Every message has a structure.
It might be tight and thought out. Or it might be loose and impromptu.
Either way, there is a structure.
A sermon is a series of moves that build on each other. You say something. Then you say something else. Then you say something else. And eventually, you’re done.
In his book, Homiletic, David Buttrick explains, “A sermon, any sermon, will involve a sequence of subject matters – simple meanings – arranged in some sort of structural design. Each simple meaning will be developed into a move – a language module between three and four minutes long” (p. 28).
Every message you preach is built on a series of sequential moves. How you make your moves will determine whether or not your students will listen to and learn from what you say.
Many preachers lose people from the start because they assume their audience cares what they’re getting ready to say. You know they have this assumption because the first move in their message is to introduce the Bible text.
They begin by announcing, “The sermon today comes from John 14:1-6.” Then they read the text aloud and start unpacking it. Eventually, they’ll finish with some do’s and don’ts that people should consider.
I think that’s the wrong assumption today. It might have been okay forty years ago, but not today. In a post-Christian society, many students have no reverence for the Bible. They don’t see any reason why the Bible should have privileged status among every other book.
To begin with, the Bible is to assume it has authority in their eyes. That’s an assumption we can no longer make with today’s students.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use the Bible for your sermons. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t begin with it. Instead, here are the moves you should make in your messages and the order I think you should make them:
Move #1: Create Common Ground
Students have to believe the messenger before they’ll believe the message. This is your chance to show them you’re not that different from them.
Talk about your struggles with the topic you’re covering. Talk about your successes with it. Tell a story about an event where you encountered it head-on. Transparency leads to trust, so if you want your students to trust you then you have to be transparent from the start.
Move #2: Build the Tension
People learn on a need-to-know basis. If they don’t think your topic matters for them right now, then they’ll tune you out and starting checking their social media feed. You want to create as much tension as you can for as many people as possible.
Andy Stanley says, “Assume no interest. Focus on the question you are intending to answer until you are confident your audience wants it answered. Otherwise you are about to spend twenty or thirty minutes of your life answering a question nobody is asking” (Communicating for a Change, p. 125).
When you build the tension, you’re raising the questions that raise the stakes that your topic has in students’ lives.
Move #3: Open the Bible
After you’ve sparked their interest, it’s time to point them to what God says about the topic. You don’t need to mention every passage that addresses the topic; just pick one and stay there. Be sure to point out and explain any words or concepts that might be unfamiliar or hard to understand.
You want to make the Bible as engaging as you can for students. Tell them about the background. Give them the context. Help them understand what’s happening in the scene. Who are the characters? Where are they? What’s going on? Why does it matter?
Move #4: Reveal the Big Idea
The Big Idea is your sermon in a sentence. It’s your central point. It’s the statement you want your students remember. When they get in the car and their parents ask them what they learned, you want them to be able to say this statement. When they get home, you want them to tweet this statement.
Steve Jobs was a master at this. In his book, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, Carmine Gallo says, “Jobs creates headlines that are specific, are memorable, and best of all, can fit on a Twitter post” (p. 40). Your big idea should be a tweetable statement of 140 characters or less.
One of my favorite Big Ideas came in a message about serving. I said, “Students who serve are students who stay.” That line is specific, memorable, and tweetable. It takes some work, but it’s worth the effort to come up with a statement that sticks.
Move #5: Suggest Next Action Steps
No message is complete without offering students a few ways to put the information into action. You need to tell them what to do with what they’ve heard. This is where you answer the question, “Now what?”
Consider the different categories of students: some are skeptical about faith, some are struggling with faith, and some are strong in their faith. It’s possible that each group might have a different next action step. You aren’t telling them what to do; you’re just suggesting practical ways for them to put their faith into action.
When it comes to length, I don’t see any reason why your sermon should take more than 20 minutes to deliver. You should spend three to four minutes on each move. If someone can explain neuroscience in an 18-minute TED Talk, then you should be able to get through your message in approximately that amount of time too. Besides, students have short attention spans.
Preaching isn’t just about what you say. It’s also about how you say it. You can tell your students lots of things that are true, but if you deliver those truths in away that doesn’t energize and empower them to do something about it then your preaching won’t make much of an impact on their lives.
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