Key Principles of Preaching

Five key principles relate the task of preaching to the mission of the church and the missional character of worship: first, preaching is textual. Preaching is biblical and derived from careful and prayerful consideration of scriptural text(s). There are many appropriate times in the life of a congregation to offer pastoral opinion, but the sermon is reserved for God’s Word, thus, God’s opinion. Any substitutions for an inspired Word prepared by a textual preacher are inappropriate for the portion of the worship service called the sermon.

Missional preaching understands that biblical texts are interpreted in light of local considerations. Preachers are informed about the meaning of texts when they engage in conversation about them with people in the community and read them in light of their local pastoral ministry.

Preachers interested in discovering and proclaiming God’s mission for their congregations will submit to biblical texts and use the skills of language and exegesis to look carefully at what God is saying in them and doing through them today.

The second principle is that preaching is contextual. The sermon is designed for a particular time, place, and people and is about what God has to say and what God wants to do in a given moment within a community of faith. Thus, the preacher plays a particularly important role in missional communities, interpreting God’s vision and broadcasting it for the congregation to understand and embrace. Accordingly, missional preaching will contend with congregational, as well as local community issues and opportunities; regional, national, and global issues, whether religious, social, political, or related to weather and disasters; cultural issues, especially those that compete with the faithful life of discipleship; and the honest situations—the joys, concerns, desires, values, habits, sins, and laments—of listeners.

Missional preaching will also take into account the ethnic, economic, and educational makeup of the congregation, striving to speak in a style that meets the expectations for local public communication. As well, it will consider the temporary nature of a timely sermon—the most pertinent sermon in a given time and place will not always serve another setting or moment.

The third principle is that preaching is theological. Missional preaching will accurately express and teach orthodox Christian theology. The historic wisdom of the church is that there need to be many voices around the theological table, so while most Christians hold to a central orthodoxy within which we can claim to be united in our understanding of the faith, the distinctive aspects of theology that distinguish the denominations and traditions of the faith are to be honored and upheld by preachers. . . . In addition, among the first precepts of Christian faith is universal agreement regarding the good news of God’s grace. There is no clearer message within the history of the church, the history of missions, and the ministry of missional congregations than this: God desires to reconcile people through forgiveness of sins. It is an imperative that missional preaching proclaim some aspect of this good news in every sermon, and if it does not, it is not missional.

The fourth principle is that preaching speaks to the mind of the listener. For preaching to be effective, it must be clear. Let preachers write and rewrite, sifting for logic, cohesion, and unity. Congregations will always be blessed when a preacher presents a single, clear idea from Scripture. If there are to be more points of development, let them each be lucid and unambiguous. If the preacher follows an inductive method, let her always know the final goal toward which she is striving. For preachers who speak without notes or pulpit materials, let them rehearse aloud so as to make the sermon’s delivery fluid and accurate to their intended goals, free from digression and redundancy. Better than rote memorization is internalization of material so that it will be at the preacher’s command as it is spoken. The wise preacher will understand that there is a distinction to be made between teaching and preaching. There are many appropriate times within the life of a congregation for teaching (Bible study, denominational doctrine and polity classes, confirmation and new member classes, and parenting classes, for example). Let missionally minded preachers understand that their pulpit time is reserved for proclamation of God’s Word, mission, and promise.

Lastly, the fifth principle is that preaching speaks to the heart of the listener. Let preachers understand that the creation of interest in a sermon is both within their responsibility and their grasp. While speaking to the mind requires clear and unambiguous language, speaking to the heart involves lively delivery of carefully wrought, inherently interesting material. Learning to be an effective communicator of the gospel involves writing and rewriting, so as to strive for language that captures the imagination, fires the senses, and holds people’s interest; use of repetition for effect, metaphor, simile, and all other common figures of speech that are taught as effectual means of written communication; rehearsal of the sermon with an eye toward the use of gesture, pause, pacing, volume, tone, and the effect of one’s voice within the space; and the use of humor and irony, when they serve and do not dominate a message.

These principles of preaching can be found in Schmit’s book Sent and Gathered: A Worship Manual for the Missional Church (Baker Academic, 2009).

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Spring 2011, “Empowering Wise Preachers: For a Vigorous Church in a Volatile World.”