How to Preach Relevant Sermons (hint: relevance is not what you think)

Learn how to preach to your listeners in an authentic and meaningful way.

Closeup of a man's face with the left side of his face in shadow and right in full light

A relevant sermon need not reference the latest Oscar winner, the show everyone is binge-watching on Netflix, or the meme circulating on social media. 

It might, depending on the preacher’s own interests.

But it doesn’t have to. 

Nor does it require a preacher to slip in the slang of the day.

We’ve all seen the result when a middle-aged pastor attempts to speak to the youth group using their slang. The artifice doesn’t connect—and actually distances.

Relevance is much more than cultural references. 

Relevance is simply connecting God to the people directly in front of us. 

How do you do that in a way that’s authentic to you and meaningful to your listeners?

Here are two suggestions.

1. Identify and Address Our Common Need for God’s Grace

If there is one thing all of humanity shares in common, it is this: we all need healing.

From fear. From shame. From insecurity.

From the reality that none of us loves God with all our heart, mind, and strength, nor our neighbors like ourselves. 

Because, frankly, none of us believes God’s love very well. And in turn, none of us loves our own self very well.

This results in multiple diseases of the human heart and spirit, and alienates us from one another and God. 

These diseases are manifested in actions like racism, prejudice, hateful speech, and a suspicion of those who do not look, act, or speak the same way we do; in a failure to step into our gifts and callings for fear of inadequacy; in a ceaseless striving to earn God and man’s approval; in a desire for control or power. 

This baseline fear, shame, and insecurity—and its attendant alienation and isolation—is the human condition.

And it’s universal. It’s as alive and well today as it was when the bible was compiled. 

Cultures and contexts may change, but the human condition persists. The people in scripture suffered just as much from the diseases of fear, insecurity, and shame, and filled their world with just as much racism, prejudice, power-mongering, and other symptoms of internal dissatisfaction.

It is to heal these diseases, and reconcile us to one another and God, that Jesus Christ came to us, forgave and died for us, and rose again.

This is the Good News: all diseases can be healed, and all people can be reconciled through Christ. 

The Good News is the antidote to all that ails the human spirit.

And makes the gospel relevant to all people in all times.

God always has been and continues to be in the business of showing us a new way.

When we connect people to the human condition in Scripture, and show how the gospel heals then and now, sermons are relevant

It’s as simple as that.

It was true back then. It is true now.

Connect them, let the Holy Spirit work, and trust your sermons are relevant.

2. Bring Your Parishioners into the Pulpit

While the human condition is universal, its behavioral manifestations differ from person to person and congregation to congregation.

That’s why The Rev. Dr. Shauna Hannan, Associate Professor of Homiletics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, advocates for intentional, planned conversations with parishioners prior to preparing sermons. 

She is so serious about this practice, she will not accept an invitation to be a guest preacher unless she can first meet with a representative group of people who will hear her sermon. 

If the hosting pastor can’t arrange for a small group of people to gather in conversation with her around the biblical text, she believes she won’t connect these people with the word of God they need to hear. Hence, she won’t be doing her job.

The Rev. Dr. John McClure, the Charles G. Finney Professor of Preaching and Worship

 at Vanderbilt Divinity School, has advocated for the same since at least 1995, when his book The Round Table Pulpit was published.

The question both professors ask is how can we know what people need from God unless we know who they are?

Of course we pick up snippets through regular interaction with parishioners in and meetings, but that’s different from digging into scripture and its specific application in their lives with them

It’s the difference between preaching a generic wedding homily, and preaching a homily for the wedding couple whom you have spent time with, know, and cherish. 

Furthermore, studying the Scriptures together deepens everyone’s knowledge, including the preacher’s. 

With the insights of this group, the preacher—while still tasked with further work, study, and creativity to craft the sermon for the congregation—is not the sole deliverer of good news, but a fellow inquirer. 

As such, the preacher becomes relatable—and relevant—to the listeners

When we gather with our listeners for Scripture study, listen deeply to them, and connect the common human condition with our need for God’s grace, the sermon connects listener to God. 

Not only will our sermons be relevant, but listeners will hardly be able to wait for the next sermon.


This is the third in a series of five blog posts that explores the definition of an effective sermon, created and applied by Backstory Preaching.

“An effective sermon offers a clear message of Good News, authentic to the preacher, relevant to the listeners, holding their attention, and inviting transformation.”

Next time: What holds a listener’s attention?

Backstory Preaching is the all-online sermon prep and continuing education center for preachers, lay and ordained, in the Anglican and Mainline Protestant traditions. The Rev’d Dr. Lisa Cressman, an Episcopal priest, is its Founding Steward.

More of Dr. Hannan’s work can be found in her forthcoming book published by Fortress Press, “Stewarding the Pulpit” (working title.) In addition she has a forthcoming article in Currents in Theology and Mission entitled “Pass the Mic: The Case for Pulpit Stewardship.” Finally, read her article, “That All Might Proclaim: Continuing Luther’s Legacy of Access.” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 56:2 (June 2017): 169-175.

McClure, John. The Roundtable Pulpit: Where Leadership and Preaching Meet. Abingdon Press (Nashville, 1995).

[[author title=”About the Author”]]

Photo by Josh Sorenson

  • Lisa Cressman

    The vision for Backstory Preaching woke the Rev'd Dr. Lisa Cressman in the middle of the night, and she's been trying to keep up with the Holy Spirit ever since. She's Backstory Preaching's Founder and Steward, sharing insights from 25 years as an Episcopal priest, preacher, spiritual director, and retreat leader. Lisa is the author of Backstory Preaching: Integrating Life, Spirituality, and Craft and a Certified Daring Way facilitator. She holds a BS in Nursing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an M.Div. from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, CA, and a D.Min. in Practical Theology from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN.

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