Lately I’ve been thinking about what makes a “great” preacher. The answer must necessarily be subjective. After listening to hundreds of sermons by hundreds of preachers (some famous, most not) in various settings for 45 years, I’ve come to some conclusions about “great” sermons and “great” preachers.
I remember when I was in high school getting up very early one Easter Sunday morning and driving an hour and a half to a country church to hear a man give a talk on the Resurrection. He took a little piece of paper and rolled it up to show us what it was like for Christ to be wrapped up in the tomb. Simple, so simple, but it electrified me and for the first time in my life, I was overwhelmed with the thought that Jesus had risen from the dead. That man never went on to any great earthly fame, but I walked away changed by his message. He was a great preacher to me.
Some years ago Keith Drury wrote a column about things he had learned from preachers he had heard. When I read it recently, it started me down this line of thinking. As I ponder the variety of preachers I’ve heard over the last 45 years, I see many differences in style, technique and personality. But there are some commonalities. I pass them along for your consideration.
What can we learn from listening to the best preachers?
1. They use humor effectively.
Humor is like salt. A little is good, too much spoils the soup. Great preachers know the difference. Some preachers tell humorous stories to defuse tension. Others use puns and one-liners to get a point across. I’ve never a great sermon from a comedian in the pulpit, but I’ve watched quite a few gifted preachers use natural humor to their advantage.
2. They live where you live.
This is hard to quantify, but it means something like, “That man understands my problems. He knows what I’m going through.” Sometimes this is done through references to current events. Other times it is done by a personal illustration.
3. They have solid biblical content.
I don’t necessarily mean that they do only verse-by-verse exposition. But if they take a pressing question or a moral issue or a contemporary topic, the do their homework so you can see the biblical basis of their message. They aren’t preaching their opinion with a few verses tacked on. Great preachers ground their messages in God’s Word.
4. They understand the value of a good story.
Nothing wakes people up like these six words: “Let me tell you a story.” John Stott said that a good illustration opens a window in a sermon to let light shine on the truth. A story can be a brief or long. But great preachers know when to use a story to help a congregation understand and apply biblical truth.
5. They preach with passion.
Not to be confused with volume, length, shouting, or wild gestures. It has nothing to do with temperament or preaching style. Spurgeon called it earnestness. It’s what happens when the audience realizes, “This man really believes what he is preaching.” It’s encompassed in the Old Testament description of a prophet who had a “burden” from the Lord.
6. They preach with relaxed intensity.
Sometimes I listen to preachers who are “trying too hard,” and it shows. That may be a sign of lack of preparation. Younger preachers often haven’t preached enough to be comfortable in their own skin. The best preachers can be quite intense-like Billy Graham at a crusade-and yet relaxed at the same time.
7. They use memorable phrases.
I’m thinking of aphorisms and pithy sayings. Jesus did this often in his teaching. “Cast not your pearls before swine” creates a vivid mental picture. One good turn of a phrase can lift a sermon from ordinary to memorable.
8. They preach one message at a time.
Young preachers often cram everything they know into a sermon, making it difficult to follow or turning it into a seminary lecture. Great preachers focus on one main idea and bring it home in various ways. They don’t feel a need to tell people everything they know.
9. They vary their pace, pitch, and volume.
Usually they start slow, pick up the pace, raise and lower their voice, all according to the need of the moment. Often they use a pause in their sermon to focus attention on a key point. Their preaching sounds like a lively conversation, not like a lecture or a finger-pointing scolding from the pulpit.
10. They keep it simple.
J. Vernon McGee told his listeners that “Jesus didn’t say, ‘Feed my giraffes.’ He said, ‘Feed my sheep.’ Put the hay on the lower shelf so God’s sheep can get to it.” Simple doesn’t mean simplistic. Simple means you don’t show off your education. Simple means you are secure enough in who you are that you can take profound truth and make them understandable to those who lack your specialized training.
11. They keep good eye contact with the congregation.
Sometimes they preach without notes, sometimes with notes, sometimes with a manuscript. Yet in all cases, they are looking at you as they preach.
12. They are clear and easy to follow.
This may mean they take a question and answer it, or they take a proposition and unfold it, or they tell a story and apply it. However they do it, you can easily follow the message. When they finish, you say, “Now I understand!”
13. They start quickly.
Rookies preachers often make the mistake of taking too long to get into their topic. The best preachers tell you up front what they’re talking about. They grab the congregation with the very first sentence and never let go.
14. They preach for decision.
A sermon is not a lecture. The best preachers never end without bringing people face to face with God in one way or another.
15. They land the plane on the first try.
When the time comes to end, great preachers don’t circle the field or do a series of “touch and go” landings. They land the plane on the first try.
What about you? What would you add to this list?