What do those in the pews need from a sermon? Larry Buxton says it’s more than platitudes and common sense. An effective sermon needs to speak to people’s real needs and individual situations, challenge them with meaningful truths, share Jesus, and remind people that God is at work in our lives and the world.
Since retiring from full-time parish ministry last year, I’ve had the opportunity to visit different churches and hear many different sermons. It’s been a new experience to live a non-parish-focused life during the week, then walk into church on Sunday and hear for the first time a Scripture and sermon.
By hearing sermons all along the quality spectrum in a wide variety of denominations, I’ve gotten clearer about what I’m most looking for in that preaching moment. Other people often reflect on the welcome, the liturgy, the coffee, and so on. Here’s what I most need from the few minutes that you stand in the pulpit.
1. I need your sermon to grab me. I need it to be important. Is there an insight or action here that’s captured you, too? Your heart, your imagination, your mind? Has it caused you to see things differently? If it’s important to you, I’ll hear your passion, no matter how you speak. If it’s not significant to you, then volume or humor won’t matter.
2. I need your sermon to pinch me. I need to hear a gospel that isn’t like ordinary life. Call into question what I take for granted. Make me wince at how I live. Jesus’ early preachers didn’t “turn the world upside down” by sharing simple platitudes and common sense. The good news in your sermon needs to address with strong medicine some startling realizations about my life.
3. I need to hear about Jesus. I know sometimes your sermon is from Exodus or Amos and you want to honor the integrity of that text. But these are all Scriptures of our Christian church. There’s not a God-action anywhere in the Bible that doesn’t align with, and gain power from, the story of Jesus. “God” can sound vague after a while. Every Sunday, say something about Jesus. (And remember, Jesus was never boring.)
4. I need to know God is doing something. If I leave thinking it’s up to me to make these noble changes, then even if God is “with” me, you’ve told me Jesus is just a bystander and a judge. If it’s up to me to give more, try harder and do better, that’s a heavy burden to carry. But if I know Jesus is still working today — creating, healing, speaking, redeeming, forgiving — then I want to pitch in and help him do that good work.
5. I need your sermon to help me. “What’s in it for me?” sounds like a selfish question. I know all too well how you may need to preach about the budget, salute moms and dads, build up the choir, and honor the Scouts. But all of us who have come want to hear something that helps our individual situation. Fosdick once said, “No one goes to church to hear what happened to the Jebusites.” Make it personal. Please talk to me.