What makes an effective sermon?

Lots of ink has been spilled trying to outline the elements of an effective sermon. This is a very important matter to the shepherd who is called to feed the flock.

I remember a conversation at a faculty meeting at Westminster Seminary early in my tenure there. The elements of an effective sermon happened to be the subject of a discussion that day. Of course, an effective sermon is grounded in accurate interpretation of the text with a compelling proposition gleaned from the hard work of exegesis. Then there is a clear outline, enlightening illustrations, helpful applications, and the appropriate proclamation of Jesus who is the Good News. Please don’t forget the power of the Holy Spirit to impact the audience according to the Lord’s will. Is that all? Something was missing. My point? An effective sermon is also a sermon that is preached in the context of a caring pastoral ministry. Perhaps this is often assumed but it must be stated. Do the words of your sermons seem to be falling on deaf ears? Do you chalk it up to the spiritual apathy of your people? Could be. Or, it might be that you haven’t been spending enough time with your people.

A few years ago, several well-known pastors were asked 10 questions about preaching. In answer to a question about balancing sermon prep and other responsibilities Tim Keller said, “It is a very great mistake to pit pastoral care and leadership against preaching preparation. It is only through doing people-work that you become the preacher you need to be—someone who knows sin, how the heart works, what people’s struggles are, and so on. Pastoral care and leadership are to some degree sermon prep. More accurately, it is preparing the preacher, not just the sermon.” Being with your people prepares you by filling your heart with compassion for your flock as you see them struggle with real problems in need of the answers that only God’s word gives. It gives you passion in the pulpit as you plead with your people to believe God’s truth and follow the way of discipleship. But it also prepares your people as they know that the words that they hear are coming from someone who loves them. The shepherd knows his sheep and the sheep know their shepherd.

Of course, as a teacher of homiletics, I understand that all of the other things on the list are important. But often the power of pastoral care is left out of the discussion. Let’s put it back in. Put it this way, most of us are fairly average preachers, despite how hard we work. Don’t be discouraged! Keep working on the art of sermon preparation. But please understand that if your people know that you love them, they will be eager to hear what you have to say, even if you’re not John Piper or Sinclair Ferguson (which you’re not!). They are hearing the voice of their caring undershepherd who is determined to see them grow in their faith and know the Lord’s blessing in their lives. On the other hand, the preacher who is not out among his sheep may continue to chalk up powerless preaching to hard-hearted congregants.