The Purpose of the Sermon

Preaching (Part Two)

Once you know your purpose for preaching, you are ready to discern your purpose for an individual sermon. And while it’s important to note the diversity that exists in the possible purposes of preaching (and thereby recognizing that no single purpose can be the only purpose of preaching), it is equally important to recognize that no single sermon can accomplish all these purposes. Every text of Scripture contains more than one sermon, yet a preacher should only preach one sermon each Sunday. As you prepare a sermon, you will make some choices, both about the specific theological claim you want to make and about the purpose you want that theological claim to have on your audience. Thus, one of the marks of good preaching is that it seeks to say one thing well. As you work on a sermon, there will be much that you want to say – many theological claims about God, many aspects of your issue, many implications for your context, and many things you want your hearers to do – but you simply cannot do all of them. And if you try, the odds are likely that you will not do any of them. Therefore, ask, “What single theological claim do you want to make, and what specific purpose do you want to attempt to accomplish in your sermon?”1

You must know where you are going in order to get there. That maxim is true when driving to the store and preaching a sermon. If you do not know the destination, you should not begin the trip. Sermons are formed from end to beginning. Sermons are not propelled by powerful beginnings but are evoked by significant ends.2 The theological issue of every sermon is “What right does the preacher have to call for action at the end of the sermon?” The theology of the text makes a claim for the audience in their context. The theology in the text is like a live electrical wire. If you touch it, you will experience it. In some cases, if you touch it, it will kill you. While the historical context of a passage likely will not correlate with today, the live wire of theology will. The live wire shapes the sermonic claim of the sermon. What do you want the congregation to think, feel, or do in response to the sermonic claim? Or to modify Alexander Bain’s definition, a sermon signifies belief in such a way that a community is prepared to act.3

  1. Adapted from Lee’s Core Affirmations. See also, Wilson, The Practice of Preaching, 138, for a guide to making an initial theological read of the text.
  2. Long, “Shaping Sermons by Plotting the Text’s Claim Upon Us,” 88.
  3. Bain’s definition of belief, “that upon which a [person] is prepared to act.” See Bain, The Emotions and the Will, 505. Peirce cites Nicholas St. John Green as the one who pressed Bain’s definition of belief among the other members of the metaphysical club. See “Pragmatism,” Essential Peirce, 2.399.