Velvety, Sun-Drenched, Indian Blue, Foot-Long - Use Vivid, Descriptive Words in Speaking and Watch People's Brains Light Up
Dr. James Cail was a popular psychology teacher at Oklahoma Christian University who often filled in and preached at one of the local churches there in Oklahoma City. Dr. Cail had quite a sense of humor, which is helpful in preaching. And besides his folksy style, he had a memorable way of speaking, using descriptive words.
Andy Stanley's book on preaching, Communicating for a Change, is one of my top practical books on preaching. In this book, Stanley shares a great way to structure or "outline" sermons. While there are different ways to shape or form sermons, this is a really good default way to structure a sermon. Ready? Here it is!
Me - I was thinking about this/experienced this delimma the other day . . . (Orientation)
We - We have probably all experienced this before (Identification)
God - So what does God/Scripture say about this (Illumination)
You- What would this look like if we applied this in our lives? (Application)
We - What if everyone did this--our families, our church, this world? (Inspiration)
Stanley, Andy (2008-08-19). Communicating for a Change: Seven Keys to Irresistible Communication (p. 121)
Why is this a good general form? For a lot of reasons. It starts with a life experience that everyone can identify with, which naturally draws people in. It sets the sermon up for dynamic movement from a bit of a conflict to a wrestling with the issue and with God about this, to an inspiring resolution. This makes the sermon memorable, because it is set up like an unfolding story. Also, this structure makes sure that the sermon is set up for application, as the whole structure points towards this.
I like to throw in a, now what about you? at the end of the message a lot of times to make sure that they get the direct call to action. And as long as you have applied it to yourself and everyone else, you can make that kind of direct, second person call at the end (in the form of a question).
What do you think of this sermon structure? What are the pros? Any cons? What other general structures do you like to use for sermons?
EVERYDAY LIFE ILLUSTRATION - The best illustrations are from everyday life. We just have to be looking for them.
My daughter Emily is a great kid--but of course! :)--but is nervous about trying out new situations. But she decided to try out soccer, and it turns out that she loves it so far. So this week I went out to a soccer practice. And while I was out watching my daughter, her coach said, "Come on, keep trying. None of us was born knowing how to walk." Now, that could just be a throwaway comment. But you could take an everyday moment like that that many people have experienced--themselves or their kids being coached--and use it as an illustration.
Something like this. Describe how my daughter made the decision to try out soccer. Say how proud I was of her. Then tell of going out to her practice to watch her. Then say . . .
"It was a Friday night, and the sky was overcast, and it kept trying to starting raining, but it never quite did. And I sat down on the sideline as they were running drills. And one of the drills was kind of tough for them. But I heard the coach say, ;Come on, keep trying. None of us was born knowing how to walk.' And it STRUCK me. That's so obvious, but it's so true. We have to LEARN to walk, someone has to hold our hands, put on our training wheels, or teach us how to kick a ball."
When sharing everyday illustrations, really try to describe the scene. This does not have to be real long, but use a few phrases, words, and adjectives that cause the audience to really visualize the scene and be able to imagine themselves in that situation. The time of day. The color of the sky (or whatever you are talking about). What you were feeling and thinking in descriptive terms. Let them walk through the scene with you.
Now, where could you use this illustration? A lot of different places. If you were talking about discipleship, that would fit (you need a teacher). If you were talking about facing an unknown situation (God or the Holy Spirit could be the one who shows you what to do). Or if you are talking about taking risks for God, as I am this Sunday from the book of Esther, it could fit this as well (putting yourself in an unknown situation is risky; but we can trust that God will be with us in this and show us how to walk through it).
Now, if this were the main point of the sermon, you could use a repeating phrase such as, "Keep trying--You HAVE to LEARN to WALK!" throughout. And when you use this repetition repeatedly, you will find that the audience will repeat it with you.
Where do you find everyday illustrations? How do you seek to make these come to life?
No offense to my homiletics teachers, but they taught me almost nothing about most aspects of rhetoric--that is, how to say what you are going to say. A sermon outline or even an overall approach, as important as these are, will not have the most impact that it can without powerful rhetoric.
To that end, there is something about the number three that has power. In medieval times, the clergy attributed this power to the Trinity--that when things are done or come in threes, they reflect the Trinity, and therefore have power.
I am not sure that I subscribe to the Trinitarian explanation. But I do believe, for whatever reason, are minds are geared to think in terms of threes (and other odd numbers). In photography and video, people are trained to think in sections of three, for instance. Three points--or one or five points--are good, but two and four are awkward.
While most preachers have probably picked up on the rule of three and/or odd numbers for number of points, one rule of three can be missed: that a point can be driven home and raised to a climax by using three similar phrases all in a row.
This can be found in the above clip at around the 00:30 mark, where, in making the point about how the wall of Jerusalem was built in three days, I say this happened because
"everyone was pulling together"
"everyone was working hard,"
"people were bonding together"
but most especially because, "God made this happen." This has a 3 + 1 pattern--three very similar statements, then a slight connector, and a "finally" statement. Notice how I use hand gestures at each of these points to help drive the point home, and that there is a slight rise in my voice and a firmness as well. All of this, makes for this being a good "highlight" section of this sermon.
Just sharing things like this that I had to learn on my own over time, through trial and error. I am hoping that you have other rhetorical ideas to share that will make our preaching more impactful.
What do you think of the rule of three in rhetoric?
"Preaching was established by Jesus because God had a job to do.
To get the job done, preaching must be committed to two goals: first it should be passionate and second, fascinating.
Passion makes preaching seem imperative and urgent. Narrative is a force that postmodern preachers must use and listeners must reckon with. Narrative handcuffs intrigue to the ancient text. So, the homily gains relational force when the sermon is passionate enough to be visceral and story-driven enough to be visual."
--Preaching: the Art of Narrative Exposition by Calvin Miller
In the shift from the modern worldview to the postmodern worldview, preaching--once the crown jewel of the church's messaging--has fallen in many ways out of vogue. There are several reasons for this, some of which are legitimate criticisms, some of which are not.
But Calvin Miller, quoted above, rightly, points to two things which can help redeem the sermon as a communication medium. First, preaching must be passionate. In a world of advertisements and in authenticity, passion cuts through and impacts people. This passion can cause people to listen. Passion can move people to take action and change their lives. Passion is contagious, and can lead to the moving of a whole church. Passion evokes a "visceral" reaction, which moves people in their gut or heart.
If a preacher cannot be passionate about his message, he ought to rethink the message. If the preacher is not passionate about the message, he can rest assured that no one else will be either. Without passion, a message falls flat.
Second, preaching must be "fascinating." with powerful, "visual" stories. Even better, the effective sermon for postmoderns today ought to be shaped overall in a story format. That is, there is a narrative arch to the sermon, with all of the elements that make a good story--"characters" that you care about and that progress and develop. A beginning, conflict, a climax, and a resolution. A good story is memorable and can be shared with others. The story form itself helps people "visualize" things, as do pictures and video.
How can we have more passion in our preaching and sharing of the gospel? What are you passionate about in your preaching? How has someone else's passion moved you to take action? How can we make our sermons more storylike?
Churches, ministers, pastors, and church administrators go to the time and trouble of posting sermons online each week on websites and social media sites. And almost no one watches. Why is this?
Quite simply, because online attention spans are incredibly short. Most people simply will not watch a 30 minute sermon online. Or a 25 minute sermon. Or a 22 minute sermon. Or even a 10 minute sermon.
So how do you change this? Here are three simple ways.
What do you think of the sermon highlight clip concept? What additional information or tools do you need to do this? What are the benefits? What are the barriers? How else could the short online attention span be solved?
Search this site for a topic or message illustration or click on the categories below!
Dr. James Nored (Doctor of Ministry, Fuller Theological Seminary) is a preacher, evangelist, church consultant, writer, and missional leader located in Fairfax, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Could Good Preaching/Storytelling Bring Happiness?
The Power of Threes in Rhetoric
If Your Sermon Does Not Contain These Two Things, It Will Fall Flat
Why No One Watches Your Sermon Online--and 3 Ways How to Change This