3 Tips From Abraham Lincoln To Help You Preach Better Sermons


Tuesday, November 19, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of perhaps the most famous speech in American history. Four and a half months after the Battle of Gettysburg,President Abraham Lincoln traveled by train to participate in a dedication ceremony for a cemetery that would hold the nearly 50,000 who perished in the three day battle. The opening line of Lincoln’s address, “Four score and seven years ago. . . “ has become iconic in the minds of American citizens.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a total of 272 words, ten sentences.  There are five known copies in Lincoln’s hand, and each of them is slightly different (sounds like the New Testament manuscripts and the variants among the 5,000 plus in existence).  Lincoln’s short speech, which took less than three minutes, did not allow a photographer time to set up to get a picture of the President delivering the address.  The main address of the day was delivered before the President took the stand.  It was delivered by Edward Everett, contained 13,607 words, and took two hours to deliver.

What are some lessons we can take from this historic moment in American and oratorical history to preach better sermons?

1. Longer is not always better! 

If you compare Lincoln’s speech with that of Everett, Lincoln’s is less than 2% in number of words spoken.  One was two hours, one was three minutes.  You may have heard of the three rules of speech communication: “Get a good beginning, get a good ending, and get them close together!”  Messages (including other elements in a church service like video clips, songs, announcements) have a peak of effectiveness, and after a certain length the effectiveness starts to diminish.  I remember a homiletics professor saying that if you are going over your time limit in a sermon, it is not that you have overprepared, but that you have underprepared.  You have not eliminated the extraneous material and boiled it down to the important.  A forty-five minute message is not necessarily more effective than a thirty minute message that is well thought through.  There is a point of diminishing returns.

2. Impact is not always immediate. 

Harrisburg newspaper printed a retraction last week, after 150 years, apologizing for referring to the President’s Gettysburg Address as “silly remarks.”  The paper stated that they hoped the veil of oblivion would soon drop over his speech.  Well, it did not.  As pastors, we often don’t know the immediate impact of messages we give.  There were many Sundays I walked away from messages dejected, thinking they had not done what I had prayed for, yet those are the ones God seemed to use the most, and from which I had comments months later on how it had affected a life.

3. Lift people beyond the immediate and the temporal. 

As author Garry Wills has noted, Lincoln’s address had a transcendent nature to it.  He lifted the listeners beyond the battlefield of Gettysburg, to a higher and nobler place.  To a “new birth of freedom, and that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  I believe that too many messages deal with the here and now—how to have a good marriage, how to be Christian parents, how to handle money, etc.  These things do need to be taught.  But, pastors, how often do your messages carry your church above the fray of this world to eternity?  As C.S. Lewis often pointed out—this world is not intended to be the best of all worlds, and only since we’ve come to believe that it should be and tried to make it that, have Christians lost sight of eternity. 

I like the Building 429 song that says, “All I know is I’m not at home yet, this is not where I belong!”