I Will Not Offer the Lord What Costs Me Nothing

Broke and poor business man with empty pockets

There are several Bible verses that drive my commitment to faithful preaching. They are 1 Timothy 4:16, 2 Timothy 2:15, and 2 Timothy 4:2.

I regularly share these verses with young preachers, when I am asked for a passage of scripture to encourage them in the work.

But there is another passage that reminds me of my charge to preach the word. I rarely share this verse. It is not from the Pastorals. For that matter, it is not from the New Testament.

It is 2 Samuel 24:24.

But the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will buy it from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.”

David sinned by numbering the fighting men of Israel. It was not wrong that the kind took a census of his army. But there was a subtle but great sin behind this census. Counting the men betrayed the fact that David was not counting on God.

The Lord was displeased with David. And he would punish Israel for David’s sin. But he let David choose the punishment. Three years famine. Three months of persecution from your enemies. Or three days of pestilence.

David responded, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man” (2 Samuel 24:14).

For restoration, the Lord commanded David to offer a sacrifice on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. In obedience, David asked to buy Araunah’s threshing floor, to build an altar on it. Araunah freely offered the land to the king. But David refused. He insisted on paying for the land, because he could not make an offering that cost him nothing.

Of course, this passage has nothing to do with preaching. Yet it does. It addresses anything we do for the Lord. We should follow David’s example and never offer to God something that cost us nothing.

How much more should cost us to preach the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ?

There are three costs you should pay to honor the Lord in your preaching

The Cost of Personal Consecration

David prayed, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).

This is a good prayer for preachers to offer. But for this prayer to work, you must make both petitions. The words of your mouth must be acceptable in God’s sight. God is pleased with preaching that has biblical fidelity, sound doctrine, and a Christ-centered focus. But God is also looking at the meditations of your heart. The Lord is not honored if by true word from a false heart.

We must guard our hearts, so that the words of our mouth will be the overflow of our devotion to Christ. We must guard our life and doctrine. Pay whatever it costs to preach with a clean conscious, pure heart, and godly motivations.

The Cost of Diligent Preparation

Have you heard the one about the preacher who didn’t study? As he stood to preach, he prayed, “Lord, speak to me.” And the Lord did. He said to the preacher, “You should have studied!” Upon hearing that story, I concluded that I don’t want the Lord to talk to me in the pulpit. Get it?

I am convinced that the preachers that make it look easy work hard to do so. They pay the price in the study to be faithful to the text, clear in their presentation, and compelling in their argument.

How long does it take to prepare a sermon? As long as it takes. Get in the seat. Gather your tools. Go to work. And don’t quit until the hard work is done. Think about it. You have left the pulpit feeling bad that you did not prepare better. But you never leave the pulpit feeling you over-prepared. When you offer God your best work, you will sense his smile on you as you preach.

The Cost of Believing Prayer

You have prepared yourself to preach. And you have prepared the message. But there is another cost to pray. It is the cost of believing prayer.

In a real sense, the entire message should be an exercise in prayer. Pray before you begin your study. Pray as you study. Pray after you finish the message. Pray over the message. Pray for faithfulness, clarity, authority, passion, wisdom, humility, and freedom as you preach. Pray that those who hear the message will have receptive hearts and minds. Pray that the Lord would govern the presentation of the message, even as he has guided the preparation of the message. Pray that you and the congregation will encounter the Christ as you study the word.

When I was a boy, I used to hear preachers say, “Preaching and praying go together. When there is preaching in the pulpit there should be praying in the pews.” I fully agree. But there should also be preaching and praying in the pulpit. Powerful preaching comes from praying preachers.

What do you think? What other costs must the preacher pay? What costs should a listener pray to honor the Lord listening to the sermon? 

How the Pew Can Help the Pulpit



It was the last day of the revival. I had just finished my ninth sermon of the meeting. I stood to give my lasting remarks. And I said what I was thinking. Usually, I am able to mind my business when I preach away home. But since I had no intention of ever returning to that church, I took a shot at them.

Thanks for putting up with my preaching this week. And for all of your kindness and encouragement. But all the glory goes to God. Any human credit goes to the church I serve. They give me time to think, read, and pray. They provide the resources I need to study. And they only demand that I be ready to teach and preach. If I am not a good preacher, shame on me. Any church can have good preaching if they take care of their pastor and encourage him.

I had been there for a week. And the pastor didn’t have time to host me. He worked part time to make ends meet. He did funerals and hospital visits every day I was there. He had one meeting after another. I was exhausted just watching him. In the process, he was discouraged, his marriage was in trouble, and his children resentful of the ministry.

Then it happened.

One of the deacons slyly criticized his preaching in front of me, suggesting his seasoned pastor should take preaching lessons from me, who was in my early 20s. old. I had preached for men that I wasn’t sure could read. But their members would tell me, “I enjoyed your preaching! But you can’t touch my pastor.” That’s love. This deacon’s remark, and his fellow deacons’ agreement, was just cruel.

The pastor was a good preacher. He was just in a bad situation, at a historic church that thought too highly of itself. I had to say something. And I did.

Sometimes pastors struggle in preaching because they don’t take their pulpit work seriously. Others struggle in preaching because they struggle alone. But good preaching is a partnership between pastor and congregation, pulpit and pew, the one who preaches and the one who listens. The pastor preaches to help those in the pew. But the congregation can and should help the one in the pulpit, as well.

There was a vocal old lady in my first church. When I was preaching good, she would say, “Help us, Lord.” But when I was flunking, she would say, “Help him, Lord.” But there are better ways the pew can help the pulpit and motivate the pastor to be a better preacher. Here are seven…

Pray for your pastor.

I mean, pray specifically for his preaching. Pray that he will have the time to study and will use it well. Pray the Lord will open his eyes and give him understanding (Ps. 119:18, 24). Pray that he will guard his life and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16)  Pray that he will rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). Pray that the Lord will keep his heart and mind free from sinful distractions. Pray that God will give his power in the pulpit.

I highly recommend you read the booklet by Mike Faberez, entitled, Praying for Sunday

Give him time to study.

Members love pastors who are always available. But it is not good if he is always available. He will be more help to you if he shuts himself up to pray and study. You want a pastor who has something to say, rather than someone who has to say something. This requires times to prepare. Give it to him.

Provide for him.

Bi-vocational pastors are the unsung heroes of the church, who work a job to care for their families as they do the work of ministry for little or no pay. Many churches are not able to adequately compensate their pastors. But others are just stingy. Being determined to deprive the preacher, they rob themselves. Do you best to care for the needs of your pastor and his family.

Be marked present.

A blind and deaf Christian was asked why he attended church, since he could not see or hear the service. He answered, “I just want people to know which side I’m on. Your regular church attendance is a statement to the world. It is an act of obedience that builds up other believers (Heb. 10:24-25). And it is a great encouragement to your pastor. You challenge him to prepare a better meal if you consistently show up with a good attitude and a big appetite.

Listen to the sermon.

Just because you are in the service does not mean you hear the sermon. And the pastor knows it. He stands on a raised platform in a room with people sitting in front of him. And he sees what’s happening in front of him. When you spend the sermon talking, walking, texting, or sleeping, it’s distracting and discouraging. But nothing makes a man want to preach harder than to have people actually listening, sitting up, following along, and taking notes. An occasional “Amen” doesn’t hurt either.

Encourage him.

Preaching can be discouraging work. If I stopped writing this article and didn’t get back to it for a week, I could pick up right where I left off. Preaching doesn’t work that way. We try to reach out people on Sunday mornings. The world tries to reach them all the rest of the week. The gravitational pull is against the things of God. And the pastor often feels he is not making a difference. Encourage him. Don’t stroke his ego. But give him specific ways you are learning and growing.

Be a doer of the word.

A church is not committed to the word, just because the pulpit preaches the truth. A church is committed to the world when biblical preaching together shapes its life. To hear the word without doing what it says is self-deception (James 1:22-25). Members often leave the service and rate the pastor’s sermon. But the real issue is what you do with what you hear. Be eager hear the word. But don’t stop there. Live it out by Christ’s power and for God’s glory!

What do you think? What would add to this list?  How do you think the pew can better supper the pulpit? 

On Whooping

BusinessMan with MegaphoneThe first preacher to influence me was my father. He was more of an orator than a whooper. His preaching had a rhythm and cadence. But he, and most of his preaching colleagues, were not real whoopers.

Then it happened.

I heard whooping. Real whooping. At the conclusion of the sermon, the preacher turned his words into music. In a real sense, he started singing his sermon.

I immediately determined that was the way I wanted to preach. So I began to practice. And I started listening to good whoopers. Being able to sing a bit, I was able to imitate what I heard. And it wasn’t long before I developed my own whoop.

My father was not pleased with this development at all. He allowed me to preach occasionally. But when I finished, he would publicly chastise me for whooping. He did everything he could to get me to read good books, rather than listing to preaching tapes. My dad constantly warned me against being a stereotype. He wanted me to be able to stand anywhere and preach.

But I was like a tree planted by the waters. I would not be moved! I kept working at it, until I became an above-average whooper. And it became a featured part of my preaching. Over time, however, my thoughts and feelings about whooping changed.

Several factors broadened my perspective.

First of all, changes in my voice forced me to less dependent on my voice. More importantly, I became a student of expositional preaching. And if you are trying to be faithful to the text, every sermon cannot end with a celebration. Likewise, I started becoming a pastor. I increasingly wanted to see my congregation grow spiritually. This requires more than “having church.” They needed teaching. And because the majority of my people did not come to Sunday School or Bible study; I decided that my Sunday morning preaching had to have a strong teaching element.

I was also encouraged to be more than a whooper by listening to very strong African-American preachers who did not whoop. Some could not do it. But they didn’t need it. Others were good whoopers, but de-emphasized it. I once asked a preacher I looked up to what he did to protect his voice. He bluntly said that he didn’t think about stuff like that. “You young preachers worry about stuff like that,” he said. That rebuke caused me to grow up quickly.

I began a new pastorate a few years ago. And the church had a TV broadcast and live streamed its services. Consequently, more people had the opportunity to hear me preach on Sunday mornings. Some preacher friends claimed I got to Jacksonville and stopped whooping. But most had only heard me preach on the road. They had not heard my Sunday preaching in Los Angeles, even though several years of my Sunday sermons were online. Most weeks I preached for an hour. But I did not whoop. And I believe the church was better for it.

As I chat up preachers around the country, I am asked, “What do you think about whooping? I often answer that question in two sentences.

There is a legitimate place for whooping in preaching. But the place of whooping in preaching is not central.

The Legitimate Place of Whooping

Emotionalism is dangerous. But emotional is natural part of true worship. Jesus taught that God desires to be worshiped in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24). Objective truth is essential to worship. But so is sincere, personal, heartfelt experience. God is not honored by worship that is all head and no heart.

I don’t feel the need to defend passion in worship. The burden of proof is on those who think otherwise. I dare you to read the psalms and make a case for subdued worship. Most arguments against passion in worship are cultural, not biblical. So I have no problem with people saying “Amen” to the sermon, giving verbal affirmation of the truth. And I don’t have a problem with the preacher and congregation celebrating the truth at the end of the message.

Admittedly, it is a part of the culture I grew up in. But a biblical case can be made for both light and heat in worship. Worship should consist of both sound doctrine and high praise. In a real sense, whooping can be an intersection where the two meet.

The Limited Place of Whooping

It is not true worship if it is all head and no heart. But the opposite is also true. Singing and shouting is empty if you don’t know what your singing and shouting about. Real worship is about more than how you feel about God. It is our total response to the biblical revelation of nature, character, authority, goodness, and purpose of God. This kind of God-centered praise cannot happen without sound, faithful, biblical preaching and teaching.

There is a place in worship to shout for joy. And there is also a place to sit down and listen. But whooping can potentially crowd out the space designed for quiet, prayerful, and diligent reflection. The truth of the text should govern your message. But so should the tone of the text. If the preacher is doing his job, some weeks the congregation should go home rejoicing over God’s goodness some weeks and go home wrestling with their conscious as they look into the mirror of the word.

My advice is that you don’t worry about whooping. It’s just not that important. Focus on getting the text right. Focus on making your message clear. Focus on giving a compelling argument.

It’s okay if people are moved to celebrate the truth. But don’t confuse the congregation’s response to your presentation – be it with humor, sad stories, or whooping – with repentance, faith, or obedience to the truth.

As the old preachers used to say, good meat makes it own gravy.

What do you think? Feel free to comment. 

Three Keys to Effective Sermon Preparation

“So what do you do for a living?”

I have a new answer to that question: “I write sermons.”

Occasionally, an alert listener will reply, “You only write sermons? Do you preach them?”

Then I give the punchline. “Sure, I do. But it’s hard to remember that part. As soon as the sermon is over, I have to start writing the next one!”

iStock_000021625716_Small-2That’s the life of a pastor. We have the joyful burden of weekly preparation. To keep your head about water and become effective you have to learn to hack the process.

You need a system for Bible study and sermon preparation. Whatever system you choose should include these three elements.

Read diligently.

You cannot be a faithful preacher if you are not willing to read. Reading is essential to sermon preparation. We are charged to preach the word (2 Tim. 4:2). How can you fulfill that charge without reading the word?

To understand a text, you must read it. And read it again. Then read it again. You must also consult reference books that will help you understand the meaning of the text. There is wisdom in a multitude of counselors. And the more you read, the more you glean from the wisdom of others to better understand the text.

It helps to read deeply and widely. If you can, don’t just read those with whom you already agree. Consult those who will stretch your thinking and force you to dig a little deeper.

Record carefully.

You should study when you are most alert and focused. It will help you to learn and remember what you learn. But still get an insurance policy – a pen and paper or a computer keyboard. Either way, record what you are learning. A dull pencil beats are sharp mind any day. You won’t remember everything. So don’t fill a bucket that has holes. Plug the holes by taking good notes.

Find a way to keep a good record of your what you learn. These notes will benefit you greatly as you turn from text to sermon. But don’t throw the research notes away after you complete the sermon. File them away. As you continue to preach, you will run into the same words or themes again. And that file can help you then.

You can speed up future study and make it a bit easier by keep a record of what you have learned in the past. In this way, you are creating your own study Bible. And you aid your growth as a Christian and preacher by building on what you have learned in the past.

Reflect prayerfully.

You have read deeply and widely. And you have recorded what you have learned. Now what do you do with all the material you have dug up? Whatever you do, please don’t rush to the pulpit and preach what you have learned!

Your exegetical notes are foundational for your sermon preparation. But they are not a sermon. And just because you know the facts of the text does not mean you have crystalized its meaning and message.

You need to spend time in prayerful reflection over what you have studied. Seek God about what the text applies to you. Is there a sin you should confess, a promise you should trust, or a command you should obey? Then consider those who will hear you preach this text. How does this text speak to them?

This is why should you start you study early in the week and guard you study time jealously. Saturday night specials kill creativity. But the more you meditate on the text the more its truth marinate in your heart and mind.

The bottom-line is that you when you study a text for the first time, do a good job and take good notes. Use your time wisely to make you have time to think and write and be creative before you preach.

What do you think about these three tips? What tips would you have to help make sermon preparation time more effective? I look forward to your comments.

For more helpful preaching tips, get a copy of my new book, On Preaching

Related Resources:

On Sermon Preparation 

Building a Preacher’s Library

My New Book: “On Preaching”

RevisionI am excited about the release of my new book, On Preaching: Personal & Pastoral Insights for the Preparation & Practice of Preaching(Moody Publishers. Official release date: May 1, 2014).

This is my second book, the first being It Happens After Prayer.

I wrote this book without knowing it. Desiring to grow in my preaching, I began to read and think about preaching. I also started writing brief articles that summarized my views on various practical areas of sermon preparation and pulpit work.

I was more than fifteen articles into the process before it dawned on me that these collected pieces may be a helpful resource for others.

On Preaching is thirty brief chapters about sermon preparation and delivery. It also addresses some other areas of public ministry.

The book is primarily for preachers and teachers. But anyone who reads it will profit from the discussions about the priority of scripture, the importance of proper interpretation, and the work of ministry.

This is not a textbook. (For a more formal treatment of the subject of biblical preaching, I recommend Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson or Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell.)

It is meant for the practitioner, not the theoretician. My goal for this book is not for it to join any scholarly discussion. I truly hope academics will find this book helpful. But my target is the preacher in the trenches of regular sermon preparation.

Whether you are a rookie preacher or a seasoned pastor, there are many practical nuggets in this book you can start to strengthen your preaching this week!

I hope you will buy a copy of On Preaching. If you are not a preacher, consider making it a gift for your pastor or a preacher you know.

Read it. It a pretty easy read you can get through quickly. Or read each chapter slowly and find something in each to help your sermon development process.

Please tell me what you think about it once you read it. I am not an expert with all the answers. I am a fellow-struggler who lives in the bondage of weekly preparation. It has been my reality all of my adult life – more than twenty-three years now.

I don’t expect you to agree with me on everything. But I do hope that you this book will start you to thinking and working on your preaching in new and fresh ways. And if you learn something that can sharpen your preaching that I have not considered, please share. We are in this together for the glory of God!

Click here to get your copy of On Preaching.

Stay tuned for The On Preaching Podcast that will launch June 2014. It will be a weekly podcast to help you preach faithfully, clearly, and better.

Likewise, mark your calendar to join me in Jacksonville for the Cutting It Straight Expository Preaching Conference, September 24-26, 2014.

Click here to register or get more information about Cutting It Straight.

Building An Preacher’s Library

imagejpeg_0Every workman needs tools. It does not matter the nature of the work. He can be a carpenter that needs a hammer and nails. Or she can be a computer programmer that needs a laptop and software. The truth still applies whatever the task. No laborer can do his or her work without good tools. The same goes for preachers. If you are going to be a faithful expositor of the scriptures, you need to learn and practice the principles of Bible interpretation and sermon preparation. But you cannot practice the principles without the necessary tools. My father had a massive library. But it did not contain some core research tools I needed for Bible exposition. So I began to build a persona library. I did it by trial and error. And I wasted a lot of money. As a result, I now have some books that look pretty on the shelves but are no help to my study. And there are still holes in my library, where I need resources on particular Bible books or subjects. Building an expositors library is a lifelong process. As you grow, your library will grow. But where should you start? What mistakes should you avoid? How do you develop an expositor’s library? Here are several practice steps to take in developing your library of study tools for preaching and teaching.


Start with the basics.


There are certain basics that stock every preacher’s library. No two libraries are alike. But every library should have the basics that will help you rightly handle the word of truth. These are the standard equipment a preacher needs to get his work done. You need several Bible translations. Start with the major, committee translations. Then add other versions that you find helpful or enjoy reading. You should also have a Bible dictionary, atlas, and concordance. Get word study aids for the Hebrew and Greek. Make sure you have books that introduce you to Bible books. Select a good systematic theology and church history text. It is also good to have one full commentary set.


Ask for help.


If you do not know the tools you need for study and preaching, get counsel. As I began to build my library, called trusted friends for advice. I asked seasoned preachers and professors for recommendations. I consulted with local Christian bookstore managers (this was back in the day when bookstore workers actually knew books!). I visited seminary bookstores to see what class texts. Help in acquiring Bible study tools is there for the asking. In most instances, Bible students and scholars are eager to help those who want to know scripture better. Likewise, use good bibliographies. And don’t forget you can look up authors, books, and subjects on the Internet to help you avoid buying bad books.


Get the best works.


In building your library, do not try to reinvent the wheel. And don’t load your library with new, popular, or exotic works that may not of any use down the road. Find the best works on a book or subject and get them. For instance, ask what are the best commentaries on Philippians? And start with that short list. Secure the classic works. There is a reason why some old books are still being published. Check the footnotes of the new authors and see what older works they are citing. Build a good foundation for your library by getting solid commentaries, theologies, and reference tools. And then build on it later with other works.


Make friends with authors.


I have a close bond with many authors. Most of them I have never met. Some of them are no longer alive. Yet they have been my friends, mentors, and counselors. To make friends with books is to make friends with authors. As you read, your relationship with specific authors grows. There are now authors whose books I will buy and read no matter what. And there are commentators whose works I consult when I study particular passages of scripture. At this point, it is easier for me to list my favorite authors, and not my favorite books. It does not mean we always agree. But a level of trust, respect, and dialogue has formed. I do not force my friends on others. These are relationships that have developed over time. And every preacher must develop his own relationships with authors.


Date before you marry.

Don’t just buy at book hastily. Don’t buy a book, merely because someone else has it or recommends it. And don’t commit to a book too fast. Check it out for yourself. Read the front matter. Skim through it. Read a sample chapter online. Borrow a friends’ copy. Or maybe peruse a library copy. Date the book first. Marry it later, after you have spent time with it and decide that it will be of good use to you over the long haul.


Buy individual commentaries.


One of the worst mistakes I made as I began to build my library was to buy whole commentary sets. I still have those sets. It may be good to have one whole commentary set as a standard. But this is the wrong way to build a library. Most commentary sets are uneven. No one commentator is strong in every chapter of the Bible, no matter who he is. And even when a committee writes a commentary set, some pieces will be stronger than others. It is best to simply buy commentaries book by book. Make it your goal to have the best commentaries on each book of the Bible, rather than pieces from sets that will not be of much help.


Find used copies.

There is nothing like getting your hands on a brand new book. It has that new car smell to it. It’s wonderful to crack it open for the first time. It is untouched and unmarked. And you don’t have to worry about anyone else’s notes in it. But books are expensive. And new books cost more than you need to pay. Log onto one of the used book websites instead and find a previously owned copy of the resource you are looking for, especially if it is a classic, major commentary, or theological work. You will often find used books that are in good condition or even just like new that will cost you much less than a new book you would buy at your local bookstore.


Decide between hardcopy and electronic books.


I love books. I like to have books in my hands. I learn better by making notes in the margins of my books. But I am increasingly in the minority. More and more people now opt to use e-books. Most Christian works are now being sold with a hard and e-book version. And Bible software companies are providing access to many good and useful tools. Each preacher will have to make a choice. And this is not a moral decision. It is a personal choice. Either way, you still have to do your work. There is no software that will study for you! Make a personal and careful format choice and stick with it.


Did you find this advice helpful? What advice would you give in building a preacher’s library? Comments welcome. 

On Sermon Outlines

Every sermon should have a destination. It also needs a clear path to get there. A sermon outline charts the path for the sermon to reach its intended destination. Good sermons have effective outlines.

A sermon is more than an outline. But it is not less. The outline gives structure to the message. That structure supports the substance of the message. Similarly, your body is infinitely more than a skeleton. Yet it is built on and around the connecting bones of the skeleton.

There are different philosophies about the use of outlines in sermons. More preachers are using an inductive approach, holding the point of the message until the end. Others maintain a more traditional approach, which states the key point up front and uses the outline to support that thesis in the body of the message.

I am an advocate of the more traditional approach. Tell them what you are going to say. Say it. Then tell them what you said. It is the method that most facilitates Bible exposition and emphasizes the teaching of scripture. Yet there are different ways this can be carried out in preaching.

I regularly state the points of the sermon for the congregation as I preach. Sometimes I state them all as I transition to the main body. But I most often introduce the movements one by one as I go, hoping to build a sense of suspense and momentum as the sermon progresses.

On the other hand, I never heard my father refers to the “points” of his sermon. He simply worked his way through the body of the message without making any reference to its underlying structure. He knew where he was going. And the listener followed along without sermon highway signs.

Whether you formally state your points or not, you ought to know where you are going with the sermon. And you should preach it in a way that gives the congregation confidence that you know where you are going.

How are sermon good outlines developed? What are the characteristics of a compelling outline? Here are ten practical tips to help you be more effective in developing sermon outlines.

Let the text shape the outline. How many points should a sermon have? As many or as few as the text requires. Don’t force an arbitrary outline on the text. Don’t use the text as a jumping off spot for predetermined points you want to make. And don’t call a text and then go into all the world preaching the gospel. The goal of biblical preaching is to let the text speak for itself. Your outline should amplify the message of the text.

Preach the text, not the outline. It is good when an outline is memorable. It is not good when the outline is more memorable than the text. The purpose of the sermon is not to get through the outline. It is to present the message of the text. The outline should be a guide by which you work through the text. It is just a means to an end. And you must force it to stay in its place. Don’t let it overshadow the text.

Support the main idea of the sermon. The outline should be more than three things you want to say about the text. It should support the big idea. Once the dominating theme of the text is established, build the outline around it. Undergird the main idea with points that explain, prove, defend, clarify, or apply it. Keep preaching the message of the text as you preach the points of the outline.

Practice unity in your outline. The movements of the sermon should not be redundant. Each point should be an independent thought that can stand on its own. But they should not stand so far apart that you cannot see the connection between them. Your outline points should have obvious unity with your main idea and with one another.

Keep it moving. “Are we there yet?” is a question a parents dread to hear during a car trip. Preachers should dread to hear it during sermons, too. Movement will keep the congregation along for the ride. Follow the progression of the text. Use the outline to guide the sermon forward. Let your points build on one another. Make it clear that the sermon is going somewhere.

The simpler the better. Complicated outlines are distractions. They create a fog in the pulpit that obscures the message. Don’t use the outline to impress the congregation. Use it to communicate. Avoid confusing terms or concepts in your outline. Strive for clarity.

Maintain balance. If the points of your outline are points worth making, treat them equally. Don’t emphasize one point and use two fillers to complete the outline. Don’t spend three minutes on one point and ten minutes on another. Demonstrate that each point of the outline is important by giving them all a fair treatment. If a point is not worth arguing, don’t put it into the sermon.

Use sub-points carefully. Keep the main thing the main thing in your sermon. And do not let subdivisions of your outline lead you away from the main idea of the sermon. Only use sub-points if they are natural or necessary. And make sure they are clearly related to the main headings of the outline.

Don’t overdue alliteration. If an alliterated outline forms, use it. But do not hunt for “P” words to force alliteration. Use language in your sermon that is most natural. And few of us speak in alliteration in common conversation. Sure, alliteration can be memorable. But there are other ways to make your outline memorable without alliteration, like asking questions, giving exhortations, and using parallelism.

Put application in the outline. My default mode is to explain the meaning of the text. And I have to work hard to be strategic in application. One simple way I promote application is to put it in the outline. Stick a verb in the outline that calls for action. Write the points as exhortations. Then challenge the congregation to live them out as you explain and illustrate the point.

What advice would you give for developing effective sermon outlines? 

Related Resources

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On Consecutive Exposition

“People have short attention spans. So you really do long series through books anymore. People will check out on you after four to six sermons.”

This authoritative claim is simply not true. People are hungry for the word of God. Consecutive exposition both satisfies people’s hunger for scripture and shapes it. Expository preaching is an acquired taste. Before people get it they don’t know what they are missing. But when they get it they don’t want anything else.

Consecutive exposition is not the only way to preach faithfully. Jesus did not preach that way. Charles Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, did not preach consecutively through scripture. And I never heard my father do it growing up. Yet I contend that consecutive exposition – preaching through a book of the Bible from beginning to end – is the most faithful way to preach.

Many preachers reject consecutive exposition for various reasons But the main issue may simply be that it’s hard work. But the hard work of consecutive exposition is worth is for the following reasons.

It helps you to understand the word of God better. We encourage our people to read through the Bible, convinced that it is essential for their growth in Christ (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Even the Bible reading plans we use are organized to help us read through scripture. Why do we hesitate to study and preach this way? We rob ourselves when treat scripture as a topical reference guide. But it is to our benefit to follow the complete train of thought of a scripture in its context, rather than lifting selected verses at our discretion.

It models contextual Bible study for the congregation. We study to preach. We also model study as we preach. The way we handle scripture in the pulpit exemplifies how to study the Bible, for good or bad. A constant diet of random scriptures gives the wrong impression about how to approach scripture. There is nothing wrong with looking to the Bible for answers to topics. But you should also let the Bible raise the questions through texts. Consecutive exposition is a platform to demonstrate proper Bible interpretation.

It keeps you from overemphasizing your favorite topics. We all have particular books of the Bible we enjoy preaching. We gravitate toward select doctrines. Certain subjects light our fire. But these must not be the extent of the menu we feed our people. We must declare the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26-27). Consecutive exposition ensures your congregation is properly exposed to the unfamiliar texts, obscure personalities, and unpopular truths of the Bible they need to hear.

It demonstrates the sufficiency of scripture. The world continues to does not hold to the inspiration of scripture. But the church has laid aside the sufficiency of scripture. We lack a true confidence in the word of God. We almost apologize for it, constantly seeking to “make it relevant.” But if scripture is not inherently relevant, you cannot make it so. Preaching through a book of the Bible can show the organic relevance of scripture to your congregation as you tackle neglected texts that teach life-changing truths.

It forces you to address difficult subjects and passages. Without consecutive exposition, there are some things we will never preach on. We avoid some texts. And we never think to discuss certain subjects. But working through a book of the Bible causes you to cover neglected but important truths. It also protects you from the accusation that you are meddling in your sermons. If a difficult word is preached, your defense is that you were only working with the text that was in front of you.

It makes it easy to plan your preaching in advance. How can you be consistent and effective on Sunday morning if you don’t know what you are going to preach on until Thursday? You need to have a plan that allows you to get an early start, or even work ahead. Consecutive preaching is tailored for this. Start by outlining the book for preaching. Then move on to the next text from week to week. If you are moved to preach something else, do it. Then get back to your exposition. And take advantage of the extra time having a preaching schedule gives you.

It is a practical way to build an expositors library. If you are a new pastor, you probably cannot afford to aggressively build your library. You have to do it slowly and carefully. In that regard, jumping from text to text can be expensive, if you try to secure helpful research tools. But as you preach through a book, you can select the best available works on the book. Work through them as you preach the book. And wait to secure other materials when preparation for the next series requires it.

What others benefits of consecutive exposition would you give? Or what are you objections to it? Join the conversation in the comments section. 

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On Sermon Preparation

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On Sermon Conclusions

“So how was your flight?”

When I am asked this question, I typically respond by saying it was a good flight. I speak positively about the flight for one reason. It landed. I may not like my assigned seat. There may have been no room for my bag in the overhead compartment. It may have been a bumpy flight the whole ride. But none of that really matters as long as the flight lands safely.

The same is true of sermons. It may get off to a bumpy start. You may have to play catch up to stay within the allotted time schedule. The people on board may not like where it is headed. But all will be forgiven if you can safely land the sermon at its intended destination.

Hear are seven tips on landing the sermon safely with a strong conclusion.

Give a true conclusion. Don’t just stop. Don’t let the sermon trail off. Don’t preach until you hit your time limit. Don’t go until you run out of material. Don’t simply end by saying a prayer or extending an invitation. Conclude the sermon intentionally. View the sermon as a unit with an introduction, body, and conclusion. Work to craft a conclusion that is clear, compelling, and climatic.

Only conclude once. Paul says, “Finally,” several times in Philippians. But Philippians is divinely inspired. Your sermon on Philippians is not. So when you say, “Finally,” mean it. Avoid serial conclusions. You will only make the congregation nervous if you keep circling the runway. No skilled pilot plays with the landing gear. And flight attendants don’t promise to land early just because the passengers look bored. So don’t go into an unnecessary holding pattern by introducing new material at the end. Land when its time to land.

Know your destination. Where is the sermon going? What’s the point? How should the congregation respond to the truth of the text? The answers to these questions will determine how to end the message. A conclusion cannot reach a place where the sermon does not go. You should take off with a predetermined destination. And the navigational devices of the message should head in that direction and lead to a logical conclusion. A good conclusion is the result of a sermon that had purpose, unity, and movement.

Review the message. It is often said that a speaker should tell the audience what he is going to say, say it, and then tell them what you said. That may be a cliché. But it works. An effective way to conclude a sermon is to review the major points of the message. Don’t just repeat the main ideas. Restate them. Enforce them. Apply them. Illustrate them. Celebrate them. View the conclusion as the introduction in reverse. Close by making the point again.

Issue a call to action. Application should take place throughout the sermon. But the conclusion is a good place to emphasize it. It is self-deception to hear the word without doing what it says (James 1:22). The goal of preaching is application. So end there. Challenge the congregation to live out the teachings of the faith. Exhort them to be doers of the word. Explain why obedience matters. Show them what following Jesus looks like in practical terms.

Run to the cross. Jesus should be the hero of every sermon. And the conclusion is a good place to point your hearers to Christ. Of course, the message should be saturated with the gospel. Christ is not honored when he is mentioned at the end of a message that ignores him throughout. But there is power in concluding with a clear declaration of the gospel. Run to the cross. Call the hearer to repent and believe. End by exalting the sufficiency of Christ’s Person and Work.

Leave a good impression. First impressions are lasting impressions. But so are closing ones. A message that starts with a bang but ends with a whimper loses credibility. A poor conclusion can trump a good introduction and strong main body. So finish strong. Practice clarity. Use variety. Use variety. Make it memorable. Strive for an economy of words. Don’t ramble. Write it out. Be familiar with it. Think of the conclusion as a lawyer’s closing argument. Don’t leave any reasonable doubt. Preach for a verdict.

What tips would you give for effective sermon conclusions? Join the conversation in the comments section.

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On Sermon Illustrations

There are three basic elements to a sermon: explanation, application, and illustration. At any given point of the sermon, you are doing one of these three things.

Explanation is the foundation of a biblical message. The goal is to explain what the text means by what it says. However, interpretation without application is abortion. You must explain the text and exhort the congregation to do what it says (James 1:22).

But your work is not done there. The effective preacher must also work to clarify meaning, make ideas stick, and call the listener to action. To this end, Illustrations are the preacher’s friend. Want proof? Read the Gospels again and note how Jesus taught. A compelling illustration sheds light on the message and helps the congregation see what you are saying.

Here are 9 tips for making good use of sermon illustrations in your preaching.

Illustrate! An illustration that does not illustrate is counterproductive. A good illustration is like a window on a house. It helps your listeners see in or out. But to prop up disconnected sheets of glass is useless. So is giving an illustration, just because it’s a good story you had to tell. Make sure the illustration has a relevant point.

Location, Location, Location. The value of real estate is based upon its location. The same is true of sermon illustrations. You will hurt the sermon if you stick a story somewhere it does not fit. Position illustrations where they will best clarify the text, highlight the point, or enforce the application. And don’t use it at all if it’s too good. Illustrations should support the message, not overpower it.

Avoid indecent exposure. Get your wife permission before using your family in the message. Don’t embarrass people. Use parental guidance. Don’t say inappropriate things that are unnecessarily offensive. Keep confidential conversations out of the pulpit. And don’t be the hero of the stories you tell.

Look for them everywhere. Life presents possible illustrations everyday. Just keep your eyes and ears open, and you will find more illustrations than you can use. Likewise, if you can get several good ideas from that illustration book, it’s worth whatever it costs. Ultimately, scripture is the best place of find illustrations. Using biblical illustrations allow you to continue to teach as you illustration. And scriptural illustrations carry divine authority.

Write out the illustration. I advocate that preachers write out full sermon manuscripts. But I know this is not possible for everyone. As a concession, I would say that you should write out sections of the sermon. For instance, fully write the introduction and conclusion. Craft your transitional sentences. And write out your illustrations. Make it clear. Include important details. Check your facts. Edit it down. And be creative.

Don’t read the illustration. If possible, write a complete sermon manuscript. But don’t read it in the pulpit. Prepare a set of notes from the manuscript to use in the pulpit. Again, I understand that some preachers work best with a full script. So here’s another concession. Try not to read your illustrations. Familiarize yourself with the illustration so you can tell it in a personal way.

Let the illustration stand on its own. Do not begin the illustration with an apology. If you have to apologize for it, don’t tell it. Don’t introduce it by telling the congregation how sad or funny it is. Let them be the judge of that. Comedians say that if you have to explain a joke, it bombed. The same is true with sermon illustrations. Just tell the illustration and let it stand on its on.

Do not bear false witness! Consider sermon illustrations a matter of ministerial ethics. Guard your credibility. Be honest and accurate about your sources. Where appropriate, give credit where credit is due. And don’t tell someone else’s personal story as if it happened to you.

Preach the text, not the illustration. We are charged to preach the word (2 Tim. 4:2). The proclamation of scripture, therefore, must be our priority. So build the sermon around the text, not illustrations. Give the illustration. Make the application. Then move on. Let the text guide the sermon. And don’t let a good story lead you astray from your assignment to preach the word.

What tips would you give on sermon illustrations? Any good sources you can recommend? Do you have warnings of things to avoid? Join the conversation in the comments section.   

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