My early preaching disasters all followed the same deadly pattern. Parishioners would shake my hand at the door with a thin smile and a kind word, but the unvarnished truth always came out in the car trip home. I already knew what my wife, Louise, was going to say. (I saw her slump sideways during the fifth sub-point.) “It looked great when I read through it yesterday—but today it was just so… boring.” And I knew she was right.
“It’s not you, it’s me”
It’s easy to blame the listener. Maybe it’s the seven-minute attention span of ‘the Sesame Street generation’. Or of those multi-tasking time-slicing you-phone i-tubers. Someone said to me just last week, “People these days just can’t follow an intelligent argument”. And, of course, there’s some truth in that. Our culture has changed. Attention spans are shorter. We multi-task. We skim. We click, we like, we share, we move on to something else.
Jesus warns us to be careful how we listen, to avoid the fate of the ever hearing but never listening Israel (Matt 13:10-15). Sadly, some people just won’t pay attention to God’s word. And that’s their problem.
But that wasn’t the problem with my early sermons. I knew how hard it was to be a listener myself, and I knew how much more fun it was to count the bricks in the front wall of the church than to listen to a dull preacher. So I was convinced that it was my job to help my church family listen well… by working harder at keeping them awake. No more excuses. So one Sunday afternoon, I decided to make it my business to learn how to communicate.
I know some of you will think you’ve spotted the problem already. Preaching from a written script, you’ll say, is guaranteed to be dull. There’s no connection with the congregation, there’s no spontaneity. How can you expect the Spirit to move your listeners when you’re preaching from a prepared text?
Let me share a little secret. I’m convinced that planning and preparing what you’re going to say is not the problem—in fact, if you do it right, it’s more often a solution.
I’m not claiming this is the only way to preach—there are other models that work just fine. And I know it gets bad press. But if you master the art of natural scripting—writing exactly the words you’d naturally speak, exactly the way you’d naturally say them—then you can eliminate the downsides of scripted public speaking.
The first thing you need to realize is that natural scripting is completely different from writing an essay or a term paper. That was my problem. I didn’t know the difference. But I soon learned, and most of what I learned will apply equally well to all sermon preparation—whether you’re scripting your sermons or not.
Okay. Where did I start? My first step was to call my friend David Ritchie. Dave was a couple of years ahead of me at Sydney’s Moore Theological College and an excellent natural communicator.
“Help!” I said. “I’m killing people. What am I doing wrong?”
Dave looked over my notes and saw the problem straight away. “You’ve got way too many ideas; too much content and too little repetition”, he said. “I always repeat the first sentence of a new idea three times, to make sure people stay with me.”
My next sermon was already in draft form, so I looked it over with new eyes. The process was painful. Ideas. Deleted. Topic sentences. Repeated. And repeated again. (“Not slavishly”, said Dave. “Vary the words each time, but make sure you don’t add any new information.”)
More help came from Clifford Warne, veteran host of Australian Christian Television spots for kids, and master storyteller. When I asked him for tips, the answer came in the gift of the book Say What You Mean by Rudolf Flesch. Oddly, it’s a book about writing business letters in natural spoken style. But it was the breakthrough I was looking for. It’s okay to use contractions like ‘can’t’ and ‘don’t’ and ‘won’t’. And it’s okay to start sentences with conjunctions like ‘and’ and ‘but’, too. Even partial sentences are okay. Go on a ‘which hunt’, writes Flesch, and get rid of the ‘thats’ while you’re at it. Simplify sentences. It was all about making communication clear, simple and direct. Between reading this book and taking Dave Ritchie’s advice, my preaching changed overnight. (And my business letters did, too!)
So did it help? It still brings a tear to my eye as I remember the old guy who gripped my hand on the way out of church the next Sunday. “Young fella”, he said warmly, “this morning I was with you every step of the way. Well done.”
Louise was smiling too.
The new black
Perhaps the biggest benefit of all in scripting your sermon is that it can help you make things crystal clear. Clarity is ‘the new black’. Just ask anyone with an iPad or an iPhone. Apple designer Jony Ive explains it this way to L’Uomo Vogue magazine:
The way we approach design is by trying to achieve the most with the very least. We are absolutely consumed by trying to develop a solution that is very simple because as physical beings we understand clarity, we’re comfortable with clarity.
At the end of his letter to the Colossians, Paul asks his friends to pray that God will equip him to preach. Look at his words:
At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. (Col 4:3-4)
Paul’s goal is clarity. Paul asks the Colossians to pray that through his plain words, the previously hidden mystery of Christ would be plain and obvious to all. He’s not trying to be more eloquent; he’s not longing to be wittier or more entertaining. All he wants is to be clear.
JC Ryle (1816-1900), the 19th-century Bishop of Liverpool, was a smart guy. Schooled at Eton, he took first-class honours at Oxford and was invited to join the faculty. But his goal was ministry. When Ryle realized that he had affected a certain ‘eloquent’ style as a curate in Hampshire, however, he went about trying to crucify this pretension. What he had thought impressive was in fact completely counterproductive to gospel preaching:
In fact, to use very long words, to seem very learned, to make people go away after a sermon, saying, “How fine! how clever! how grand!” all this is very easy work. But to write what will strike and stick, to speak or to write that which at once pleases and is understood, and becomes assimilated with a hearer’s mind and a thing never forgotten—that, we may depend upon it, is a very difficult thing and a very rare attainment.
Clarity. Being comprehensible without being condescending. Being simple without being simplistic. As Einstein put it, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”.
I want to challenge you to work harder at preaching more clearly. I want to push you to prepare in a way that combines your heartfelt passion with hardheaded clarity, in a package that’s well planned, conversational and clear… and not too long. Are you ready for the challenge?
Top ten tips for being clearer
Paul asked the Colossians to pray that he’d preach with clarity, because he knew that it’s hard to do so. As preachers, we should be praying that Colossians 4 prayer regularly and asking others to pray it for us. And then, like Jony Ive, we should be absolutely consumed by trying to design sermons that are simple without being simplistic, that are understandable and clear. We should try very hard to avoid unnecessary complexity.
Clarity comes from what you leave out. Clarity comes from focus. Usually, complexity comes from ‘over-inclusion’. Over the years, I’ve developed a toolkit that I’ve passed on to a generation of students in my preaching classes. For those of you Letterman fans who were hoping for a top-ten list of tips, here you are.
1. The more you say, the less people will remember
It’s a fact of life. Why do most preachers want to talk longer than most people want to listen? The quote on my desk calendar tells me, “Biscuits and sermons are improved by shortening”. In his song ‘Long Sermon’, country singer Brad Paisley bemoans the way long sermons on a pretty Sunday are a test of faith. Ecclesiastes 6:11 agrees: “The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?” (NIV).
So for how long should you preach? The answer for me is around 23 minutes. The answer for Tim Keller is as long as he likes. The answer for all of us? Plan to stop a minute or two before people start wishing you would. (And stop thinking you’re Tim Keller.)
2. Make the ‘big idea’ shape everything you say
Here’s the best way to trim an overgrown sermon. Apparently, a presidential speechwriter was once asked how he wrote such great speeches. “It’s easy”, he said. “First, I write a speech—then I take out all the bits that ain’t great.”
That’s one of the best reasons to preach from a full script—you get to edit before you speak. You get to choose what you’re going to say and what you’re not. You get to take out all the bits that ain’t going to be great.
And how do you decide what to take out and what to keep? Simple. Haddon Robinson says every sermon should grow from a big idea that you discover through hours of exegesis. You capture your big idea in a single sentence summary that states the essence of a passage and its application. Robinson is right, and I know plenty of preachers who agree with him. The problem is, even after they’ve done the legwork and found the big idea, they usually don’t stick to it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that other ideas scream for your attention like Siren-rocks; if you let them divert you, it won’t be long until your once-clear big idea is sunk at the expense of every lesser idea that came to mind. These other ideas might even be noble ideas. And true. But leave them for another day and keep heading for your target.
Here’s the tip. Once you’ve got the big idea, don’t let go. Build your structure around it, then weigh every word and sentence to make sure it’s pushing in the right direction. Don’t be distracted by sidetracks when you’re preparing, and your listeners won’t be distracted while you’re preaching. And, whatever you do, don’t fall in love with your first draft—make every word and paragraph earn its place.
3. Choose the shortest, most ordinary words you can
It took me a while to realize thateventhe sharpest thinkers prefer simple, clear communication. And clear communication uses the simplest and clearest words you can find. This is one of the differences between written and spoken communication; we tend to use shorter words when we speak. Some words—like ‘utilize’—are nothing but fancy, padded versions of a simpler, shorter word—like ‘use’. When there’s a choice, always use the shorter, simpler word.
I’m not just talking about not using jargon. I’m talking about syllables and the rhythms of natural conversation. I’m talking about using words that are easy to get your mouth around. I’m talking about using the words that you’d use in the kitchen or on the bus. I’m talking about choosing the clearest, least stilted words you can. Listen to yourself sometime. And then eschew utilizing cumbersome terminology when a less pretentious vocabulary would adequately suffice.
4. Use shorter sentences
We package ideas in sentences. Listeners can’t process an idea until they catch the sense of the sentence. So keep sentences short. According to the Reader’s Digest style guide, the ideal average sentence length for a typical Digest reader (enriched word power and all) is between 17 and 20 words. That’s surprisingly short—and it works quite well for sermons too. Take a moment to check the average sentence length in your last sermon. And find the ‘readability score’ of your sermon, too. Aim for a score of 70 to 80 on the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease scale (yes, there’s Rudolf Flesch again!), or 6.0 to 7.0 on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level calculator (this paragraph, for example, scores 73.5 and 5.7, respectively). The higher the score on the reading ease scale, the easier the text is to read. The highest possible score is around 120 (the Harvard Law Review has a score of around 30).
Don’t be fooled. This isn’t about ‘dumbing down’ your content. It’s about communicating complex content clearly. (But keep in mind that alliteration is no longer considered tasteful.) More importantly, it’s about sounding like a normal, conversational you. Figure out what size sentences sound most like you—although if it comes out at over 127 words, it’s time to revise your personality. Trust me. Between 17 and 20 is just fine.
5. Forget everything your English teacher taught you
“Remember”, said Bishop JC Ryle, “that English for speaking and English for reading are two different languages; and that sermons which preach well, always read ill”.
It’s true. Which means if you’re scripting a sermon you should expect it to read badly. It should break almost all the norms of good written expression and follow the rules of informal speech instead.
Listen to yourself in a normal conversation sometime and you’ll realize that the order, sequence and styling of your words break all the rules of formal writing. The formal rules of essay writing taught by old-school English teachers are the conventions and rules that are most likely to make a scripted sermon sound artificial and stilted.
Remember, your goal is to script your sermon in exactly the way you usually speak. So try these naughty tricks:
- Boldly start sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’. Or even ‘Or’. It’s usually considered bad form for writing, but it’s great for speaking. Listen to yourself sometime… we almost always do it when we’re chatting.
- Contract. Use contracted forms such as ‘can’t’, ‘don’t’, ‘won’t’, ‘aren’t’… along with all the other abbreviations we naturally use in daily speech. The only exception I can think of is that sometimes you might choose to use a fully formed ‘not’ for impact and emphasis. Gleefully write the contractions into your text in exactly the way you’d talk to a friend, all the while ignoring the scolding of your old English teacher in your head. And, if you compose onscreen, turn off the spell and grammar checks if those wrist-slapping underlines distract you from writing the real you. (Although I tend to read the squiggly lines now as a sign that I’m on the right track!)
- Avoid complex, multi-clause sentence structures. We usually speak in simple, direct sentences. Sometimes not sentences at all! Can you learn to write like that? That’s why Rudolf Flesch was so keen to get rid of ‘thats’ and ‘whiches’—they always introduce subordinate clauses, which are harder for listeners to process.
6. Am I repeating myself?
In natural spoken communication, we repeat ourselves often. It’s vital. If you’re reading, you’ll create your own repetitions by re-reading a difficult section until you’re ready to move forward. (Why not go back and read that last sentence again?) When you’re preaching, listeners don’t have the same luxury, and it’s up to you to anticipate where they’ll need help. As I said earlier, Dave Ritchie taught me that as you’re introducing a new idea, it’s incredibly helpful to restate the first sentence three times, rephrasing it each time but adding no new information. Effectively, the first statement signals that you’ve changed tack, the second helps the listener to start processing the new idea, and the third time begins the next part of the journey.
Repetition is also the way you’ll emphasize key points, and it’s a great tool for breaking up those long, multi-clause sentences. For instance, “It’s awful to sit through a long, dull, repetitive sermon” has loads more punch when you’re speaking if you replace it with, “It’s awful to sit through a long sermon… It’s awful to sit through a dull sermon. It’s awful, really awful, to sit through a repetitive sermon.”
Why does repetition help? Because, more than anything else, repetition regulates the information flow. Too much information, flowing too quickly, makes people feel like they’re drinking from a fire hose. Avoid giving too much information and learn the difference between the pace of your speech (in ‘words per minute’) and the pace of information (in ‘ideas per minute’). Getting a feel for the right balance between repetition and forward movement is the key here. Too many ideas per minute, and people will feel it’s too complex—slow it down by adding some strategic repetition and explanation. Slow down the idea stream too much, though, and you’ll sound condescending—you’ll be ‘labouring the point’. It’s difficult to find the right balance, but the first step is to be aware that you need to.
Words per minute versus ideas per minute
What do I mean? Below, you’ll see 223 words from a sermon I preached on Saul’s conversion in Acts 9. At my usual speech rate of around 150 words per minute, these paragraphs would take around a minute and a half to deliver. In those 223 words you’ll find a grand total of two ideas. See if you can spot them…
I want you to think for a minute about the person in your life who’s the least person likely who you know to ever become a Christian. The person who’s the most hostile to the Christian faith. Most disparaging. The one who laughs loudest at the idea of God. At the name of the Lord Jesus. And now I want you to double it. Double… the derision. Double… the disdain. Double… the barbed remarks and the cynicism. Until you’ve got the worst-case scenario. And then… you’ve got Saul. Who we first met at the very start of Acts chapter 8.
If you’ve been watching the tennis on TV lately you’ll be noticing the ball boys and the ball girls. Pumped up and ready at each end of the court to dash after the ball. They’re the kids who’d love to one day be out there on centre court. They’re looking on in admiration, helping however they can in the hope one day they’ll make the big time. Saul, when we last met him, was like that. Except it wasn’t tennis they were playing… but stoning. And Saul was the little guy on the sidelines looking after their coats. Helping. However he could. While they stoned Stephen to death.
After all that repetition (which is annoying to read on the page, I know), I hope you picked up the first idea: “Saul is twice as unlikely as anyone you know to become a Christian.”
The second idea flows straight on from the first: “When we first met Saul in the book of Acts, he was helping to stone Stephen.”
I could have delivered those two ideas in just 29 words, and then used my spare 194 words to squeeze in 13 more ideas. If you’d been there listening, you would have been glad I didn’t. Repetitions like “most hostile”, “most disparaging” and “laughs loudest” are all making exactly the same point but, like the tennis illustration, they’re slowing the flow of ideas to the point where a listener can easily absorb them.
7. Translate narratives into the present tense
This tip is great. It works. I love it. I’ve regularly had people tell me I’ve brought a biblical narrative to life… and I give a wry smile, knowing that all I’ve done is translate the text into present tense. It looks odd when you put it on paper, but have you ever noticed how often jokes are told in the present tense? (“Did you hear the one about the Irishman and the Australian who walk into a pulpit…?”) The same often applies to TV news reports, especially in headlines and video voiceovers. (“Riots erupt on city streets today as ice cream supplies run low.”)
Odd as it seems, translating narrative into the present tense makes a story seem real and immediate—it’s just like being there. Retell a biblical narrative with present tense verbs, and something refreshing happens. The same applies to illustrations. You can take your listeners back in time and put them right inside the action just by adjusting the tenses… they look, he whispers, he says. It’s alive! Keeping narratives in the past tense coats everything with dust.
As a side note, this tool works for retelling content from the epistles as well. Put yourself right beside Paul as he writes, and relay what he’s saying in the present tense. (You probably do this already, because you’re convinced the Bible is a living book. For example, I would naturally say, “The apostle Paul says, ‘The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God’.” That’s because he didn’t ‘said’ it. He still ‘says’ it.)
8. The six-million-dollar secret of illustrating
Illustrations are great for explaining complex ideas and touching emotions and applying your main point. But they’re also a great way to keep your listeners fresh by giving them a break. If you’ve ever struggled to find just the right illustration, this tip is solid gold.
Here it is: Don’t sweat over illustrating the complicated stuff—just illustrate the obvious!
When the pressure is off, illustrating becomes incredibly easy. The simple images and ideas in your passage will trigger all the stories and associations you need; you’ll be swamped with possibilities, and you can use them when you need them. As an exercise in my preaching class, I give students two minutes to think of a real-life story to illustrate Amos 8:2:
“What do you see, Amos?” [the Lord] asked.
“A basket of ripe fruit”, I answered.
Then the Lord said to me, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer”. (NIV)
Try it yourself. Ripe fruit. In fact, Israel is overripe. Remember the banana you left in your school bag for a few months? Or that orange at the bottom of the fruit bowl growing a coat of blue-green mould? The peaches on the tree at the bottom of the garden, ready to be plucked? Every student in the class could think of a story like that in moments. Start illustrating the obvious and you’ll find so many ideas for rest-stop illustrations that you’ll find it easy to keep your listeners bright and fresh. The secret? Illustrate the obvious, and the complex ideas will take care of themselves, because your listeners will be fresh and focused enough to stay with you. It’s kind of like taking breaks with kids on a car trip. Sometimes it’s smart to stop where there’s a restroom whether they need it or not—the kids may not thank you, but on the next stage of the journey they’ll be glad you did.
9. People love to hear about people
Take a look at the front page of a newspaper sometime. Are interest rates rising? Then you’re almost sure to see a photograph of an affected family. Graphs and statistics can come later. The journalist’s rule is this: if there are no people, there’s no story. So populate your preaching with real people. Use people-based illustrations and people-based application. Where you can, talk about real people and real situations, instead of just talking about abstract ideas. Typically, I’ll scour the newspaper, internet news sources and TV for fresh material. Incredibly, there always seems to be something useful. Of course, if the story involves a member of your congregation then you’ll need to ask permission first.
10. Work towards your key text
Here’s my final top-ten tip. But it’s probably the best. Here, I’m happily assuming a commitment to expository preaching, which means that week by week you’ll be bringing your congregation face to face with the text of Scripture.
That’s going to involve highlighting and explaining key texts from the passage as you speak. Here’s the tip. When you’re quoting a verse, help out the listener by setting it up before you read it, rather than after.
In other words, lead your listeners towards the text. Instead of quoting it then explaining it, do the reverse. Explain and then show. Prepare them for the logic of what they’re about to see for themselves in Scripture by raising the question the text is about to answer, or by building the logic of the argument that the text itself is about to resolve, or by explaining anything complex that they’ll need to understand to make sense of it. Then, let the words of Scripture close the deal.
When you work in the other direction, reading the verse then unpacking it, you’re asking your listeners to hold the words of Scripture in their heads while you go on to explain them. It’s tough work for the listener, and disengaging. Try it the other way around.
SO THERE THEY ARE—my ten top tips for preaching more clearly. My guess is that at least eight out of these ten tips are familiar to you already. In fact, I’ve noticed that most natural communicators—whether scripted or not—tend to do most of these things by instinct. But even if you think it’s obvious, we need to keep in mind the even more obvious fact that communication hasn’t happened until the message has been received at the other end. I’ve sat through sermons where it feels like the preacher is talking on the phone before he’s dialled the number; there’s nobody on the other end of the line. I’ve heard sermons like that? To be honest, I’ve preached sermons like that! And as Louise still sometimes reminds me at the door, it’s usually because I’ve forgotten something obvious. Sanctifying as it is to be reminded you’re far from perfect by pseudo-polite parishioners at the door (and an honest wife on the car ride home), it’s far nicer to see a smile and hear a “Well done, young fella, this morning I was with you every step of the way”.
This article is an edited extract of the new Matthias Media book on preaching, Saving Eutychus, available April in the USA and June elsewhere. This article is available online for comment: 3 June 2013.
 HarperCollins, New York, 1972. I recommend this, or any of Flesch’s excellent books on clear communication and writing.
 It’s also ‘the new white’—depending on your choice of colour.
 J Dalrymple, ‘Jonathan Ive gives some insight into his designs’, The Loop, 11 June 2009 (viewed 11 January 2013): www.loopinsight.com/2009/06/11/jonathan-ive-gives-some-insight-into-his-designs/
 JC Ryle, ‘Simplicity in Preaching’, The Briefing, vol. 296, May 2003 (first published 1882), p. 16.
 HW Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The development and delivery of expository messages, 2nd edn, Baker, Grand Rapids, 2001.
 You can paste your text and check your readability score at www.readability-score.com.
 JC Ryle, A Sketch of the Life and Labors of George Whitefield, Waymark Books, Michigan, 2012, p. 50.
 In fact, even if it’s about one of your kids make sure you ask permission first! Being a pastor’s kid carries enough baggage without growing up in church where everyone can recite the ‘cute stories’ of your childhood.