We are following in the footsteps of the first women and men to proclaim the Gospel. Sermon Collective is a place to listen to and learn from excellent preachers. Generate ideas and develop the craft of preaching with tips from Leanne Ketchum. Be encouraged and inspired by called and equipped preachers.
Gabrielle Engle is a pastor at Overflow Church in Benton Harbor, Michigan. She serves in Connections, alongside leading Celebrate Recovery and WyldLife, their middle school ministry with YoungLife. Overflow is a multi-ethnic church nestled between two cities that differ in socio-economics and is devoted to connecting with those who are un-churched and de-churched. Gabrielle’s preaching is accessible and heartfelt and invites all people to consider new avenues in which God’s gift of joy is present amidst complex lives. We can learn from her about God and faithful preaching in any number of ways, but here are a couple.
Embody the Message
At the start, the sermon title tells the listener that this sermon is going to be about choosing joy, following the example of Mary. Gabrielle, however, does more than tell the listeners about joy, but exudes joy. This joy comes through her smile, her steady eye contact with the congregation, and through her use of stories and examples. Throughout the sermon she helpfully expounds the concept of joy to be more than happiness, disabusing anyone from misinterpreting her smile as trite, and includes pain within joy. This clear definition of joy in Jesus moves the listener past their experiences, to locate their pain and their joy alongside the experience of Mary in God’s incarnation. Gabrielle voiced hard issues like addiction in her sermon directly and invited listeners to turn to Jesus (and the grace God offers through recovery). While this could have been hard to hear, her passionate exposition of the scripture and genuine presentation made this invitation feel like grace instead of shame.
As you prepare to preach this week, what is the tone or experience of your sermon? What might the listener be feeling as you move through the sermon? How could you use your voice, body, and content to invite the listener into a new experience of the gospel?
Ask Them to Make it Personal
Far too often sermons are able to remain in the abstract learning zone of knowledge, without entering the heart or affecting decision making. We know, however, that God is continually seeking us like Adam and Eve in the garden and that encountering God’s good news in the sermon can allow the listener to respond to God’s “Where are you?” Throughout the sermon Gabrielle helpfully poses questions to ask the congregation where they are in relation to God. The initial problem she raises with joy is that we are often too busy or too numb to life to notice it. Gabrielle lists real life examples (scrolling endlessly, drinking, eating, working) and follows them with open questions (“Where do you keep looking for joy, but finding that it doesn’t sustain you?”) that give the person in the pew an opportunity to join their story with the story of God in the sermon.
What is your practice of using questions in the sermon? Are they typically only in one section like the introduction? What is the one question that is challenging you in this sermon and how could that be shared with your congregation? Or, if you regularly use questions, take a look at the questions you usually pose and assess their quality. Are they questions that aid the listener in turning towards God or are they going to simply recall their memory towards another topic (“Have you ever had a time when…”)? Let your questions count this week in helping the listener make the sermon a time for them to personally interact with God.
Jenn Petersen is the co-lead pastor of the new church plant Resurrection Life in New York City with her spouse, Branden. This sermon was given at Trinity Baptist Church, a church that is partnering with them in ministry as they lead and serve the city. Jenn is an accomplished musician and worship leader, but it is her gifts of preaching that we notice and learn from now.
Enroll them in the story
Sometimes when we talk about the Bible as God’s story, there might be the sense that it is a powerful story because it shapes the narrative and ethic of the community. Jenn’s sermon takes God’s story a bit differently and calls the listener to be in the story as she challenges them to “raise their expectations”of who God is and what God can do. As she retells the story of the rich young man and the disciples bewilderment at Jesus’s statements, we are reminded that we often share that bewilderment as we look at life as impossible. As she retells the story of David and Goliath, the listener can see the magnitude of their Goliath, and feel the smooth stone of their resources in their hand. But moreover, the listener is carried and emboldened by David’s faith, to trust, to believe, even to hope— that God is truly with them and at work on their behalf. Jenn’s recounting of the story in detail draws the listener in, and as they witness Goliath fall again, the flame of faith is fanned for the way they see their world.
As you preach this week, consider your relationship to scripture as God’s story. Does the Bible only shape identity and ethics of a group of people? Or does the Holy Spirit enliven the continual reading, interpretation, preaching, and hearing of it so that something might happen in that very moment? How might you tell the story of God in scripture and the story of God in the world today that helps your congregation see God as present, active, convicting, loving, and empowering?
Give bookends with a twist
Jenn began the sermon with a litany of ‘what-if’ questions that might confront the congregation. Stemming from her personal story of moving to New York City to plant a church, she invites the community to wonder about the questions they also ask such as, “What if I don’t get that job that I paid thousands of dollars in education? What if I’m not enough? What if I made the wrong decision?” These questions are then revisited at the end of the sermon, but have been changed and transformed by the encounter with God’s grace that has challenged them to consider raising their expectations and growing in faith. The questions at the end of the sermon have a “grace lens” and are phrased as such, “What if we really believed that with God all things were possible? Jesus taught us to pray, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ What if we prayed like that? What if we raised our expectations and then we took an action step and then God di the miracle?” By ending with the similar what if questions, the sermon has a sense of resolving the initial tension that was created by them. More importantly, that resolution came from the proclamation of God’s gracious presence and activity in us and in the world, inviting the listeners to leave changed by that truth.
What role does tension and resolution have in your sermons? A sermon should introduce some tension, or rather reveal the tension that already exists in scripture and life. A sermon should also resolve that tension by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace as it speaks to the tension created. This week, try to find a way to introduce and resolve the tension with similarity so that the sermon has “bookends,” but don’t miss the twist of God’s grace that gives the final word!