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Hey Preacher: What is Compelling Preaching?

By Derek Weber

Article Hey Preacher

“Hey Preacher” is a part of the Lilly Endowment’s “Compelling Preaching Initiative.” More than one hundred academic institutions, denominational bodies, and independent organizations across the country have received grants to explore, encourage, and equip preachers through this initiative. All of us are tasked with the challenge of defining compelling preaching.

We could argue that definition isn’t our true task. Instead, our goal is to make compelling preaching reproducible. That is certainly true. We want to help preachers be more compelling. To move toward making compelling preaching reproducible, however, we had to begin with some shared understanding of what makes preaching compelling. We met with preachers and laity who are consumers of preaching and talked about compelling preaching. Certain common themes emerged from a variety of focus groups. We recognized that there is some cultural influence on what can be identified as compelling preaching. In addition, we also realized that while there are elements that seem to be held in common, there is subjectivity to assessing what makes preaching compelling.

Beginning with a definition of the word itself, we established that compelling, according to Merriam-Webster, includes ideas like “convincing,” “demanding attention,” and even “forceful.” The root word, “compel,” points toward definitions with a sense of movement: “to drive or urge forcefully or convincingly” and “to cause to do or occur by overwhelming pressure.” We therefore presented to our focus groups the idea that we were seeking to define preaching that moves the hearer, and that this movement is in two directions.

First, we asked, “What kind of preaching draws you in?” We identified this as moving forward, entering the preaching moment. “What captures your attention and makes you stay attentive to the message?” Here we found a lot of agreement about what elements are effective and attention-getting, both in terms of content and presentation.

Secondly, we asked, “What kind of preaching causes you to reflect or even change after the preaching moment is over?” This might be a change in thinking or behavior. Here, we were identifying the movement outward, or the transformative experience of preaching. We also asked, “What lasts after the conclusion of the preaching moment?” Respondents found this question more difficult to answer, partly because transformation is a slow process, and it is hard to identify all the sources that bring forth change. But when we asked what continues after worship, the laity, in particular, were more able to articulate with clarity. Some were able to recall sermons from years previous that stayed with them and continued to work changes within them. Compelling preaching sticks in the minds and hearts of the hearers.


Gathering the various elements that define compelling preaching from both clergy and laity gives us an overview of the compelling preaching model we wish to reproduce. The essence of compelling preaching can be categorized first into two general areas: presence and engagement.

Presence speaks first of the immediacy of the preaching moment. Is the preacher fully present as he/she preaches to the gathered congregation – whether in person or online? Also included in the category of presence are certain traits that hearers consider vital for compelling preaching. Authenticity was perhaps the most cited trait, but it was followed quickly by sincerity, passion, humor, storytelling, and other presentational aspects. Delivery is important to compelling preaching. From the importance of delivery, we can then hear how important the moment of preaching is. By this, we mean that experience is an important element of preaching, and this experience is judged by the connection that is made.

Engagement also has multiple dimensions. First, there is an expectation that the preacher and the sermon are engaged with a text, or with the Spirit, or the Word of God. This is a message not simply from human understanding; it carries a connection with something larger or something beyond the preacher. One respondent said the preacher must be “arrested by the text” before being able to preach compellingly.

The second area of engagement is with the hearer, both individually and collectively. Here is where relevancy comes to the fore. Does this message make sense for my life? Is there something in this for me? Am I recognizable in the message that I am hearing? But also, am I being gathered up into something larger than myself? Am I a part of the gathered body, in relationship with the preacher, with the gathered congregation, and ultimately with the God who is proclaimed in the preaching?

There are different ways to assess the level of engagement, or perhaps different questions being answered. Am I a part of this moment? Am I involved in the sermon somehow and somewhere? Am I a character in the narrative; is this telling my story? Are we connected with others as we journey through the sermon together? Do I have a glimpse of being a part of something larger than, but including, myself?


Another element that was universally mentioned was relevance. Here we straddle the line between presence and engagement. To be relevant is a presentational concern, but it also has to do with what connects with hearers. Relevance isn’t simply what is current or newsworthy, but what resonates with the hearer and speaks to the inner questions and conversation that each person and each community carries. Relevance is about content, but about more than content. It is about relationship.

Relationship is at the heart of compelling preaching. We are creating community as we preach, shaping the body with the words we present. The preacher is in relationship with the message and with the hearer. We also discovered that compelling preachers are often in relationship with other preachers and that their skills were and are honed through engagement with other preachers and especially preaching mentors. There is a dynamic of connecting in the act of preaching; paying attention to this aspect ensures that the sermon is more compelling.

The pastor–preacher has an advantage in that she or he knows the congregation and has already begun to develop the relationships that make preaching more compelling. If the preacher speaks into this known reality and cultivates further connections and deeper relationships, then even the most accomplished guest preacher won’t be more compelling than the pastor who preaches out of relevance and relationship.


There is, of course, much more that goes into identifying preaching as compelling. Much is contextual and not necessarily able to be transferred from one preacher and one setting to another. But some identifying characteristics can help us in this diagnostic task. Is there, we must ask, a sense of movement in the sermon and the preaching moment? Does that movement draw the hearer in and then send the hearer out to live and work in the world? In part, this is asking about the experience of the preaching moment. Does the hearer have a sense that something is happening? Is preaching an event or an argument? Is preaching something to be entered into or something to think about?

Finally, can we identify the four poles around which the compelling sermon revolves: presence, engagement, relevance, and relationship? While not a magic formula for more compelling preaching, these elements can become a diagnostic tool for evaluation and improvement.

Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.

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