Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

8/5 2015

Sermon Tips: 12 Questions for Effective Sermons

Pittsburgh Seminary continues our sermon writing tips series. Be sure to look for other tips from faculty, staff, and alums in the months ahead and read our recent posts on preaching without notes and dealing with writer’s block. Have a tip you’d like to offer or have a sermon issue you’d like help with? Let us know by using the comments option.

George-Whitfield-preachingTo ensure that you’re delivering the most effective sermons, consider these 12 questions about your preaching. They relate to both particular sermons and the overall sermon.

  1. Are you preaching both the Old Testament and the New Testament? Both need to be preached if you are going to give your people the full testimony of preaching.
  2. Are you helping people know and do? Sermons need to be about both practical living and theological insight. Some sermons might be more one or the other, but your people need both on a regular basis.
  3. Are you only preaching what people want to hear? If everybody loved every one of your sermons then there is probably a problem. If they hate all your sermons there is probably a problem too. People need to be both convicted and encouraged.
  4. Are you using the right number of stories and examples? There is a problem when you tell too many or too few examples and stories. Too many and people can actually lose the point. Too few and people won’t remember the point. Some points require more or less examples.
  5. Are you too point driven? People don’t remember points. They don’t think in points. They think in stories. They remember images. Gone are the days when your sermon should be jammed into a three- or four-points system.
  6. Do you have too much or too little energy? If you are monotone and never get excited then people will sleep. If you are too bubbly and wild then people will be scared. You need variety and to avoid extremes.
  7. Do you have too much or too little tradition? I like tradition. I like history. I like the creeds. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. People live today, not 500 years ago.
  8. Are you too focused on biblical themes or particular passages? There are times when certain large biblical themes need to come up in sermons. There are other times when a particular passage needs to be mined for all of the precious nuggets in it. Both are important.
  9. Are you preaching the same message every week? So many pastors have their hobby horse like evangelism or social justice. You are not just preaching what you like. Not every sermon and topic can come back to the same idea.
  10. Are you preaching to your congregation? This sounds dumb, but many pastors preach with little or no regard for where their congregation is. Is your preaching understandable? Does is speak to real issues in your congregation?
  11. Are your conclusion too open ended or too specific? The best sermons have guidance on what to think about and how to apply them but also leave room for the message to haunt people throughout the week.
  12. Who is the hero in your sermons? It should be Jesus. Our faith is not about self-help. It is about God-help and how we turn around and help others.

What would you add to the list?

Jordan Rimmer ’12 is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in New Brighton, Pa. He earned his Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently working on getting his Doctor of Ministry. Before moving to Pittsburgh, he was the director of outreach and youth ministries at Glenwood Methodist Church in Erie, Pa. He is a husband and father of four children. Jordan blogs at jordanrimmer.com and tweets at @jrimmer21. His sermons are available for download on iTunes or at http://jordanrimmer.podbean.com.

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7/30 2015

Sermon Tips: Dealing with Writer’s Block

sermon-writers-blockAs a service to our readers, Pittsburgh Seminary continues our sermon writing tips series. This is our second post and we hope you find it helpful. Be sure to look for other tips from faculty, staff, and alums in the months ahead and read our recent post on preaching without notes. Have a tip you’d like to offer or have a sermon issue you’d like help with? Let us know by using the comments option.

The irony is not lost on me that I’m sitting down to write this blog post on sermon writing tips and writer’s block because I’m currently spinning my tires on my actual sermon for this Sunday and I’ve decided the best course of action is to simply avoid it for a while. I’ve done everything I usually do – everything that my homiletics professors and my field education instructor taught me was good practice. I’ve translated the passages ground up from the Hebrew and Greek. I’ve read the commentaries. I’ve thought about it, talked about it, prayed about it. I even came up with a clever title. And here I sit. . . Friday afternoon – late afternoon at that – with about 1200 words of complete drivel. I suppose I should take heart that at least it’s well exegeted drivel with a clever title.

Sermons are elusive like that. Some of them come pouring out onto the page on Tuesday and by Sunday morning are polished and shiny, lovely and poetic, complimented at the narthex door by little old ladies and teenagers alike. “Great story you told, Pastor!” “Reverend, I’ve never understood that passage until today!” “Wow. That really spoke to me.” Other sermons – like the one I’ve just put into time out for a few hours – are a bit more obstinate. They show up on Sunday morning ruffled, dirty, and rough around the edges. Even as I’m delivering these ones on Sunday morning, I’m doing so while subconsciously cringing and thinking of all the edits I should have made.

My sweet, gracious congregation always tells me it was a “Good sermon, Pastor.” even if we all know quite well that it was far from my finest homiletic accomplishment. But every so often, when I have just preached what I’m convinced is a complete stinker, someone will stop me in the hall or come into my office the next day, maybe send me an email, and they will tell me how deeply the message touched them. The only explanation I can come up with for this phenomenon is that God is keeping me humble. “You might think you’re clever, sweet daughter, but remember whose words these really are.” I can just hear God saying, with a kind chuckle.

Before you start thinking that I’m saying we should forget the original languages and ignore the commentaries and just wing it every week, let me state emphatically that I don’t think that at all. In fact, I truly believe that the Holy Spirit works through good planning just as much as the Holy Spirit moves spontaneously. What I’m saying is that the heart of writing sermons, week after week after week, is humility. You can and should plan and read and study. But be prepared for those disciplines to feel empty or fruitless some weeks.

I’ve started to take weeks like this as signs that I’m supposed to do something a little bit different. Maybe more prayer time is just what we need this week. Maybe we’ll take some time to anoint people for healing. Perhaps we’ll lay rocks at the foot of the cross to signify giving Jesus our burdens and sorrows. Whatever it is, it will be a teaching moment for me too. It’s a chance for me to develop my ability to lean on God in the preaching moment. It’s a lesson from the Holy Spirit that I dare not miss or take for granted. I have a feeling that just grunting through this so I have something to say is the wrong approach.

In the spirit of blog posts that are supposed to give some sort of helpful tips about sermon writing, here is my list of sermon writing tips, in the light of my struggles in sermon-land this week:

  1. Have a rhythm/routine. It’s good to play with the different things that your homiletics teachers taught you in seminary. Figure out what works for you and get into a groove.
  2. Be prepared for that rhythm to be upset by the Holy Spirit. I find that these upsets tend to happen just when I’m cocky enough to feel comfortable in my sermon writing routine. God leads me (or sometimes drags me kicking and screaming) to try something new and different: a hands on thing, audience participation, a different sermon structure, etc.
  3. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Take the job seriously. Take God seriously. Take Scripture seriously. But you? You’re a mess – just ask Calvin. Be willing to laugh later about how awful that joke you told was. Don’t sweat it if nobody said anything about the sermon this week. When your routine gets bounced around – as I’ve promised it will – roll with it. That stuff is all you and you are just the mouthpiece.

Fun post script: This week’s wacky sermon involving rocks and audience participation was in fact one where it was clear the Holy Spirit was working. Point taken, God.

Charissa Howe graduated with her MDiv from Pittsburgh Seminary in 2014 and is currently working on her ThM. She serves as pastor of Liberty Presbyterian Church in McKeesport, Pa.

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7/23 2015

Sermon Tips: Preaching without Notes

Sermon Writing - Preaching without NotesAs a service to our readers, Pittsburgh Seminary is embarking on a sermon writing tips series. This is our first post and we hope you find it helpful. Be sure to look for other tips from faculty, staff, and alums in the months ahead. Have a tip you’d like to offer or have a sermon issue you’d like help with? Let us know by using the comments option.

I have in the past three years preached with no notes. I went to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary where Bill Carl, former president and professor, is a big proponent of sermon memorization. I was in a class where he praised the benefits of sermon memorization. When I get compliments about my sermons, and they are not on the content, they are usually compliments about how much people enjoy how a sermon has been directed to them. How the fact that I look at them while I preach makes all the difference for them.

Here are several steps that I use for preaching without notes.

1. KNOW THE PASSAGE YOU ARE GOING TO PREACH ON WELL IN ADVANCE! This is crucial. You have a finite amount of time in each week. Do not use anytime trying to decide what you plan to preach on. The lectionary helps. However, what I do is spend a good bit of time in advance to map out a year, or a large part of the year. This also gives me the opportunity to take a look at the passage I will preach on Sunday night.

2. Wrestle with a passage early, but by Wednesday know your main point. Don’t change your main point unless it is some rare exception of sudden last minute epiphany. This provides you the opportunity to put on the lens of the passage and its main point when meeting with people. As you spend time with your congregation you will see how your main point needs to be communicated or bent a little to better reach your church.

3. Make outlines. I use Logos Bible software. I start making outlines. The outlines I write in the notes part of the program are reflecting the flow of the sermon I intend to preach. I won’t erase; I will just start another one if I want to change the sermon. The repetition helps me get my flow down. Each time I write the outline I try to use less words. So the first out line will be sizable in content but a jumble of thoughts. The last outline might be 50 words at most. In between I may have 10 outlines I wrote to get to the final outline. The Logos Software is on my phone and automatically syncs. So when I type it into my computer on Logos I have a flashcard in my hand and I can look at my outlines anywhere.

4. I don’t attempt to memorize a manuscript. I don’t write how I talk and I don’t talk how I write. If I tried to memorize a manuscript it would not be natural to how I talk. I realize manuscript memorization is important to some. I just have a tough time with doing it.

5. As I write my outlines I begin to recite in my head how and what I plan to say. This process really cements thins in my brain. It is also a process I can employ while I driving or shop. It is a process that is really a lifestyle. It also helps you pay attention to what you say so that you are not loose with words.

6. Write down notes of delicate things you want to say. If you are worried about phrasing of points, write them down. Don’t let the details of the memorization get in the way of the bulk of the memorization. If you have something worded with delicateness then you need to put it aside and memorize it in a traditional flashcard-type manner.

7. Sit with the passage. Know why you picked it and what you want to say early on. This will drive your process. It will help it reach home. It will hit its mark this way. If you are just getting to your passage on Thursday or Friday, this will not lend itself to this style of memorization.

This blog was originally posted by the Rev. Dan Turis ’12, pastor of Colonial Church of Bayside in New York, on his site: http://danturis.com/. You can also follow him on Twitter @dturis.

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