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Wasting Your Time Preaching

You’ve concluded your message.  It’s time to have a final song and dismiss the audience. But there is still one question people have on their minds.  This question is not a new one—it was the same one posed in Acts 2 after Peter had preached what must have been a stirring message.  We read, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?'” (Acts 2:37). Friends, this is what your audience wants to know:  What shall we do?

Indeed, this question is one they should be asking.  Doesn’t James 1:22 tell us, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves”?  Preachers who can answer this question in a sermon will change lives, but those who don’t have simply given people an intellectual exercise.  In fact, for all practical purposes, they’ve wasted their hearer’s time.

There are five techniques in answering that “What shall we do?” question.

Give Crystal-Clear Action Steps

Don’t just tell your listeners they should do something about what they’ve just heard—tell your listeners specifically how to put the message into action.  Remember, you were called to preach His word, not yours. So after you’ve explained a text of Scripture to the understanding of the people, develop your action steps in keeping with the passage.
For example, when you speak on forgiveness from Matthew 18:21-35, you could suggest the listeners reconcile with someone in the coming week whom they have never forgiven. You might recommend they get down on their knees that afternoon and confess to God an unforgiving heart.  You might tell them not to get back on their feet until they feel they won’t hold anything against anyone for any reason.  Or, another appropriate action step might be to find or call the person they’ve wronged, whether two years ago or two days ago, and ask for their forgiveness.

When the message is evangelistic, the “What shall we do?” question is easily answered.  Once a person admits he/she is a sinner, understands that Christ died for them and arose, their clear action step is to trust Christ alone to save them.  How, though, do they actually do that?

Do you give them time to tell God right there in their seat that they’re trusting Christ, or will you ask them to come to a side room after the service where someone will talk with me personally and privately?  Although saying a prayer or coming forward during or after the service doesn’t save, lost people want and need to know what they should do to settle the issue of their eternal destiny.  Action steps must be defined, measurable and clear; vagueness accomplishes nothing.  They must be so specific that, once they’ve taken those action steps, I know I’ve completed them.

Use Gripping, Real-Life Illustrations

Don’t underestimate the intelligence of the listener, but be careful not to overestimate their memory.  Once the listener leaves your message, they go into a world that demands so much of their attention that they can easily forget what was said to them the day before.  What they don’t forget, though, is a intriguing story—one that leaves them with no question about what needs to be done.  The best stories communicate action, making the hearer want to emulate the hero, copy his spirit, and do as he did.  This kind of story says to them, “Go and do likewise.”

Suppose you are speaking on servanthood from John 13:1-17.  Your point is clear—greatness in God’s eyes is not measured by how many servants you have; it’s how many people you serve.  Imagine closing with this kind of illustration:

“Dr. Howard Kelly was a renowned physician and surgeon as well as a devout believer.  During the summer holidays while in medical school, he sold books to help with expenses.  Becoming thirsty, he stopped one day at a farm house for a glass of water.  A girl came to the door.  When he asked for a glass of water, she kindly said, “I will give you a glass of milk, if you wish.”  He drank the cool milk and left refreshed.  Years passed, and Dr. Kelly graduated from medical school and became the chief surgeon at John Hopkins Hospital.  A patient was admitted one day who was from the rural area and was seriously ill.  She was placed in a private room so she could be given special care and a private nurse.  The skilled chief surgeon spared no efforts to make the patient well.  After undergoing surgery, she convalesced quickly.

“One day she was told by the nurse, ‘Tomorrow you will go home.’  Though her joy was great, it was somewhat silenced by the thought of the long bill she must owe the hospital and surgeon.  She asked to see it, and the nurse brought it to her.  With a heavy heart, the patient began to read the different items from the top downward.  The further she read, the more depressed she became, wondering how she would ever pay the bill.  But as her eyes lowered, she saw a notation at the bottom of the page.  It read, “Paid in full with one glass of milk.”  It was signed, Howard A. Kelley, MD.  As you go home, walk into your workplace, do your grocery shopping, visit a neighbor who is ill, think of a relative who needs assistance, ask yourself if you going to serve or seek to be served.  Remember, greatness in God’s eyes is not how many servants you have; it’s how many people you serve.” 

You do not need to say anything else.  The gripping illustration has called the hearer into action by example, and they naturally know what to do next.

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Dr. R. Larry Moyer is a veteran evangelist and a frequent speaker in evangelistic outreaches, training seminars, churches and universities around the world. Born with an inherited speech defect, Larry vowed to God as a teenager that if He would allow him to gain control of his speech he would always use his voice to declare the gospel. In 1973, Larry founded EvanTell, where he now serves as President and CEO. He has written several books on evangelism and frequently contributes articles to ministry publications.