This Might Be The Most Important Preaching Principle I’ve Learned

This might be the most important preaching principle I’ve learned.

Before I tell you the lesson, though, let me walk you through my process of discovery:

When I first began preaching, I took an entire manuscript on stage. It was a pastoral security blanket – except not pink and fuzzy. I tried not to read it directly, and in most cases, I was successful. But in my mind, it was good to know it was there… just in case I needed to snuggle.

Unfortunately, as I watched my messages the next day (it’s awkward, but you should do this if you don’t already!), I felt my preaching was lacking an important ingredient – CONNECTION. I was communicating all the content. I didn’t miss any stories, illustrations, points, or verses. But as I watched myself, I realized something significant:

Great content without great connection is poor communication.

And that was my problem. I communicated clear content without any relational connection, and it wasn’t working.

As I diagnosed my lack of connection, the problem became apparent:

I was more focused on WHAT I was saying that WHO was listening.

I was mentally focused on my place in the manuscript rather than on the people in the room. For me, the goal of preaching is not getting through an outline, but giving people a truth they can apply. Unfortunately, my manuscript tracking mentality was holding my focus hostage. For me to improve, the security blanket had to go!

One fateful Sunday morning, I did something huge – I walked on stage with my notes in my back pocket – and I was terrified. My little round table sat empty. It and I felt naked. It wasn’t my best message. It’s hard to preach terrified! But my connection to the crowd improved. The next week I left my notes in the green room. I almost puked, but I made it through. And I’ve never looked back. You know what? My connection keeps improving.

The principle is simple. I moved from being message focused to people focused. Sure, I still work hard on the content, but I moved my stage focus from the message to the people hearing the message. That is a game-changer.

If your preaching lacks connection, I think you can improve by making this same shift. And if this idea is both intriguing and terrifying, here are a few secrets I’ve picked up along the way:

1. Preach a journey, not an outline.

A great message takes an audience on a journey, beginning together at a point and traveling as a group to the final destination. I have found structuring my message like a journey helps me both remember the content and stay focused on the audience. A journey is simpler than an outline. Today, I only memorize exit points along the path instead of multiple paragraphs in a manuscript. This literally frees up mental energy to refocus on the audience.

2. Preach ONE point.

There’s nothing biblical about preaching a three-point sermon, even if your seminary tried to convince you otherwise. If you’re lucky, people will remember only one thing you say anyway, so why fight your crowd’s natural instincts? Besides, one great point is better than three alliterated subpar points read from an outline. And … one point is easier to communicate if it’s part of the message journey (see hint 1).

3. Preach to one person in the room.

This is the best advice I ever received on connecting. Before I write a message, internalize a message, or preach a message, I ask myself, “How would I say this in my office to one friend?” I know – not earth shattering – but so helpful! Ask yourself this one question the next time you preach and see what happens to your message. If you want to connect with everyone, preach to just someone.

4. Practice your sermon … a lot.

I typically rehearse a message 3 – 5 times – and I only stop practicing when I feel comfortable enough with the content that I can walk on stage with my target set on the congregation. When I’m worried about what to say next, it becomes impossible to focus on the people listening. I thought taking notes on stage would help relieve my worry, but it only changed the problem. I now rehearse until I can deliver the content effortlessly. We call than internalizing the burden.

BTW – Anytime something looks effortless, you can guarantee that person spent hours and hours of effort to make it look that way!

5. Be you.

I don’t understand the preacher who has a “preaching voice” and a “normal voice.” Just be you up there. Be normal. How? Stop pretending to be someone else. That’s a good start, because you will never fully connect if you aren’t you. I work for Andy Stanley, so when I preach, I stand in a GIANT preaching shadow. It’s so tempting to mimic a communicator like Andy, but mimicking Andy only takes away me, and YOU cannot connect as someone else. Borrow what works, but be you.

6. Be transparent and honest.

Few things are more connecting than honesty. We should be comfortable sharing our struggles (to a point, of course). We are real people, but pretending we’re not creates an obstacle to connection. If you want to see this in action, watch part 3 of my marriage series. People resonate and connect to other people, so be a real “people” on the stage.

I’m not a preaching expert. In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize I have left to learn! But, one thing I know for sure:

If you can’t connect, you can’t communicate.

How have you learned to connect? What secrets have you discovered? I’d love to know so I can steal them!! Feel free to comment below and share these secrets with your friends (just be careful sharing them with your boss if he or she is Lead Pastor).

Here are a few more things…

My friend Carey Nieuwhof wrote a blog post specifically about preaching without notes. Read it HERE.

Extra homework: Watch the messages below. It might give you more context for this idea. As I said, I’m not an expert, but I learning more every time I speak.


OR… Watch Andy Stanley, the best communication connector I’ve seen! STARTING OVER, Part 1


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4 Responses

  1. Our partnership has really given me the courage to step out in many realms. Keep me in your prayers that I’ll step out in this area too. You and Carey both have been a huge encouragement! So appreciate this post — super timely for me.

    1. I’m the most guilty by FAR! And I agree, Mark. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in what we want to say that we ignore who is listening.

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