I’ve been on a journey lately to notice powerful preaching and what makes it great. It has been a wonderful learning journey so far and of course, along the way I have paid attention to the opposite: what traits make for a damaging sermon?
I’ve come to the conclusion that a wise preacher is careful not to challenge people to something unsustainable or something she or he will not do themselves.
Oh man. How many of my early pulpit attempts contained some kind of challenging conclusion that was unsustainable? Thank God that my early sermons were in a vintage before podcasting – there is no record of those terrible attempts.
Back when the Prayer Of Jabez book was popular, I sat in an auditorium and heard a preacher give quite a powerful message on prayer. But then at the conclusion he said, “Stand up if you’ll commit to pray the Prayer of Jabez every day for the rest of your life.”
You know what happened next. Some people stood. Then a lot of people stood because they felt the social pressure to stand. Everyone felt good making a public declaration to this daily prayer. The preacher felt good seeing such a visible response to his challenge.
But $20 says that neither those people nor the preacher are praying that prayer every day now, 12 years later.
Pulling this sort of move feels good in the moment and creates a “wow” moment, but I think you win the battle and lose the war on this one. Because this sort of move also creates unnecessary guilt in people who cannot fulfill this unkeepable promise. And further more, us preachers are not in the habit of publicly repenting of our previous sermons. By that I mean, we don’t get in front of our people and confess, “I know two years ago we all pledged to do X at the end of a sermon, but I’ve honestly forgotten to keep doing that pledge.”
And so in this vacuum of honesty people instead blame themselves for not being able to keep an unkeepable commitment. They decide they are not as close to Jesus as the preacher, who is not keeping that promise either. Worse yet, they build a subconscious wall of cynicism toward preaching.
No, as I listen to great preaching, I’m struck by the common thread that a great sermon’s call to action is do-able, sustainable, concrete and within reach of every listener. It certainly can and should contain a call to higher living, or shedding of one’s current ways, but it is careful to be authentic to what can actually be done.