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That Awkward Moment When You Feel Like You've Wasted Your Time in the Pulpit

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 at least four 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 or 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 them 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 they know they’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 an 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, M.D. 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 are 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.

Help Them Find Out How God Is Leading Them to Act

From the pastor’s perspective, answering the question “What should I do?” is not always easy for one simple reason: You know what God is calling upon you to do, but you don’t always know what God is calling upon them to do.

James 3:1-12 is undeniably the most powerful message in the Bible on the tongue, and it gives a clear, practical message on taming it. There are few greater things a person can do than to take our tongue and dedicate it to the Lord, promising God that we will only use it as He directs. However, even the pastor can’t know what this means to everyone in the congregation—for one person, it might mean developing a vocabulary larger than four-letter words, for another it might mean using compliments to reverse a tendency to speak negatively to people, or it might mean avoiding hearsay by only speaking of what is known to be fact.

Assist the listener by offering specific suggestions that could likely apply based on your personal knowledge of your audience. Then say, “Now go before God and ask Him what He would have you to do.” Remind them that God promises to guide us when we seek Him, and He might have something very personal in mind for us as we meditate on the sermon this week. Now the listener has ideas, but better still, they know where to go to find out how to apply what’s been said. Rather than posing as a spiritual interpreter, a pastor who teaches his or her flock to confirm God’s will on their own will strengthen them in prayer and spiritual discipline.

Use Visual Resources

Many preachers use a visual resource such as a short video or drama to begin their message and to illustrate the need for the topic about to be addressed. The most effective video and drama resources connect with the viewer by posing questions shared by those in the audience, questions that will be answered by the sermon. For example, suppose a pastor will speak on harmony in the home from Ephesians 5:22-6:4. The pastor shows a short video illustrating how chaotic the home can become and how improperly families often treat one another. Moments of the video produce uproarious laughter, but while laughing, the audience is listening. The video was so real, giving husbands the opportunity to look at wives, wives to look at husbands, children to look at parents and everyone to look at themselves.

Because this video resource did not try to answer questions but rather asked them, it served as a fitting introduction to the message by opening psychological doors and helped bring everyone to the topic together. In addition, when a follow-up resource is used after the message, the response can be even more effective. The same family who did wrong gets up and does it right, and the audience sees that change can and does occur. Family members leave with a visual example of what to do along with the oral direction they received in the message and the encouragement to ask God for His help.


There are many ways to answer the “What do I do?” question, but the most effective preachers make sure to do it clearly, visibly and creatively. Creativity has been called the spice of life; it’s also the spice of calls to action. Someone has said, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” One idea spawns another. Don’t hesitate to bring other advisors around you and even let them help you instill variety into the service to make each application more meaningful. People will listen better, learn more, leave knowing and hopefully live differently as a result.