21 Skills of Great Preachers

The one thing most of us would rather do than preach, is hear another great preacher. I mean a “Great” preacher. I’ve learned plenty from hearing the best preachers, especially in a live setting. For most of my life, when sitting under a great preacher, I’ve taken dual sets of notes, including content on one list, and a separate set of notes on their communication skills. What have I discovered in these 40 years worth of notes? Here’s my summary:

1. Content:
All of my “Great Preachers” had something to say. Even as “great communicators,” they didn’t substitute style for substance.

2. Passion:
The best Preachers I’ve heard had a passion for what they said which seemed to spring from a general spiritual burden for people, which is different from just loving to preach. Messages are easier to love than people.

3. Credibility:
Great Preachers practice what they preach — they live it.’ “Great Communicators” might get away with all kinds of private sin, but not truly “Great Preachers.” I’ve had to downgrade some of my “Great Preachers to “Great Communicators” over the last few decades.

4. Prepared:
Great Preachers don’t “wing it” — even if the people couldn’t tell. (They can.)

5. Notes:
Most Great Preachers limited their use of notes. Thanks to TV, preachers can no longer read to a crowd with their nose buried in their notes.

6. Simple:
Great Preachers have a way of bringing high truths down to the bottom shelf, yet without compromising the greatness of truth. In this they are like Jesus. People don’t leave a truly great preacher saying, “Boy He’s smart!” They say, “Now I understand!”

7. Short:
While Great Preachers are able to hold your attention in a preaching marathon, most were able to also preach a great sermon in 30 minutes or less. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve discovered that 30 minutes is plenty of time for a preacher to give a sermon, except in the few instances when I myself am the preacher.)

8. Convicting:
People hear God prick their conscience when Great Preachers preach. They give more than a “sermon” or “talk” — they deliver a “message” from God.

9. Self-revealing:
Great Preachers know how to tell personal stories on themselves. They become real to their listeners. Yet they do this while avoiding the ego-centric self-absorption of many pop preachers who make themselves the subject of the sermon instead of God.

10. Confidence:
Great Preachers don’t seem scared. Maybe they are, but they never seem to show it.

11. Tone:
While the great preachers of the past often thundered out salvos like a giant cannons, the Great Preachers of today almost all use a conversational tone of voice. They know that people today don’t listen to speakers who shout.

12. Story-telling:
All Great Preachers through history have this trait in common: they are good story tellers. That goes for both telling story illustrations and direct Bible stories.

13. Prop:
I’ve noticed that some Great Preachers use an object or prop to get their truth across — usually an ordinary thing like a salt shaker, a packet of yeast, or a glass of water.

14. Humor:
Many Great Preachers are funny, though not all of them. The humorous preachers are able to “get them back” after they’ve been on a roll, so that the message can stay central, not the humor. Those who can’t keep the message central are merely “Great Communicators” or “Christian Humorists,” not “Great Preachers.”

15. Pace:
Evan fast-paced Great Preachers use pauses where you can catch your breath. The listener then can digest their last few bites of truth without bolting the whole meal down undigested. Many Great Preachers follow the traditional Afro-American pace in the poem: “Begin low; Continue slow; Rise up higher; Catch on fire; Sit down in the storm.”

16. Eyes:
Great Preachers keep their eyes glued to their audience. Each person in the congregation feels the preacher is “looking right me.”

17. Fast-on-feet:
Most Great Preachers are able to work in the surprises in a service like thunder, scratching on the roof, sirens etc.

18. Intensity:
The Great Preachers I’ve heard varied their intensity — sometimes they were louder, then they’d get as soft as a whisper, sometimes they’d be so intense that my own stomach would ache, then they’d drop back and adopt a tender or even chuckling style.

19. Movement:
Most Great Preachers I’ve heard used their bodies to preach along with their words. They seemed to intuitively know that a congregation is getting a full 55% of the communication from their facial gestures and body movement.

20. Decision:
My Great Preachers never gave a message and walked away. They called for my specific and personal decision in response to God’s truth. They preached for decision, not for entertainment or education. Perhaps I call them “Great” partially because God changed me under their influence.

21. Landing:
All the really Great Preachers I’ve heard were able to land their message on the first pass. Most lesser preachers circle the airport several times before bringing it in, or (worse still) do several “touch-and-Go’s” before landing. You know, it’s a funny thing… I can always see when the other guy should land his sermon, better than knowing when to bring my own message down on the runway.

So what about you? What would you add to this list describing the skills of the “Great Preachers” you’ve known?

Dr Keith Drury is the author of several books and a ministry professor at Indiana Wesleyan University.

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23 thoughts on “21 Skills of Great Preachers

  1. Great list!
    One question… I am very comfortable preaching both topical and expository sermons. Often I preach something of a hybrid… For example, this past week I had a clear text and didn’t jump around and formed my central message out of what I thought the main idea was. I even developed some of my points based on careful study of what was going on in the text. But, in the end, the people most likely “received” the final product as a topical sermon.

    Do you have any observation about whether these Great Preachers tend in one direction or the other–topical or expository? Any thoughts?

    (For what it’s worth, I don’t think the OT prophets, Jesus, Peter, or Paul “preached” expository sermons. It seems to me that they preached textually informed topical sermons…)


    • Hey Jared. Hope you’re doing well. I appreciate your insightful inquiry. The New Testament sermons tend to simply be a retelling of large portions of the Old Testament with the preacher’s interpretive twist. I tend not to use the terms expository vs. topical but instead textual vs. topical, since all sermonic forms should, in my estimation, “expose” the meaning of Scripture. So, faithful topical and textual sermons can and should be expository. Thanks for raising the question. Anyone else want to jump in?

  2. I would add “Relational.” A great preach causes me to feel and understand that we’re in this together. He or she is not “above” me – perhaps farther down the path than myself and thus able to direct and protect. But we’re on the same path together, making the same journey, towards the same goal. A great preacher is a shepherd who cares about the well-being of his or her sheep.

  3. Great List and i think i would agree with your list. I have been particularly impressed with Great Preachers that use limited or no notes. I would love to be free from my notes/manuscript I sometime think I would make a better writer than Preacher. I was taught in homiletics at (IWU no less) to “preach from a manuscript for the first 10 yrs of my ministry” and now I guess i’m addicted cause i’m terrified to go into the pulpit without it. Any suggestions for helping me free myself ?

    • Steve, this is a great question. I have been a no notes (or limited notes:-) preacher for most of my ministry. But it is hard work for sure. Since preaching is an oral event, it’s more important to connect with the eyes and miss a few words than to read every word and fail to connect. Ellsworth Kalas, one of my homiletics professors, preached without notes into his 90s. I asked him how he does it. He said, “I write a manuscript and read it prayerfully several times through. Then, I stand up to preach without notes. If I forget something, then it probably wasn’t all that important to the sermon.”

      Here is the link to an article I wrote called “With or Without Notes”: http://lennyluchetti.blogspot.com/2010/01/how-to-preach-without-notes.html

      Keep preaching,

    • Stephen,
      One of the things I want to encourage you Stephen, is that when the day is done, it doesn’t matter what manner you preach as long as it was able to be understood. The Lord is the one that does all the work. I have found being a charasmatic preacher, that the more I get out of the way of my sermons the more it is understood.
      I never preach without getting the men involved in my sermons. They know me now that they pay much more attention and when I am finished I can now go up to most and they will be able to tell me what they learned.
      I try to go slower today also for all of the ones who take notes and those who cannot find the scriptures as fast. I am against having the word of God on a screen unless you breaking down a verse. We have made church way to seeker freindly. God’s word stands alone and it is not I but God who enables one to be saved.

  4. This list challenges me to add even more ideas: for example, when people listen to a great preacher, they suddenly realize that they are the “star” of the sermon. (Hearer-focused.)

  5. Dennis Michael Cox posted on Facebook, in response to Keith’s list:

    “To me a great preacher speaks the truth yet speaks it from His brokenness. . .”

  6. Humility. Great preachers aren’t full of themselves, they are full of the Spirit.

    A thought on “4. Prepared” & “5. Notes)
    I write a full manuscript and I bring it to the stage in my Bible. This keeps me focused and prepared. But I practice so much beforehand that many listeners don’t think I use notes. Practice! Practice humor…movement…the invitation. See what you believe God will do.

  7. Many of the ‘great preachers’ of the past didn’t fit into this list of Dr. Drury’s. For instance, past preachers (J. Edwards or even John Wesley) likely didn’t use humor, didn’t care about 30 minutes or less and didn’t use the critical conversation tone of voice. They also quoted Scripture throughout their entire sermons. Yet, THEY are truly the great preachers of history.
    Makes you wonder why we think that someone who ‘launches’ from Scripture into a topical sermon that rarely brings us back to Scripture are considered ‘great preachers,’ doesn’t it?

  8. In my opinion, only the top ten or so of this list is legitimate to truly ‘great preachers.’ Those from Christian history didn’t use humor, often preached longer than 30 minutes, rarely used props, and weren’t close to conversational in tone, but they did alright (Moody, Wesley, Edwards, et al)

    • Stephen thanks for jumping into the conversation. You make some valid points. However, we must remember that what makes great preaching great depends a lot on the context. What I mean is that Wesley and Edwards were great preachers because they connected with the needs of listeners while maintaining faithfulness to the biblical text. Wesley and Edwards were preaching in a context where logic mattered and listening spans were longer. Therefore they could preach sermons that might sound a bit like a lecture today, and do so for 60 minutes or more. If they preached hour long logical sermons aimed at proving a thesis, a product of the Modern era, do you think they would really connect today? Because they were great preachers, if they lived in 21st century America I suspect they would perhaps preach shorter sermons, use humor and props, and maybe even go with one instead of multiple points. The point I’m making is that great preachers are great because they preach in a way that connects with their context. While Keith’s criteria may not have connected with 18th century listeners, they do seem to generally connect with Postmodern listeners today.

      My two cents worth,

      • Lenny,
        I believe that we rely on ourselves way too much. It is God that enables, so trying to be seeker freindly is why today we don’t have many Believers in the pews.
        I use to be a very entertaining preacher and I was loved by many. Now I work hard at being humble and getting out of the way of the message.
        Try reading just scriptures sometime instead of your sermon and you will see how many true Believers you have sitting before you. God draws unto Himself.
        The formula for being a great preacher, I believe is to beable to live every word you preach and preach what is needed to be taught, capable of being understood by the children and strong enough for the mature believer.
        I believe that every preacher needs to seek God in what we should teach despite the outcome.

    • Great point Stephen and I believe that a GREAT preacher can preach for 1 1/2 hours if need be, if he has listened to God and speaking what they need to hear.
      Engaging the listener is by using Truth. Have you ever noticed that when you are on an airplane or in a public place and you start talking about God, how many people start to listen? The reason is, because everyone wants to know the truth and then go into their closet and decide what they are willing to do.
      Speaking truth will weed out the wolves too. I try to watch over my sheep and I do everything I can to rid the church of the wolves. Like Paul said that they were living in deliberate sin and they were even proud about it. This should not be in the house of God!

  9. Good point Stephen… I’ve never heard live these great preachers of the first 19 Christian centuries … Or even the great preachers in South America, Asia, Agrica etc…. My list is only what it claims to be– a copy of my own notes from those I have heard live in my lifetime… No attempt here to cover all centuries or all cultures… Keith

  10. I would like to submit that we need to preach according to what way the Lord directs us. In other words sometimes I use no notes and sometimes my sermon is all written out and even read. I have found that my best sermons are using different versions of the Word of God and listening to the Holy Spirit and writing down the whole message from His word alone.
    You see it is humbling to just read your sermon and put yourselft out of the way completely.
    I preach in prison and if anyone has ever had that opportunity you know that you are speaking to a lot of men who know the scriptures very well. They also know within 30 seconds whether you are real or a phony.
    Oh they enjoy the phonies for it gives them someone to tear down. Yet if you are a true sheppard, they will know that you care for them and live out the sermon yourself.
    Today my thought about being a great preacher is to walk humbly before the Lord doing everything that you preach and following up and making sure that your flock is doing alright. There are too many preachers that are clouds without rain feeding only themselves.
    We all will be held accountable for everything that we taught and how we lived it ourselves.

  11. We should be very careful about the statements we make concerning the preaching of God’s word. It seems very stubborn, potentially even foolish to insist that it is best to preach without notes. Television preachers should not be the example of great preachers. For many, using notes is a necessity – a vitally important part of conveying the message God has given them. I certainly would hesitate to tell someone that they’re better to leave the notes behind if they’re going to effectively relay God’s word.

    Someone else here nailed it. Notes are acceptable – good even – given that the preacher practices his message. My suggestion:

    Use size 14 font, double spaced
    Practice at least once, preferably two to three times
    Deliver the message in full from the notes
    If you get hung up in practice, change the phrasing
    Use the practice time to allow God to continue speaking about the message you’re preparing.

    I have found that, when spoken out loud, the things I was planning to say are inappropriate.

    I agree that it can be a problem to be lost in notes or buried away at the pulpit in a land of your own chicken scratch, but it is even more a problem when you freeze, forget what comes next, and stumble around. It is equally a problem when you mis-speak, phrasing something offensively or inconsiderately.

  12. Preaching should only be graded, rated or analyized for its content, not on the delivery.
    Pesonally, I wouldn’t care if a lepor handed me a life jacket while I was drowning……
    I do believe as ministers of the gospel it is imperative that we always consider our motives, desires and attitudes!
    Too often those who aspire to be “great preachers” or – have a tendancy to want ot please the congreggation…hoping to be praised and recieve a good grade.
    I gravitate to one who preaches the truth, boldly and plainly without hundreds of adjectives and adverbs…saying much, but saying little.
    Spurgeon made the point that every sermon should be centered around Christ and the cross…I agree.

    • Thanks for your comments Bob. I’m curious, though, why you feel so strongly that preaching should not be evaluated for its delivery but for its content alone. Isn’t preaching a spoken event? If the preacher and the delivery don’t matter, then we might as well stand up and read a sermon from Spurgeon, Wesley, or Andy Stanley. I have a friend who puts together sermons with excellent content…full of substance. But he doesn’t get a hearing because his delivery is so poor. Poor delivery diminishes good content when it comes to the spoken word. The preacher and the delivery matter as much as the content. In fact, i would go as far as to say that the person, the delivery, and the content must all be congruent with the character of Christ. If the content of my message is Christ-focused, theological substantive, and contextually relevant but I deliver as if i don’t care, or without passinate delivery, or stuttering/reading the whole time through because I wasn’t prepared to deliver, I suspect the good content will suffer in terms of listener reception to the message. There are preachers, on the other hand, who are content poor but excellent in their delivery of poor content. I wouldn’t advocate that either. I suspect that is your ultimate caution. But I am convinced that if preachers spend time prayerfully preparing to throw their body and voice into the delivery, the content will go to a higher level. Thoughts?

    • Hi Bob,
      I believe that preaching scriptural truths is a form of worship for and with the community of believers. Do you agree? We worship God in the proclamation of the word by saying FOR the congregation, who God is and what God has done. In speaking these words, we realize that God is and has done something that involves us. This worship for the congregation unto God also, then, leads to worship WITH the congregation. The congregation realizes its own involvement with this God, and is inclined to worship God, through the word proclaimed.

      Now, if the proclaimed word is this form of worship, then our delivery counts as much as our content. The posture of our worship, including our preaching, is a “whole self-giving” event. Our mind, heart, voices, passions, bodies, environment, possessions are all engaged in our worship of God because our worship is (ideally) the total giving of ourselves to Him. Is this not what God desires? So I think our delivery counts as worship, just as much as content–and is therefor a legitimate form of beauty to be pursued.

      That’s how I make sense of it, anyway.