How to Give a Sleepless Sermon

Sometimes I am both blessed and trusted by my Pastor and asked to deliver a Shabbat message. I am sure there are others out there who are not the congregational leader but also are asked to deliver a message now and then. Or maybe you are a congregational leader and you would just like to improve your skills at presenting the Word of God.

No matter what your title, when you give a message to the congregation, that’s when you want to know not just what you are talking about, but how to talk about it.

There’s the one about a new Rabbi, and he is giving his first Drash. He notices Mr. Greenstein, who he had talked with earlier, falls asleep during the sermon, but at the end of the day walks out shaking the Rabbi’s hand and says, “Good sermon, Rabbi.” This goes on for a few weeks, and finally the Rabbi says, “Mr. Greenstein: how can you say it was a good sermon when you fall asleep all the time?”  The man replied, “Rabbi: if I didn’t trust you, I wouldn’t be able to sleep.”

Giving a sermon, or message, or Drash…whatever we call it, is both an honor and a responsibility. My mentor, Rabbi Jeff Friedman, taught me much about giving sermons. I was a pretty good talker before that but he really set me straight on what to do, and I would like to share that, as well as what I have learned from giving sermons and being in sales for many years (yes, a sermon is a sales pitch, or a sort.)

1. First of all, you need to stick to the Word. No one has a better message than God, and whereas human endeavors can fail or fall short, we know that the Word of the Lord never returns void. So keep yourself out of it, and let God give the sermon. That is easy enough to do- make sure everything you say is from the Bible and can be found, using proper Biblical interpretation tools (see some of the blogs I have done on that), in the Bible.

2. Remember that there are many people, with different attention spans, listening to you. Watch your audience and see if they are getting glossy-eyed. If you feel like you are driving with high beams on into a herd of deer, stop. The Word may not return void, but you should still give it a good chance to be heard. No one knows what you are going to say, so they don’t know how much you have to say. That means if it looks like it is time to stop, stop. Stay to your notes, but go with the audience.

3. That is another good thing to do- stay with your notes. Your notes are correct and accurate, but if you start to go off on a tangent, it had better be led by the Ruach or you need to stop. Once we start off on something, there is too good a chance we will start to give personal opinion. That’s when we start to misuse the position. People aren’t there to hear what we think, and we aren’t supposed to tell them what we think- we are there to tell them the Word of God. If you think you can say something more important or useful than what God has told us, then you shouldn’t be on a pulpit because you think you belong on a pedestal. If you have a personal thought that you really, really believe is sticking to the Word but your own opinion, make sure you tell the people that before you say it. Shaul was a godly man and spread God’s word, but when he gave a personal opinion he let us know that.  We are there to give God’s message, not our own.

4. This is a sales pitch. You aren’t selling knives, or laundry detergent, but you are selling the idea that people have to do as God says. And for non-Believers you need them to want to “buy-in” to salvation. Og Mandino wrote a series of stories, and the first one is called, “The Greatest Salesman Who Ever Lived.”  If you haven’t read any of his work, that’s the one to start with. We need to use the basics of a good pitch:

A. No Negative Selling: fear is a lousy sales tool. Get off the fear of suffering in hell and stick to the wonders of salvation that bring peace and joy to you NOW. People don’t care about the future but they want what they want NOW. Stay with the present to get them to buy into the future.

B. Don’t tell Them They’re Wrong: people believe only half of what they hear, but 100% of what they say. Don’t argue against their beliefs, but ask questions that will make them second guess their own statements. If you want them to believe you, you first need to get them to doubt themselves, and that will only happen when they hear themselves question their own statements. Don’t lead off with your beliefs, but ask them leading questions to get them to doubt theirs. Most people I have met believe what they have been told because they are too lazy to research it themselves, so it is fairly easy to get them to doubt themselves. They don’t really know why they believe, other than that’s what they’ve been told.

C. Maintain a Sense of Urgency: we have until our final breath to accept Messiah Yeshua and ask forgiveness through His name. Therefore, we can wait until the last second, but unless you know exactly the moment you will die, you don’t know how much time you have. If you want the peace and serenity that God offers to us on Earth, and you want that during your lifetime, you’d better not wait. After all, why put off having something that you really want now? (here would be a good time for the parable about the man who wanted to be saved but had all these other things to do first. If you don’t know which one I am talking about, it’s in the Gospels- go find it.)

D. Don’t Talk After the Sale: Don’t shove it down their throat, and when they are asking questions answer them truthfully and with short, to-the-point answers. And give it time to sink in.

E. Always be Selling: When you are taking with someone and they are starting to see the light, with each point you make confirm that this is something they would like. If their life seems overwhelming, and they ask about the peace that the Ruach can bring, tell them about your life and others you know where the Ruach has brought you peace (third party testimony is strong), then confirm that with the question, “Doesn’t that sound like what you want in your life? Wouldn’t you like to have that right now?” Every statement should end with a confirming question.

F. Be in Control: the one who is in control of the conversation is the one asking the questions. You will need to answer their questions, but do the “Jewish” thing- answer a question with a question. Why? Why not? The person asking questions is the one controlling the conversation, so make sure you answer their questions truthfully and without going on forever- then finish with a leading, confirming question, like,”Isn’t that what you told me you were looking for?”, or “Does that sound like something you would want to have in your life?”

4. Keep It Short, Keep it Simple, and Be Entertaining. If you are talking to a crowd of people you have, maybe, 15- 20 minutes to keep their attention, then it’s sleepy-time. Oh, yes, there are those high-spirited Believers who will call out, “Take your time! No rush! Preach it, Brother! You tell it, Sister!” They make it hard on everyone else who have already had their fill. Yes, they have had their fill. We are humans, not spirits. We live within a linear time frame and can’t really be expected to stay alert and attentive for much more than 20 minutes. So be entertaining, and don’t be afraid of a little interaction with the crowd. I used to give sales pitches in the home that took 4-6 hours. The best compliment I received wasn’t just a signed contract, but the people would look at their watch as I was finished and say, “Oh my! Look at the time- I didn’t realize we kept you here so long.” They thought they kept me there! The truth is that I kept them at the table and for hours, yet they thought it was nothing. That’s good selling and why I was a very successful salesman. I also have had a lot of positive feedback to my sermons. I was given a gift of being able to use humor and serious, stinging statements that reach right into your heart and grab you by the soul. This is from God. I used and honed it when selling products, and have turned it into selling His Word. When you sell the Word of God you have the perfect product. Everyone needs it, everyone wants what it offers, and the only reason everyone doesn’t have it is because the Enemy is also a very good salesman. What he sells is a lie, but one that is so tempting that most people fall for his pitch. If you can use humor, a good laugh (even just a chuckle) will buy you another 5 minutes or so. And when you use humor correctly, as both a way to relieve tension and to open up feelings, you can be very convincing and effective.

5. Practice, practice, practice. Remember the Rule of the 6-P’s: Prior Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. Know your topic, know your sermon, and talk through it for at least 5 or 6 times before you give it.

6. Show how this applies to their life.  At the end of the message, leave time to show ways to apply what God has for them in their life, now. Whatever the meaning of the sermon, give them ways to use that in their life. If you talk about peace of spirit, tell them how to use that to relieve stress. If you are talking about forgiveness, tell them ways to forgive and offer opportunities for them to do so. Don’t leave things with what God says, but leave them with what God says and how to use it.

7. Trust in the Lord and His Ruach to lead you. Yeshua told His Talmudim (Disciples) not to worry about what they will say because the Ruach will guide them and give them the words they will need. Pray for God to guide your words, and to always give glory and honor to Him through your sermon. Let God be the wind and you be the instrument He uses to make beautiful music.

Comments welcomed (just be nice)