As a minister, one of the most awesome opportunities we have is to preach the words of life to thirsty people. So, it behooves us to do all we can to speak in a way that draws the heart toward Jesus, facilitates conviction, and moves the listener to action.
However, there is a difference between preaching and evangelistic preaching. One is about transmitting information. The other is about reaching the heart and winning a soul.
Here are 12 practical and powerful principles of evangelistic preaching that anyone can incorporate into their ministry.
1. Spend time praying over your message. This may seem elementary, but it is extremely important. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, how many degrees you have, or how well you explain things. You can present the topic crystal clear, answer every conceivable objection and leave no room for doubt, yet still not reach a person’s heart. The only entity that is going to convict the human heart and move them to action is the Holy Spirit. Lay your notes or your manuscript before the Lord and ask Him to empower you to deliver the message with conviction, to imbue you with the right words, and for the Holy Spirit to move upon the listeners. This should be our first work. It is time well spent.
2. Adequately prepare. I Timothy 2:15 says, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” We should never take for granted we know the topic so well we don’t need to prepare. Take adequate time to study the topic. If you are using a manuscript, read through it numerous times, so you can memorize the main points and preach it from your heart. Practice the message out loud a couple of times. Studies have shown when you say things out loud, it becomes embedded in your mind and it is easier to remember.
3. Don’t read the sermon. Speak from your heart. A sermon isn’t about presenting information. It’s about reaching the heart and drawing the person towards Jesus. Reading from a paper or constantly looking at your notes generally does not grasp people’s attention. Adequately preparing and practicing a sermon will enable you to move away from the pulpit and connect with people. I would rather listen to an “amateur” lay preacher speak from his or her heart, than to a “professional” preacher who just reads from a paper. If you are using a pre-packaged evangelism series, it is important to edit the notes and insert your own stories and illustrations. This will help make the sermon your own. We are always more interesting when we are telling our own stories.
4. Be passionate and enthusiastic. Passion won’t look the same for every person. We all have different personalities and speaking styles. But this is no excuse to be boring. You don’t have to use Hollywood gimmicks or do acrobatic feats on the platform to be interesting. You are sharing the most important message people have heard all week. Be excited about it. Speak in different tones. Alternate the volume of your voice. Use your hands to provide emphasis on essential points. Let people see you believe what you are saying. Walk the platform a little. Don’t hide behind the pulpit the entire time. (Note: Don’t overdue the walking. Too much movement can be distracting. Find the right balance.)
5. Keep it simple. One of the best compliments you can receive is when a kid says, “I liked your sermon.” Or even when an adult tells you, “I understood that for the first time. You made it so clear and simple.” Preaching is not an opportunity for me to show off my vocabulary prowess by using theological jargon and multi-syllable words that the average person doesn’t understand. Know your audience and speak their language. There’s an important principle of soul winning at play here: People don’t make decisions about things they don’t understand. If the lesson is not clear to them, they will not move forward. Conviction happens when the light shines and the message is clear enough to be understood.
6. Be positive and smile. We tend to be drawn to positive people and we want to hear what they have to say. Of course, there is a time to be bold and serious, but it is essential to show how your topic will bless people’s lives in a positive way. People tend to be repelled by a doomsday message that is riddled with negativity. A tangible way to be positive is to simply smile. People relate to and feel more connected to a speaker who smiles. It communicates warmth and genuineness. It also opens the door for people to approach you afterwards.
7. Be genuine and transparent. Don’t try to copy another preacher. Be yourself. When I first started preaching, I was trying to be like one of my favorite preachers. I loved the way he spoke. I remember one sermon in particular where I was trying to mimic him and say things exactly the way he did-- same tone of voice, same body language. My wife knew what I was doing and told me it wasn’t coming across as genuine. She was right. I just needed to be myself.
Another part of being genuine is transparency. Don’t be afraid to talk about your own stories, life experiences, and even your mistakes. When we appropriately share our own faults and failures, it helps people to relate to us. It dispels the idea that pastors are “perfect” people who can’t relate to the problems of ordinary people. Genuine speakers do not try to paint a glowing, unrealistic picture of themselves. Be real. It’s OK to talk about your mistakes. However, there are two notes of caution. Number one, do not share stories (especially mistakes) of your wife and children without first getting their permission (if you neglect to do this, you will pay the price later!) Number two, do not share faults and failures that are of an extremely private nature. There are some things that are only meant to be shared with God. Know the difference.
8. Interact with the audience. It is essential to get them involved in the message. It keeps their attention as well as from regressing to passive listening (or even texting). You can do this in several ways. Asking them to raise their hands in response to a question, such as, “How many of you have ever lost your car in a parking lot?” or “How many of you have ever wondered about that verse?” You can invite them to finish a sentence or a well-known phrase. You can ask them to look up a text, read it with you, or verbally fill in the blank. Inviting the audience to say “amen” is another common way of getting people involved. (However, you can overdo this, so utilize it judiciously. I tend to do it too much, so I have to be careful).
Asking the audience to use their imagination as you describe a scene or tell a story is another effective tactic. Inviting volunteers to come up front as a “human” illustration can also be an attention-getter.
Another way of engaging your audience is through eye contact. This is part of connecting with your audience. People tend to pay more attention when you make eye contact with them. Look at different sections of the audience as you speak. Make eye contact with numerous people so your communication becomes more personal. Never focus on just one person though as it may appear you are targeting them. Sufficient eye contact should last about 2-3 seconds.
9. Make it Christ-centered. Whether you’re speaking on Sabbath morning or at a public evangelistic event, every message should point us towards Jesus, the beauty of His character, and having a personal relationship with Him. To accomplish this, our message needs to answer a few questions: How does this topic/passage point me to Jesus? What does this topic/passage tell me about Christ’s love and character? How does this topic/passage point me to the cross? We must meditate on these questions before we preach, or even write the sermon. It will go a long way in making the message positive and Christ-centered. This will not happen automatically. We are so used to giving information-based sermons, but what we need just as much are heart-based, Christ-centered sermons. So, I need to take time to reflect on the above questions.
10. Appeal and appeal often. A sermon is not a lecture, nor is it simply presenting theological information. Evangelistic preaching is urging people to make a decision for Christ (or whatever decision is relevant to the topic). This is neither manipulative nor controlling. Appeals invite people to make a decision, explains why they should make that decision, and shows what positive blessings will result from that decision. An effective appeal usually invites people to take a step of action. This may involve raising the hand, standing up, coming forward, filling out a card, or having a time of silent prayer in the pew to solidify a decision in the heart. Asking people to take an action because taking an action strengthens the decision of the heart. Also, remember the Mini-Max principle. (I learned this from Mark Finley). Minimize the negative. Maximize the positive. In other words, don’t emphasize the negative aspects of making a decision (like the obstacles or challenges). Emphasize the positive blessings that will come from making that choice. Lastly, make smaller appeals all throughout the message. Though your main and strongest appeal will likely be at the end, you should be leading up to that appeal all throughout the sermon. Smaller appeals lead to a big appeal, just as little decisions lead to bigger decisions. You might say, “But if I make direct appeals, then people will think I’m trying to convert them.” That’s exactly right! You are. That’s what evangelistic preaching is. You’re urging them to follow Jesus. Don’t be ashamed of it.
11. Visit people. At first, this principle may surprise you. You might think it has nothing to do with preaching, but it has everything to do with evangelistic preaching, especially in the context of a public evangelistic meeting. When you sit down with someone in a more informal, one on one setting, it is much more personal. You can talk about things and answer questions in a way that you can’t in a formal preaching context. Visitation is simply another form of preaching. It gives the opportunity for dialogue, encouragement, and making personal appeals to the heart. Conviction may come from the formal preaching, but the decisions come from the personal visitation. Those who only preach become entertainers. Those who visit become soul winners.
12. Tell stories to illustrate key points. Jesus was a master at using stories to embed spiritual lessons in the hearts of the listeners. Stories can take abstract principles and illustrate them in a concrete way that people understand. For example, Jesus told the story of the prodigal son in order to illustrate the mercy and grace of the Father in a way that relates to real life. The listener could actually picture the father running to hug him or her. It allowed the listener to comprehend the Father’s love in a way that was more powerful than just making a theological statement about His love.
People remember stories. (That one has been around for 2000 years). When I was a district pastor, it seemed that the people always liked when I told stories, personal experiences, or used illustrations (especially the youth). Even today, when I meet people who have seen our televised sermons, they sometimes tell me about the stories they remember from those sermons. If we are careful to connect spiritual lessons to our illustrations, and not just tell stories for entertainment, the listeners will recall the lessons that go with those stories. Since stories have the potential to be so powerful, it would be good for every preacher or lay preacher to acquire a few books of potential sermon illustrations divided by topics. You can usually find them online or in a bookstore.
May the Lord bless you and empower you as you seek to incorporate these principles into your evangelistic preaching. You will see fruit for your labors, and have the privilege, through the Holy Spirit, of making a difference in someone’s heart for now and eternity.
David Klinedinst, Evangelism and Church Growth Director, Chesapeake Conference of SDA