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Effective preachers will also include these four sermon development strategies to help their hearers understand, believe, and apply the text.

I don’t care how entertaining, interesting, or exciting your sermon seems to your audience. You fail your congregation if you don’t include these four essential elements in your sermon development. They are essentials because you have to include them. Can I make it any clearer? You have to do these four things!! They help you learn how to develop a sermon outline effectively.

sermon development is necessary including explanation, illustration, application, and proof.

What four elements should you include in your sermon development, regardless of what kind of sermon you preach? Developing an idea means making it understandable, memorable, and visible. Then, the truth needs to be doable. So, we explain, illustrate, and prove an idea. Finally, we show them how they can apply the truth by doing something, believing something, or understanding something.

Why are these so important to call them essential? A listener must understand what the preacher means and where the scripture says what the preacher said. Then, if I don’t see it, regardless of how much you explain it, the idea won’t come to life and plant itself in the audience’s memory.

Not every listener will believe a statement just because they understand it and see it in scripture and they see examples. However, the more concrete the preacher makes their idea, the more the listener will believe it. Eventually, he must prove it’s true for a skeptical listener to accept and live the truth. If they do, we need to help them understand how they can live the truth.

Sermon Development Includes Clear Explanation

There’s a reason why “plain” is at the heart of Explanation. Not really, but that’s one way to think about it. When you state a truth, you must explain what it means. This becomes more important when using creative sermon ideas or sermon points. It’s best to avoid cutesy or gimmicky sermon points if they make things less clear and require you to spend extra time explaining the statement.

Please see part 1 of this series on Explanation.

explanation sermon development makes things more clear and tells us what it means
Explanation is the Sermon Development that appeals to the mind and answers the question, “What does it mean?” Explanation makes things more clear.

To explain an idea, you need to make it clear or plain. What does it mean to say, “Discipleship is the heart of growth in Christ?” What do you mean by discipleship, heart, and growth?

The heart could mean something that pumps blood throughout the body. It illustrates driving growth and giving life to your spiritual existence. But most of us would likely mean that it’s central to our spiritual existence, like the heart sitting at the center of the body and circulatory system.

In a recent sermon, I said, “Jesus Empowers Us to Fulfill Our Purpose,” from Matthew 28:18, where Jesus said, “All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth.” Jesus empowers us thanks to his authority. He gave us the proper authority to go and make disciples and teach them.

An Example of Explanation

My sermon answered, “Why did God leave us behind after saving our souls?” We make disciples and stay in communion with Jesus until he returns, or we go to Him in death (v. 20).

To effectively clarify a spiritual truth like the one from my sermon on the Great Commission, the preacher should explain each part of the idea that a listener could misunderstand without it. What do we mean by empowering us? How does empowering us aid in fulfilling our purpose? If the sermon hasn’t explained that the Great Commission is part of our purpose, we must do so now.

One tool a preacher reaches for when explaining ideas is natural analogies. These are real-world things that make abstract ideas clearer. We also call these sermon illustrations. So, let’s look at that category of sermon development.

Sermon Development Includes Illustration

We’ve all seen or even used one of those books of stale old sermon illustrations. Back in the nineties, I used a program on my computer that collected sermon illustrations in a database. The illustrations in those books or that program often told stories of 19th-century missionaries or historical figures from the Civil War or Revolutionary War. They were boring and out of date.

Your life and experience provide the best source for natural analogies or sermon illustrations.

aerial photo of city with lights during night time
Illustration helps us see the idea. It appeals to our creativity and answers, “What does it look like?”
Photo by Kenaz Nepomuceno on Pexels.com

A sermon illustration includes anything that one can visualize. Illustrations in books show what the words say. A human anatomy book might illustrate how blood flows through the heart and to the extremities. A book about auto repair will show the proper fuel pump installation on a 2017 Honda Ridgeline.

A sermon illustration aims at the imagination. It shows what an idea looks like. It tells a story about how to live a life of kindness by telling how a friend showed the preacher kindness even though he didn’t deserve it. The hearer can see how they might apply this truth, or they can see what the preacher means by kindness.

Illustrations will explain an idea, showing what it means. This clarifies the idea and gives examples of how to live out an idea by applying it. In other words, an illustration can explain, prove, and apply the truth.

Examples of What Many Call Sermon Illustrations

Before we move on to the sermon development element we call proof, let’s look at an example of what is not a sermon illustration.

Too many of those sermon illustration websites, books, or databases include quotes by famous Christians or historical figures. Unless that quote includes a natural analogy or a story that shows us something, it isn’t a sermon illustration. It might explain, prove, or apply an idea, but quotes are not illustrations unless they appeal to the imagination.

Illustrations can effectively prove ideas. So, what do we mean by proof?

Sermon Development Includes Proof

If explanation appeals to the mind and illustration appeals to the imagination, then proof appeals to the will. We explain by answering, “What does it mean?” We illustrate by answering, “What does it look like?” We prove a truth by answering, “Is this true?”

Biblical Preaching is one of the best books on how to develop a sermon outline and tells us we must include the four kinds of sermon development.
Click the image above or the link below to buy the book.
Image = hardcover and link = Logos Bible Software link.

Haddon Robinson wrote in Biblical Preaching, my favorite text on Expository Preaching:

An initial response of those of us who take the Scriptures seriously is to ignore this question. We assume that an idea should be accepted as true because it comes from the Bible. That is not necessarily a valid assumption. We may need to gain psychological acceptance in our hearers through reasoning, proofs, or illustrations. Even the inspired writers of the New Testament (all of whom believed that the Old Testament was a God-breathed witness) sometimes established the validity of their statements, not only by quoting the Old Testament but by referring to common life as well.

(Robinson, Haddon W. 2001. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p. 80)

Strategies for Proof

Some effective strategies for proving a truth include:

  • Illustrations that show how an event validated the truth in someone’s life.
  • Quotations from a trusted source that the hearers would believe.
  • Statistics, facts, and figures.
  • Logical arguments, which philosophers interestingly call proofs.
  • Appeal to “a prior” knowledge, which means using ideas we all assume are true.

Most preachers will assume a truth that comes directly from scripture carries enough weight that it should not need proof. “The Bible says it, that settles it.” However, if a church does a good job of appealing to non-believers, then a preacher might address people who don’t believe the Bible is necessarily true. Also, believers might struggle to maintain their faith in the authority of the Bible. These people need proof! A modern preacher will appeal to Scripture and rely on the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, but will also appeal to the above kinds of proof to bring people to the point of trusting Scripture.

Once the hearer understands what we mean, can see what it looks like, and understands that the ideas are true, then we need to help them see and understand how to live what the Bible says.

Sermon Development Includes Practical Application

One preaching professor said, “If you don’t apply the text, you didn’t really preach it.” I fully agree with this.

Imagine you take your car to a mechanic and he diagnoses the problem. You need to replace the fuel pump. The mechanic explains that the car won’t run properly without a new fuel pump. He convinces you with a fantastic argument proving the need for a new pump. Then, the mechanic explains what the fuel pump does and what fixing it would do for the engine. He convinced you, and you’re ready to swipe your credit card.

If you don’t apply the text, you didn’t really preach it.

Unknown Preaching Professor

The mechanic then turned around and walked away, saying, “Thanks for stopping by.”

What do you do now? He never explained how you could get the fuel pump fixed or what it would cost. You can’t fix it without direct application from the mechanic.

A sermon must also include application for the same reason. If the listener doesn’t know what to do now, then you failed in the preaching task. “You didn’t really preach.”

Examples of Practical Application in Sermon Development

Sermons always include clear, concrete examples of how to apply the truth of the text. My sermon on The Great Commission from Matthew 28:18-20 ended with four ways the listener could apply the text. I told them to begin praying for one person they knew needed to hear the Gospel. Second, I suggested they learn how to share the Gospel. Third, I offered a tool called Life on Mission, an app that takes a person through the Gospel and invites the person to trust Jesus for salvation and forgiveness. You can also buy the book that shows how to present the 3 Circles Gospel Presentation (affiliate link at Amazon). Finally, I suggested that they ask the Lord to give them a chance to be a witness to their friend, not by inviting them to church, but by inviting them to trust Jesus.

Get the Life on Mission app from your app store.

Application can take on multiple forms including doing something. That’s the most common form of Application as Sermon Development. You ask the congregation to do something based on the message you preach.

Application also means believing something. Sometimes, the passage simply asks us to believe something about God or his Kingdom.

Finally, some sermons ask us to understand something that we need to understand to change our behavior, character, or beliefs.

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