A Sermon Checklist for Pastors and Congregants

Here is an article I wrote this Spring that SermonSearch recently published. It brings together practices pastors devoted to preaching should consider–and parishioners should expect–

 

A Checklist For Setting Sermons to Flight
by John E. Johnson
In a chapter entitled, “The Checklist,” Atul Gawande recounts the 1935 test flight of the “flying fortress.” The competition was fierce, and Boeing was determined to win the contract. It would mean building the military’s next generation long-range bomber.

The plane roared down the runway and ascended 300 feet. Suddenly, the craft stalled, crashed, and exploded. As it turned out, the pilot forgot to release the locking mechanism on the elevator and rudder controls. Times had changed, and innovative technology made the plane too complicated to be left to one’s memory. Out of the tragedy, a routine was established. Pilots would work their way through a checklist before taking off. Pilots still follow the procedure today.[1]

When it comes to sermons, all too many crash. A good introduction might enable a smooth take off, but before gaining a safe altitude, the preaching stalls, turns on one wing, and crashes. After preaching for nearly thirty-five years, I am convinced some of this can be prevented if pastors develop their own checklist manifesto, one checked prior to entering the pulpit.

During the course of the homiletical task, a preacher has already worked through a number of decisions—

-what text will I exegete?

-will I take an inductive or deductive approach?

-what is the essential theme, the big idea? How do I sense the Spirit leading?

-how will I introduce and conclude?

-what are one or two core applications?

Important as these are, I have found that I am still not ready to preach until I have made one final check.

1-Text. Have I faithfully unpacked the passage?

Have I done the surgical work of “cutting through the layers of history, culture, and grammar, laying bare the skeletal syntax and grammatical muscle?”[2] Have I treated the words with reverence, given careful attention to the forms and functions, established the context and literary form, and labored to discern the author’s intent? To put it in Brueggemann’s words, have I experienced that moment that “breaks open old worlds?”[3]

In the end, I have to know I have determined to let the passage speak for itself, expressing whatever it might say. It will not be a launch pad to preach my own agenda.

2-God. Have I made God more known?

Every text is a revelation of our triune God. We can go down many paths, but all of them eventually lead to the center of the maze.[4] Have I approached this center? Have I allowed the Spirit to bring me to unimaginable depths? Sermon preparation is this wonderful, yet unnerving, invitation to enter into communion with God. Here we discover a density that transcends our rational capacities.[5] Have I come to grips with God in ways unfamiliar, ways that shake my being?

A herald of God has this responsibility to expose something of God’s hiddenness. The aim is that people will walk away with a greater sense of divine character. They will have a better grasp of his ways. I am not ready to check this box until I am convinced they will go away with a deeper realization that God is good, wise, and omnipotent in everything he does. It should be—has to be—our great ambition that a congregant responds to our message with, “Thank you. I can see God a bit more clearly.”

3-Humanity. Do I know something deeper about myself?

In the process of learning something about God, I must come to a better understanding of who I am. Have I penetrated God’s revelation in ways that reveal my incredible worth, as well as my unspeakable brokenness? Can I see with greater clarity what it means to be made in God’s image, as well as recognize the consequences that come with sin?

Here’s what I need to ask. Will this sermon help people to think of themselves with sober judgement (Rom. 12:3)? Will it lift the broken-hearted and break the hardness of the self-centered? Will the preaching bring me to this realization—that in every moment and in every way, I need a Savior?

4-Gospel. Have I made it clear people cannot save themselves?

Every text is pointing to the larger context, the story from Genesis to Revelation, that God has made our salvation possible only through his Son Jesus. He alone can undue sin’s guilt and damage. Telling people how they should live, without putting that standard into the context of the gospel, gives the impression they might be able to fix things on their own.[6] And this does a great disservice. It will lead to ultimate despair.

5-Transformation. Will my preaching give evidence that a life that flourishes is an unqualified expectation this side of eternity?

In this desperate age, more and more believers wonder if God has given us everything we need to live radically different lives. Has this message convinced people that they have the power—

-to be indifferent to anything but God’s purposes?

-to fearlessly take a stand for righteousness?

-to share the gospel and see lives changed?

-to say no to sin with the authority that comes only through Christ?

-to reconcile and be reconciled to others

-to believe God for things that are greater than their imaginations (Eph. 3:20)

In sum, have people caught the vision of an expanded life, life as God intended, in a world that often is set on constricting and deadening it?

To Boeing’s credit, the pilots, with checklist in hand, went on to fly Model 299 1.8 million miles without one accident. Convinced, the army ultimately ordered thirteen thousand planes, ones we know as the B-17s. A simple worksheet helped win the war.

The right Checklist will help us win ours.

John E. Johnson, Ph.D. is the Professor of Pastoral Theology and Leadership at Western Seminary.

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