I suspect that exegetically and homiletically the sermon would be considered a winner. The biblical text was put into its historical context for the audience, Greek roots were exposed and explained, and there were excellent anecdotes, statistics, stories, and personal experiences sprinkled throughout. The title was memorable and the presentation was nearly superb. As we were leaving, I saw a string of parishioners lining up to laud praise upon their pastor for an inspiring sermon. I get it. Compared to many sermons I’ve heard, the presentation was fabulous and, here’s a key marker, I wasn’t bored.
Though I wasn’t impressed either.
It was an excellent feel-good presentation of why we must love those who are somehow different than us, whether that be race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, political affinity, or religion. There wasn’t a single thing in the sermon I would disagree with. But in the end, it was just that: an excellent feel-good presentation. No one’s life was going to be different because of it.
It wasn’t because the sermon wasn’t “good.” It was.
It’s because the preacher didn’t ask us to do anything.
“But people don’t want to be told what to do!”
When was the last time you visited a book store? The largest sections and the best selling non-fiction books are self-help.
Have you checked out YouTube lately? After the kitty cats and puppy dog videos, most of the most popular vids are there to give you advice on how to live a better life.
Virtually everyone wants to be told what to do … to live longer, live thinner, live healthier, get richer, get more love, etc.
What we don’t want is to be told we have to do something at the pain of hell-fire, damnation, excommunication (or any other threat, implied or explicit).
A life transforming sermon is one that is relevant, entertaining (it keeps our interest), understandable, and above all, applicable.
Create a Life Transforming Sermon
- Identify your target audience.
It would be nice if we could write a sermon that changed everyone’s life every time. But you can’t … so get over it. A sermon for parents misses childless families. A sermon for Christians misses the seekers. You get the point. So decide who your sermon is written for. Everyone else can just listen in.
- Decide what the target needs to know
These next few steps come from Andy Stanley’s Communicating for Change, one of the textbooks I require for my preaching students enrolled in the Ministry Track Program at Phillips Seminary.
Whether you’re starting with scripture and asking yourself what the passage has to say to your target or whether you’re starting with a felt need of your target audience, the first question you’ll need to answer is what information they need to know.
- Why do they need to know it?
This is the motivation part of your sermon planning. Ask yourself, “Why would they want to learn what I’m about to share?”
- What do they need to do?
This is the most important question you’re going to answer. Although most preachers develop some sort of an application for their sermon (such as loving everyone no matter how different they are), most applications are not applicable. The best preacher I’ve ever heard in my life ended her sermon with the application, “We must be more forgiving.” Really? We invested twenty-three minutes for you to tell us that? Everyone, even a rock-hard atheist knows that. It’s not an applicable application.
An applicable application is one that gets you to go ye therefore and DO something. And for the record, reflecting or meditating or considering something is not an applicable application. Doing something means to do something … get off your blessed assurance and accomplish something. That might be to have a conversation, to pick up litter, to kiss your kids, to pray for someone, or to attend the next Pastor’s Class. It’s not curling up in an easy chair and contemplating the meaning of life.
So, let’s “fix” the nearly great sermon I heard. What could the preacher have asked us to do that would have moved us toward transformation in his Love Everyone, No Exceptions sermon? What concrete “Do This” would be an applicable application? Here’s a list of possibilities I brainstormed in just a few moments … when you answer the question for yourself, you’ll want to consider your context and your target audience.
- This week, begin building a relationship with someone of a different ethnic or racial background.
- This week, volunteer for one hour at the indigent services center.
- This week, call your city and ask which commission or committee they need you serve on.
- This week, pick up the phone and call your estranged ______ for the sole purpose of reestablishing a relationship.
You’ll notice I ask the congregation to do something with a deadline … no one’s life is transformed if they fall prey to procrastination. Hopefully, you’ll also notice that each of these is a Do Something kind of ask. There’s no generic “go be more loving,” but specific to do’s that invite listeners to actually be more loving.
How does this work in actual practice? Here’s my Count Me In! sermon “to do” list from one of my recent sermons on being a part of the local church.
☐ I’ll be here next Sunday
☐ I’ll invite a friend
☐ I see the harvest and want to get involved …
☐ I know my part in the harvest and will redouble my efforts
☐ I want help discovering my role in the harvest
☐ I want to get involved in an RCC outreach (The Outreach Chair will contact you)
☐ I will attend the Getting Acquainted Lunch to explore First Church and my role there
Transformation doesn’t come because you have a great idea … it comes because you put a great idea into practice. If you’re committed to preaching for transformation, begin by asking your listeners to do something. As they put their faith into action, they’ll begin to experience a personal transformation.