2. The Word should be organized.
If God is orderly, and the story of creation suggests he is, then the preaching of his Word should be as well. Having a good sermon structure matters as listeners try to make sense of your message.
A good sermon structure simply allows your listeners to more easily grab upon truth. It’s like a well-organized toolbox: If you know where everything in your toolbox is located, you can go find a tool even when your lights are out. Why? You know where everything is. A good sermon structure can do the same thing. If you’ve organized your sermon well, your listeners will be able to understand the Word more easily—even when you’re dealing with difficult subjects.
But different people and different cultures think differently and organize their thoughts differently. Not everyone looks for their tools in the same places. Your task as the preacher is to know how your listeners organize their thoughts and to organize your sermon likewise. (And you should note that our sample was in English, which limited the cultural diversity of our study group.) As we studied these 450 sermons, we saw three main categories of biblical preaching. Each category pointed to an important element in biblical sermons.
Half of these preachers focused their preaching around one block of Scripture text, moving verse-by-verse through the passage. In truth, every sermon should strive to explain Scripture. If the sermon fails to do so, it’s hard to say the Word is central to it.
Another 46 percent of preachers focused their preaching around a main theme, question or topic, using multiple Scriptures to support it. Themes may address issues that listeners deal with throughout their life, or they might highlight a biblical principle or doctrine that should impact the listener’s thinking. Again, this method effectively helps listeners apply the Word to their lives, no matter what organizational method they use.
Finally, the other 4 percent organized their message around one main biblical character, using multiple Scriptures to support the theme. This demonstrates the necessity of personalizing biblical truth—letting listeners see the truth lived out in someone else’s life. (Wayne Cordeiro does a helpful job unpacking this approach to Scripture in his book The Divine Mentor.)
All of these examples are appropriate ways to structure a sermon depending upon your audience, and all point to essential elements in a good sermon.
3. The Word should be sufficient.
Preachers today can be tempted to use all sorts of extrabiblical resources to make their sermons more interesting to the unchurched. Much of those efforts are good. For example, a movie clip may make a nice illustration. A quote from popular culture may show listeners the relevance of what you’re teaching. What a commentator says about a verse may help explain the Scripture better.
But, the best way to explain Scripture is with Scripture itself. Sometimes, it isn’t the most convenient place for us to go, but the Bible is simply far better equipped to explain itself than popular culture. More than half of the sermons we studied (56 percent) used cross-references to explain the Word.
I am not saying that cross-references are the only way to help us explain the Word. In many of the sermons we studied (just under half), the preacher gave contextual background information on the biblical book being studied to help listeners understand the text’s meaning. About four out of 10 preachers explained their text by talking about its context or what came immediately before and after the passage. Almost one in five preachers gave little to no background information to help explain the texts they preached upon.
4. The Word should be useful.
God’s Word should make a difference in the lives of our listeners. When God’s Word is preached boldly and authoritatively, people change. Paul told Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16 HCSB)
Paul says God’s Word is useful (or profitable) to equip us to do his work. In fact, he says all of God’s Word is useful for this—this includes Leviticus, Amos and the lineage of Jesus. He doesn’t give any exceptions.
The preachers we surveyed had a definite preference for the New Testament. Nearly three quarters (71 percent) of the main biblical texts were found in the New Testament. More than a third (37 percent) of the sermons came from the New Testament letters alone. A quarter came from the Gospels.