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10 preaching tips from Tony Campolo

When I saw Tony Campolo was leading a preaching master class on the early day of the Youth Work Summit, I immediately booked this stream. He’s a brilliant communicator and I was pretty stoked to be able to spend a whole day learning from him. And I have to say: he didn’t disappoint. He was funny, sharp, and wise and I could have listened to him for hours more. Let me share some of the highlights of what he taught that day: 10 preaching tips from Tony Campolo himself.

1. Make sure you have the gift

Speaking, preaching, teaching, whatever you want to call it: it’s a gift. You need to have this gift if you want to have an impact. Churches are dying because their pastors don’t have the gift of teaching, so make sure you have a call and a gift to preach.

2. Prepare physically

This is something Tony Campolo could speak on with authority, considering he’s in his seventies and still going strong. He stressed the need to be physically fit, to eat well and keep yourself in shape to be able to keep going.

3. Stay Biblically atuned

All through the day, Tony’s love for the Bible shone through and it touched me.  As effective as preaching techniques may seem, they are worthless without a deep love for God’s Word. Tony mentioned Billy Graham, whose sermons are not that impressive on a ‘technical’ level, but are empowered by prayer and continuous references to Scripture (‘the Bible says’). You have to love the Bible and let God’s Word speak with authority in your sermons. Scripture truly has the power to change lives!


4. Be relevant

He quoted Karl Barth as saying we should study the Bible in one hand with the newspaper in the other hand. If we want to be heard, we have to be relevant and know what the Bible says about our times and about what happens in the world.

5. Live out the Bible

We can’t just study and teach the Bible, we have to live it out as well. God’s Word isn’t purely academic, it’s meant to be pondered and then put into practice. God uses Scripture to speak into our existential situation, but we have to listen. Tony mentioned ‘lectio divina’ as an excellent way to do this: mediate on one or two verses in the expectation that the Holy Spirit will teach us. We shouldn’t just learn from great teachers, but also directly from the Bible through the Holy Spirit.

6. Answer the right questions

Freud once said that the people only asked the questions that the church could answer. Others have complained that the church is answering questions no one is asking. It’s important therefore that we as preachers answer the real questions people have. But how we do find these questions? Tony mentioned reading above all else and as an avid reader, I’d have to agree with him. But staying informed of culture in general will help, for instance via social media, films, tv series, etc. These will show the problems people are facing and the questions they are asking.

7. Use stories

Stories engage people and help them to remember better what you’re trying to teach them. Use the power of stories in your preaching!

I can’t count the number of stories Tony told this day; there must have been dozens. He used stories from his own life, from lives of friends, from literature (he quoted The Cather in the Rye and The Brothers Karamazov, two classics), from movies (example: The Seventh Seal, a classic by Ingmar Bergman), from academics (he shared some fantastic stories Søren Kierkegaard wrote), etc.

Tony shared how he writes down every story he finds interesting, as well as powerful lines, poetic lines, etc. He goes through these regularly so he has them memorized for easy use.

8. Use humor

Tony Campolo is funny, there’s no denying that. But he’s not funny for the sake of it; he uses humor deliberately to alleviate tension. If you tell emotionally ‘heavy’ stories, use humor to relieve the tension a bit, otherwise it will become too much for people to bear. Time your humor well. Use it just to break the tension and set you up to make the point; you’re not a comedian.

9. End well

Your ending has to be carefully planned. Think and plan ahead on how to end. This is a personal pet peeve of mine that I’ve blogged about before, you can diminish the impact of a great sermon by having a sloppy, unfocused ending. End powerful!

10. Make clear altar calls

If you do an altar call, make it clear and radical. Don’t let people close their eyes and raise a hand when no one can see them, let them stand up in front of everyone and make a commitment. If they can’t do it then, they sure can’t stand up and proclaim Jesus in the world.

Which one of these tips stands out to you and how could you improve in this area?

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