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Elements of a sermon that works

Elements of a sermon that works

What makes for a successful sermon? Keep it to eight minutes or less, and leave politics out, says the Rev. J. Perry Smith, a retired Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Florida. He writes in the Wall Street Journal:

Preaching is really hard, and many churchgoing people have no idea what goes into preparing a sermon. Perhaps they shouldn’t care, but preachers are disappointed to find that many folks think we just preach on Sundays and do little else. There are preachers who wait until Saturday night to get their sermons ready; they are either extremely gifted or stupid and lazy.

The late Rev. Dunstan Stout, a Roman Catholic missionary priest to the American community in Mexico City, was the best homilist I have heard, ever. I knew him in the mid-1960s, and he could deliver a four- to six-minute homily, hard-hitting and even accusatory, and everyone in the church believed he was speaking directly to them. “Any homily longer than eight minutes is too long,” he once told me. “Any homily shorter than four minutes is too short. A homily or sermon must be Gospel-centered and relevant to the listeners.” His final rule on preaching: “Never say anything from the pulpit that you do not believe.”

Read his column here. Before he retired, Fr. Perry was Canon for Pastoral Care at St. John’s Cathedral in Jacksonville, and is author of a recent memoir, “An Unlikely Priest.


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Rod Gillis

@ Matthew Buterbaugh, re your sermon, how about posting a transcript or a link afterwards?

Matthew Buterbaugh+

In an ironic twist, reading these comments on an article about sermons just gave me a really good idea for a sermon. Thanks!

Ann Fontaine

Chris: we obviously have totally different meanings for the word “liberation” — mine has nothing to do with “I’m okay – you’re okay” but justice, liberation from oppression, and alignment with God’s realm on earth. (ala Lord’s prayer)

Chris H.

Ann, liberating “I’m ok, you’re ok” or “Be a good person and do what makes you happy” sermons make some people say, “Sleeping in on Sunday makes me happy.” People pleasing sermons aren’t necessarily more likely to make people come to church than convicting ones. After all, if we’re all free and all saved no matter what, it doesn’t matter if we go to church.

Looking at my own family, the older generations(60+) were more likely to not go to church because the sermons were too harsh or they found the priest hypocritical, etc. The younger generations are more likely not to go to church because they feel ignored or unwelcome, unable to become a part of the group.

That said, I don’t think a set of rules, eight minutes, etc. are necessarily the right way to focus on this. Assembly of God churches aren’t the only ones to have long services. There’s a Presbyterian church here with 400+ members that has a 90 minute service in order to get both the sermon and Eucharist in every week.

Chris Harwood

Ann Fontaine

Really good preachers can keep you engaged for much more than 8 minutes. And agree with Rod – depends on the congregation. And yes- liberating. See item on why people stop going to church (up stream) for how “accusatory” sermons don’t work.

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