I would never describe myself as a great chef, but I do make one thing that everyone loves. I’m known in my family for making the best chocolate chip cookies. It was actually easy once I found the perfect recipe and followed it to the letter. I’m a rule follower, after all. Exact measurements and exact timing, and you get perfect cookies every time.
Not everyone is a rule follower, and I get that. But no matter how closely you follow a recipe, one thing we can all agree on is that you need the right ingredients. The secret to making great cookies is the same as writing a great sermon. Make sure you have all the right ingredients.
My cookie recipe has eight ingredients. That’s it. And a great sermon has even fewer. These are the three ingredients every sermon must have. When you follow the recipe, you’re sure to engage your audience members, challenge them spiritually, and help them draw closer to Christ.
This is the real heart of your sermon. By explanation, I mean the time you take to read a Scripture text, expound on the topic, and tie it into the rest of the Bible. It may come in the form of exact exposition of a single text or by weaving together several passages. However you explain the Bible, make sure you focus on the truth of the Word.
Without explanation of the Bible, you’re not really preaching at all. You may say some inspiring words, pull on emotions and even enact change. But without strong scriptural teaching, you’re not preaching; you’re only giving a great speech.
When you’re providing explanation, your audience should be paying attention. This is when they’ll take notes. Be aware of this, and even invite them to write it down as you go. I know it may sound basic, but providing a written outline beforehand, offering an online form, or even just putting your outline on an overhead monitor can really increase an audience's retention.
If we’re comparing a sermon to that great cookie recipe, then the explanation is the most abundant ingredient: the flour. (I use three cups, by the way.) But if your whole sermon is just explanation, it’s like offering up fluffy cookies with no sugar or chocolate. It’s only part of the whole.
Searching out the truth of Scripture is the most important part of a sermon. But learning how to apply it to everyday life is essential. Just knowing the Bible is not enough unless we are living it out. Remember that as you write your next message.
Don’t forget any one of these three basic ingredients if you want to be an effective communicator of God’s Word.
Continuing that cookie recipe analogy, the application is like the eggs and butter. It pulls everything together. It makes it stick. When you go from informational to applicable, you are creating a way for your audience to put the Word to use right away.
When you’re writing a sermon, ask yourself, How can they use this on Monday morning? Pick out specific applications rather than just providing general advice. If it’s a sermon on parenting, give some examples of how to lead your children in daily prayer, what types of words to say when you have to discipline them, or the right attitude to have during a sporting event.
Once you start thinking in real-life scenarios the applications are endless.
Also, keep in mind your audience. The application of your sermon will vary from group to group. How children apply the Word of God is different from the way college students, a business group or prisoners will put the message to use. Each audience deserves your attention when it comes to application.
The final ingredient is the one I find pastors struggle with the most. I’m not sure why, but I think they pay so much attention to the first two that they give the final one the least amount of time. But good illustrations may be the key to how well your audience remembers what you say.
Good illustrations are stories, jokes, poems or even pictures. You can use a video to illustrate a point, or you might even use a personal testimony. In the recipe, this is the sugar and the chocolate.
However, let me give you another analogy. An illustration is a hook. It’s how you grab your audience’s attention and keep it. It’s also a way for them to hang onto a truth and keep it for later.
Jesus was a master illustrator. And he used the hook technique of storytelling. Each of His parables was grounded in a real-world example that His followers would remember easily. The kingdom of heaven, according to Jesus, is like that tree right over there. God is like a shepherd who lost a sheep, or a woman who lost a valuable coin, Jesus would say.
The next day, His listeners would pull out a coin to pay a shopkeeper or pass by a shepherd with a lamb on his shoulders. And that hook would draw them to truth. When they saw that illustration in real life, their minds and hearts would turn back to Jesus’ words.
By your using the right type of illustration, audience members can pull up that truth more easily. You mention the story of a football game, a joke regarding your car ride, or a poem about a bird. Then when your listeners see a bird overhead, get into their cars, or turn on a game, that memory cue will draw them back to the truth of your sermon. They will recall how you explained that passage or the specific way it should be applied.
These ingredients work together perfectly. To be an effective preacher, you have to have all three. The ratios and order are up to you. Just like any good recipe, there are variations. So, get out there and experiment. But don’t forget any one of these three basic ingredients if you want to be an effective communicator of God’s Word.