Taking the Shallowness Out of Your Preaching
by Doug Green
“Pastor, I like you, but I need preaching that is, well … deeper.”
Why would you want to swim in the deep end of the pool when you are not spending time in the shallow end? What exactly do you mean by deeper? I prepare my sermon every week. What about it isn’t deep enough for you?
Who wants to come across as a shallow preacher? Not me. Not you.
It’s hard to know what someone means when they say our sermons are not deep enough. Yet such painful critiques can help us learn lessons and improve our communication methods.
Every hearer (including you) has a certain set of intellectual and emotional needs. When a message meets those needs, it feels deep. When the needs remain unmet, it feels frustrating. Although we know our congregations ultimately need an encounter with the triune God and a commitment to be doers of the Word, throwing them some “depth” bones will go a long way in helping them sense fulfillment. Consider these suggestions.
Give them new information. Let’s face it: People want to learn something new. They want to write something meaningful in their notes. It might be a bit of biblical data, such as the modern day equivalency of the 10,000 bags of gold in Matthew 18:21–34. It might be a map of the ancient world compared to the modern world, revealing, for instance, that the seven churches of Revelation 2–3 are now part of modern Turkey. It might be the specific verb tense of a key word. For example, in Romans 8:28–30, “glorified,” though it seems to be a future action, is in the aorist/past tense.
All forms of intellectual information, including biblical customs, archaeological finds, ancient weights and measurements, and even Palestinian fashion, can help you open up the biblical text and assist the listener in hearing God’s Word for them, in the present day. However, as an additional bonus, such details allow the learner to hear something brand new. This is a terrific technique to add depth to your preaching.
Give them a sense of completion. As a remnant of the Fall, we live in a world lacking a sense of completion. The landscape is constantly changing. People live their entire lives lacking full knowledge about almost everything. The constant effort to act despite incomplete information is, at the least, tiring and sometimes profoundly disturbing. Consequently, one of the strongest desires people have is to resolve the gnawing sense of uncertainty.
This is precisely the value of God’s Word. There is always a sense of the whole –– even in our partial world. While on this side of fullness, we do our hearers a favor to connect them to the bigger story. When you point your hearers toward God’s overall redemptive story, your sermon becomes a “completing” event on the weekly calendar.
For example, Ephesians 6:10–18 speaks about an invisible spiritual battle. You could tell the story of a young mother who spends her days doing the mundane only to have a Sunday morning parenting crisis spoil one of her few precious opportunities to reenter the adult world. If you could show how her experience is part of a bigger battle (the one Christ ultimately wins), you give her specific battle meaning. The gospel offers her fragmented world holistic resolution.
Give them a chance to make decisions. Don’t do all the work for them. Let them exert an effort. A captivating sermon leads to a thought-provoking climax, but it also engages the listener throughout. An engaged audience constantly makes decisions during the sermon. Their participation in the progression of the sermon is what makes the experience fulfilling. They are not daydreaming passengers in the backseat; they are helping drive the car.
Most churchgoers do not know how to explain why a particular sermon worked for them. They just know they felt engaged and caught up in the journey. They entered the text in a meaningful and personal way. They sensed ownership.
The effective communicator knows the audience needs continuous intellectual incentive — material holding their curiosity and engaging their minds. Help your audience make the big decision by walking them through a series of little decisions along the way. Ultimately, as an expositor of the text, you take your hearers to a place where they, through the influence of the Holy Spirit, wrestle with the truth claim the text is making. This is a meaningful communication device.
Give them bold confidence and authority. Sermon content (the written) is important. But nothing trumps bold, confident, and authoritative conviction (the oral). Your passion and your heart communicate what words cannot. Conversely, an absence of authority defuses even the crafted theological masterpiece. The pathos and ethos must flow with the logos.
Scholarship is what you do in the study. A manuscript is what you put on paper. These essential elements will take much of your week to craft. However, what you deliver from the pulpit is what ultimately matters. It’s the culmination of your scholarship. Yet it must come not from paper but from your heart — your conviction and passion about the vital significance of God’s Word.
If you must choose between scholarship and fire, choose both! A scholar on fire is always your best option.
Sometimes “lack of depth” can be a way to describe a spiritually absent preacher. When you speak without authority, it’s an oral report, not a sermon. A sermon is a proclamation of God’s Word — a living Word, not just rooted in history but alive and well in churches today.
Here’s the problem: The smarter a person gets, the less willing he or she is to proclaim givens. Often, educated people are discreet about advocating absolutes. As a result, many preachers are reticent to speak authoritatively, fearing they might insult the intellects of the hearers.
While you may have doubts about your ideas or my concepts, as a biblical preacher you must unswervingly put all your eggs in the one basket of Holy Scripture. Hearers need to know the biblical text matters. They need bold confidence and authority. They need to hear Truth with a capital T, not a lowercase one. They need to know God’s words are not your words and that you cannot dilute His words at your discretion. They really need prophetic zeal — moments where they hear from the pulpit, “Thus saith the Lord.”
With humility of heart and transparency about your own personal brokenness, your congregation needs bold confidence and authority from the pulpit. Besides, if you are truly preaching a biblical message, the thoughts are not yours anyway. They’re God’s words. He gets the credit for what He says, not you.
“Wow, pastor, your sermons seem so deep lately! What happened?”
When people utter those words, just smile and give God the credit.
He deserves all the attention.