Preaching In a Plant: Seven Areas to Focus On

A couple of weeks before I launched Sunday meetings at the newest site of Christ Church Manchester in the City Centre, we did a ‘dry run’ service with just a few of the core team present. A friend of one of the team came along, and in total there were eight people in the room. I preached as though it were a normal service with fifty people there, and tried to teach the Scriptures to the best of my ability with passion, insight and clarity. After the service, the person who had visited said that he had thought he was only coming as a one-off to support his friend, but because of what he had heard in the preach he wanted to join the church and become part of the core team for this new site from day one. This is the power that preaching can have, and I see preaching as something that is central to who we are and that we want to leverage across all of our sites.

That said, we have decided against using the video model, or even the single travelling preacher that many multi-site churches use, so in a lot of ways our way of doing is more akin to multiple church plants than necessarily multisite, and it certainly places the same kind of demands on raising up new preachers and developing in the gifting on the job. Our heart isn’t just to expand the reach of gifted preachers but to raise up many who can teach and apply truth to their own congregations. There is always something of a balancing act between letting people have a go and utilising our more experienced preachers to keep the standard high. I have noticed the blend that we strike of theses two factors is very attractive to new people, particularly millennials, who place a high value on participation and making a difference.

For us, one of the key requirements of the people that we are raising up as preachers is openness to instruction. As well as our annual ‘Introduction to Preaching’ course that runs through the basics of the craft, we have regular preacher training evenings that go deeper into different elements of preaching, plus preaching groups where four or five preachers listen to a recent talk from each member of the group and share feedback with one another. As well as the preaching groups, we have a site leader or other experienced preacher give detailed feedback on every sermon preached, that is focussed around the following seven questions (which closely map to the content taught on the ‘Introduction to Preaching’ course). When I am speaking to potential church planters about growing in their preaching gift, these are the seven areas of the craft that I want to encourage them to develop in.

1. Biblical Faithfulness 

How well did they handle the Bible passage that they were preaching? Were the message and points clearly found in the text?

We believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and as such it should be both the basis of the message, and the source of the points. We don’t want preachers to simply use a text to launch off into their own ideas, but rather faithfully proclaim the heart of their text.

This is important in any church, and particularly so in a church plant. When somebody walks into a church that largely exists as vision for the future, they will be looking for clues in what they see and hear about what the trajectory of the church will be. If they notice that you barely use the Bible or rip verses out of context then it will cause alarm bells to ring in peoples minds. 

2. Main Point

How clear was the big idea or central thrust of the message? Was there one thing that everybody would take away from it?

A preacher’s job isn’t to cram everything they know into half an hour, but to bring a coherent and challenging message to people. There should be a single clear thing that they are trying to achieve in the sermon, and it should be obvious to anybody who has listened what this main point is.

If people go away from one of your meetings with a clear idea of what you have been teaching them, they are more likely to think on it and apply it in the week and then come back the following Sunday.

3. Personal Application

How effectively were they able to connect and apply the message to the lives of their hearers? Were they able to do this within the first few minutes of the talk?

Preachers are aiming to see lives changed by God’s truth, so it is of crucial importance to help people connect the biblical message to their own lives. This shouldn’t just be an add on at the end of a talk, but right from the start the preacher should be making a promise to the listener of some problem that can be solved, dream that can be fulfilled or need that can be met through the biblical content that they are going to share.

When people experience the power of Biblical truth applied to their own life it creates a compelling atmosphere, and helps people buy into your plant and want to bring friends along.

4. Illustrations

How well did they demonstrate the effectiveness of what they were teaching from their own life and other illustrations?

We are looking for our preachers to show that what they are sharing with people works in practice through examples and illustrations. In particular we want some indication that they are living out what they are teaching, and some degree of sharing of their life as well as the message, including testimony as to how the message they are sharing has made a difference to them personally. (There is a place for sharing struggles as well as successes, as long as it is clear that there is some degree of genuine growth in that area of struggle!)

Giving an academic style lecture to a dozen people can feel frankly a little bit embarrassing, but opening up a passage of the Bible and showing how it works through some stories of your own life is winsome and engaging.

5. Christ-Focus

How effective was the message at pointing people to Jesus?

The whole Bible is testimony to Jesus Christ, and it is only as we point to Him that we will see people saved and changed. From whatever passage somebody is preaching, we want to see them taking the congregation to Christ and his gospel, and doing so in a way that is natural to their passage and doesn’t feel forced or cheesy. It is important to both preach the passage and to preach Christ.

Jesus must be at the centre of every church that we plant and every message we preach. Whilst there are lots of things that might seem appealing to talk about in the foundation-building stage of a church, it is crucial to link them all in to the cornerstone – Christ himself. As Spurgeon said, “Whatever subject I preach, I do not stop until I reach the Saviour, the Lord Jesus, for in him are all things.”

6. Delivery

To what extent did the way the message was delivered add to or diminish from its effectiveness?

The words a preacher chooses, their body language, their pace and tone, their verbal skills, and even the type of notes they preach from can all be used to powerfully engage people with a message or to distract from and undermine what is being taught. We want our preachers to use every aspect of their delivery to make their message as impactful as possible.

This can particularly be an issue in the early days of a plant if the preacher is insecure about the number of people in the room. Drawing attention to this through comments or jokes, or ever flippant or defensive body language can be detrimental to the preaching process.

7. Length

What was the length of the sermon? Did they stay within the time slot they were given?

At CCM we give our preachers a thirty-minute slot. This is long enough to go into depth while still being accessible to newcomers. We feel it is important to honour people’s time, and it is important that our preachers stay in the time they have been given. Good communicators are able to share the same material in various degrees of detail, and we expect preachers to adapt their material to the assigned time.

For your setting, the time you allot may be different to ours, but it is good to determine the length of the sermon in advance and to stick to it. This encourages discipline in preparation and creates consistency for the congregation. In my experience, most preachers think they can hold attention for a longer period of time than they actually can, so there is wisdom in going for a time slightly shorter then you as a preacher would choose!

The other key aspect of time for church planters to think about is the preparation time. When you are working in a bivocational context and (rightly) trying to spend the time that you do have for the church engaging with people, this can limit the preaching prep process. There are tips that can help in this season (teaching through books of the Bible that you are more familiar with, utilising guest preachers, etc.) but there is also a point where you need to give a message, knowing that is solid but that if you have more time availabile it could be a lot better. Sometimes ‘good enough is good enough’!

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)