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when explanation becomes exasperation – jeremy selfe


I have recently been reflecting on the sermons that I have heard trying to work out the difference between the sermons that are a joy to listen to and the sermons which seem like a bit more work. For some reason, the technique I learnt in preaching class – explain (what does this text say?), illustrate (show me what this text says) and apply (what does the text mean to me?) – came to my mind and I started evaluating the sermons against this technique. I didn’t think anything would come from this exercise, I was just doing it for my own personal curiosity.

To my surprise, a pattern emerged. I soon realised that the sermons which were a joy to listen to had some form of each element (explanation, illustration and application) whereas the sermons that were a bit more work were lacking or absent in one or two of these three elements. It is such a simple technique to keep in our minds yet the results, I believe, are extremely significant to the listening congregation.

I sometimes wonder if some pastors think they have a point to prove with their sermons. In a 50ish hour week the main time they are evaluated by their congregation is in their 20-40 minute sermon on a Sunday morning. It puts a lot of pressure on the pastor as they want their congregation to know that they are being productive in their 50ish hour week. Therefore, sometimes the sermons seem to be jam packed with information. It is explain, explain and explain. This is a lot of work which can leave the listener overwhelmed and almost burdened by the information overload. Sometimes the preacher will try to bring it home with an, explain, explain and apply. However this still can be difficult because the listener still hasn’t fully grasped what the text looks like yet.

My first boss, mentor and now best mate Geoff New used to drill it into my mind EVERY week that I was preaching, “Someone needs to suffer for the sermon and it should never be the congregation.” Perhaps following the technique explain, illustrate and apply might help relieve the congregation and allow the message to sink into their hearts and minds forever.

(Editor’s note: the quote “Someone needs to suffer for the sermon” is not mine [Geoff New]. I have not been able to source the author.)


  1. Helen Brereton says:

    Is this it?
    ‘Someone must suffer for the sermon. If it is not the preacher who is willing to pay the price then it will be the congregation.’ Page 89 in Larsen, David L. The Anatomy of Preaching: Identifying the Issues in Preaching Today. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989.

    1. Geoff New says:

      Brilliant!! Thank you so much Helen. Yes – that is the quote. Really appreciate you posting this.

      1. Helen Brereton says:

        you are most welcome Geoff

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