How to Deliver a Sermon
Delivering a Sermon for the First Time
A sermon is a special type of message meant to deliver a particular spiritual lesson or to explore a theme with spiritual or religious relevance. Though sermons are usually spoken in front of a congregation or gathering of worshipers, they are sometimes also disseminated online and in newsletters. Sermons are prominently placed within the religious service and may last anywhere from 5 to 45 minutes, depending on the nature of the service and the time available.
The Universal Life Church publishes and delivers a number of sermons for its global faith family on its website. These can be found here: Official ULC Sermons
What Goes Into a Sermon?
A sermon makes use of several different informational sources. The job of the priest or minister is to organize this information and make it accessible and relevant to the people hearing the sermon. For this reason, a sermon might draw inspiration from:
- Passages from scriptures, holy books, or learned commentaries
- Writing by authoritative teachers or scholars
- Art, music, poetry, and literature
- The minister's own life experience and personal insight
- Subjects of current interest or importance to the broader society
The subject matter of sermons can vary to a surprising degree, though ideally each aims to make spirituality and religious teachings accessible and relevant to the members of the congregation. For instance, sermons might be used to provide a spiritual context for divisive or distressing cultural events. Sometimes broader cultural conversations might be used to illustrate a particular point being made within the scriptural tradition. A conflict that the minister has personally experienced or observed can be contextualized or explored through the vehicle of scripture or through the lens of spiritual teaching. Other times, a lesser-known religious concept might be highlighted to dispel confusion and to enhance general understanding. A sermon might be used to teach, preach, and share important information as well as to uplift and inspire.
In many cases, a minister may just take a certain virtue and attempt to deliver a sermon around that theme. If you've attended a service in a church, you may have heard a sermon on giving, a sermon on sharing, a sermon on forgiveness, a sermon on grace, a sermon on love, and/or a sermon on kindness.
Getting Started on a Sermon
There are a few things that can provide a great springboard for writing a sermon. Since a sermon is meant to inspire others, consider starting with what inspires you. What spiritual message or teaching really makes you feel inspired and uplifted? What about it makes you feel that way? What emotions come up when you engage with this message? How do you see this message playing out in the everyday world? How do you see this message applying to your personal life? A sermon can be an opportunity to dive a little deeper into a subject you personally find exceptionally inspiring.
Real world examples are another great starting point for a sermon. People respond positively to examples they can relate to. It is alright to admit to struggles and questions in your own spiritual life; religious experience is a journey of learning to see the relevance of spiritual teachings in all aspects of human existence. Sharing the unexpected discoveries and revelations can make religion feel more accessible and real to the people hearing your message. Supporting these lessons and struggles to scripture, holy books, and to the lives of teachers is another way to draw listeners further into the subject matter. They will see that such struggles are not out of the ordinary and can in fact be an important opportunity for greater learning and growth.
Though a deeper exploration of certain religious subjects may be at times appropriate, sermons should approach exposition and exegesis with caution. Dense, complex, and intricate subject matter can feel alienating and even tedious. Though complex spiritual subjects can be explored in sermons, it is best if they can be directly related to something that is quite relatable, like a personal life experience. Remember that members of a congregation are not religious specialists and so may be intimidated by too much unfamiliar information. When Jesus delivered his famous "Sermon on the Mount", he did so in language that could be easily understood and interpreted by the multitudes who were gathered there.
Who is your Audience?
The language of a sermon can alienate your listeners or draw them in. "We" statements can be the most powerful and positive. For instance, "We all struggle with this," or "Everyone has experienced this," are inclusive statements that do not sound accusatory or that you as the minister are speaking from a higher spiritual plane. Though you are sharing information, statements such as, "You need to be doing this," or "The lesson you should reflect on is this," are divisive and potentially accusatory. While there might potentially be a time and place for highly personalized spiritual guidance, a sermon is not an appropriate venue for this kind of confrontation.
People delivering sermons should also avoid identifying anyone by name or distinguishing characteristic. While you could certainly reference a conversation that brought up an interesting thought, be non-specific about who you were talking to. This preserves the privacy of the person who you were speaking with.
How Long is a Sermon?
Experienced sermon writers seem to be able to effortless generate uplifting and relevant messages. In reality, a considerable amount of time goes in to creating sermons. Even experienced ministers will take at least a day to prepare their message.
One of the reasons that simple, relatable, real-life examples are so valuable is that less time is required to explore these subjects. Sermons that consistently require several days of research to prepare are simply not sustainable if you are going to be delivering a sermon once a week or even a couple times a month. Remember that writing takes time and so does editing. You will almost certainly need to revise a few points of your initial draft to make sure it is ready to share.
Be sure to save a copy of each of your sermons. Consider creating a notebook with the final draft of each one you prepare. This will prevent you from writing something too similar to sermon you delivered fairly recently. This collection will also save you some time when looking up particular references or selections of poetry or literature. Given enough time you will no doubt revisit some basic subject matter, but this collection will help you ensure that a fresh and engaging stance is taken each time a subject is brought up in a sermon.
Giving a Sermon
Sharing sermons can be an exciting opportunity, especially if you have never done so before. However, some people are intimidated at the prospect of sharing a spiritual message with others. By drawing from relatable examples and real-life experiences, you can make complex spiritual messages accessible and relevant to your audience.