Ask yourself these questions as you preach or prepare to preach.
By Victor Knowles
More than 50 years ago—on July 18, 1969—I was ordained to be a minister of Christ and to preach God’s Word. I spent my first 25 years preaching in located ministries and the last 25 years or so preaching throughout the United States and in 15 nations as founder and president of Peace On Earth Ministries.
So, what have I learned during 50-plus years of preaching?
I jotted down 50 questions I try to ask myself when preaching. These are questions you might want to ask yourself when you are preaching, or preparing to preach, a sermon.
1. Am I being heard? I learned to speak to the person on the back row. Speak so you can be heard. Peter “lifted up his voice” and sometimes we must do that to be heard. Don’t be a drama queen and lower your voice at the end of a sentence.
2. Am I being understood? I also learned to speak so a 12-year-old could understand what I was saying. Proclamation is good, but explanation is necessary. Satan loves to snatch away the seed from those who hear but do not understand the message (Matthew 13:19). Philip asked the Ethiopian, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:30). Don’t assume biblically illiterate people understand what you are saying.
3. Is there too much of “me” in this sermon? “We do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Corinthians 4:5, New American Standard Bible). Personal illustrations can be good but be careful of upstaging Jesus. Am I an entertainer or an evangelist?
4. Am I using enough Scripture? If I don’t have at least 12 passages (in addition to the text) in my message, I am a little uncomfortable. The gospel is the power of God to salvation (Romans 1:16).
5. Is my explanation or interpretation of Scripture what the author really intended his readers to understand? Am I taking Scripture out of context (for whatever reason)? Am I being honest with God’s Word? When I hear preachers say, “I gotta be honest with you,” I think, Of course you do! We all have to be honest with the Word.
6. Am I taking too long to get to Jesus? In preaching circles there’s a saying, “I read the text and then make a beeline to Christ.” And yet, while visiting a number of churches during a sabbatical, John Caldwell said he didn’t hear the name of Jesus spoken even once at three or four of those churches. Everything in Scripture points to Christ. Like Philip, I try to get to him as fast as I can (Acts 8:35).
7. Am I speaking the truth in love? That is our purpose (Ephesians 4:15). I once heard a man preach on the love of God, but he did not smile even once during his sermon.
8. Am I shrinking back from telling the truth? Paul said, “I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you” (Acts 20:20). What makes you hesitate?Preacher Question #8. Am I shrinking back from telling the truth? Paul said, “I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you” (Acts 20:20). What makes you hesitate? Click To Tweet
9. Am I remembering that in every pew sits at least one person with a broken heart? How is my message helping them today? “The Sovereign Lord has given me his words of wisdom, so that I know how to comfort the weary” (Isaiah 50:4, New Living Translation).
10. Am I aware that this might be the last sermon someone in the audience might hear? Each Sunday is the last time for someone to hear the “wonderful words of life.”
11. Am I aware that this might be the last sermon I will ever preach? Bill Jessup, founder of San Jose Bible College (now William Jessup University), while preaching his last sermon, made a passionate appeal for Christians to be one, after which he sat down on the front pew and died. What a way to go!
12. “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God?” (Galatians 1:10). “We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:4). God has entrusted us with the gospel and if we are trying to please people, we are not true servants of Christ.
13. Am I avoiding certain words or phrases in my text to be “politically correct?”
14. Am I refusing to take a stand on issues that are clearly moral and not just political?
15. Am I talking too fast and not allowing time for people to process what I am saying? Remember the power of the pregnant pause.
16. Am I quoting others and not giving credit to the author?
17. Am I telling an illustration that is not from my personal experience and making it sound as though it were my own?
18. Am I speaking down to people or patronizing my audience? “Let me (an enlightened, smart person) unpack this text for you (an unenlightened, stupid person).” Don’t make your listeners feel like idiots. Maybe it’s time to do away with the word unpack because of its pretentiousness.
19. Am I honoring God in my choice of words? Resist the temptation to be hip, cool, or even off-color in your language. “Everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).
20. Am I preaching for a verdict? Paul did. “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do!” (Acts 26:27). We should make a passionate appeal for a decision.
21. Am I giving people an opportunity to make a decision for Christ? Recently a woman came forward to rededicate her life to Christ. Later, she tearfully thanked me for that opportunity.
22. Am I in tune with the Spirit as I am preaching? I saw Francis Chan back away from the pulpit several times during a sermon on repentance. He was pausing to pray and ask for the Spirit’s help to say (or not say) what he was thinking. Stephen’s opponents “could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke” (Acts 6:10).
23. Am I using the pulpit to “bully” or “target” someone? Don’t use the pulpit as a missile launch site. It’s not fair and it’s not right.
24. Am I looking around to every area in the sanctuary as I preach? Don’t gaze up at the ceiling or the walls. Don’t keep looking at the same person or area of the auditorium.
25. Am I aware of the time? Time is precious. When you start late, you are wasting their time. When you go long, you are imposing on their time. Know when “the sacred hour” approaches and when to bring your sermon to a close.
26. Am I allowing enough time for sermon preparation? Bob Russell suggests at least 15 to 20 hours for preparing your sermon. When I was in located ministry. I started my sermon preparations on Monday morning and finished it by Thursday afternoon. Don’t wait until Friday. Hell is Saturday night without a sermon.
27. Am I keeping a record of the topics and texts I have preached? When was the last time I preached on a certain sin, repentance, the return of Christ, Judgment Day, or Hell?
28. Am I depending too much on searching the internet for sermons or a sermon series?
29. Am I using too many video clips from popular culture, sports, movies, etc.?
30. Am I representing Christ as one of his “ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20) in my speech, attitude, demeanor, decorum, and even dress? News anchors and even sportscasters don’t “dress down” when they deliver the news.
31. Am I preaching as a dying man to dying men and women, boys and girls?
32. Am I prepared if someone comes forward at the end of my sermon? Never turn your back to the congregation when you are done preaching.
33. Am I allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture in both my preparation and delivery?
34. Am I aware that angels are actually present, listening, and longing to know more while I am preaching? (1 Peter 1:12).
35. Am I also aware that Satan is present, waiting to snatch away the seed that you have sown in the hearts of listeners? (Matthew 13:19).
36. Am I aware there is a 75 percent mortality rate in the hearts of my listeners whenever and wherever I sow the seed of God’s Word? (Matthew 13:18-23).
37. Am I remembering the “Three Gates of Gold” through which my words must first pass in my preaching?—Is it true? Is it needful? Is it kind?
38. Am I aware of the dreadful penalty for intentionally leading people astray? (2 Peter 2:1-3; Jude 3-13).
39. Am I remembering the needs of the neglected in the church: the elderly, the disabled, widows, widowers, single mothers, etc.?
40. Am I encouraging others to preach? In one ministry, I helped 18 men of the church bring their first sermon on Sunday nights in our Equipping the Saints program. I like to ask young boys, wherever I preach, “Are you going to be a preacher someday?”
41. Am I willing to share the pulpit with guest speakers? I am no longer a located preacher, so I would never get to preach if someone didn’t open his pulpit to me.
42. Am I willing to admit I don’t know all the answers to people’s questions? I tell them, “I don’t know, but I will give attention to your question and do my best to give you an answer very soon.”
43. Am I preaching what “itching ears” want to hear or what I believe God wants them to hear? (2 Timothy 4:3). This is a serious temptation with very serious consequences.Preacher Question #43. Am I preaching what “itching ears” want to hear or what I believe God wants them to hear? (2 Timothy 4:3). This is a serious temptation with very serious consequences. Click To Tweet
44. Am I willing to follow Paul’s instruction to Timothy? “Keep your head in all situations,” Paul said, “endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, and discharge all the duties of your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5).
45. Am I preaching the good news of Christ “from house to house” (and in the temple/church), as was the apostles’ practice? (Acts 5:42). Do not limit your preaching to the pulpit—preach everywhere you go.
46. Am I aware some person in the audience might be contemplating adultery or leaving their spouse? A man wrote this to me after I preached at a men’s conference: “I’m so thankful you preached on being faithful to your wife. I was actually going to commit adultery with a woman after I got home, but your message convicted me and made me change my mind and behavior.”
47. Am I aware some young person or military veteran in the audience might be considering taking his or her own life? At a large church where I conducted a prayer seminar, I was told people come to their prayer room after the invitation nearly every Sunday morning who say they were thinking about committing suicide the night before. Are we offering them hope and a reason to go on living?
48. Am I disciplining my body and bringing it into subjection “so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified [declared unfit, rejected as a counterfeit, ordered to stand aside, become a castaway]?” (1 Corinthians 9:27).
49. Am I willing to say with Paul, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”? (1 Corinthians 9:16). Converts in India sometimes place their hands on their heads and say this very thing before they are baptized.
50. Am I guilty of preaching “cheap grace”? Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.” Repentance was the first word in the preaching of John the Baptist, Jesus, and Peter on Pentecost. Don’t let it be the last word in your preaching.
Victor Knowles is president of Peace On Earth Ministries, Joplin, Mo. This article is adapted from an address given to the Advanced Preaching class of St. Louis Christian College, Florissant, Mo., on Sept. 13, 2019, and to the Wabash Valley Christian Institute at New Hope Christian Church, Bridgeport, Ill., on Nov. 7, 2020.
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— Sidebar —
Years ago at a North American Christian Convention, Don DeWelt and I sat with each other while the preacher onstage struggled with his sermon. Don leaned over and said to me in agonizing tones, “The man is not communicating!”
In his book The Christian Persuader, Leighton Ford observed that there were seven components to Peter’s sermon on Pentecost.
1. He began with an explanation (Acts 2:14-21). “These men are not drunk . . . this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel.”
2. He continued with a proclamation by asserting the facts of Jesus’ career—his mighty works, his death, his resurrection . . . the exaltation and the giving of the Holy Spirit.
3. He then made an accusation. “This Jesus . . . whom you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (2:23). Notice that Peter did not shrink from using a direct “you.”
4. He proceeded with a disputation (Acts 2:25-28), showing how the facts of the story of Jesus fit in with the prophecies of the Old Testament. The preacher was grappling with the intellectual questions of his audience, within the framework of their thought patterns. The evangelist is not primarily an apologist, but he had better show that he has done some hard thinking about the problems of evil . . . science, miracles, Christianity, and other religions.
5. He built to a declaration: “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). This is the great climax of the message. I only wish there had been a videotape to catch the punch Peter put into these words, and the deep impact they had on his audience!
6. He concluded with an invitation to “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
7. Finally, he offered an exhortation to “Save yourselves from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40).
Ford wrote, “To my mind, four distinctive marks stand out in this magnificent message. (1) It appealed to the Scriptures as authoritative. (2) It centered in Jesus Christ. (3) It brought conviction and concern to the hearers. (4) It called for [an] immediate and definite response. Christian evangelistic preaching means preaching for a verdict.” —V.K.