7 Ways to Design Your Sermon For Life-Changing Impact

preaching Sep 22, 2022

Most sermons would have more impact if they were designed better. 

That’s right. We all get to a point in our sermon prep when we need to take all of our raw materials and design a message. And this part is vital to whether or not our message cuts to people’s hearts or if it stays around the surface. 

So in this article, I’m going to show you 7 ways to design your sermon for more impact. And I’ll use a recent sermon of mine as a case study to make it clear for you.

Let’s dive in.

(There's a video version below. To read the article, just keep scrolling)

7 Ways to Design Your Sermon For Life-Changing Impact

1. Start with the world of today

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a good sermon is a dance [link]. It’s a dance between the world of today and the world of the Bible. But too often, I see and hear preachers begin their message in the world of the Bible and I believe that is an utter mistake.

Start with the world of today because that’s the world your people reside in (I know, duh). 

So as you prepare, as you meditate and reflect on the passage you’re preaching on, you’re going to be identifying potential angles of entry to the text.

For example, I recently preached on Matthew 4:12-17:

12 When he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. 14 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

15 Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,

along the road by the sea, beyond the Jordan,

Galilee of the Gentiles.

16 The people who live in darkness

have seen a great light,

and for those living in the land of the shadow of death,

a light has dawned.

17 From then on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

In my meditation and reflection on this passage, I determined an angle of entry to the passage (the way I was able to introduce the passage and use as a primary dance between the world of the Bible and the world of today) was “the people who live in darkness.” 

I started asking the question, who are the people who lived in darkness then? And then I followed that question up with, who are the people who live in darkness today?

One characteristic I identified was people who are on the precipice of burnout. So, from there, I decided to start the sermon in describing what my experience was like in fall of 2020 that caused me to pick up the book, Leading on Empty. 

So here’s how I started the sermon:

Opening line: In the fall of 2020, I wasn’t in a good place.

The point of the story: I learned to distinguish between my responsibilities and my concerns (and explained what that meant to the author of Leading on Empty).

Transition statement to the next section: Have you ever been there (feeling like you’re on the edge of burnout)?

In this way, I engaged the listener (told a story), I introduced some tension (talked about a common problem we face and then turned it to them), and I opened the door to the “problem” the text solves (the light has dawned to the people living in darkness).

2. Create urgency through tension

By the time I open up God’s word and read it during the sermon, I want people to care deeply about what it says (because it’s God’s word, of course, but also because it’s relevant to their lives). 

So after we start with the world of today (in some way that relates to the central idea and bottom line of the passage), we must create urgency. 

Because if we don’t, people may not dial in as much. They may not be fully focused. They may not understand the stakes of why the application of this text in their lives could change absolutely everything for them.

In our preparation process, we must deeply understand the implications of what this passage has on people’s lives. 

So, how did I do this with Matthew 4:12-17? I’m so glad you asked.

Remember what I’ve already done? I identified burnout as my angle of entry. So now I need to create urgency through tension.

Another hook: So after I asked people the question if they have ever been there (the edge of burnout), I brought up a recent article from Carey Nieuwhof where he asked the question, is our society on the edge of burnout? Because I didn’t want to go directly to the individuals in the room just yet. 

I wanted them to be able to hear the signs and symptoms of burnout (or living in darkness) without their defenses up. 

Make it personal: So I explained Carey’s premise for the article, listed out the symptoms he pointed to and then turned it back to them: Maybe some of that sounds familiar?

Create urgency (this is why this passage is so important): I didn’t just say, if that sounds familiar then lean in. But instead I spent a little more time on telling people that this passage is going to address what they’ve been experiencing. Here’s what I said:

Well, today, I want to show you what Jesus’ message was and is to people who are on the verge of burnout, to people who feel like they are living in darkness. 

I want to show you what He would say to those of you who are frustrated about how frustrated you feel so much of the time.

I want to show you what He would say to those of you who are anxious about the amount of anxiety you’re experiencing. 

No matter if you feel these things right now, we all need this. Maybe today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe in a year. 

So I hope you’ll lean in.

Now, it’s time to let people dance with the world of the Bible. Let’s tango.

3. Anchor yourself to the text

Not only does the text dictate what kind of angles would make sense in the beginning to enter through but the preaching text dictates what the rest of the sermon looks like too.

This is not just a sermon design element but it is a conviction to preach from. The message must be anchored to the text. It goes where the text goes. The message isn’t the anchor. Your words aren’t the anchor. God’s word is the anchor.

So we need to give thought to how to break down the passage in portions that can be preached through.

In my message on Matthew 4:12-17, I approached the text in this way:

  • 4:12-16
  • 4:17

In 4:12-16, there are three major movements that need to be made.

  1. A brief statement on John’s ministry being interrupted and eventually ended (I merely gave a preview of what is to come as I am preaching through Matthew and we’ll eventually get the rest of the story)
  2. Land of Zebulun, Naphtali - background and context
  3. A light has dawned, hope is here

When it comes to 4:17, there is one major movement that needed to be made.

  1. Jesus sees us living in darkness. And his message is to repent and turn to him. A new way of life is upon us (kingdom of heaven/God).

And when I say “movement,” I’m referring to the major teaching sections as I dig into the passage within the truth section of the sticky sermon structure.

But that’s not all we do in the passage. 

4. Teach, Illustrate, and Apply (and distinguish) through the passage

Once you have the key teaching movements you’re going to make, you’re ready to dig even more into the passage. With each movement, you’re going to seek out how you can teach, illustrate, apply, and distinguish through the passage.

This allows you to preach a balanced message where you’re not just telling people about what happened in the text, but you’re showing them, and you’re connecting it to life today. 

The bulk of your message lives here and it’s where everything flows to in the beginning and where everything flows from as you work toward the end.

So, when I got to Matthew 4:17, which says, “From then on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near’” this is what I did: 

  • I taught about the idea that Jesus sees us living in darkness and how his message was an invitation to us to come out of the darkness and follow Him into a new way of life where He is our King and we are His people.
  • I illustrated this by asking a question that brought the world of the Bible in full-on-tango-mode with the world of our lives today and followed it up with a list of examples: What’s the darkness Jesus is calling you out of? Habitual sin? Depression? Anxiety? Addiction? Worry? Loneliness? Regret? Shame? 
  • And then in order to apply it, I got below the surface of all of the things I just pointed to and gave a list of what we must repent of: False hopes, Staying in the dark (a light has dawned), Believing our sinful past more than God’s gracious future, Clinging to control, and Not taking responsibility. 

5. Give your main idea followed by a list of examples of it in application

After we have worked through our passage with precision, with care, with passion, and with a heart for how to help people see the relevance of it to their lives today, it’s time we portable-ize the passage and offer the main idea of the message.

Now, once that happens, there’s more ways to follow the main idea than offering a list of examples of it in application. But a list of examples is a great way to make sure your message has breadth.

This requires some thoughtfulness, though. Think through the different life stages, the different backgrounds, and the different experiences of your people and ask yourself, how does this main idea impact them? What difference would it make in their lives?

When I preached on Matthew 4:12-17, I gave the list of applications before I gave the main idea which is also fine. In fact, what I listed out for you in section 4 is what led me to the main idea of the message which was this:

You don’t have to keep going down this path. You can turn to Jesus and find hope.

The beauty of a main idea or bottom line like this is that it can be widely applied. What is this path? It could be a lot of things. But no matter what it is, you can turn to Jesus and find hope.

6. Show what an applied future could look like—what would be different?

Just like the end of a good story, we should offer our people a picture of what an applied future could look like. In a story, this is the resolution where we get a glimpse of the characters’ lives after the climax of the story. But in a sermon, this is the opportunity to fast-forward a bit and give people a glimpse of what could be.

This is powerful because most people don’t think about five years from now or ten years from now or a hundred years from now. They think about the next week or month or maybe even year. 

So help people imagine what could be different about their lives if they would surrender to Jesus and follow Him.

In the sermon on Matthew 4:12-17, I asked a question to help people imagine an applied future. Think about this: what does the Repentant You look like in 10 years?

  • How different would it be to look yourself in the mirror?
  • How different would your marriage be?
  • How different would your values be?
  • How much more purpose would you have?
  • How different would your relationship with your kids be?

As you can see, I ask a lot of questions in my preaching. The reason? When someone is asked a question, their brains can’t help but start answering it.

7. Create urgency around taking action

Now we’re in the “final words” moment. What will you leave them with? I believe the best thing you can do is leave people with something that necessitates that the ending of the sermon be beyond that moment.

What I mean is that calling people to take action in response to the sermon leaves the true ending of the sermon in the hands of those who heard it. 

The sermon is an episode in the TV Show but the next episode is what people do in response to it. 

And while many may just listen to the sermon and then not think about it past lunch that day, some will sense the Holy Spirit prompting them far past that. And if we create urgency around taking action at the very end of our message, we will make it clear to them what they can do when the Holy Spirit prompts them.

So how did I do that with the sermon on Matthew 4:12-17?

I brought back that question and list combo that led up to the main idea and I gave a simple call-to-action:

What do you need to repent of?

  • False hopes — find your hope in Jesus
  • Staying in the dark (a light has dawned) — come out of the darkness
  • Believing our sinful past more than God’s gracious future — his future for you is better
  • Clinging to control — there are things outside of your control
  • Not taking responsibility — there are things within your control

Jesus invites us: come out of the darkness. Come to the light. Come to me. Find hope.

This is a Sticky Sermon

If you’ve followed my teaching on preaching for any time now, you’ve probably seen me refer to the sticky sermon structure. And what I just laid out for you is exactly that.

Engage - start with the world of today

Tension - create urgency through tension

Truth - anchor yourself to the text and teach, illustrate, and apply (and distinguish) through the passage

Application - give your main idea followed by a list of examples of it in application

Inspiration - show what an applied future could look like — what would be different?

Action - create urgency around taking action

Most sermons would have more impact if they were designed better. 

I believe if you follow this design, you’ll preach biblical, memorable sermons more consistently.

Grow in Your Preaching

If you want to be faithful to the text, prepare efficiently, and craft your sermon memorably, I’ve got just the thing to help. It’s called the 10-step guide to writing a sticky sermon and it’s yours for free. Just click here to grab your copy.

Write sermons that stick!

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