Focus Your Sermon in a Word

magnifying_glassSince leaving the pastorate in 2005 to become the Program Director of Pastoral Ministries and Church Planting at Kingswood University, I and my family have taken full advantage of the opportunity to visit dozens and dozens of churches in the U.S., Canada and internationally, ranging from mega-churches to the tiniest of congregations, including Wesleyan, Pentecostal, Baptist, Independents, Mennonites, Christian, etc.  As we drive away from the Sunday morning worship service, we often have a discussion which revolves around “What did the pastor preach about this morning?”

I now have a whole new appreciation for one of the most common complaints parishioners have. It is the great difficulty they have in following what their pastor is saying in the sermon. What is the pastor preaching about this morning?

One of the principle reasons why so many pastors bewilder their congregation is: the sermon lacks focus. Time and again I have heard sermons which are all over the map… almost like the preacher has A.D.D. (attention deficit disorder), flitting from one subject/concept/idea/point to another, sharing disjointed thoughts and insights until the congregation has no idea what they are talking about.

I have wondered recently if, in part, this is because of an unfortunate misunderstanding of the practice of Expository preaching.  While it is true Expository preaching aims to reveal (expose) what the Bible passage is saying, this does not imply the sermon does not need to have a focus.  A biblical passage/text and story can contain dozens of wonderful and challenging insights … but if the sermon lacks focus, the congregation leaves the service having no idea what you were talking about or how it applies to their lives.

Every sermon, whether Topical, Thematic, Expository or Textual, needs to revolve around ONE word, the subject.  Every person who hears the sermon, ought to be able to summarize into one word what that sermon was about.  “What did the pastor preach on today?”  He/She spoke about “MERCY”.

It needs to be that simple:  each sermon needs to have a one word subject (or at most a hyphenated word).    I wonder, can you state in one word what the preacher was talking about this past Sunday?

The preaching of the Word, is different than the writing and reading of the Word.  A book like Colossians deals with multiple topics.  Even within 1 chapter or a paragraph, there may be a dozen or more issues the biblical writer is addressing.  Writing and reading is different than preaching. Effective preaching tends to zone in on one subject.  Every point, illustration and application revolves around that one word.  There may be multiple things (ideas/insights/points) the preacher says about that subject, but everything centers on that one word.

Over and over again, great communicators say the same thing:

“The sermon cannot be about more than one topic.” (Joseph Webb)

“How many things can a sermon be about?  One!” (Bryan Chappel)

“A single idea you want to communicate” (Andy Stanley)

“A sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot … a single dominant idea.” (Haddon Robinson)

This week in our Homiletics class we took a look at Matthew 9:35-36.  In this passage we see Jesus: went, saw, felt, taught and ministered.  If we approached this passage in an UNfocused manner, we could easily end up preaching the sermon in this way:

Jesus went: talk about the important role of traveling, itinerant evangelist
Jesus saw: talk about being thankful for our physical senses, such as sight
Jesus felt: talk about the human/divine nature of Jesus, that He feels what we feel
Jesus taught: talk about various teaching and discipling techniques
Jesus ministered: talk about exorcisms and healings

If a pastor preaches about Matthew 9:35-36 in the manner I just outlined, she/he would be ‘true’ to the text and expounding good Biblical truth, but the congregation would leave the service confused and bewildered.  “What did the preacher talk about today?”  “I don’t know … it was a mess and left me confused … it had something to do with demons and traveling evangelist and being grateful for being able to see.”

Instead, find a way to condense the passage into one word (or hyphenated word) and then expound on your text.  For instance, Matthew 9:35-36 can be condensed into a hyphenated word “Effective-ministry”.  Now preach the same 5 insights from Matthew 9:  “Effective ministry entails: going, seeing, feeling, teaching and healing”. As people leave the sanctuary, there will be no doubt what the sermon was about. It was about “Effective-ministry”. The one word subject becomes the glue that holds the sermon together, keeps the thoughts from being ‘scattered’, and makes it easy to follow and memorable.

The congregation may not agree with everything you say … but at least they will know what you were talking about.

For Further Thought:

  1. Name what you were talking about in last Sunday’s sermon in one or two words. Now ask a few people to do the same for you without telling them what you think you spoke about. If their words are different than yours significantly, you have a focus problem.
  2. Think of the most focused sermons you have ever heard. What verbal techniques did the preacher use to make sure you knew what the sermon was about?

Next week: We will post a sermon that fulfills what Stephen Elliott is suggesting as a focused sermon.


elliot_stephenStephen Elliot is the Director of Pastoral Ministries & Church Planting at Kingswood University in New Brunswick, Canada.

Find him on Facebook here.

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