There are two sides to every sermon.
First, every sermon needs a preacher. For years and years, pastors have delivered sermons weekly. Often, they present between two and three messages a week. But the preacher is not the only person in the room.
Every sermon also needs an audience. For years and years, congregations have come faithfully to hear their pastor preach to them. They listen, reflect, and try to apply his sermons to their lives.
There have been some pastors that stood out from the rest because of their excellent sermons, and after all this time, what have preachers learned about preaching, and what have congregations learned about listening?
What makes a good sermon? And how should I listen to a sermon? Welcome to Sermon 101.
“Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine.” – 2 Timothy 4:2
This week I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Mark Herbster. Mr. Herbster is the new Dean of Maranatha Baptist Seminary and of the School of Bible and Church Ministries. He earned a B.A. in Bible from Bob Jones University and an MDiv degree from Heart of America Theological Seminary. His Doctor of Ministry is near completion as well. He and his wife served the Lord in full-time itinerant ministry for sixteen years. He is the leader of the Herbster Evangelistic Team, and he has preached in camps, churches, and conferences all over the world. As he has told the freshman many times, this is his freshman year at Maranatha, too! He is an encouragement to every student and staff member at Maranatha, and is filled with knowledge and wisdom when it comes to the preaching of God’s Word. I was excited to have the chance to talk with him about the two sides to every sermon. I pray his knowledge is a blessing you can learn something from.
1. The Preacher’s Side
Question: What do you believe are the most important things to make a sermon effective?
Mr. Herbster: Without talking about the actual person – I think they need to have passion and energy – let’s talk about the structure of the sermon itself. The first thing that you must have is one main theme that you’re trying to present. Too many preachers say a lot of good things, but when the listener leaves, they don’t know what the one thing they were trying to communicate was. Making a good sermon is a little bit like writing a good paper. You want to have a proposition. I call it a proposition because that’s the way I was trained. It’s like a thesis, and that thesis must be rooted in what the text is saying. The thesis comes after study of the text so you can wrap it all up in one sentence. What is the one thing you’re trying to say?
Take a verse like John 3:16. (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”) There are many things you could say about it. But let’s try to be creative to summarize what that verse is saying. Your main points, typically only three or four, are all dependent on the text. What does the text say about the theme you gave?
Usually, I will answer a question with my point. If my theme is that God chose to love the world and rescue people, then my points might ask in what ways God did this. “In these three ways God chose to love and save people. Point one: God sacrificially gave His Son. Point two: He gives us the privilege of calling upon His name. . . .” Do you see what I am saying? The structure of the message makes the message pointed and powerful.
Ultimately, the most important thing is that all of what you’re saying about the text is from the text. There’s a lot more that could be said. There are entire classes on homiletics, but I think these are some of the most important things that I look towards when I’m preparing a sermon. One more thing might be helpful though.
Once you get your theme and decide what your points are, then you want to have these categories with your points: explanation, illustration, and application. You really need all three of those on every one of your points. You must explain where you see the point you’re making in the text and why you see it. You’re explaining and arguing for it at the same time. Some actually split that into explanation and argumentation because sometimes there is debate about what the text is saying. That is your interpretation stage. Then you have illustration, which is trying to connect the Bible to real-life situations. You can illustrate with a quote, a story, a poem, or a personal illustration. You need some sort of picture. An illustration is like a window that opens the light to the truth. Then, remember that preaching is not preaching without application. The application asks this question: what does this mean for me? “I see what is in the text, I heard you illustrate how it happened to somebody else, and you proved the truth of the text, but what does that mean for me?” What specifically should I be doing about what I heard?
So you add those categories in, and that is what really helps to create the structure of a message that really impacts people. You can say a lot of good things – you’re seeing this even when you blog – but you need to structure it in a way that connects.
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” – 2 Timothy 2:15
2. The Listener’s Side
Question: What are the essentials for understanding a sermon?
Mr. Herbster: First of all, I think the listener needs to know that you love them, by your demeanor, your disposition, and your sincerity. A lot of that is created away from the moment they’re actually listening. In other words, hopefully you’ve had some connection with your listeners before so they understand your love for them. Then they also need to sense that you absolutely believe, passionately, what you’re saying. Different people express that passion in different ways, but I don’t think that preaching is lecturing (just giving information). It is allowing that information and truth to cause a certain emotional (“I feel like I want to do this!”) and volitional (“I am going to change; I am going to do this!”) response. So you’re trying to elicit that type of response from the listener, but the listener won’t get that if they don’t have a connection with you.
From the listener’s perspective, they’re more interested in the overall message you’re declaring. That message is given with not just the words you say, but with your body language, intensity, and vocal inflection. You can say right things in a way that is totally disconnecting from your audience. Eye contact is even very important, as well as varying your pitch and rate. All of that I think comes from a sincere love and passion for the truth and for the people. From my perspective, that’s what I am trying to do for the listeners.
From the listener’s perspective, the way I describe it is they must be tender, teachable, and transparent. I will pray that way for the audience, but at the same time I’m praying for me. I pray for clarity, compassion, and conviction for the preacher. And if we both have those things, the preacher and the listener, honestly the message may not be perfectly communicated or structured, but the power is in the Word. Not in the perfectly articulated and eloquent speech. Not in the perfect listener. The power is in the Word.
“If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine, whereunto thou hast attained.” – 1 Timothy 4:6
3. Encourage Your Shepherd (For ministry interviews, I will be continuing to ask what has been an encouragement to the interviewee during their ministry.)
Question: What were some specific things people did in your ministry that encouraged you the most?
Mr. Herbster: For me, one of the most energizing things is when I get a personal conversation, phone call, or an email from someone who was specifically blessed by something I did, said, or ministered. I’ll give you an illustration. Just yesterday after I preached, I got a couple emails from students. That’s very encouraging. I had quite a few students who said, “Wow! I really appreciated the message.” I think that goes a long way if you’re in a congregation and your pastor is laboring every day. Do things that encourage him and let him know that his work is being fruitful in your heart.
There are times when people do even more than that. They actually sacrificially support the pastor, the missionary, or the ministry itself with finances, gifts, or even a thank-you card. Those kinds of things are very energizing when your whole life is about trying to be effective with people.
For me, some of those “words fitly spoken” are actually more meaningful to me than gifts. We lived in a ministry that was based on offerings, but when somebody gives you money, that doesn’t necessarily mean they changed in their spiritual life. So for me, as someone trying to live based totally on ministry, seeing the fruit of your ministry is very encouraging.
I try also, when my Bible professors are preaching in chapel, to come back and send them an email. I just say, “I want you to know that was really a blessing to me. Thank you for your work on that.” I know what that means to me, and I think if everybody had that spirit of encouragement, that would be a real blessing to people who are laboring in the ministry.
Pastors are people too, and they need to be blessed by the people they’re blessing.
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” – Proverbs 25:11
I had been debating all week about what to interview Mr. Herbster on, and during the interview I thanked God that I had waited for His leading. Mr. Herbster obviously has a tremendous understanding of how to make a message meaningful, how to be an effective speaker, and how to be a good listener. I am so grateful for his knowledge and ministry. I hope his wisdom was a help to you, as a pastor or a congregation member.
Sermons can be tricky to write. Listening and understanding them can sometimes be even trickier. But as Mr. Herbster pointed out, the power is in the Word. You don’t need to be an incredible scholar or speaker. You don’t need to have great listening skills. God’s Word transcends both speaker and listener. However, I hope you can apply the principles Mr. Herbster presented to your everyday life.
The power is in the Word.
“For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” – Hebrews 4:12