Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


What is the purpose of a sermon?

posted by Scot McKnight

?Preaching.jpgToday I’m following (here and here) the live blogging of the conference on preaching at Mars Hill with Rob Bell, Pete Rollins, and Shane Hipps. In the midst of the comments I have heard is one potent question and I’d love to hear your response — we’d like to hear from both preachers and “listeners”:

What is the purpose of a sermon?

Other questions come to mind: What do you expect from a sermon as a listener? What do you expect as a preacher? How do you measure if the sermon is a good one?



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Jeff Cook

posted July 6, 2009 at 4:00 pm


The sermon is one of many, many medium the Holy Spirit uses to connect humanity to God and his restorative work.



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Rob

posted July 6, 2009 at 4:24 pm


Not sure. I’m really struggling with the “sermon-centric” Sunday service that pervades how we do church. It becomes the highlight, what everything builds to. I think it “can” continue to foster a hiearchy between clery/laity, and “can” reinforce the notion (mistaken in my opinion, and some of our lives are a witness to this) that information delivered equates to transformation. But…I may be off topic, I apologize.



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RJS

posted July 6, 2009 at 4:28 pm


I’ve never been a preacher – only a listener.
From this perspective (an admittedly limited one) I think that a good sermon will hold my interest, teach me something new or provide a different perspective or twist of insight into something I know, encourage or convict me to actually live out my faith.
Best sermon series in recent years was a series on the Sermon on the Mount. We were challenged to memorize Mt 5-7 before the series began and I did. In this context the series gave good insight into the text and the act of memorizing and pondering this text changed my focus in some rather significant ways.
But I struggle with the value of a sermon centric worship service.



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Karl

posted July 6, 2009 at 4:38 pm


I agree with RJS’ criteria. The struggle with the sermon-centric worship service is one reason we are now Anglican. I prefer the eucharist-centered service. Although I still want to hear good strong teaching and be challenged or convicted by the homily/sermon, the “success” of the service doesn’t depend on the performance of the speaker/preacher – at least not nearly as much.



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JW

posted July 6, 2009 at 4:55 pm


My view of a “good sermon” is one that is really educational about Faith, scripture, and practical application to the real world. It’s nice to be feel good and lofty in idealism, but at the end of the day, The Word needs to be viewed with the real world in mind so it can convey a practical, meaningful message.



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Travis Greene

posted July 6, 2009 at 5:01 pm


I like Brueggeman’s phrase about funding the imagination.



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RJS

posted July 6, 2009 at 5:23 pm


As I think about this – most good series or sermons I recall have been scripture centered, involving serious consideration of extended passages or whole books.
Most ho-hum sermons or series have been topical. It seems to me that topical series often remain shallow, perhaps because there is a tendency to cherry-pick scripture. The preacher doesn’t have to wrestle with the “Blue Parakeets” that can challenge our thinking.



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Kenny Johnson

posted July 6, 2009 at 5:35 pm


I’ve always been on the listening end so this is what I think:
I’m most fed when I either learn something (about God, Jesus, or how I can better relate to Him), when I’m motivated to act out my faith, or when I’m encouraged. I guess I would say that the purpose is to preach the Gospel and to edify the church.
I’ve always been to sermon-centric churches and have nothing against them.



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Josh Mann

posted July 6, 2009 at 5:50 pm


My goal: To publicly bring the Scriptures to bear before a congregation with the intention of (1) ensuring an understanding of a text of Scripture in its context; and (2) ensuring an understanding of what to do about it (application). The desired end is (of course) edification of believers, conviction over sin, etc.
Also, I make it a (secondary) purpose to preach in such a way that the sermon demonstrates good Bible study methods (context, backgrounds, asking the right questions, etc.). My goal is to reveal exactly how I studied the text (and how they should, too) without saying a word about my preparation. The focus is always on the words of Scripture.



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MatthewS

posted July 6, 2009 at 6:08 pm


Something I think we are seeing more of is matching genre of sermon to genre of passage. I am particularly thinking of story: If it’s a story, tell a story. Don’t over-process it into 3 alliterated points and poem.



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marc h.

posted July 6, 2009 at 6:08 pm


great question (& answers). i’d boil it down to: a great sermon helps people–right where they find themselves–to hear, envision & even feel the good news of Jesus in a fresh & helpful way.



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Dana Ames

posted July 6, 2009 at 6:11 pm


Sermons engage me when it’s clear that the preacher has some understanding (need not be exhaustive) of what is being conveyed. There needs to be a flow of ideas and not a lot of “uhms” and circular statements: please, take me somewhere! I personally need to know how what is being preached bears on the meaning of scripture, or the liturgy, or life in God- hopefully all three. And I believe this can be done in less than 15 minutes, preferably no more than ten. I’m also in a church with a Eucharist-centered service.
I’ve been churched all my life. Memorable sermons? About five. Details? Nah- what I remember is the Main Thing. But there’s a better chance that later Sunday or during the week I’ll think about the ideas in the sermon if I’m engaged as above.
Dana



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ChristSpeak

posted July 6, 2009 at 6:11 pm


Fundamentally, my focus as a (God willing) future preacher is simple. To, preaching exegetically, simply explain what a specific passage means. This includes broader context and background information into the biblical world, but in the end of the day it is simply communicating what the author was saying. This will naturally result in conviction of sin and a greater view of God. And, as Josh (#9) said, a secondary purpose would be to show (through immersion, so to speak) correct studying technique.



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Mr. T!

posted July 6, 2009 at 6:14 pm


Spiritual formation. A good sermon causes me to see how I can get from where I am now, to where God wants me to be. It shows me Jesus and his intent for his followers more clearly. When I see Jesus and his ways in a good sermon, it transforms me another notch closer to his image. It also edifies, equips, and sends me out into the world to be a transformative agent for God’s Kingdom.



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Barb

posted July 6, 2009 at 6:16 pm


to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ



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Jim

posted July 6, 2009 at 6:24 pm


My view is that sermons should be reminders of how we can best follow Jesus’ way in our communities and world.



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angusj

posted July 6, 2009 at 6:29 pm


As a listener I’d like to be:
1. encouraged to persevere in faith (ie why am I here, who am I living for, where am I heading)
2. given visions of how to live out my faith, loving and being loved by others in Christian community.
3. admonished (gently) for things we corporately could do better
4. given ideas/suggestions/instruction on how to change
5. reminded that we are ambassadors for Jesus to the wider world
6. constantly reminded that change requires dependence on and cooperation with the Holy Spirit.



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John W Frye

posted July 6, 2009 at 7:12 pm


I appreciate the tension in the comments, i.e., the concern about sermon-centric worship versus God-encountering worship. I’ve been preaching now for over 35 years. I once glowed in the thought that my methods of study (observation, interpretation, application) and homiletical skill would transfer to the congregation. Forget it. Most people (I guess 98%)are not following the pastor thinking “That was a masterful use of a word study” or “That exegetical comparison was astounding” or “Where can I get commentaries like my pastor’s?” Nor is Sunday morning as an educational environment going to translate in to biblically informed people. Most Barna polls of evangelicals’ Bible knowledge have shed the sad light on that. I think the sermon is a witness to the presence of God in the communicator (most often the pastor) and the congregation. We speak to the God hungry who are wanting to experience God in the rough and tumble of their daily lives. A good sermon explores the “geography of ordinary spirituality” and the pastor/communicator gets to serve as an honest guide.



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Dubbahdee

posted July 6, 2009 at 7:16 pm


My first thought was, “There are many purposes.” Then almost immediately I thought, “No, there is really one that sums it all up.”
In preaching the sermon, the Preacher opens The Book for the people. The Preacher helps the people to read The Book so that the light of Christ will shine on them. There are many ways to open The Book, but whenever The Book is opened, the Spirit will make sure that the words will always do the work they were intended to do.
It is parallel to the server who hands the bread and wine. The server serves so that the communicant can eat and drink. The Spirit provides the communion.



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AHH

posted July 6, 2009 at 8:02 pm


As a listener, my desire/hope is to hear some aspect of the Christian story proclaimed in such a way that it challenges, motivates, and/or equips me to more faithfully follow Jesus in all the messiness of my real life.
I realize what I just wrote is too me-centered. Maybe I should rephrase as challenging, motivating, and equipping the gathered Body of Christ as a community, not just individuals within it.



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Matt Edwards

posted July 6, 2009 at 8:34 pm


When I preach (or “teach” as we call it in my church), my hope is that God might speak to the congregation. In a sense, the word of God becomes the Word of God in the context of public proclamation within the community of faith. Sure, the eucharist is essential, but there is no substitute for the kerygma. God changes lives through the public proclamation of His Word.
I see my role as a preacher to be a Spirit-filled interpreter and proclaimer of the word of God. When I prepare a sermon, I pray and ponder over the same question: What is most difficult about this passage? In other words, Why won’t the congregation live out this passage? Is it because: (1) they don’t understand it, (2) they value other things more than obedience, or (3) they don’t see the connection to their everyday lives? While I address all three, I usually end up emphasizing one of those three angles.
I judge the success of a sermon by whether or not I was faithful to the passage. Did God’s word have a chance to become God’s Word in the context of my proclamation? Did I help make an obscure passage clear? Did I help make a difficult passage convicting? Did I help make the message relevant to today? The only other three questions that I may ask myself are: (1) Did I pray enough over this sermon? (2) Am I living this myself? and (3) Did I do my homework?



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Jon Shriver

posted July 6, 2009 at 8:44 pm


I’m tired of sermons that are nothing more than a prepared speech. There needs to be more spontaneity, honesty, conversing and less shouting, fist-pounding, and clever plays on words or three-point alliterated outlines. It needs to have relatability. For me the sermon starts me thinking to such a degree that I don’t forget it immediately after the service but keep mulling over its contents during the week, maybe doing my own study or checking out some other’s comments, incorporating the challenges into my prayers and using it as a framework for my personal conversation with God during the week. … In essence, a sermon needs to be memorable and inspiring beyond the time it takes to shake the preacher’s hand and say ‘nice job.’
It’s been a long time since I heard such a sermon at my church.



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RJS

posted July 6, 2009 at 8:45 pm


John,
Even I am not following the pastor thinking “That was a masterful use of a word study” or “That exegetical comparison was astounding” . I am frequently wishing we had a church library that provided access to commentaries like my pastor’s though … and the ones in Scot’s posts would make a good start I suspect.
A good sermon often does feature the pastor/communicator as an honest guide.
But is there any way to get a dialogue rather than a download?
I may not think “masterful use of word study” but I may well want to ask why you conclude that the faith is faith of Christ not faith in Christ in this passage. And I may not think “astounding exegesis” but I may well wonder why you conclude that the rich man in James 1:10 is not a brother.



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Dubbahdee

posted July 6, 2009 at 9:02 pm


When a sermon is successful, the people do not think, “That was a great sermon.” or “That’s a great preacher.” When a sermon is successful, they think, “What a marvelous God is the LORD!”



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T

posted July 6, 2009 at 9:08 pm


I really appreciate these questions and comments, especially John’s (18), just because of his experience on the preaching side. I think his comments shed the most light on the central issue regarding the sermon for evangelicals. The issue to me is not so much what the sermon is supposed to do (which can vary by context or timing, or even be the same as the goal of other practices in the long-run), but, rather, what the sermon is ill suited or unlikely to produce when too heavily relied upon as the primary tool to shape a community, especially when practiced as a one-man, one-way communication, week after week within a community. If our goal as leaders is maturity and equipping the saints for ministry and service, the sermon, as currently practiced and prized, is way over-rated; It simply cannot carry the weight we’ve expected it to carry, particularly not in its current form, but our central sacramental view of it has made it difficult to critique or change. Hopefully, the conference will put the sermon in better perspective with other practices as well as point towards modifications that make it more helpful in pursuing maturity and development in the congregation.



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Aly

posted July 6, 2009 at 10:22 pm


Relevance; the speaker should make the message as relevant as possible, so that man can better understand the messages, and therefore God. One single message can be relevant to what is going on in hundreds of peoples lives. Man often misses things on his own, and he needs someone outside of himself to remind him of things he may overlook. A sermon should leave the listener hungry, hopeful, inspired, and contemplating on how he himself relates to the world.(listener)



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Scott

posted July 6, 2009 at 11:01 pm


A few thoughts come to mind. To listen, again, to the story of God; story of God’s faithfulness, love, better and grander story; people’s experiences in that story, both good and bad, and God’s redemption, restoration, and reconciliation of humanity; and God’s invitation for us to be part of His story through repentance and faith.



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Dave Leigh

posted July 6, 2009 at 11:10 pm


There is an old story about a young pastor who found a note on the pulpit he was about to preach from. On the note were written five words: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” What a wonderful thing it would be if every sermon accomplished that!
I believe it was E.M. Bounds who said, “It takes 21 years to make a sermon because it takes 21 years to make a man.” (And of course, I would add: or make a woman.) I have thought many times that each sermon I’ve delivered has been at least 21 years in the making–though lately mine have been 49 years in the making–hah!
Whether 21, 49, or 99, I agree with those who say the real sermon is the one lived by the preacher.
I think it was Juan Carlos Ortiz who pointed out that in the typical year a traditional church-goer with perfect attendance would hear two sermons each Sunday, one at each midweek service, and attend a Sunday school lesson, making at total of 208 messages a year. Over the course of 10 years, that member is not likely to remember many if any of the 2000+ precious treasures that consumed the dear pastor’s time, heart, and passion. But if the pastor’s life is a sermon, and if that life is lived out with, and invested into, the life and lives of the community, then the real question becomes: What is the purpose of a life?
And once again we find the note on the pulpit instructive: Sir, we would see Jesus.



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Lance

posted July 6, 2009 at 11:33 pm


A good sermon is not necessarily delivered from a pulpit. Or by a pastor.
One of the worst speakers I’ve ever heard was a pastor. But, man, could he deliver a sermon.



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Norm MacDonald

posted July 6, 2009 at 11:45 pm


As a listener, I want to be challenged by the text. I want my sensibility stirred and my heart swung open to the reality of faith – practical, life-changing faith.



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angusj

posted July 6, 2009 at 11:51 pm


RJS (#23) asks: “But is there any way to get a dialogue rather than a download?”
This is a question close to my heart too. I’ve been wondering whether the Internet could be better used so that sermons become part of a conversation instead of remaining a monologue. Sermon topics and outlines could be posted online or emailed to members of the congregation well beforehand with the pastor inviting and encouraging questions and insights regarding the Bible passage or sermon topic. A few of these questions or insights could then be woven into the sermon so as to engender a sense of dialogue. Again, following the sermon, the pastor could invite further discussion or feedback through emails etc. This post-sermon discussion might warrant a brief followup from the pulpit before the pastor launches into the next sermon.



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RJS

posted July 7, 2009 at 7:28 am


angusj (#31),
Those are great suggestions. But a pastor who invites conversation on the sermon – even over e-mail – must be willing to respond and interact. Unfortunately this takes time and effort – and real questions may even require some research. For example, when I put a post on this blog I commit to engaging with the comments as much as I can. But this means that I commit to spending the time necessary to give real answers (not pat platitudes). If the conversation really takes off it can be quite a time sink. I also try to answer e-mails (although probably not always as thoroughly as some would like). But this is because I think that we need opportunities for conversation with real back-and-forth. I also often learn a good bit from the conversation – there are some pretty insightful comments.
Is it reasonable to expect a preacher to enter into dialog over the material? Or is his job simply charismatic inspirational speaking? Some of the responses above seem to see the role of the sermon as the latter – charismatic and inspriational, not education.



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Derek Leman

posted July 7, 2009 at 8:37 am


Well, Scot, your sermons at North Point the last two weekends were good examples of stories and challenges keeping listeners alert.
I am glad people are pointing out the problem of the sermon-centric service. It would be interesting to think historically about how sermons came to dominate and how practices have changed over time.
The model we use, which we can do because we are less than 1/200th the size of Northpoint at our little Messianic syangogue (50 people avg., up to 80 on “good” Saturdays), is a combination teaching and discussion. People stay alert because they are participants. People are challenged to know the topic so they can contribute.
The teacher in this model prepares more thoroughly because he cannot just say something and not be challenged. People keep you on your toes when objections, questions, and contributions are encouraged.
It works very well for us.
Derek Leman



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angusj

posted July 7, 2009 at 8:51 am


RJS (#32) asks: “Is it reasonable to expect a preacher to enter into dialog over the material?”
It may well not be feasible for a pastor to do this, even in parishes with a team of pastors. (That’s why I haven’t suggested this to my own pastor. Unfortunately he’s already got too much on his plate and needs to cut back rather than take on more.)
However, this kind of dialogue needn’t be too onerous, and could potentially be very rewarding especially if it’s directed towards application (individually and corporately). Of course the dialogue must be within sensible parameters (understanding the time limitations the pastor, with care over confidentiality issues, and encouraging descriptive rather than judgmental feedback etc etc). Also, if the dialogue was via a mailing list or a blog, it needn’t require much input from the pastor at all, but he (she) could still see the direction the discussion was heading and the issues, struggles, challenges, misunderstandings etc that need to be addressed.



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Travis Greene

posted July 7, 2009 at 9:18 am


Derek,
That sounds great.



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John W Frye

posted July 7, 2009 at 9:21 am


RJS (#23),
I just knew it! You are part of the 2% who do follow the pastor. You did notice that I said 98% probably don’t. :)
What I did is form a teaching pastor council comprised of a teen, several women–home-makers and professionals, a men from varied walks of life. We met and I gave overviews of the Bible texts and main ideas of coming sermons. I asked questions like how do you hear this text? What would be your questions? What concerns of life do *you* think it addresses. I still did the exegetical study, but now had a much wider, down-to-earth arena for making the text (oh, I hate this word) relevant. Pastors are called to be faithful, not relevant. Relevant today, history tomorrow.



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Dan B.

posted July 7, 2009 at 9:50 am


Two thoughts-
First, I agree that interaction with a sermon is important. Now this can happen in the hearer simply by actively listening to the sermon, writing down notes (I remember back in my confirmation days making sermon notes on a regular basis and I have members who still do it today), and sometimes even allowing their minds to wander when the Holy Spirit is taking the sermon in a different direction for them. Also, whenever someone comes up to me after a service and says they liked the sermon, I like to challenge them with this question, “That’s great, could you tell me what you liked?”. Sometimes, the answer is general, but a person who wants to engage can point out something specific and if you engage your pastor like this, I think it will challenge you to reflect on that point all week.
Second, I’d say the purpose of the sermon is to engage a person with Gospel in the broadest sense. That means they hear, feel, and experience God’s forgiveness applied to the brokenness of their lives. It also means that having felt that soothing touch, they go out living that Gospel reality amongst others.



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Pat

posted July 7, 2009 at 10:14 am


In my opinion, the purpose of a sermon is multi-fold. It is to teach, inspire, correct, rebuke, encourage as the Spirit leads. A good sermon to me is one that is exegetically and theologically sound, yet stirs the hearts of the listeners to God’s intended purpose for the individual listener. I say the individual listener, because as we know, several people can listen to the same message and walk away with different impressions based on what God wanted them to get out of the message.



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Pat

posted July 7, 2009 at 10:16 am


Angusj and RJS: at our church, we have a sermon discussion group that meets on Sundays after the first sermon during which time we discuss the message, what we each got out of it and practical applications. The teaching pastor even dialogues with a men’s group the Wednesday before he preaches about the direction that he’s going in. So far, we have found these discussions to be very fruitful.



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Derek Leman

posted July 7, 2009 at 10:39 am


John (#36):
Awesome idea about a group to discuss the text before preparing the teaching. I just might implement that (we’d have to use email as we all, unfortunately, live spread all over town).



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Josh

posted July 7, 2009 at 10:48 am


I’m in a Barbara Brown Taylor course right now (one of the best preachers on the planet) . . . I think she might say that preaching is a moment in which words are used by the preacher to connect the audience to their deep humanity and the mystery of God. It is the space in which we give our sisters and brothers the eyes to see the world and each other as God sees.
I like that. Preaching preparation is a science but the delivery is pure art, baby.



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J. R. Daniel Kirk

posted July 7, 2009 at 11:17 am


I sort of backed into my answer to this question, waking up one day and realizing it was what I was after in my sermons. In the words of Richard Hays, I’m striving for a “conversion of the imagination”. I’m trying to get people to reimagine who they are as people, as the people of God, as people in Christ, as participants in new creation, etc.
My second answer is that every person is different, and different preachers will be effective at different types of sermons with different purposes. I wouldn’t want to see any one purpose (or even one cluster of purposes) become THE answer to the question.



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pds

posted July 7, 2009 at 11:28 am


peelingdragonskin.wordpress.com
RJS- Total agreement with your comments about dialogue. As others have noted, there are opportunities for dialogue in small group settings- not necessarily with the preacher present.
Your desire for dialogue makes you a model listener. It shows that you are engaging with the ideas. I think we need to encourage all listeners to listen so that it makes a difference. I find that dialogue is very helpful to me to make the message applicable and practical to me. To take it from abstraction to personal application. A good sermon should help us engage with and dialogue with the text.
BTW, when Tim Keller first planted Redeemer, he had Q and A after many/most of his sermons. I am sure that had something to do with the success.



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Dave Smith

posted April 29, 2010 at 5:33 pm


According to Rev. Phil Hathcock, the purpose of preaching is to “bring the Word to the world.”



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Becky Allen

posted November 6, 2012 at 11:20 am


How do I judge a sermon’s success?

The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know….likewise the better a sermon, the more I realize how much work God still needs to do in my life to transform me AND how much yielding I still need to do to allow God to work in my life.

A good sermon “continuously bothers you!”



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Becky Allen

posted November 6, 2012 at 11:30 am


Messages that Made a Difference

Having been a bible college student and having grown up in the church and being a lifetime student of the word…i have probably listened to thousands of sermons in my life….but I have only truly experienced a small percentage of those!

the ones that made a differnce — the time a pastor explained how the blood running through my veins was the exact same blood running through the vein of another person of another ethnicity….prior to this my beliefs were such that i had been raised to believe it was ok to be friends with “those people” but God was against us marrying “those people”…..the preacher explained how the only requirement was to be saved…sure all other ideas of being equally yoked would make for a smoother marriage but they weren’t prerequisites. that day my beliefs were challenged in a way that i understood my beliefs did not stand up to god’s word, and since god’s word is truth and since his truth does not change, then what had to change were my beliefs.



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Becky Allen

posted November 6, 2012 at 11:51 am


The purpose of the church — HIGH STANDARDS

is fourfold…worship, instruction, fellowship & evangelism.

a sermon centered service is out of balance, as is any service that doesn’t balance its focus on all 4 purposes of the church.

we must bring our A game to every aspect — worship needs to invite us, usher us, inspire us. the sermon needs to inform us. the fellowship encourages us. evangelism send us forth.

all four aspects are equally important and the church is responsible for carrying them out BETTER than the BEST non-christ alternatives (world views)available to our target audience.



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