Anytime the preacher says, “Look again at verse 5. The word there means…,” the audience moves their attention to Scripture. They learn that in Bible Study, as in any other endeavor, words matter. Let’s say the preacher says something like,
“Remember, there were no chapter divisions when this was written. When Paul said, ‘If you have been raised with Christ,’ there’s no guesswork about what he means. Back in what we refer to as chapter 2, verse 12, he said, ‘You were raised with him.’ This is a clear reference to our baptismal experience.”
As the preacher says that, listeners learn to read Scripture in context and with more discernment.
One necessary metric for determining the effectiveness of our preaching is how well people are learning to read their Bible. It’s not an easily measured factor, nor can you quantify it for the church Fact Sheet. You only know it’s happening when you hear someone lead a communion meditation, facilitate a Bible Study, or discuss the origin of a change in their life. When they reflect good hermeneutical practices, you are being effective in preaching. The reality is that listeners will eventually approach Scripture with the same skills and approaches as the preacher.
Preachers spend hours with their texts, moving from the hard chair work of study to the soft chair work of crafting a presentation. In their minds, every sentence in the sermon has its origin in what they’ve seen in their study. Unfortunately, the listener doesn’t share that intense interaction with the text. Therefore, the preacher must draw lines for them, point them to the point of origin and show them why they are saying what they are.
Connecting the sermon to the text…
This might be drawing lines to word meanings, grammar, background, or context. In each case, the listener is taught to look carefully at the text.
Consider this sample from Revelation 1:4-6: We note that “loves” is a present active participle. He loves now, in an ongoing fashion, as a characteristic of who He is. The question becomes, how do we capture the implication of the grammar (explanation) in a way that will impact the audience (application) and enable them to experience the wonder of this truth (illustration)?
“This might be drawing lines to word meanings, grammar, background, or context. In each case, the listener is taught to look carefully at the text.”
It might sound something like this:
I’m not a grammarian, nor the son of a grammarian, but I recognize an “s” when I see one. This text says Jesus “loves” us, not “loved” us. For some reason the translators of the King James Version chose a past tense form for this verb. But when we look at several more recent translations, we see they all reveal the present tense. But isn’t it still just an “s”?
Frankly, some of you would prefer it was a “d,” past tense. You believe Jesus “loved” you. Back when you were more innocent—before life took those unexpected, undesirable turns. Your life isn’t what you’d hoped. Jesus couldn’t possibly love you now, not in these conditions, not under these circumstances, not after what you have done.
Others of you are convinced it should be “will love us,” future tense. You have high hopes and big plans. You’re going to straighten out your life. Or life is going to get better. You’ll get through the divorce, past the cancer, over the affair, beyond the sin. Then, after life is more like it should be, you may believe Jesus loves you. But not now, not yet.
But look at the text. It’s an “s.” John says Jesus loves me, now. He loves me in spite of my decisions, in spite of my circumstances, in spite of the condition of my life. In fact, I can’t stop Jesus from loving me. It’s in his nature. It reminds you of a Bible verse, doesn’t it? “Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ…” (Romans 8:37-39).
The preacher can connect the text to the sermon through word meanings, grammatical constructions, background information, literary context, etc. It doesn’t have to be labored and should never leave the listener thinking they can’t read the Bible because they aren’t scholars. Instead, it should reveal meaning and application while imbuing readers with curiosity to discover how they can learn to make those connections.
“It should reveal meaning and application while imbuing readers with curiosity to discover how they can learn to make those connections.”
Connecting the sermon to our goals…
A second essential metric of effectiveness is connecting the sermon to the overall mission and values of the congregation. Effective preaching moves a congregation toward its mission and reinforces the values for which the congregation wants to be known. This can be a bit easier to quantify if the values produce measurable actions like volunteering or giving. But in the long term, the best evidence is again anecdotal.
Leaders listen to parishioners to see if they vocalize the mission of the church in their conversations. They don’t have to repeat our official statements, but they should clearly reflect the intentions of the congregation. They should also articulate the values that are sought.
Values and mission appear in virtually every sermon. All the preacher need do is add a sentence or two to the sermon connecting the dots for people. It shouldn’t seem forced but should be clear. When done whenever opportunity arises, our listeners will receive regular encouragement to stay focused on what matters most.
“Values and mission appear in virtually every sermon. All the preacher need do is add a sentence or two to the sermon connecting the dots for people.”
I recently missed an opportunity for just such a moment. The text made the point that outward appearance doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s in the heart. That led to an emphasis upon the importance of character to our mission and our message. In essence, people are not going to listen to us if our character isn’t becoming more like that of Jesus.
All I needed was to say, “What we see in this text is that character matters. What we do must be driven by who we are. As you know, one of our core values is ‘Character is our credibility.’ Who you are matters.” I said everything except the key line, “One of our values….” Failing to draw the connection didn’t affect the sermon, but it could have been a strong moment of connection, especially for new people just becoming familiar with who we are.
A good first step would be to take your vision/mission statement and your core values and put them in a three-column chart. In the left column, list the mission statement and core values in individual boxes. In the middle column, note texts that support those statements. In the right column, note the date when you addressed that statement directly in a sermon. At the end of the year, you’ll have accumulated a sizeable list of appropriate texts and you’ll know quickly if you’ve omitted any of these important congregational values.
Second, be intentional. As you are preparing your sermon plan, note which value statement might be addressed within the series. Add a sentence or two to the overall description of the series and each sub-series that details how this series addresses your mission and values.
“As you are preparing your sermon plan, note which value statement might be addressed within the series.”
Third, each week, ask if there is something in the text that would lend itself to reinforcing your mission and/or values. It could be as simple as altering an illustration or adding a sentence or two connecting the dots for people.
These intentional steps will sharpen the preacher’s awareness of and focus on what matters most. It will actually become second nature to look for opportunities to point things out for your listeners. The overall benefit will be a more focused and unified congregation.