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Preaching Crib Notes

by Tim Isbell

As a local church pastor for 18 years, I wanted to make sure I used a broad range of preaching techniques in order to communicate to the broad range of parishioners and visitors. And I also wanted to hold the attention of regulars.

So I compiled a Crib Sheet to keep me from falling into the preachers'  rut of always preaching in the same style/format. Then, every week I'd read a small section of these notes, which God used to keep me out of a preaching rut. This web page is that file. I think you will find help in it.

I've annotated the file with the best information I can remember about where that concept came from. Unfortunately, I cannot recall where the source of all of them. So if you recognize where some of them came from please let me know and I’ll annotate this website.

Preaching Tips

“Good preaching (living) is like a person standing on a street corner pointing upward into the sky.  Of course, a crowd gathers. Everyone cranes their neck upward to see whatever it is that the person who is pointing upward sees.” Karl Barth.

There are 2 pillars of security for preachers. The first is that we must be obedient to the call to preach. The second is the power that is in Scripture.

Don’t start with a need and look for a scripture; start with the scripture and ask what need it addresses or what question it answers. (This is one of the primary reasons I used the Revised Common Lectionary to guide my preaching calendar. For more the lectionary, see Lectionary Basics and Lectionary Preaching).

If I’m to preach effectively, I must be free from a need for approval and applause. Until I get to this point, my preaching is just trying to fill up something in me that I can never fill.

People are searching for peace and/or purpose.

Storytelling principles:

  • Details: choose the ones that support the main point.
  • Dialog: use this because people love to “eavesdrop."
  • Delayed denouement: save the end for the end!
  • Realistic: Make characters no more than 97% good or bad.  Only God is 100% good, and Satan 100% evil.  The rest of us are in between.  So if we want listeners to relate to a story it needs to be in between.

Ask people to email questions on an upcoming message topic and then factor these into a sermon.

People don’t come to church for a Tony Robbins lecture; they come to meet God.

Preach as if there’s a broken heart in every row.

If you're dry in your heart, preach on grace - not on judgment. When you're broken and in tears, then you can preach on judgment.

Testimonies are the most evangelistic things we do. Who can argue with someone’s story?  Look for ways to embed them inside the sermon.

The preacher is less a scholar and more a sage; less a lecturer and more a poet, prophet, and priest.

To hold someone’s attention: Break their guessing machine and then fix it. Make them commit to an answer early (sometimes even through a quiz or a hand-raising question), it holds their attention. Don't fix it until the last 1/3 of the sermon.

Put away the video projector occasionally and use low-tech visuals (like a coach in the locker room at half-time).

We need to transform public worship from a weekly show or lecture to a weekly experience of group spiritual formation.

Far more important than building a great sermon is training to become the kind of person who speaks all of our words in front of God.  Become a person who always speaks either to God or in his presence - never in his absence.

Ask yourself, "Does this message have the elements of an EPIC worship service: Experience, Participation, Imagery, Connection?"

A Christian sermon always gets to the New Testament somehow.

In studying a passage, ask 3 questions:

  1. Who is God from this passage?

  2. How is God revealed in this text?

  3. What are the most natural inclinations that resist or deny that truth?  (Then, for the rest of the sermon, seek out that resistance and break it.)

The 4 S’s of a good talk: Simple, Scripture, Stories, Short.

Be sure you know exactly what response do you want and have you planned for that?

Ask yourself YBSW. (“Yes, but so what?”)

More questions to ask as you prepare:
  • What is the THESIS?
  • Is it GOD CENTERED or man-centered?
  • What do I want listeners to KNOW? ... DO? ... BECOME?
  • Even if everything is true and well said, SO WHAT? (YBSW)
  • Is it believable, or will people think “OH, REALLY?”
  • Do I believe this message will MAKE A DIFFERENCE for someone?
  • Has this message MADE A DIFFERENCE IN MY LIFE?
  • Have I earnestly PRAYED for God to speak through me?
  • How does this message fit with the MAJOR THEMES of the local church?

Where is my target this particular Sunday? Is it:

  • Action/ethics... is it at the “do” level.
  • Emotion/habit.
  • Identity... sense of who I am.
  • Values.
  • Convictions... deep founded things we think are real, not always.

Inductive – Deductive preaching

When Jesus talked to crowds or with people likely to disagree with him he generally used an inductive style. When he talked with his disciples, who recognized (at least) more of who he was, then he became more like a teacher and he used a deductive style. Throughout the Bible we see God using both styles, both stories, and inductive techniques and expository/deductive techniques. We do well to vary our style, too.

Inductive ...

  • Reasons from particular to general.  Postpones declarations until listeners have a chance to weigh evidence & conclude WITH the preacher
  • Moves from ambiguity to clarity
  • Often uses analogy
  • Often uses story, true or fictional
  • Biography
  • Observes an effect and then searches for the cause
  • Considers either/or, both/and
  • Starts with a range of possibilities, then eliminates them one at a time.  Not this, this... but this
  • Exploration
  • Flashback
  • Homiletical plot (see below)
  • Promise to fulfillment
  • Question/answer framework
  • What is it, what's it worth, how to get it?

Deductive ...

  • Reasons from general to specific. Starts w/ declaration then proves it.
  • Major premise, minor premises, conclusions
  • Expository

Tips from Haddon Robinson

What’s the BIG IDEA of the message? (People don’t remember outlines, but they might remember the single big idea). Characteristics of the big idea:

  • Must be narrow enough to have sharpness. Ex. “Hope is hearing the music of the future; faith is having the courage to dance to it.”
  • It has an expanding force … like yeast.
  • Must be passionately true in your heart.
  • Loaded with realities of life… not abstractions.  It is heavy on the intersection of God and real life.  Great sermons keep coming back to center, to where people live.
  • Must be true to Scripture. We are not philosophers or just great speakers.  The great ideas that belong to sermons are ideas that come from scripture.

Two questions to discover what the biblical writer means:

  1. What is the author saying? That is the SUBJECT. It’s not a word; it’s a brief but complete thought.
  2. What is the author saying about the subject? That is the COMPLEMENT. 
Here’s an example: “The baptism of the Holy Spirit means if you belong to Jesus Christ, you belong to everyone else who belongs to Jesus Christ.”

SUBJECT: The baptism of the Holy Spirit
COMPLEMENT: ... if you belong to Jesus Christ, you belong to everyone else who belongs to Jesus Christ.

The Bible is a book of ideas. There are only 8-9 really “great” ideas in Scripture, but I never heard what Haddon Robinson considered were those great ideas. This prompted me to gather the New Life preaching team and develop our own list. This is captured in the sermon series: The 10 Big Ideas of Christian Faith.

Tips from Rob Bell

These notes came from Bell's "Creating an Experience" presentation at the Willow Creek Association 2003 Preaching Conference.

Start with the text, then ask yourself "What does God want to unleash from this text to our congregation?"

Sometimes Bell has 3 apparently separate teachings going at the same time, which finally come together at the very end.

Dig deep into the historical context… people need to know that the Bible is about real people and real times, just like the real people and real times that we live in. It is not a story about people in a different world. It is a story about people in a world just like we are in.

David/Goliath story, look deeper into the history of Dagon and discover why they fought where they fought and why David said: “so that the whole world will know…”

Herod … built a mountain to build a mountain-top palace. Research it. Herodian. The palace was right there where Jesus was teaching. If you are on the Mount of Olives and look south you can see the Herodian, farther out you can see the Dead Sea.  Jesus says if you have faith like a mustard seed you can say… Herod built a huge coliseum … the 2nd temple … Jesus turns to folks and says essentially, “if you have faith you can do greater things than Herod.”

Experiential dimension – make it hard for parishioners to just be spectators. Look for ways for them to experience the message from the moment they come into the worship area. What can you have them do, say, feel, etc? Engage them at different levels. Consider yourself an artist with all these dimensions available.

When Bell preached on the Ephesians passage about ”you are God’s handiwork” he gave everyone a hunk of modeling clay and told them,  “You’re a Piece of Work.”

When preaching on Jesus’ temptation he encouraged the congregation to fast on Saturday and come on Sunday hungry. Then on Sunday, he gave each of them a rock.

On Easter, he built a tomb.  He stressed that one who came back from death isn’t afraid of much. Then he gave a paper to people and told them to write on it whatever they fear.  Then he invited them to come forward and stuff it into the rocks.

Use silence. You don’t have to talk the whole time to be preaching. We have mystery on our side.  The very nature of truth is that it brings up deeper questions. Beware of trite answers that sound final. 

        There are no rules

What if your preaching was so a part of you that it was like telling about your wedding day, or about your kids, or some story you just tell? The harder you work on preparation the more it is likely to become a part of you. Then let it flow.

We don’t need people who sing the notes off the charts, we need soul singers. 

We need people who can’t wait to worship or they’ll explode. 

Drummers set the rhythm for songs. Rhythm is a reflection of how God made the world.  If the drummer is off, the whole song is off. If our life rhythm is off, our whole life is off. God made the world in 6 days, then he rested 1. 

The Homiletical Plot

Eugene Lowrey's book, The Homiletical Plot (John Knox Press) offers an intriguing form of inductive preaching. My experience is that preaching material does not often lend itself to this form, but when you can package your material in this style it is really effective. And it is a really fun way to preach. Look for some opportunities to try this approach.

  • Oops (upset equilibrium)...
  • Hmm (analyze)
  • Ask why, why, why?... Probe behind behavior looking for motives, fears, needs.
  • Ahah (the clue)... Use “principle of reversal”, the answer is some diametric reversal of question.
  • Whee (experience the gospel)... Expect to find sins often as distorted good.
    Yeah! (Anticipate the consequences)... Instead of increasing tension to lead to action, look for ways to reduce tension.

Good sermons are like old TV detective series Columbo. Viewers knew at the outset who did the crime, but we watched to see how Columbo would figure it out. Our parishioners know at the outset of our sermons that somehow the answer will be Jesus, but they follow us because they want to see how we get to Jesus.  

Ideas from the Heath brothers

These ideas are from the book Made to Stick (Random House) by the Heath brothers. It is a business book about how to communicate so that ideas stick in the minds of listeners. 

  1. Keep focused, simple: Know the Commander’s intent. Don’t bury the lead. Names! Names! Names! Use analogies to things they know about.
  2. Use something unexpected: break a pattern. Break someone’s guessing machine, and then fix it. Stop thinking about ”What info do I need to convey?” and instead think about “What questions do I want my audience to ask?” Make people commit to an answer early – it holds their attention.
  3. Use concrete examples: Concrete illustrations. Use show-and-tells that capture the Commander’s Intent. Concrete is memorable.
  4. Make it credible: Authorities are credible; sometimes anti-authorities are even more so. Don’t be afraid to occasionally use a negative example (a “what not to do” story). The power of personal testimony is huge. Use vivid details. Scale abstract things down to human dimensions. Offer testable credentials.
  5. Touch emotions: Fundraising results are far bigger with an emotional instead of an analytic appeal. Donors respond better to a person than to an abstract cause. Tap into self-interest – emphasize benefits, not features or information. Tangibility is more powerful than overstated benefits. Appeal to associations, self-interest, group identity. Why does your organization exist?

How to listen to great preachers

Don’t apply what you first notice in a great preacher, because that is usually their very special gift and you probably can’t mimic it if you try. There’s seldom any way to emulate their primary gift, but look at their “craftsmanship.” That you can learn from.  



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