good general understanding of the main idea. If this is the case, I will choose commentaries from the above categories and read them in this order:

  1. Critical/Technical
  2. Exegetical
  3. Background
  4. Expositional
  5. Devotional

I may not read any commentaries in categories 4 and 5 (Expositional and Devotional) every time. I’ll explain in a moment why.

The reason I begin with the harder and more technical commentaries and move toward the easier and more popular ones is because when I turn to my commentaries I am still wrestling with the text and any unanswered questions. I want to find the answers for myself from my work with the language, grammar, and syntax. If I move too fast to the expositional commentaries, I will be tempted to adopt the interpretation of the writer. And since they are human, they might be wrong. Until I have answered these questions for myself and my interaction with the biblical text, I need help with exegesis before moving on to interpretation.

After I have successfully understood the hardest ideas in the text, I move to the next level of commentaries. The expositional commentaries will help me understand how another pastor has preached and outlined the text I am studying, and a devotional commentary will show me how it has been illustrated and applied. If I understand the text well enough, application and illustration may begin to form easily for me and I won’t need to look at the devotional or expositional commentaries I have.

So, why not flip the order? Because I consider it “cheating” for me, since I will be given an explanation, outline, illustrations, and applications of a passage that I did not myself discover for myself. Additionally and most importantly, I am not trusting the Bible and the Spirit to inform my study, but instead am giving another human author a great amount of influence in my understanding of the Bible. When I teach the Bible, I want to have the confidence to say, “Thus says the Lord” because I have done the hard labor of study. If I cheat and simply read the fruit of someone else’s study, then I am not truly being a biblical expositor; I am simply a parrot.

But there is one exception to my rule when I will actually begin with either an expositional commentary or a devotional commentary. That is when I have studied the text in-depth for myself and I am left completely without a clue as to how I would preach or teach this particular text. I may understand the words, sentences, and paragraphs, but how I can teach this particular passage has stumped me. At this point, I will choose a faithful devotional or expositional commentary and read the section I am studying. This will usually help me see how the author taught it and clarifies for me the main idea to teach. At this point, I stop reading and begin going through the list as I gave it above, beginning with the more technical commentaries and moving down the list.

I don’t necessarily think that this method is the only way of using commentaries, but it works for me and helps guard my heart against taking the route which might cause me to shortcut my study. What about you? How have you used commentaries that have helped your study? What are your favorites and why? If you have any followup questions about how I use commentaries, let me know. I’d love to help.

Footnote:

[1] I’ve added the Amazon.com links to each of these commentary series’ to help you identify them. I have done this for reference only and don’t necessarily endorse everything in them. Also, I don’t gain anything from you purchasing a book through the link. Shop around, you might find great deals elsewhere. More money saved means more money for books!