The first five articles in this series talked about preaching styles and pulpit delivery and the factors that can affect (either positively or negatively) the delivery. It also explained when to start preparing for your sermon and where to find sermon material. This final article, Part 6, explains what the elder should and should not do in the pulpit; what should be done at the end of the sermon; how to manage an altar call; and finally, where to file your sermons.
WHAT NOT TO DO DURING A SERMON
• Don’t—please, never!—apologize for your sermon, even if you really feel that it isn’t up to your standards (as a result of circumstances that prevented you from spending the time you needed and are thus truly ill-prepared). No matter how dreadful your situation may be, practically nobody in the congregation will notice that you aren’t prepared as well as you think you should be.
• Don’t tell stories of cute and sexy young girls.
• Don’t use language that is sex-related.
• Don’t use coarse language (such as four-letter words).
• Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain, even if it’s more modified language (golly, gee, darn, heck, oh my God, etc.).
• Don’t use vain language—and don’t talk about yourself in an obviously proud way. Especially keep the word “I” to a minimum.
• Don’t use words or illustrations that could be interpreted as racist or discriminatory.
• Don’t tell off-color jokes.
• Don’t tell jokes that are racially-oriented.
• Don’t use gestures that could be interpreted as obscene.
• Don’t tell jokes that are hilariously funny, because these types of jokes turn the mind away from a spiritual focus.
• Don’t shout.
• Don’t laugh raucously.
• Don’t rebuke people from the pulpit, no matter how unhappy you are with their behavior. My wife and I were once rebuked from the pulpit by a conference president (in another country) while attending church. Our young son was using a pacifier, which the president had never seen, and because he thought the pacifier was strange and unnecessary, he made a very negative statement from the pulpit and used our names. Of course, it was not pleasant for us.
• Don’t illustrate points by using extreme physical activity (falling down, spinning, flailing your arms, dancing, throwing your head back, etc.—this tends to amuse people and distract them from the object of the sermon. Billy Sunday did it, but he was unique.
• Don’t become too active (running back and forth across the platform, jumping up and down, going down to the lower level, etc.—people get the idea without the speaker going through these antics.
• Don’t use illustrations or sensitive incidents that refer to contacts or encounters you had with people or members of your congregation.
• Don’t refer to sensitive incidents that occurred in your own family that could cause embarrassment or lower your image or reputation in the eyes of the congregation.
• Don’t condemn people you don’t like or talk badly about them, especially if they are known by the members. Such behavior will lead the people to believe you are not a loving person, one who doesn’t forgive easily, or one who can’t be trusted to keep a secret, or worse, that you’re a bigot.
• Don’t express your political leanings or discuss politics in general in the pulpit.
• Don’t talk negatively about the Spirit of Prophecy (Ellen G. White).
• Don’t talk negatively about your superiors.
• Don’t talk negatively about the church to which you belong.
• Don’t talk disdainfully (with arrogance) about other religious denominations.
WHAT YOU CAN DO DURING A SERMON
• Show a general attitude of seriousness, but not with a long face.
• Tell moderately humorous anecdotes to make a point.
• Laugh moderately.
• Cry, but remain controlled. Appropriate occasional tears will not impact your reputation or lower your credibility.
• Call sin by its right name, firmly, without apology, but always with an objective tone of voice.
• Praise those who deserve it, that is, those for whom it will have meaning in the congregation.
• Show sadness, but not during the entire sermon.
• Show happiness.
• Show optimism.
• Show empathy.
• Show sympathy.
• Show nostalgia.
• Show understanding.
• Show patience.
• Show pity.
• Show tenderness.
• Show respect.
• Show love.
WHAT TO DO AT THE END OF YOUR SERMON
• Make a rhetorical call—no expected physical response.
• Make a specific call—with a physical response.
• Have an altar prayer (optional).
• Make no call.
• Sit down.
• Close with a song.
• Close with a prayer
HOW TO MAKE AN ALTAR CALL
An altar call is the most sacred part of the sermon, and it behooves the preacher to be spiritually prepared for it, meaning that when it is predetermined to make a call, he or she pleads earnestly and fervently for the Holy Spirit to guide and direct the call. If there is anyone in the congregation who is in the valley of decision, the preacher needs to offer up a special petition for that person (or persons). The procedure for the call is as follows:
• Tell the congregation from the beginning that you will make an altar call at the end of the sermon (optional).
• At the end of the sermon, give an appropriate illustration which will set the mood and rivet attention on the direction you are going.
• Make your call simple and clear—so the congregation will clearly know what you are doing and what you expect from them.
• Always focus on Christ and the Holy Spirit, who at this moment are speaking to the people’s hearts.
• Don’t let anything distract you.
• Have soft background music playing, usually instrumental, and if possible, live; however, some preachers don’t have music, so it is your decision to use it or not, although usually it sets a more reverent atmosphere and tends to touch the hearts of the listeners.
• Ask clearly for a decision on whatever you are asking for—giving their hearts to Jesus, start keeping the Sabbath, changing their lifestyle, joining the Seventh-day Adventist Church, being baptized, consecration, revival, etc.
• Ask them to signify their decision by one of various responses—raising a hand, standing, or coming to the front of the preaching platform.
• If there is a delay in response, pause for a special music presentation, if necessary.
• Ask the congregation to pray for those in the valley of decision.
• Pause and don’t say anything for a while; long and short pauses can be very effective.
• A pause for a prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to touch the undecided person’s heart, can also be very effective.
• Repeated calls for a decision are OK.
• Never demand a decision.
• Never show disappointment when a decision isn’t made. Keep the door open.
• Never show anger when a decision isn’t made.
• After the response, always have a prayer in which you thank God for each person’s decision and ask God to help him or her keep that promise.
• When the call has been for baptism, ask to meet afterward with those who responded to talk specifically about the time and circumstances of the baptism.
• Finish with a prayer, but not a long one, since they have already been detained quite a while.
• Final song.
HOW LONG TO MAKE AN ALTAR CALL
• Short (five minutes or less) when you have a congregation in which you know the members very well but have someone present, or even a regular non-baptized attendee, who needs to make a decision, as determined by previous visits with that person.
• Long (up to 20 minutes) when you have a large congregation with many non-baptized regular attendees—and even sporadic attendees—who need to make a decision. Long calls need more expertise, mainly in what to say for such a long period.
HOW OFTEN TO MAKE AN ALTAR CALL
• At the end of every sermon. Making a call at the end of every sermon is up to the preacher. Some preachers feel moved to make a call at the end of each sermon; others don’t feel so motivated.
• Occasionally, when the Spirit strikes you.
• When you see people moved by the Spirit in your congregation.
HOW AND WHERE TO FILE YOUR SERMONS
Keeping a record of your sermon is important. Why? Because you may need it again. There is nothing wrong with preaching your sermon more than once. Many pastors do so, not likely to the same congregation, but a preacher may have more than one congregation to whom he or she can preach; many preachers are called to preach in other places where they can use their sermons again. So, here’s what should you do with your sermons. File them:
• By topic.
• In alphabetical order.
• In a small portable file.
• In a large, permanent file.
And so, as the title asks, Is it possible to preach powerfully? For those who are serious about preaching, who improve their delivery, and who feel called by the Holy Spirit to be active in the church, the answer is yes! Anyone who wants to improve his or her preaching ability by applying these principles of preparation and delivery and who diligently seeks the Lord for guidance will, indeed, learn to preach powerfully enough to always move someone in the congregation. They will not fail.
Of course, some of you will preach more powerfully than others, but all of you will make a positive impact. Be assured that God will continually give you spiritual support and help you to improve your delivery. Such elder-preachers will win souls for the Lord and strengthen the members of their congregations, and they—you—will feel exceedingly fulfilled. And God will be exceedingly pleased with you. Make no mistake about it!
Lamar Phillips is a retired minister and church administrator who served for 39 years in six world divisions.