Preaching is God’s ordained method to convey his Word and build his church. As such, preaching is every pastor’s principal responsibility and every church’s primary need. Therefore, every pastor must preach, and preach well, every Lord’s day.
However, good sermons, like good meals, do not just happen. They are intentionally crafted by bringing together essential elements. In the case of preaching, one essential element is key words. Determining which words to add and which to subtract is an indispensable component of sermon preparation.
Certain words will strengthen most any sermon. Conversely, some words weaken the sermon. If used at all, they should be used knowingly and sparingly.
Here are five words that almost always weaken sermons.
“Thing” has long been a pet peeve of mine. That is why I was so pleased to see H. B. Charles address this issue in his helpful book On Preaching: “Get ‘things’ out of your sermon. . . . The word is nonspecific. The more specific you are, the more compelling your ideas will be. So try other key words instead.
- Give four reasons why believers should pray.
- State three requirements for Christian discipleship.
- Share five benefits of forgiving people who have wronged you.
- Describe the dynamics of a healthy church.
- Explain the signs of true conversion.
- Present three principles to practice for loving your spouse.
- Warn of the dangers of living selfishly.
Charles is right. What makes “things” helpful—its flexibility—also makes it weak. It has so much versatility it lacks clarity and force. A word that can mean so much usually means very little.
Preaching is to be text-based, derived from the Word of God. Thus, by definition it is objective and authoritative, and arrives as a certain, sure word. The instinct to stipulate “This is just my opinion,” therefore, should send off alarm sirens in the preacher’s mind.
This need to clarify, “This is just my opinion,” is likely due to one of two factors. Either the preacher is spending too much time away from the text, thus forfeiting authority and undermining biblical preaching; or, when on occasion, you are intentionally (and justifiably) offering your opinion, you may be underestimating your crowd. They can probably sense you are moving to a word of application not specifically stated in the text, and there is no need to overly clarify that you are opining.
On other occasions, when you come to a debatable interpretation of a passage—one in which credible evangelical scholars differ—and you feel the need to make your congregation aware the text’s meaning is debatable—consider using the phrase “I believe” as opposed to “My opinion is.”
For example, stating, “Evangelical Bible scholars are of mixed opinion on the meaning of this phrase, and after careful study, I’ve come to believe it means . . .” is stronger than “Evangelical Bible scholars are of mixed opinion on the meaning of this phrase, but my opinion is . . .” The former implies careful study and reflection, with a measure of confidence. The latter sounds more whimsical, less grounded and less certain.
The bottom line is, if you feel the need to offer a naked “This is just my opinion,” what follows probably is not worth offering anyway.
Nothing kills a sermon like beginning it with an apology. As a general rule, if the sermon merits an apology, it doesn’t merit preaching. When it comes to apologies, I’ve heard them all:
- “I’m sorry, but I’m just not as prepared as I’d like to be today.”
- “It’s been a crazy-busy week, so bear with me this morning.”
- “I’m sorry, I’m not exactly sure what our passage means, but I’m going to do my best.”
- “I’m not a theologian, but I’ll try to do this text justice.”
- “Allow me to apologize in advance: the sermon this morning contains nothing novel, nothing new.”
Typically, apologies enter a sermon for two reasons. The first is due to some providential hindrance: illness, an unforeseen crisis, or some other uncontrollable circumstance. If this is the case, don’t apologize. Instead, embrace it as God’s providence in your life, and depend on his strength during the sermon.
The other reason to apologize is due to some avoidable setback: laziness, sloppiness, or poor prioritization. If you feel the impulse to apologize in this scenario, channel it into repentance to the Lord. Resolve to be a better steward of your time and not to get into that situation again.
Announcing “in conclusion” or “as I conclude” is a request for your listeners to close their Bibles and begin thinking about lunch. That’s why it is best not to announce your intent to begin your conclusion; just begin your conclusion. Sermons should end with punch. Foreshadowing your conclusion almost ensures it fizzles out.
However, there is one thing worse than announcing your intent to conclude the sermon. It is announcing your intent to conclude then not concluding. If you do, then in addition to your hearers tuning out the rest of your sermon, you will also (if done often) lose credibility with them.
This final word of concern may seem peculiar, if not controversial. Yet, throwing around a generic, unbiblical “God” will weaken your sermon and may confuse your audience.
Non-Christian “God talk” plagues society. From the athlete who decides to “Thank God my curveball worked tonight,” to the syncretistic, pluralistic, and mystical God references so common in everyday parlance, America’s god is a generic, nondescript one. Such opaque references are often sub-biblical.
Speaking specifically about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—in their biblical context and in light of their biblical character—gives the sermon a distinctly Christian ring.
Successful sermons optimally leverage words to explain the meaning of the text and to bring it to bear in the listeners’ lives. Strategically deploying words can strengthen a preaching event, but carelessly letting words clutter the sermon will weaken it.
So surgically prune unclear and unhelpful words. This will add energy and punch, leading to a sharper and more powerful message.