March 19, 2015

The Autopsy of a Dead Sermon

Many sermons have little any affect on the listeners when it comes to decision making. As my friend Jim said “They are D.O.A, dead on arrival.” This discussion is not about truth that was last month. This is about effectiveness. Even a dead body has some truth associated with it, but it doesn’t have life.

If you get offended by this discussion you are not reading carefully. Sermons aren’t for and about the preacher. They should be about God, not the human instrument and it should be for the listener. I have no idea how many sermons I have heard in my almost 80 years. I have no idea how many I have preached over 55 years of ministry but a number of them were DOA. I looked over some of messages from those first years in the pastorate and I wondered how anyone ever listened to them. It isn’t that I was not sincere; I just wish someone would have shared the following with me. It wasn’t until my post graduate work that I had a professor who was willing to rip my disjointed thoughts into pieces. I thank God for that man.


Sermons aren’t supposed to be entertainment and the preacher is not an entertainer. That doesn’t mean humor and illustrations are out of the question. But those are only tools and they shouldn’t be the main thing a listener remembers about the sermon. Every message ought to begin with a clear statement of where one is headed and what if any decision or action would be expected. The sermon needs to focus on that subject and lead the person to the stated action. It should close with a clear statement of the idea and clearly lead to any action the speaker intended the listener to have. This is simply the outline of the old black preacher. “I tells them what I going to tells them, then I tells them and then tells them what I told them.” At any point in the message the listener should be able to know what the idea, goal and action is.


There are many forms that a message could take. None of them are necessarily bad. Some however are better than others. Many effective preachers have done well with a verse by verse exegetical approach. It may be the best approach but doctrinal, topical or devotional messages have their place. It is not difficult to make an exegetical approach as dry as dust however. A discourse should not be a technical seminary lecture but the local church is in serious need of teaching, no matter what the makeup of the congregation is. At the same time all messages always should teach. One way to test this is to write in the margin of one’s outline the doctrines being taught by the sermon. Working through a bible book as a series is safe in that sooner or later you come to every doctrine and serious issue that needs to be shared.

As the pulpit master carefully reviews his sermons for the year there are some things he should find. Central doctrines should have been clearly dealt with. A central doctrine is not limited to the things you have to believe to go to heaven. There are subjects that open the door understanding important doctrinal areas. I often ask how long it has been since you preached or heard some speak on the Blessed Hope, the any moment return of Christ for the Church. What someone believes is really not as important as how they got there. That is the real test.


In a former article I discussed the issue of “time” as it relates to a message. One of my students asked “how long does it take for you to prepare a message?” My answer was “it takes fifty four years.” It takes time to prepare an effective message, one that will deliver the intended response. This may sound strange but it takes more time to prepare for a well ordered thirty minutes message than it does for a rambling hour. That is no recommendation for sermonettes that produce christianettes. An effective message has no time for unrelated word slurs.

There are very few preachers who have the ability to hold the attention of an audience for an hour and a half. Many times long winded sermons are there only because the speaker likes the sound of his own voice. The real issue, however, is not the length of a sermon. In a previous article I outline the problem of referring to time. At any place in the message we mention time it will distract the listener. References such as “time is my enemy,” “I don’t have enough time,” “I am almost done,” “this is my last point,” or even “finally” are fatal.  They don’t believe us anyway having heard those disclaimers to many times before. If you give the listener any hint that you are almost done, you are done. They are zipping up bible covers, putting on a coat or ordering lunch, but you are done. Don’t bother to give an invitation you lost them and your sermon is incomplete. How to hold their attention is another matter for another article.


In diligent preparation every word should be weighed. Preachers who wing it are in for a fall. While there must be solid truth taught there is need for application. One should note that application is not part of interpretation. These can only be added once the interpretation is finished. If we begin with the application before the text we are on dangerous ground. An illustration may be used to introduce a message but even that should rise from the theme of the text that has been settled by exegesis. If the listener goes away with a desire to come listen again the message was alive. Dead messages send people away empty and cold.

Shepherd’s Staff is prepared by Clay Nuttall, D. Min

A communication service of Shepherd's Basic Care, for those committed to the authority and sufficiency of the Bible.  Shepherd's Basic Care is a ministry of information and encouragement to pastors, missionaries, and churches.  Write for information using the e-mail address, shepherdstaff2@juno.comor visit us at The Shepherd Staff.

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