Many aspects to good sermons, Patterson says at SBTS

Communications Staff — October 3, 2007

Though the success of a sermon ultimately depends on the work of the Holy Spirit, a preacher should make sure his character, content and emotions contribute to the effectiveness of his sermon, Paige Patterson said Sept. 26 at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“To recognize that the most critical dimension (of preaching) lies beyond human artifice is not to conclude that one is justified in abandoning preparation—academic and spiritual—or assessment,” said Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

“Consequently, a serious preacher will contemplate his art just as ardently as any other artist but with full knowledge that if he is faithful and true, he can anticipate the intervention of God.”

Patterson delivered Southern’s E.Y. Mullins Lectures on Christian preaching Sept. 25-27.

Patterson presented three components of a successful sermon, drawing from ancient Greek ideas of public speaking.

First, the preacher must exhibit character that makes his audience want to listen to him.

The preacher’s personal walk with God, his preparation and even his clothing contribute to whether his listeners will be open to his message, Patterson said, noting that a minister’s walk with God is by far the most important aspect of his character.

“No single factor is more compelling than a challenge from a man whom people suspect walks closely with God,” he said. “When the radiance of heaven is discernible in the messenger’s life and face, even those outside of Christ are frequently touched.”

Study and preparation are vitally important factors in the effectiveness of a sermon, Patterson noted.

“There is no substitute for spiritual preparation, but failure in rigorous study is surely a sin second only to the failure to prepare spiritually,” he said. “Arduous study is simply not optional.”

Second, he said the preacher must present content that is biblical.

Though many critics have attacked the reliability of the Bible, Scripture is a certain word from God and the message of a sermon must arise directly from the message of the Bible, he said.

To develop sermons that explain Bible passages correctly is hard work that can take as much time as eight hours per sermon, Patterson said, but showing a congregation the depth and beauty of Scripture is well worth the work.

“Great preachers are cognizant of the necessity to be able to do exegesis and exposition within a historical setting of which they are concretely aware,” he said. “How little actual grasp of scriptural knowledge is present in most North American preachers is reflected in the relative biblical illiteracy and theological misapprehensions of most congregations.”

Third, the preacher must communicate his message with passion and emotion.

Sermons come alive when preachers “live in the text until the text comes to life in the preacher’s heart,” Patterson said. He added that the preacher must paint a mental picture for his listeners of biblical scenes and events.

Preaching should excite ministers so much that they cannot help but communicate their sermons with emotion, he said.

“Finding lion and cape buffalo in Africa, diving with the sharks in the Andaman Sea, or, as a boy, preparing for a big football game under the lights, the adrenalin rush, the adventure, the awareness of high drama and higher stakes—these have always thrilled my soul,” he said. “But in many sacred occasions, all of these have been subordinated to the drama of opening the Word of God and watching with awe as the Holy Spirit opened the hearts of people to the Lord. There is nothing in life to parallel this adventure.”

Although the essence of preaching is simply communicating what the Bible says, preaching well is complex and involves a man of God focusing on many aspects of his life and presentation, Patterson concluded.

“Preaching is not simple but complex,” he said. “Like salvation, the basic concept is simply so that all may profit. But beneath the surface both salvation and preaching are complex issues.”

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