Healthy churches are marked by engaging worship. Engaging worship is nearly always marked by excellent preaching. Good preaching comes in a myriad of forms in a multitude of settings.
Don’t let anyone fool you: There is no one way to preach a sermon, as the diversity of styles that have developed over the last 2,000 years attest. There are, however, common traits that mark excellent preaching regardless of style or setting.
Ask nearly any group of congregation members who regularly listen to sermons what they appreciate most about good preaching. Go ahead, if you dare.
Most ministers are quite afraid to ask for fear that what we deliver on a weekly basis is missing the mark. However, I think you might find something at the top of the list that is not necessarily threatening or insurmountable.
Heading the list in most of these types of surveys is not doctrinal purity, accurate biblical exegesis or intellectual insight.
While all of these are important components of excellent preaching, what most often tops the chart is something more human.
It is the ability to inspire. Good preaching is, first of all, inspirational.
To inspire is, literally, to breathe life into something. Good preaching breathes life into individuals, groups and congregations.
Good preaching motivates and encourages us to act. Good preaching empowers us, under the leadership of the Spirit, to aspire to become more of the person God intends us to be.
It may be shouted or whispered. It may be lengthy or brief. It may be delivered in an academic gown or by someone wearing tennis shoes. The preacher may have multiple degrees or still be in high school. The variables are endless.
However, in the end, if the sermon doesn’t move us, it has failed at a very pivotal point.
Good preaching is no easy task in our culture. Multiple communication platforms make our methods seem outdated and outmoded. Culture seems to lure people away from the preaching event.
Congregational life is demanding and time-consuming, leaving little time for adequate preparation. Clergy get weary in their well doing and relegate preaching to leftover time and energy.
What can a church do to encourage their ministers toward excellence in the pulpit?
May I suggest an exercise that might help you breathe life into your minister and their sermons? It is a technique called TRIZ, which is a hard-to-pronounce Russian acronym for inventive problem solving.
A TRIZ conversation begins with this question: “What can we do to reliably get the very worst results imaginable?” Participants then brainstorm imaginative and effective ways of producing something horrible.
Using this method, imagine gathering a group of church members together and asking: “What are some things we can do that would virtually assure that we would have terrible preaching on a weekly basis?”
I would imagine a top-10 list might include items such as:
1. Complain. Regularly. About anything and everything.
2. Do little to no planning for a cohesive worship service.
3. Never allow your minister to read, pray or spend time studying Scripture.
4. Insist that your minister attend to every minor administrative or pastoral detail during the week, thus assuring that the weightier matter of preaching is neglected.
5. Come to worship unprepared, weary and distracted.
6. Critique your pastor’s sermons harshly, preferably at the door as you leave.
7. Unfavorably compare your pastor constantly to your favorite preacher.
8. Require sermons that are at least 10 minutes longer than their content merits.
9. Have regular HVAC issues, problems with the sound system and a variety of other technical problems.
10. Make sure all cell phones are on and actively used during the sermon.
Now, with your list in mind, try asking: “What can we do to promote more positive results?”
Again, I can imagine something like:
1. Create an expectation that your pastor devote substantial time to sermon preparation, even if it means they cannot attend to all aspects of administration or meet everyone’s expectations for personal appearances.
2. Work hard to create coherence in the worship theme and coordinate all elements of the service.
3. Invite your congregation to expectantly approach worship as a divine encounter, in prayerful humility and awe. Come expecting to be inspired and changed.
4. Pray for and affirm your minister at every opportunity.
5. Allow and pay for your pastor’s time away for continuing education, planning and conferencing that energizes and encourages.
6. Prepare the space and facility so that worship is enhanced by its surroundings, never forgetting that the agenda is the worship of God, not décor or technology.
You get the idea.
Inspiration doesn’t just happen. It is the powerful mix of a dynamic God, a willing earthen vessel and a congregation that hungers for the Word of Life.
When those come together, it makes for an inspiring day of worship.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.