Monday, November 28, 2016

Six Key Elements of Powerful Sermons

In my role as a denominational administrator I get to hear a lot of sermons from a lot of different pastors. Some sermons are powerful, even life changing. Other sermons …. ah …. well …. to be honest, lack a little on the potency side. While I prefer some delivery styles over others, I try hard to look beyond stylistic differences, instead seeking what really makes some sermons more powerful than others. Over the years I have observed six elements that seem to make sermons stronger.

1.    Remember it is a sermon not a seminary paper.
Far too many sermons I’ve heard were basically running commentaries of everything the pastor had read about the verses he was preaching on. While study is important, the congregation does not need to hear five quotes from five theologians on each verse in the text. Sermons should give enough background to set the context but the focus should be on what the Word actually says, not on what a bunch of scholars 500 years ago think it said. Save that stuff for seminary papers and just give the congregation the Word.

2.    Make sure your illustrations actually make the point.
Jesus often used illustrations in His sermons and we should too. Illustrations help the audience connect the Word with real life. But we need to make sure our illustrations actually reinforce the point we are trying to make. Too often preachers tell interesting stories, or share funny jokes, but the listeners are confused about how it connects to the text. While this might be entertaining, it distracts from the Word instead of enhancing the Word.

3.    Keep the length of the text reasonable
I am not a fan of “sermonettes” that sound more like feel good devotional thoughts than meaty sermons one can wrestle with all week long. But I am also not a fan of sermons that are so long that no reasonable person can remain focused on what is being taught. On more than one occasion I’ve sat through verse by verse style sermons that covered an entire chapter of the Bible. A verse by verse exposition of 25-30 verses is just too much for one sermon. In most situations, 4-7 verses are all people can handle at a time. Honestly, it is all most preachers can handle well in one setting. Instead of preaching on a whole chapter at once, break those 30 verses up and make it a series. Congregations will be able to understand and apply the Word more effectively if preachers refrain from dropping the whole truckload at one time.

4.    Make your main point early.
I once listened to a young energetic pastor preach for 42 minutes (yes, I timed him!) before he made his first point. He gave us a lot of context, read a lot of quotes from people about what the passage meant, told a couple of stories of things that had happened to him that week, which I am still trying to figure out how they related to the text, and prayed a long pastoral prayer over the scripture that seemed more poetic than spiritual. By the time he made his first point, 42 minutes into the sermon, my mind had already checked out. Get to the point quickly, then reinforce your point with the rest of the text, tell us what to do with your point, wrap up your point, give us a chance to consider the personal implications of your point and then sit down.
5.    Occasionally use a short sermon.
As I stated in point three, I am not really a fan of sermonettes. But if the best part of your sermon is the first ten minutes, or the last ten minutes, perhaps that is all you should have preached. If what you really need to say about a text produces a shorter than normal sermon, go for it! Sometimes I feel like a pastor had one good thing to say but didn’t think that was long enough so he added a lot of filler to make himself feel better. Trust me, the filler might have made the pastor feel better but it did not make the sermon better. In fact, it probably made it weaker. People can tell filler when they hear it. Though a steady stream of ten minute sermons may not be appropriate, having one every so often because that is all that is required can be more powerful than we think. My Christmas Eve sermons rarely lasted longer than 10-12 minutes because I knew that the vast majority of the people already knew the context and details, after all, it was the same story every year. I would try to focus on one aspect of the story that would make some fresh point people might not have considered before. People always seemed moved by them and not once did anyone complain that the sermon was too short.

6.    Make sure your preaching is genuinely gospel centered.
The current buzzword in the church growth universe is “gospel centered.” We hear all about gospel centered churches, gospel centered missions, gospel centered discipleship and gospel centered sermons. Though different people define that term in different ways, it must be in our church literature if we want to be part of the cool crowd. Sadly, many preachers who claim to preach gospel centered sermons are not living up to their claim. Preaching for 40 minutes about some other topic and then taking 90 seconds at the end of the sermon to mention Jesus is not being gospel centered. If we want to call ourselves gospel centered, then the gospel must be woven through the entire sermon. That does not mean we use the word “gospel” frequently during the sermon, it means we weave the redemptive message of Christ through the entire sermon. It means we offer the hope of reconciliation with a holy God throughout the sermon. The gospel should not just be a “tag on” to the end of our sermons. It must be the central element of our preaching.

While I am sure there are many other elements of powerful preaching, keeping these six ideas in mind is a great start.


Dr. Terry W. Dorsett has been a pastor, church planter, denominational leader and author in New England for more than 20 years. He is a happy husband, a proud father and adoring grandfather. He is a cancer survivor and believes that God works powerfully through times of suffering. He writes extensively and you can find all of his books at:


  1. Good article... I enjoyed it!

  2. Michael ShortsleevesNovember 28, 2016 at 12:21 PM

    Good stuff brother.

  3. Good Word Terry !!! Find the Sweet Spot of the Text, Let the Spirit of God Drive it into Your Heart, Get on Your Knees and Preach The Word.

  4. William R. Allison, Jr.November 28, 2016 at 7:21 PM

    number six supersedes all. If a sermon is not about Jesus, it's a lesson or a speech but not a sermon.

    1. William R. Allison, Jr.November 28, 2016 at 8:42 PM

      On my way home from Maine I visited churches in Wisconsin and Georgia. The "preacher" in Wisconsin mentioned Jesus once. The one in Georgia only mentioned Jesus when he prayed. Great post Terry W. Dorsett. Keep preaching the gospel in New England!!!

  5. One of your best blogs Terry. I hope many young pastors read it. And a few old ones. LOL