If we were asked how many of the thousands of sermons we’ve listened to in a lifetime were truly memorable, the answers might not be too encouraging for those called to share Scripture. Equally challenging, however, remains the way we prepare to be good listeners of the Word.

In an article outlining some solutions for those enduring a boring sermon, Pastor Joe McKeever recounts an unusual method employed by a pastor when he would realise he isn’t capturing the interest of his congregation. He would abruptly stop in the middle of the sermon and turn to one of his assistants: “Deacon Logan, would you please pray for me. I seem to be having difficulty preaching today.” Such a confession always had an impact, says McKeever, because the church appreciated the honesty of the man in the pulpit recognizing his inability to convey his words effectively and would rally to support him.

Though sometimes approached on a somewhat anecdotal level, the subject of boring sermons is a very serious one. On one hand, capturing the attention of listeners is harder than ever in this era of multitasking and constant channel surfing through waves of images and information. On the other hand, sermons often veer into clichés, platitudes, abstract themes, or topics that don’t address the spiritual needs of those gathered to hear the Word.

Over two decades ago, Pastor and Professor John Killinger emphasised the importance of preaching the Gospel from the pulpit so that “people who are battling with loneliness and fear, worrying about jobs and education, trying to hold on to crumbling marriages, and facing death” don’t leave confused and disheartened, just as they came.

The ingredients of a good sermon

Good sermons don’t just happen. They require work, planning, and dedication, says Pastor James Otore, who confesses that if he had one last sermon to preach, it would be about Jesus.

One of the secrets to successful preaching is, in fact, focusing on the sacrifice of Christ, regardless of the church or the specific needs of those present. Whatever the speaker addresses, from the Ten Commandments to the principles of healthy living, the death of the Son of God on the cross, out of love for us, must be at the core, says Otore, emphasising that anything else we place at the foundation of preaching “will sooner or later flounder.”

In Jesus, the unimaginable truth is revealed that “God Himself…would rather die forever than live without us,” says Pastor Ty Gibson, underscoring that “Every other concept and character, promise and prophecy, idea and illustration in the good book exists to escort our hearts into this one great central truth.”

Analysing the components of a good sermon, Justin Kim, editor of the Adventist Review, focuses on the message of the apostle Peter, credited with the conversion of no less than 3,000 souls. Peter’s sermon as recorded in Acts 2 is concentrated into 26 verses—13 verses are quotations from the Old Testament, 11 are explanations of these, and in the last two, an appeal is made to the hearts of the listeners.

There are three important pillars of this message, Kim says. First, the sermon is Christ-centred—everything revolves around the identity, life, character, and mission of Jesus. Secondly, Peter’s message is grounded in the Word. Half of the sermon consists of Scripture, and 42% of it contains explanations of the biblical text—without compelling stories and emotional illustrations, without any of the presentation tools that technology provides us today—and yet, the speaker manages to have an unparalleled impact on his listeners. Last but not least, the message concludes with a call to action. Peter does not simply present biblical teachings, but urges the listeners to decide what they will do with the truth they have heard: “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).

Every sermon should be a call to action, says Leslie Pollard, president of Oakwood University, who emphasises that, beyond sharing information, New Testament preachers called people to act on what they heard (Acts 17; Acts 2). The persuasive power of a preacher is closely linked to the depth of his commitment to Christ, says Pollard, hitting the nail on the head when it comes to powerless sermons.

Discussing the need for training lay preachers, Carl Coffman, who taught homiletics, says that a sermon has a lasting impact only if God is allowed to speak through His Word. Often, the Bible is just a pretext, not the foundation of preaching, and the speaker presents their own ideas and solutions, Coffman says. Thorough study of the Bible helps the speaker to accurately present biblical teachings and make them relevant to the audience’s needs.

The importance of preaching should not be underestimated, as it can influence the spiritual prosperity of listeners and even their eternal destiny, says Pastor Robert H. Pierson, noting that it is very easy to deviate from the purpose of the sermon. A close friend complained to him that even “some of our finest speakers are becoming news commentators, psychiatrists, and welfare counselors during our…Sabbath preaching hour.” People have access to all this information, most of it very useful, six days a week, says Pierson, emphasising that preaching must remain true to its purpose: allowing God to speak “through a man to the hearts of both saints and sinners.”

Other principles of preaching

Pastor Kevin DeYoung highlights a few principles of engaging preaching. The message must be truthful (which means, in the pastor’s view, that the preacher will keep his message closely aligned with the Word, with the majority of the presentation consisting of what he has discovered studying Scripture, rather than personal testimonies or illustrations). Clarity is another principle of preaching. The speaker’s goal should not be to showcase their expertise, but to be understood. Moreover, it’s important for the speaker to be attentive to the needs and characteristics of his audience, as there is a well-known tendency to preach to the needs and challenges we ourselves face.

Ingenuity always matters, says De Young, noting that a preacher must be “resourceful, inventive, and hard-working” in preparing his messages. The authenticity of the speaker is a key to impactful preaching. The one who preaches must himself be captivated by the Gospel to arouse the interest of the listeners. There is also a need for the speaker to find his own voice rather than trying to imitate other well-known speakers.

On the other hand, an ingredient of diluted, dry, mediocre preaching is the speaker’s focus on themselves. As Christian blogger Nitoy Gonzales points out, sometimes the pulpit becomes a platform for the speaker to showcase his virtues and achievements (academic or otherwise) or to garner sympathy from others.

The length of the sermon is not necessarily an asset either (although it’s true, according to professor Haddon Robinson, that some preachers speak for 20 minutes, and the audience feels like it lasted three times as long, and some have a long message that seems short to listeners). As Spurgeon remarked, the longer the time spent studying the Bible, the shorter the preaching time will be, with the rule being that we tend to speak more when we have little to say.

How to become better listeners

If sermons are sometimes not what they should be (or what we would expect them to be), it’s no less true that preaching is unsuccessful also because listeners are inattentive, uninvolved, distracted by their own thoughts, or glued to the smartphone they can’t detach from even in church, says Bible professor Jonathan J. Routley, author of an article discussing the forgotten discipline of listening to the Word. According to Routley, the primary cause of apathy toward preaching is the inability to realise that God is the one speaking, even if He does so through the more or less skillful words of a human, with the same authority as He did on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:18-19).

A first step to becoming better listeners is to prepare ourselves for hearing the Word, thus becoming active participants in the preaching service. Preparation occurs both physically and mentally, as well as spiritually (from praying to be receptive to the message in the Word to planning the morning and preceding evening so that the time before the sermon is not marked by haste, fatigue, and chaos).

If the sermon is boring or its subject doesn’t resonate with our needs or experiences, we can still gain spiritual benefit from listening to it, Pastor Matthew Harris says. One of Harris’s recommendations is to focus on the biblical texts the speaker reads. Every passage of Scripture contains a lesson for us, and God can speak to us through His Word even in the midst of a monotonous sermon. Harris recounts that when every attempt to remain focused and engaged fails, he starts to pray: for the one preaching, for the rest of the sermon, and for those listening.

He also advises listeners to honestly check their reasons for feeling bored. It could be the preacher’s “fault”, or perhaps the listener hasn’t rested enough during the week, is distracted by unresolved issues, or is experiencing a decline in spiritual life, etc.

When we hear the Word, it’s essential to apply its teachings to ourselves, even though it’s so tempting to think of other people to whom those lessons seem to fit like a glove. Being receptive to the voice of the Holy Spirit means allowing Him to search our hearts and lives, revealing to us what we don’t know or aren’t willing to acknowledge about ourselves.

Hearing the Word isn’t just an intellectual exercise, says Christian author Christopher Ash, reminding us that the purpose of preaching is to bring us closer to Jesus (and make us more like Him), not to make us know-it-alls.

So, while it’s so easy for us to critically evaluate, from the spectator’s gallery, how the Word is preached, the thing that will bear fruit, now and until eternity, is the careful examination of the soil on which the seed that the Sower went out to sow is about to fall.

 Carmen Lăiu is an editor of Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.