Preachers on a Mission

People sometimes ask me what I see most often in sermons that struggle to gain traction with listeners. My answer is that more often than not, preachers try to do and say too much in a single sermon. As the authors of the helpful book Made to Stick observe, if in a speech (or a sermon) you say three things, you’ve said nothing. Say one thing. Make the sermon about just one main thing if you want it to stick.

Paul Scott Wilson has a mnemonic device to help preachers achieve sermon unity: TTDINM, remembered via the phrase “The Tiny Dog Is Now Mine.” It’s all about having just one of each for a single sermon: one text, one theme, one doctrine, one image, one need, one mission. For this issue of Reformed Worship, it’s that last one—one mission—that I want to reflect on.

As I tell my students, the church has a broad mission, but it’s carried out through a wide variety of activities, each of which contributes to the larger mission of witnessing to and living out the gospel of Christ Jesus our Lord. In preaching, however, if you want to promote the church’s mission via an example of a ministry, pick just one to highlight. That’s enough for one sermon. This week, mention the congregation’s clothing ministry. Next week discuss support for full-time foreign or domestic mission workers. The following week, highlight the weekly supper to help feed hungry children in the neighborhood. 

Some might point out that when it comes to the active mission of the global church or of any given congregation, preaching may seem to be a lesser part. Sermons, after all, are words on the air. Listeners have a passive posture when absorbing a sermon, but they’re active when, say, they volunteer once a month to distribute food through the Feeding America program. Sermons don’t seem to do anything. When I was a pastor years ago, our deacons started to include a boilerplate IRS disclaimer on annual giving statements: “No tangible goods were given in exchange for these gifts.” And I thought, “That’s me, the Right Reverend Intangible.”

By contrast, we usually think of the mission of the church as being mostly tangible actions and outcomes. Consider Matthew 25 alone: we clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, and welcome the stranger. That’s active stuff! A sermon seems to fall into a different category. The preacher may be active for half an hour or so, but the congregation not so much. And when the sermon is finished . . . well, it can kind of disappear. I hate to admit it, but when I was delivering two sermons every week, sometimes come Monday morning when I needed to write down my sermon titles and texts from the day prior in my record book, I had to dig out the bulletin to jog my memory! If that happens sometimes to the one who wrote and delivered the sermon, how many others in the church might struggle come Monday or Tuesday to remember just what Sunday morning’s sermon was about?

But because I am a preacher writing this column for fellow preachers, you know there is a “Yes, but” coming here: Yes, preaching may seem intangible or ephemeral, but I believe it can and should play a vital role in the church’s larger mission and in advancing all the activities of a congregation that contribute to that mission. Here are a few observations about how solid biblical preaching can accomplish that.

1. Preaching reminds us of the new covenant.

Sermons, like the worship services in which they typically take place, participate in what John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, calls our weekly “trinitarian new covenant renewal.” We come to worship to sing, to pray, to fellowship, and, yes, to listen to sermons, all as part of reviving us, revving us up, inspiring us, and focusing us again and again on the old, old story of Jesus and his love. We need more often to be reminded than instructed, Samuel Johnson observed, and sermons serve as ongoing reminders of the new covenant in Christ’s blood, a covenant we are part of through grace alone by faith alone. Good preaching does not aim to entertain or titillate, and it surely ought not aim to be boring or stale or canned. Good preaching helps people affirm: “Yes! This is why I am a believer! This is what I believe! This is why I want to follow Jesus again this week and help carry out his witness and mission to the world!”

2. Preaching is contextual. 

Sermons must always be deeply contextual. A so-called “timeless sermon” that could be preached without alteration in any time or place is not a great sermon. Preaching must always take place with a keen awareness of geographical location, the historical moment the congregation is living in, and the socioeconomic conditions and challenges of the local neighborhood and its city. Preaching moves the congregation from Jesus’ semi-generic laundry list of mission activities in Matthew 25 to people with names and faces, to prisons with specific names, to targeting economic or justice needs unique to that time and place. Preaching that is thoughtful, concrete, and specific sets the table for the congregation to carry out its mission. 

3. Preaching is specific.

Related to the previous point, contextual sermons name and celebrate specific activities of the congregation. Talking about the Wednesday night soup supper for unhoused persons or a meeting of advocates to address a set of local ordinances that many see as unjust ought not be restricted to the announcements. Wise preachers bring in such things (just one per sermon, please!) as examples of what they are talking about in any given sermon. Call it the “application” part of the sermon, if you will—or Page Four, the “Grace in the World” part of Paul Scott Wilson’s Four Pages approach—but this is one way a sermon is not the opposite of more active ministry activities of the congregation, but a vital part of its mission.

Good preaching inspires the church’s mission. Good contextual preaching equips the congregation for mission work. Good preaching names the work that needs to be done in a particular time and place. Good preaching celebrates what is already being done even as it helps people keep moving and not grow weary or lose heart when the going gets tough, as it usually does (and as Jesus himself predicted). 

Yes, I am more than sensitive to the fact that preachers could take all this and use it to bolster what I do not want to help bolster—namely, what a colleague calls “should-y sermons” that end with to-do lists that detract from a focus on grace. There’s a slippery slope to legalism down that path. So preachers must frame their inspiring words about mission inside the prior grace of God. Mission work and ministries of all kinds are not things we have to do; inside the liberating grace of God in Christ, these are the things that we get to do! Or, in good Reformed theological parlance, mission work is not how we get delivered from our sins; it is our response of gratitude to already having been so delivered through Christ’s saving work.

With that frame of grace, preaching can indeed be a very active part of the mission of God in the world.

Rev. Scott Hoezee is director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching ( at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Reformed Worship 152 © June 2024, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.