David Cook’s top 10 tips for preaching

David Cook is the outgoing (and departing) principal at SMBC (Sydney Missionary and Bible College). He’s here today at QTC (Queensland Theological College) sharing his top ten tips for preaching (and other stuff).

Tip one: Learn to shake hands and greet somebody. By the name they give. If they give a surname go with Mr or Mrs. Use names. Don’t just say “hello”… the sound of one’s name is the “sweetest sound in the whole world”…

But that isn’t about preaching.

  1. Have a clear big question – avoids the knowledge dump. Why should I listen to you? Because you have a good answer to a good question. Great questions are answered by the passage and are marketable. You need to show how the text answers that question and why that answer is important to the listener. Every time I get up I answer a question. Opening with “last week we looked at” isn’t really helpful. It is an intro to a knowledge dump. Why do I need to hear this? That’s the question we should open with.
  2. Stress the indicative before you stress the imperative – Liberalism imposes the imperative – it tells you what you should do. And often it’s wrong. The “distinctive difference” between liberalism and Biblical Christianity is that the latter begins with the triumphant indicative – on the basis of what God has done, this is what you do. We need both the indicative and the imperative or we either lean towards license of liberalism. The Bible uses the indicative first. Romans, up to chapter 6, is indicative, indicative, indicative. The first imperative is ch 6:11. The Qu’ran opens with the imperative. This is the distinctive difference between Christianity and every other religion. This is our point of difference. The triumphant indicative. The Catholics have blended the two in an untrustworthy manner. Get the indicative first. Followed by the imperative. Not just what I’ve got to do, but why… knowledge of the verbal moods in Greek is absolutely vital. Be able to identify the imperative verbs. Taste of God through the gospel of God’s grace before you move to our response.
  3. Make the heart of your sermon explanation, not illustration/application – the text has the power. Not your illustration. Better the textual and dull preacher than the interesting but not textual. Better to be both. Don’t rush to illustration before you’ve preceded it with explanation.
  4. Work on your angle – tell me something I don’t know. Don’t just bounce superficially off the text. You must work off the angle of the text, and tell me something I don’t know. What’s the point otherwise? What is my angle here? How can I preach on something you know backwards that gives you a new slant on something? Anticipate the questions people are asking about the text.
  5. The art of preaching is the art of summary – Learn to summarise. You are not saying everything the passage says. You are saying less than the whole. You are making a judgment about what not to say and what to say. The other cardinal rule is that the summary does not interpret. We aren’t interested in what you think – just tell us what is says. Get to the author’s mind – not your take.
  6. Cultivate a close reading of the text – show respect to the text. Avoid humourous populism. Don’t go for the laugh. Get people watching the text. Closely. Use the original languages to check for puns, rudeness, wordplay – figure out what’s going on in the text. And communicate it. Bring passages to life by picking up the little details when they drive your text. Observe. It is there. It is there for a reason.
  7. Don’t be negative – why put barriers in the way. Don’t attack the other guys. Don’t be negative. Be winsome and persuasive. Know what you’re talking about – what is good about x that makes people so loyal to it. Think about the way you sound, and whether you’re looking angry or smiling. Don’t attack, provide a positive alternative. Use simple words and propositions. Repeat them again and again and again. Read good books about persuasion. Don’t confront. Just talk in a winsome way. “The Gentle Art of Persuasion” is a good book. How to win friends and influence people is another one.What is my point? What am I trying to achieve. It is a foolish advocate who insults the person who is there to try the case.
  8. Work hard at the sermons you pay least attention to – the occasional sermons (funerals, weddings, Christmas, Easter, children’s talks etc). These are the sermons that people who aren’t members of the congregation come to. Why do you go easy on the occasional sermons while working hard on the inside sermons. Don’t just preach a stock ball sermon for funerals and weddings. Every person is unique. Prepare a fresh sermon for each person. Don’t let people die alone, that’s not your job as the pastor of your flock. The elderly and disabled are victims of the church planting movement. We’ve discriminated against the people who need us the most. Work really hard at using the children’s talk as a free hit – a chance to summarise your talk in a new way for a new audience to clarify your thinking, teach the children, and engage the adults.
  9. Be Clear – You’re not writing an essay. Don’t preach your footnotes. You are writing a sermon. In a sermon you will illustrate. Repeat. Emphasise. You are turning ears into eyes. You are striving to be clear. Don’t just say one thing. Say it again. And again. And again.
  10. Preach Christ. Preach Grace. Preach Faith. Preach encouragingly.

The relationship between the Big Question, the Big Idea and the Big Answer
Big Question -> Big Idea -> Big answer

Use the subject and the compliment – what is he talking about? What is he saying about that?

Turn the big idea into a big question.

The easiest answer for a preacher to give is to the “how” question – but “why” is much more important if you don’t want to breed superficiality. How to questions are good, but shallow.

John 3:16 case study

The subject looks like God (use the first and the last words) – but almost every passage is about God – so lets go with Eternal Life.

The Big Idea: Eternal life comes through Jesus, God’s gift of love.

Big questions: How can I have eternal life? Is death the end? What will happen when you die?

Format of a sermon

State the truth of the passage -> explain the passage -> illustrate the passage -> apply the passage.

If you illustrate first it’ll be without power. Explain first.

The Pyramid

At the bottom level you are summarising with verse references.

At the next level you are looking at the movements in the passage. Which determine the structure of the sermon.

Next. The dominant picture (from On teaching and preaching with creativity – “the human brain is a picture gallery, not a debating hall”).

Subject and compliment.


The Big Idea.


The tip is the Big Question.


Five Keys to Clarity

  1. Isolate the dominant thoughts of the text.
  2. Structure your material. Don’t hide your structure. Build your sermon around structure. You’re communicating. Don’t be scared of communicating. Use stuff like alliteration and things people will remember.
  3. Don’t use too many quotes. Who cares what John Stott or Don Carson say. This is not an essay. If they’ve said it, it’s probably not original to them – so just say it. Don’t always quote people. Only quote if you can memorise the quote and if the person who said something is particularly relevant or significant to the quote. Ideas are there to be used. Sometimes you can add weight to a quote. But too much quoting is bad.
  4. Be dialogical. Dialogical preaching is very, very important. Have a dialogue. Anticipate questions, and answer them. “Do I hear some of you say” “But Billy, you say…” do it in the form of a conversation.
  5. If you are going to be clear. Watch your vocabulary and grammar. The plural of you is you. Saying youse is not ok. Really. In any context. You don’t want your kids hearing people saying “youse”… sweat the details. Work hard on your grammar and your vocab. Play by the house rules. Dress for the host. Use their version of the Bible.



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al bain says:

3. Make the heart of your sermon explanation, not illustration/application – the text has the power. Not your illustration. Better the textual and dull preacher than the interesting but not textual. Better to be both. Don’t rush to illustration before you’ve preceded it with explanation.

Yeah. I’ve never agreed with him on this one. False dichotomy. I see no reason why you can’t illustrate first and then go to the text and still make the text the engine room of the explanation.

But I know why he says it – so that preachers start with the text in their prep and then look for illustrations. He’s following the Chappo model here (a very good one btw – but not the only one) state – explain – illustrate – apply.

Oh. And I hope that he said that it was me who put him onto The Gentle Art of Persuasion. I bet he didn’t.