Preachers on Preaching (Part 1)

We asked four different preachers to candidly share their homiletic wisdom with us. Our questions focus on the call to preach, sermon preparation, theological convictions, and more. Steve Deneff serves as the Senior Pastor of College Wesleyan Church in Marion, IN. Steve has been preaching the Gospel for more than 30 years. Lynda Keefer serves as Co-Lead Pastor of the Stroudsburg Wesleyan Church in Northeastern PA. She has been a pastor for nearly 5 years. Dave Ward serves as a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University where he primarily teaches the preaching courses for undergraduate students. Dave has been preaching for 15 years. Keith Loy has been preaching for nearly 30 years. He serves as the Lead Pastor of Celebrate Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. All of these participants are capable preachers who have effectively communicated the Gospel in ways that change lives.

Lenny Luchetti serves as the Director of and Assistant Professor of Proclamation and Christian Ministries at Wesley Seminary. After 15 years of ministry, Lenny has sensed a new vocation to invest in those who are investing in local churches.

Steve DeNeff has served for more than ten years as the Senior Pastor of College Wesleyan Church, a church of 1200 people, in Marion, IN on the campus of Indiana Wesleyan University. College Wesleyan Church is an inter-generational congregation in an academic setting that exists within a city that is economically and educationally strained. Steve shares the following words of wisdom with his preaching colleagues: One good person, doing one thing well, in one essential place, long enough can move the earth toward heaven.

Lynda Keefer serves as Co-Lead Pastor of the Stroudsburg Wesleyan Church, a multi-generational and multi-ethnic church with many new believers and seekers. This growing church of 450 draws from a large geographical radius in Northeastern, PA. Lynda shares the preaching with the other Co-Lead Pastor. When I asked Lynda what preaching advice she would share with us, she responds, “Let the word speak to you first, and then share what you’ve heard.”

Dave Ward teaches Homiletics at Indiana Wesleyan University. He has served as an Itinerant Preacher for the last ten years, preaching at local churches, Christian colleges, conferences, and camps. He has also ministered as a local church pastor, ministry director, and trainer of itinerant evangelists. He received his M.Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary and is currently finishing his Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary. Dave and his wife, Holly, have three young children: Ella, Zoe, and Dawson.

Keith Loy grew up in a pastor’s family and started working in ministry in 1983. He is the founding and senior pastor of Celebrate in Sioux Falls, SD in 1999.

Lenny Luchetti: Describe your preaching journey in terms of how long you have been preaching, as well as how your preaching has changed and/or remained the same over the years.

Steve Deneff: I’ve known I was supposed to preach since the day I walked out of Day Memorial Chapel, at the West Michigan District Camp (now called, Winding Creek), after hearing Bob Zuhl describe a call to ministry. I was 17 years old. Pastor Zuhl described everything I was feeling; everything I was afraid of and he finished by saying, “If these things are true of you, maybe God is calling you to preach.” I couldn’t believe it. My dad was a preacher, so that was the last thing I wanted to be. He was a legend. If I became a preacher, people would only think of me as a bad sequel. Besides, I was afraid of people. I was self-conscious. I wasn’t very smart. I wasn’t charismatic. And I stuttered terribly. With all of His options, why would God ask me? But I could not escape it. I was “called” and my calling would come from my weakness instead of my strengths. So I started writing sermons that only I would see. I volunteered to do a couple devotionals for the youth group. In college, I snuck out at night and broke into one of the buildings on campus, where I could “preach” (at 2 o’clock in the morning) and no one could hear me. I would record my little sermons and critique them. As I matured (and I use the term very loosely) I was asked, on occasion to fill the pulpit for one preacher or another. Each time, I would record the sermons; wait a couple months and then critique them. In my early years as a pastor, my preaching was pastoral and practical and filled with colloquialisms. The illustrations were simple (those poor people must have seen the application coming from a mile away). The outlines were delineated and often alliterated (“Secondly, notice the disciples Desire…” following a point called, “The disciples’ dream…”). I had heroes and I tried to imitate them. The trouble was that I had too many and they were not alike. I was part Ravi Zacharias, part Chuck Swindoll, part Tony Campolo, part Zig Ziglar but hardly any Steve DeNeff. What has changed, over the years, is that I have moved from preaching three points to (I hope) preaching one point. I have shifted from preaching applications (practical instructions at the end of each sermon) to preaching implications (cultural-specific meanings that invite the listener into the text to draw their own conclusions). I have implemented more visuals (graphics, objects, stations, etc) into my sermons. I have preached more inductive than deductive sermons over the past ten years. I have also shifted from the pastoral to a more prophetic voice in my “old” age. My notes are no longer just outlines, but full manuscripts. My points are less delineated and never alliterated. The illustrations are less predictable. I use more metaphors, more dominant images. And I move around more than I used to. But in spite of these changes, certain things remain the same for me. I still build sermons around a single text (as opposed to using several texts). I still preach theologically. I still “teach” while preaching. I still preach too long and I still get nervous right before. I still critique my sermons, and it’s still two months later. But I have stopped trying to be somebody else. I can’t. I’m stuck with who I am, and that’s okay. There are more important things to worry about.

Lynda Keefer: I am relatively new at preaching. I believe I preached my first sermon in 2006, and did not begin preaching on a regular basis until 2010, so I am at the beginning of the journey. The best thing about the journey so far has been that I have sensed God giving me more confidence and ability to speak His Word. I would not have considered myself to be a public speaker in any way, yet God has helped me move beyond an overwhelming sense of panic every time I had to stand up in front of a group (yes, panic!) to an excitement (almost) that I have an opportunity to share something that He has given me. I think that is more evident in my speaking and allows the congregation to feel more at ease with me and able to hear what God may want to say through me. As He gives me the ability to set aside my own self-absorption, He also gives me the ability to speak with authority. That has been the biggest change that I have experienced thus far. I have also been able to become more efficient in my preparation time. This is not to say that I skimp on preparation, but rather that I have moved from an almost obsessive over-preparation process to a more effective and less time-consuming one. This has been necessary as I preach more regularly.

Dave Ward: I have been preaching for fifteen years. The first time I preached I was a young believer who was called to ministry but terribly ill-equipped. I did not know how to structure a speech let alone a sermon. I was not fully surrendered to God, and I do not even remember praying. Prayer was a foreign activity to me. I climbed up the sanctuary steps Sunday morning, past the altar to preach with only a bible and a folded-up torn-out piece of ruled notebook paper. It was covered in blue ink scribbles even I had a hard time reading. They gave me thirty minutes. I took ten. Ten knee-knocking, cotton-mouthed, garbled, and relatively useless minutes. The best thing anyone found to say was said by an old prayer warrior who had been praying me through my young rebellion. “Don’t worry, young man” she said, “someday…someday, you will be a good preacher. “ Virtually nothing has remained the same. Anxiety is no longer crippling. Prayer is no longer an afterthought. The previous two are closely related. Preparation gets a large devotion of my time. I spend more of my preparation time actually preaching than I used to do. I know more than a few sermon forms well enough to use them poorly. Thirty minutes is no longer challenging as a minimum. I have the opposite problem. Though someone else would have to decide whether or not my prayer warrior’s words have yet come true, I believe them now. I didn’t then. Someday. Someday…God willing.

Keith Loy: I’ve been communicating with people, by means of preaching, for 28 years. It’s been truly a revolving process, and I have to add, a continuing revolving process. I fear if I ever think I’ve arrived I’m in trouble. I truly believe it will continue to change. I heard it said that if we are going to make our preaching connect then we can’t listen to what the church people want, but how the unchurch hear. I’m learning to find language that doesn’t just impress with knowledge, but puts “feet” underneath it. In short, a message that doesn’t move people to action probably shouldn’t have been preached at all. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge, for me, is useless. I don’t want to show people what I know, but how God’s Word can truly change their lives.

Lenny Luchetti: In a world, and especially an American Church, that tends to devalue preaching more today than it ever has, why do you dare to keep on preaching?

Steve Deneff: In my opinion, what is devalued today is preaching, not words. Words are more important than ever. So preaching will be just as important, depending on what it does with words. With words we express ourselves, we take oaths, we give and receive instructions, we articulate our beliefs or we do our therapy. Whatever is happening in our souls will sooner or later take the form of words. Preaching is simply our arrangement with words, albeit words around the text. If those words are not consistent with how people speak and listen today, then preaching will be irrelevant and devalued. But if it is done with the culture in mind, then it will always have a place. Oddly enough, the very people who tell us that preaching is old school and antiquated, use words to make their case. So they do not have an issue with words and with arguments. They have an issue with the way we preachers use them. They are opposed to having a central authority (the Bible, or the preacher, for instance) or they are opposed to a 30-minute diatribe or an infomercial about the Church. But this is not the same thing as being opposed to preaching. It only means that they are opposed to that kind of preaching. They are not opposed to someone getting up and saying, “This is what is happening today, and this is what it means, and this is what we can do about it.” This has been an important lesson for me, though I have a long way to go in adjusting to it. Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan say it very well, “How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them…(and) how situations occur to them usually arises in language.” The best preaching, I think, is preaching that describes the kind of person God wants us to be; the kind of person we might really become some day. It is futuristic. Prophetic. Optimistic. Visionary. It calls things that are not, as though they were.

Lynda Keefer: Often in my preparation, I will have a moment or moments, as I am alone with God and His Word, when I am moved to tears or to some emotional response as the Message speaks directly into my heart. When that happens, I feel what I would describe as a compulsion to share what God has revealed to me. I call it an, “I can’t NOT share this” moment. That does not happen every time I prepare/preach, but it is those moments that affirm to me again that God indeed uses His Word for His glory and to transform the hearts and minds of people. That is why I continue to keep preaching – simply put, because I believe that God uses it.

Dave Ward: The call to preach is, of course, the first reason. I believe I was called to preach before I was even a Christian, strange as that may sound. Second, Christ tells us this is the reason he came: to preach and proclaim. Then he commissioned his disciples to do the same. So preaching did not stop with Christ. Third, the apostles in Acts demonstrate that the ministry of word and prayer is a high calling not to be abandoned or left behind, even for good reasons. Third, preaching is a joyful gift when we receive it that way. I like it more than watching a good movie, a great day of fly fishing, or an afternoon at the ballpark. Preaching is a joy. The lost are found, the burdened released, the bound are freed, and the discouraged strengthened. That is pretty meaningful work.

Keith Loy: I’m not really sure I agree with what you’re implying. I don’t see that the American Church is devaluing preaching. I might contend the opposite. I see the pulpit becoming more and more a power tool in the redemptive work of God. I fully believe that God’s truth is the key to freedom and the pulpit is one of the most powerful tools that God has given us. I find it quite humbling that God has called me to share His story and I find it exciting each week to stand up and share that story. As you know, the Bible tells us that God’s truth “will set us free” (John 8:32). One of the most powerful ways to communicate that truth that sets people free is through preaching. That is a HUGE motivator for me. I have watched people, in the power of His Spirit, after the word is preached, embrace that freedom. For me, it’s not a “dare” but a joy to share God’s Word with the world through preaching.

Lenny Luchetti: In terms of both content and delivery, what makes a good sermon good and a bad sermon bad?


Steve Deneff: For almost ten years I have used the same four words to describe a “good” sermon: (1) Relevant, (2) Biblical, (3) Interesting, and (4) Convicting. By relevant I mean that it marries the dominant need of the audience with the authority of the text. The listener hears himself described in the sermon, and he hears the appeal of God’s Word and says to himself, “Wow, this is important! That preacher gets it!” By biblical I mean that the sermon is centered on the text, rather than using the text as a springboard for his own ideas. The sermon goes where the text goes. The preacher’s advice is derived from a conversation he has had with the text, more than from a conversation he has had with psychology or the latest best-seller. By interesting, I mean that the preacher uses his research, his personality, his energy and charm in such a way that it enhances the point he is trying to make. He organizes his thoughts, and eliminates distractions effectively so that his audience can stay with him. And by convicting, I mean that his sermon comes down to a single challenge. It seeks to persuade the audience, and not just to inform them. It calls for a change in the way they think, feel, or act. In my opinion, a good sermon balances all four of these components. For instance, I’ve heard lots of sermons that were biblical but not very relevant. I’ve heard people that were funny and charming and provocative (or interesting) but they never appealed to an authority outside of themselves (biblical). And I’ve preached too many sermons that were relevant and biblical, but never called for a specific change in the way we live. But when the preacher knows his audience, knows his Bible, has prepared his material and makes his point clear, his voice can be a compelling force that shapes the lives of his church.

Lynda Keefer: Well, I believe that a good sermon will connect with the audience and speak in relevant ways to its hearers. So, in terms of content and delivery, some things will work well in some contexts but not in others. However, a good sermon will always point people to Christ and to the power of the cross and the resurrection, and will help people examine where they are in relation to Him and what He wants to do in their lives. A good sermon will also have some way for people to respond and apply the truth they have heard to the circumstances of their lives today. A good sermon will call for response and will have people asking soul-searching questions in ways that allow the Holy Spirit to reveal Christ to them more fully in the details and circumstances of their personal experiences.

Dave Ward: This is a deceptively complex question. So, please forgive how dense this answer may seem. I believe content is good when it resonates with the perfect love of God, the clarified guidance of scripture, and the deep needs of the human condition. When preaching causes a triangle of resonance between God, scripture, and humanity it sings. I believe delivery is good when the full resources of the human preacher are sincerely resonant with the content proclaimed. As a result good delivery includes authentic matching of content with physical resources, intellectual resources, and emotional resources of the preacher. All distracting mannerisms, failures of voice and diction, and so forth emerge from an inability to be fully present to and engaged with the content, the Spirit, and the listener at the same time. Good preaching gets “in the groove” with all three.

Keith Loy: I believe the key is to learn the art of talking the unchurched language from a passionate heart. The two must go together – their language, my heart. I think one of the problems is in how things get packaged. I want to be careful here, because God uses all kinds of communicators to reach people. However, I sometimes wonder if we can get so full of ourselves that our approach to preaching is to help God rather than communicate God. I tell preachers to focus on unpacking the truth rather than trying to package it. I also think it needs to be practical. Therefore, watch the language you use and how you use it. Make sure that people can wrap their minds and hearts around it and then it allows God to move them to action. Make sure you focus on wanting the message to IMPACT rather than to IMPRESS.

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7 thoughts on “Preachers on Preaching (Part 1)

  1. I love this forum you have created Lenny. I like thinking of this post as more of a roundtable with the first questions, being a start to the conversation. So, I am going to continue it.

    Steve, I have to call you out my dear pastor. You are my pastor and I love you and respect you deeply. But, I have heard you alliterate. We liked it. :) I have also heard you preach applications. We liked that, too. :) Can you really say never? 😉

    Keith…I love your idea of “their words, my heart.” I think you have a great point there. Is there ever a time when we have to teach the unchurched a language they don’t know using their language? In other words, is there anything to cross-talk, deliverance language, and Spirit words? Isn’t theology all about choosing the one particular exactly right word? I agree with you in spirit and I bet in practice. I just wonder if it needs a little balance now that the point has been made (and at least for me… accepted).

    Lynda, I have a similar experience with the emotional and intellectual movement toward response in sermon prep. That’s when the sermon starts to carry me instead of me carrying the sermon. What do you do as a pastor, though, if you haven’t reached that point yet? What do you do when your sermon has a body, but no soul? Sunday’s coming after all.

    I would love to hear more of your thoughts.

    • Dave, thanks fore extending this important conversation in the ways you have. I will avoid latching on to your comments to Steve and Lynda, since Steve is now my pastor too and Lynda served with me on pastoral staff….so I will chime in on your comments to Keith. I struggle with the tension of trying to speak the language of the unchurched and the language of the churched. That is, I want to use bridge building language and imagery that connects with the unchurched or new believer while at the same time giving them a new language and imagery. I think there have been times when I have gone so far to speak the language of the people that I have lost the language and imagery of realities like the cross, the incarnation, and the trinity. In other words, I have tried so hard to make God relevant to people that I failed to make our lives relevant to God. Does this make sense?

  2. My question is, why do we teach women and men the same way? Studies show they learn much differently, yet the sermon style is still the primary way of teaching in most churches, yet Jesus’ style was short bursts, discipleship! Shouldn’t we model Jesus’ style? I appreciate the efforts of the long, 1-2 hour sermons, but doesn’t seem to be landing well with people, especially in a fast-paced, busy, stressed out world. I guess what I’m asking is… Do we need to adapt our teaching styles to meet the needs of people today, especially the men? They are being left behind with long sermons, because they don’t retain the sermon 2-3 days later. (And, many women don’t) I’m looking for the day to drive by a bold church that has a sign out front that says… “HOME OF THE 10-MINUTE SERMON!) I would be the first one there. As, would alot of men I I suppose! lol. Thanks.

  3. Charles,

    A couple cautions. First, I would be hesitant to say that Jesus preached in short bursts. All we have of his preaching are what we have in the gospels. It would make sense for those to be summaries, not word for word dictation of entire sermons. Also, the sermon on the mount (if you don’t think it is a collection of summarized sermons) is pretty long.

    As for the studies you mention, the specifics of those would be helpful. But learning styles differ as much in between individuals as they do between genders. I was recently preaching at a men’s conference and realized I had struggling homosexuals, video game addicted geeks, as well as hunters and sports playing ‘stereotypical’ men. There were several high end executives in the room who regularly sit in three hour meetings making multi million dollar deals. You have to vary things up to reach that diverse a group any way you go at it.

    I do think going any longer than 5-6 minutes at a stretch with pure didactic content will be lost on most congregations today. They have what I call the 7 minute itch. If you haven’t scratched it by then with varied teaching strategies, they will scratch it with their smart phone, their wandering imagination, doodling, or smart comments to their neighbor.

    So I am with you on that.

    However, I have been bored before with ten minute sermons. I have also heard hour long sermons where I leaned forward and focused in on every word. And yes I still remember the main points 10 years later. It has less to do with length, than the varied learning styles, and the significance of the content most importantly of all.

    That’s my opinion.

  4. Thanks Dave. I appreciate and agree with your comments. The length isn’t really the issue, but the content. I have a heart to reach men with the gospel, but they don’t seem to respond well to alot of the “content” in most sermons, devotionals, etc. because they seem to be more geared to reach women than they do men! lol. Not sure if you’ve experience any of that or not. but, I’ve studied some churches in England, Scotland, that have different preaching styles, some long, some short, but the content is geared to reach both men and women. Therefore, they have large group of men, as well as women in their congregations. And, they’re reaching the toughest demographic to reach today– Young men and women (age 18-29). I’m concerned that the content we use here in the U.S. isn’t reaching men, especially the younger crowd. We use soft, flowery imagery and speak in terms that women relate to more than men, with a little bit of masculinity sprinkled in to make it look fair. lol. We use the term “personal relationship” more than any other. Why is that?!? It’s not in the Bible, but it’s the most used term by modern evangelists? :/ I’m not saying it’s wrong, but it’s well known that women speak in terms of “relationship” whereas men speak in terms of “friendship.” (This is generally speaking, of course.) I like using the term “friendship” because it speaks to both genders. I can’t see two hunters or fishermen saying to each other… “Hey Tom, I was wondering if you and I could go spend the day together. Would you like to have a personal, intimate relationship with me on the river?” Average men don’t talk like that, but are bombarded with this verbage, style of communicating when they enter the doors of most churches. And, worse churches expect masculine men to speak in this manner. And, we wonder why they don’t come back? lol. The want to retain their masculinity I suppose! I’m not saying all churches communicate this way, but many do. Some churches are doing well at reaching men, as well as women. I think the Lord would be pleased with that! Thanks. God Bless!

  5. Charles,

    I get what you are saying now. Yes, I agree. I don’t resonate with frilly powerpoint backgrounds and personal relationship stuff in evangelism. At the same time, I know a lot of guys who do not resonate with sports stories, quotations from great generals, or fishing/hunting narratives. They are men, they just don’t do that stereotypical “man” stuff. I do. I love to fish, work with wood, get out in the woods and build a fire. But I have to watch it that i connect with the engineer who likes board games and the plumber who prefers a good movie on the weekend. know what I mean? I guess I agree with you, I just don’t want to assume what “man” means. Agreement in principle, just want to vary how we apply it.

  6. Exactly Dave! In men’s ministry I have found that alot of men, and young men who are are musical, artisitc, like movies, etc. are just as masculine as any others. The masculine heart is the key, regardless of hobbies! My concern is we are losing alot of our young men because there is little connection or respect for “the old men” in our churches, who are wise and need to be mentoring the younger ones. Women seem more organized in this area, which is a good thing, but the men are falling way behind. I guess we need to pray that pastors/leaders recognize a need for men’s ministry “specifically.” Men need their own small groups, day trips, conferences, etc. just like the women do! The problem is most churches throw resources at everything except the men’s group. I think we should “equally” minister to the men as well as the women. Too much masculine can create a macho church, “guy church” and too much feminine a “girly, feminized church.” It tips out of balance. Most churches today seem to lean heavily to the feminine, in terms of values. We need a heaping dose of both masculine and feminine for the church to be healthy! Thanks.