This is not a book review, so stay with me. Someone recommended "The Checklist Manifesto" to me a while back and it has been my Audible book for this week. The Seattle Times says that Checklist, written in 2009 by surgeon Atul Gawande is “about how to prevent highly trained, specialized workers from making dumb mistakes.” He not only reviews how something as seemingly simple as a checklist dramatically reduced patient death and other difficulties following surgery, but he also talks to a construction manager, a master chef, a venture capitalist and the man at The Boeing Co. who writes checklists for airline pilots.
He sold me. I’ve always been a list person. I just do better with lists and deadlines. And it got me to thinking. If there was a checklist for sermons what would be on yours? Here’s my start:
HAVE I PRAYED ABOUT THIS SPECIFIC SERMON? This must be where it begins. Prayer cleanses your heart and focuses your mind. If God is not invited in then it can quickly become your rant, your hypothesizing, your opinions and not HIS Truth and HIS Message. I have about three prayers I pray every Sunday about sermons. One is pretty simple and it part of my prayer driving to the church building. I don’t know, it may not even be right but I take it from Samson’s prayer in Judges 16:28 “Then Samson called to the LORD and said, “O Lord GOD, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God…” God, help me again today, this one time to do this well. Some weeks it’s a cry to strength to make it through a difficult sermon, other weeks it’s a prayer to help me communicate a challenging or controversial text, still others it’s a plea for a week where I’ve not found the time I wished to prepare as well as I want. The second prayer I pray right before I get in the pulpit, Rick Warren actually made me think of this: “God, You love these people and I love these people, You love me and these people love me. Help me not to see this as an audience to fear or attack but a people to love. Love these people through me.” And the final prayer I find myself praying most every week is on Sunday night after all the day has died down I’ll begin praying about the next sermon I’m preaching. That is actually a prayer that I will take with me throughout the activities of the week.
DID I INCLUDE JESUS IN THE MESSAGE? Argue with me on this statement. If Jesus is not in the sermon it should not be preached. Isn’t He the message? Isn’t He who we are told to preach? Hear Paul “I am determine to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” “We preach Jesus.” I’ve quoted my friend David Shannon’s sermon altering statement often: “The quality of a sermon is determined by how long it is till Jesus shows up in it.”
HAVE I PROPERLY EXEGETED THE TEXT? Have I studied the context? Have I looked at the language? Have I taken apart each word to see what is in it?
HAVE I TAKEN MY EMOTIONS OUT OF IT? Stay with me on this one. We’ll talk about passion next but for now the question is am I pushing an agenda I am passionate about, am I trying to attack a person I am upset with, do I get anything carnal out of preaching this text, am I pandering to a part of the audience?
HAVE I FOUND MY PASSION FOR THIS? If you do not preach with passion, go get some! Preaching without passion is pointless. You’ll never convict anyone. I got this from my dad. His ability to bring his passion into a message convicted thousands, I was one of those thousands.
IS THERE A CHALLENGE IN THE MESSAGE? Stated another way, have I told them what to do with this message? I always include a challenge to respond publicly to the sermon. I don’t think that HAS to be done but I don’t know why someone would not. My personal challenge here is to try to keep that fresh and not just as a tag on line. BUT more than that I want to give the audience agenda item from the sermon. What can they do right now, today, this week, this month that applies to this sermon? This is not always easy but it is, I believe, essential.
DO I KNOW WHAT I AM TRYING TO SAY? I think it was Dr. Lori Barr from Austin who I first heard use the term elevator speech. I didn’t know what it meant but before she was done explaining it I knew it would become a part of my life. In case you don’t know, an elevator speech is your message given in such a short time that you could tell it to a stranger in the elevator between the time the doors closed and they opened again on an elevator trip. Some would call it a thesis statement. But it is the why (and some of the what) of the message.
DOES THE MESSAGE MAKE SENSE? I like to sometime from Thursday night to Saturday night I try to while my wife and I are sitting at home, go over the sermon in about 2 to 3 minutes and just ask: “Did that make sense?” She sometimes says yes, and sometimes will say “what?”, and sometimes will have a suggestion or two, and sometimes she will say “no.” I really dread that “no.” But if I can’t explain what I am trying to get across to her how to I think I will be able to talk to a whole audience who can’t give that feedback that week?
WHAT QUESTIONS HAVE I LEFT UNANSWERED? This one may be a little odd but a few years ago I was listening to a really good lesson on a text but at some point in working the way through the text he didn’t deal with what seemed to me to be an obvious question. And I got stuck. He left me behind at that question. I missed the rest of his lesson trying to work through what that part of the text meant. You’ll miss this sometimes because the text is familiar to you, but go back and try to ask “if I were reading this text for the first time where would I struggle to understand, what questions would I have?” Don’t let this sabotage the sermon or send you chasing rabbits for too long but don’t let it be a barrier that keeps the hearer from getting the point either.
HAVE I TOUCHED THE HEART? For a few blessed years my sister sat in the audience. I remember one Sunday afternoon I went to see her. I was feeling all good and chipper about the sermon that day. She said: “It had a lot of good stuff in it but it didn’t touch my heart.” That was powerful. In all of our frothing at the mouth about how how we can’t let our heart guide us (and rightly so, for the Text deals with that too), the heart must be touched, pricked, stirred, quickened or else you’ll both bore your audience and short-short-circuit your effectiveness.
So, there’s my 10 questions on my sermon checklist for now. What would you add? What are yours?