Keep Your Sermon Simple and To-the-Point; Don’t Forget the Gospel!

Don Engebretson has 24 years of experience as a pastor and preacher. He also has an uncanny ability to sense what his listeners are experiencing as they sit through a sermon. In the July issue of Forum Letter by the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, he wrote this article, “Pastor, Can We Talk About Your Sermon?” Here are some quotes:

Engbretson: The evaluation of a pastor’s peaching that truly counts comes ultimately from the pew. Yet even there the assessment varies from person to person. Opinions differ with the personalities and expectations of each person, not to mention their unique situation on a given day. That said, we should realize that most congregants don’t realistically anticipate the preacher to be an absolute dynamo in the pulpit. They don’t come expecting to hear a version of a polished television preacher. They accept their pastor as a “work-in-progress,” especially if the pastor is fresh out of seminary.

But they do have some criteria that are important for the preacher to know, whether just out of school or experienced with many seasons of preaching. The following is my sense of what they might say if they dared to be honest.

A letter to my pastor

Dear Pastor,

Please don’t be long-winded. I know what you want to say is important. I get it. But my attention span is
only so good. I’ve got restless kids in the back pew and I’m struggling just to catch even part of what you are saying.

Most Sundays I only get snippets, maybe only scattered sentences of words. I’m on water pills and pretty
soon I’m going to have to excuse myself and go to the restroom. I can’t make it the whole hour. I was up late with a sick family member last night and I’ll be honest, I’ll probably nod off from time to time. I worked a long shift in the ER and I’m not too alert either. I’ve got a lot of conflict and drama in my family and life right now and my mind keeps wandering. I’m easily distracted.

So get to your point. Keep it straightforward. Don’t repeat too much, but please help me to remember by repeating the main point from time to time. And be aware of the clock. Fifteen minutes is plenty. Realize that’s about the time I would expect a commercial and be able to get up and take a break anyway.

And try to be somewhat relevant. I realize you don’t want your sermon to be just a storytime for us. We really don’t want an endless string of anecdotal illustrations about the things you did and saw this past week.

Keep it simple, but show some life

I know you are educated a lot more than we are, with a master’s degree and all, but most of us here in the
pews are high school graduates. Some of us don’t read a lot. Most of our reading these days are text or online posts on Facebook; some of us scan the daily paper, but not a lot more.

So drop the big words. Drop the technical jargon. Or at least spend a minute explaining those words to us, but at the same time don’t use a lot of them. One or two are plenty. We are not trained to list to lectures from professors like you are.

We don’t care if you’ve memorized your sermon, or you have it all written out, or you’re working from and outline, or if you have a Greek Bible with marginal notes, or whatever. But do look at us. Acknowledge that we are there in the room with you. Sound like you are talking with us, not to us.

Give some hope

We know that it’s important to tell us about our sins. We get that, too. We mess up all the time. Tell it to us straight. But don’t let that be the sum total of what you are planning to say. Remember the typical ways we all sin and remind us of that. Get to the sins you know we wrestle with in our real day-to-day lives, like misusing God’s name, and gossiping, and not respecting parents, and hurting people both physically and verbally, and not treating our spouses with love and kindness. Just make sure they are our sins and not something you simply read about, or something that’s part of major debate among religious leaders.

But don’t forget to tell us that we are forgiven in Jesus’ name. That is critical! Don’t just tack it on to the end of your sermon. Some of us are drowning in our failures. We are wracked with guilt. We lose sleep and have headaches because of our regrets. We wonder at times if God will not get tired of us making mistakes and disobeying his Word. Throw us a lifeline! Give us real hope! Tell us God still loves us!


The person in the pew who really wants to hear the Word

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