2. People are hungry to understand the Scripture.
Every week I have the privilege of spending hours reading and studying the Bible. And, every week, I learn something new. I have been preaching or teaching on church staff in some respect for the last 18 years or so. I have three degrees from universities relating to theological and biblical studies. I attended church regularly since I was an infant. And still, I discover something new about the Bible every single time I study in preparation for a sermon.
Isn’t that incredible? I certainly believe it is. For several years I think I undersold the beauty and complexity of the Scripture when I preached, because I was afraid it would be too complex. In short, I sold my church members short. Now I realize that was a terrible mistake. The people of my church love when I clearly and thoroughly exposit the Scripture. They listen intently to historical and theological backgrounds of the Bible each week. They, too, look forward to learning something new about the miraculous Word of God each week. They are hungry to know the Bible.
Most of the world has some frame of reference regarding the Bible. They may not be able to articulate it precisely, but they know they should be more familiar with the Bible. Over the years I have preached topically and narratively, but more often than not, I find the most effective method of preaching is to return to the Bible and to explain it to the church. When they see how the Bible ties into God’s redemptive plan and they learn something new, they have a great experience—whether they are long-time believers or first-timers.
3. Application is not optional.
I love theology. In my mind, a sermon that is light on theology is a poor sermon, indeed. One common mistake I made early in my preaching career, however, was to focus too heavily on theology. I loved the theories behind the Scriptural message, and I spent a great deal of time explaining them in my sermons. And, while theology is important, it cannot be the only linchpin of a sermon.
The best sermons will be an arch of sorts: theology will constitute one side, but application will be the other side. The Gospel is the place where theology and application come together (hence its regularly recurring role in the sermon). But application cannot be neglected. The best preachers in the history of the Church (Augustine, Chrysostom, Luther, Calvin) were excellent theologians, but they were also insistent on application. I attended a preaching conference where the keynote speaker asserted that Luther’s sermons were always at least half application. Think of your favorite preachers today. They tend to be those who have excellent theology coupled with relentless application. They have rightly discerned that if the Gospel is life-changing, then it must indeed change the actions that make up our lives.
I once read an apocryphal story about Abraham Lincoln listening to a sermon one Wednesday at a church near the White House. He was asked what he thought of the sermon. His analysis was that the sermon was excellent in every respect but one. He is reported to have said: “It failed. It failed because the pastor did not ask us to do something great.”
When you conclude your sermon, you must apply the truth of the Gospel to everyone in the room, be they believers or not. They must be called to act on what you have shared. Only then has the sermon been completed.
If your sermon is centered on the Gospel, faithfully expositing Scripture and demanding application, then it will rarely fail. It may not be the sort of spectacle your listeners are accustomed to digesting, but it may—unlike that sort of spectacle—be the tool God uses to change a life.