The List Sermon: Dos and Don’ts

This morning I’m working on the sermon I will preach in three weeks–that is Sunday, July 30. It is a part of my Nehemiah series for the summer. The text for the sermon is based upon Nehemiah 6:15-7:4 when Nehemiah proclaims that the wall, his great magnum opus, was complete.

I originally wanted this sermon to be a narrative sandwich style, but a funny thing happened as I was working through the material. A list emerged. First it was three things, then it was five, and by the time I had finished it was seven.

Am I really going to preach a list sermon? You betcha! list

List sermons have a fine pedigree as a communicative style. The early Puritans loved them. Speeches are often nothing more than political secular list sermons. Think about the State of the Union addresses–just a giant list of stuff. And blogs, the best blogs are always lists. You know its true.

The problem is list sermons have a terrible reputation. This terrible reputation comes from being abused by sloppy speakers serving up half-baked homiletics. Here are some lists on the dos and don’ts of a list sermon.


  1. Tell your audience that a list is coming. Don’t try to hide it. Come right out and say “I’ve got five things I want you to think about . . .” Doing this creates built-in momentum toward the exciting last point.
  2. Make the last point exciting. Even if it is not chronological, make certain the last thing you list is a real zinger that will either make them laugh, cry, or form a pulpit committee to replace you. Whatever it is, make it memorable.
  3. Keep the list tied to the text. Oftentimes list sermons turn into elongated word studies that have little to do the text. Or opinions. Or someone else’s sermon you’re just copying.
  4. Use lists when the text is a narrative. It provides balance, because you already have the story in the Bible, and the list can help process it.
  5. Work hard to ensure all your listed points serve one big point which is the one point sermon. I am a big believer in the one point sermon–so my Nehemiah sermon has seven things, but they all point to the big point, which is “Nehemiah built the wall as a part of a process to secure the people from their enemies.”


  1. Use clever acrostics with your list. Everyone hates those, and they are so 1980s. It only proves you know how to use a thesaurus.
  2. Spend too much time on the first one or two of your items and then cram the other six in the last paragraph of text or the last minute of speaking. Give equal time to all of your points.
  3.  Develop a list sermon when the biblical text is a proposition or . . . a list. Yeah, don’t use that list sermon, I don’t care how clever your acrostic spells out the name of your church, just don’t use that list sermon to preach the fruit of the Spirit, which in case you missed it, is a list! You need a narrative to preach a list or proposition.
  4. Proclaim that your list is exhaustive or declare “These are the six things you need to know . . .” because seriously, there might be eight. And, there really might only be two, and you just like the other four.
  5. Make your list too long. I once heard a sermon that was a twenty-seven (27!) point explanation or something. Actually, I didn’t hear that sermon, because I walked out on it.

There is probably a lot more I could list here, but I’ll just leave it at this, because I need to go write some more sermony things.


This is kind of rapid reaction blog, as this only came down last night.  Here are the facts.

  • This summer Houston, under the leadership of Mayor Annise Parker passed a new ordinance, labeled HERO, which extended protections to gay and transgendered individuals.
  • The main sticking point in the ordinance was that any individual could choose which bathroom they can use in a public facility–men can use a women’s restroom if they self identify as female and women can use a men’s restroom if they self identify as male, regardless of their anatomy.
  • As you might expect, many in the Christian community were opposed to the bathroom provision and were vocal.
  • In late summer 50,000+ people signed a petition to put the issue on a referendum in the November 4 elections.  The city attorney rejected the petitions, citing ‘irregularities’ in the signatures.
  • UPDATED INFO:  Some of the area pastors filed suit contesting the city’s decision regarding the signatures.
  • Tuesday evening (October 14) the city council subpoenaed sermons from specific pastors who had been vocal in their opposition.
  • Apparently, the reason for this subpoena was to determine if the pastors had violated the laws about discrimination to discover the validity of the petition process.

That is where things stand, now, as I understand. (The updated information, in red above, does not change the conclusions I draw below.  However, it is always important to get the facts straight, and as this story has gone on, I have learned more about the events.)

Now, here is the problem.  As far as I am concerned, most of this is just politics.  Elections do matter, and the mayor and city council won their elections and therefore were pushing their agenda, and those who opposed her were pushing theirs.  That is the way a free society works.

Annise Parker Photo
Annise Parker, despot in training

The problems begin when the city council subpoenaed the sermons.  It is a complete violation of the United States Constitution, and is wrong at so many levels.  I can hear you objecting already, saying something like, “but what kind of pastor doesn’t want someone to hear their sermon?”  That is generally true.  The problem is the reason.  Here is what the Washington Times says is being requested:

One of the subpoenas posted on the ADF website requires that the pastors produce “[a]ll speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO , the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”
The subpoena also asks for, “All communications with members of your congregation regarding HERO or the Petition.”

Government agencies targeting topics and issues for review is chilling.  It is horrific.  This is the path to despotism.  For the record, I would feel the same way if a government agency were requesting the speeches and topics discussed at GLAAD meetings, mosques, or any other place where speech takes place.  This particular issue is more troublesome because it violates not only freedom of speech but also freedom of religion.  Sermons are protected speech, like a newspaper editorial, and it is a protected religious practice free from government intrusion or meddling.

If the government can target any kind of speech, it is not a big leap at all to target any kind of speech.

Now, let’s get to the why of all of it.  Is Parker going after these people because she is gay and they represent the Christian right?  I don’t think so.  She is going after them because they had the audacity to oppose her.  She has a record of doing this.  Texas Monthly had a great article recently (CLICK HERE TO READ IT) about her attack on the Houston Fire Department, particularly its pension plan.  She went after them because the firefighters union backed her opponent in the election, and she is using the thuggery of the jackbooted tolerance police to do her dirty work.

That is the kind of politician, the kind of person, she is.

I hope the city of Houston finds out that a practitioner of Nixonian politics is leading their city.

image from


In June Mrs. Greenbean gave me a wonderful Father’s Day present–the new HD iPad.  It was my first iPad and I’m still learning all the wonderful things it will do.  My wife, on the other hand, is an old pro.  I think she has an app on hers that will vacuum the floor and clean the toilets.  I haven’t found that app yet.


Right after we got it, we left on vacation, so I didn’t have much time to play with it in my work environment.  The past few weeks, however, I have been toying with it more and more.  I find it much easier than my old Kindle reader, however, to be fair, I loved my old Kindle and I bet that the new Fire works a lot like my iPad, so this review probably easily applies to both.

There are four positives to taking the iPad into the pulpit.  [of course, I do not preach with a pulpit so that is just a metaphor for me]

The first positive is the light weight.  My iPad weighs less than my preaching Bible.  The second positive is the absolutely wonderful finger movement of the text.  Moving the text along with a finger is so much better than flipping pages.  The third positive is that, with the ESV app I use, I am able to highlight and then mark as favorite any text for instant recall.  Yesterday I moved three different sections with gaps in between each and had no problems.  A fourth positive is that since the screen is back lit (unlike my old Amazon Kindle), it overcomes the poor lighting on our platform.  The image is so much clearer to the eye.

Now, lest you think the iPad is all joy and no sadness, there are a couple of negatives.  The first one is that the case is cumbersome.  I have even pondered removing the case from the device while preaching . It doesn’t feel pleasing when opened and when folded open and being held, it does not fold flatly behind the device.  So, I don’t like the case.  The second negative is the sound.  If you are using the iPad to preach, turn the volume off or it might tell everyone in your audience that it is your turn in Words With Friends or that you now have a new Twitter follower.

As I told you, I’ve been playing with it and yesterday I made another jump with my iPad usage.  This was not in the act of preaching, but in the preparation for preaching.  About five years ago I made the decision to preach every sermon without notes.  I write the sermon out, word for word in a manuscript during the week, and then on Sunday morning I spend about an hour internalizing the sermon.  My usual methodology has been, early on Sunday morning, to lay out the 9 to 11 pages of manuscript on my desk in individual sheets, covering the entire top of my desk, and then slowly work to internalize each movement, illustration, statistic, etc…  During the act of preaching, if I got stuck, my mind would easily recall the actual sheet of paper sitting on my desk and thus bail me out.

This week, though, I dumped the paper.  I have an app on the iPad that reads the documents uploaded from Word.  I did the same work as always, but instead of paper i scrolled through the iPad and internalized it that way.  There seemed to be no glitch in the delivery; so, my intention is to continue working it that way.  Perhaps I’ll be completely paperless by Thanksgiving.


One of the most popular, blogs I have ever posted was titled Retro Songs Make Great Sermon Titles.  I thought I would share a few more retro-songs and the way I might, hypothetically, employ them in preaching.  The catch is never the actual song itself, but the title as a cultural touchstone, or hook, to launch into a way to look at life from a biblical worldview.  It is a fun exercise.

1.  I Heard it Through the Grapevine—This Motown classic could be used in so many different ways.  The most obvious is to discuss gossip and how gossip is dangerous to meaningful relationships.  But it could also be used to speak of the ongoing work of telling people about the Lord—and the one who is doing the singing (and hearing) is the Devil . . . “not much longer would you be mine.”  The song could likewise provide a launching point for discussing how to nurture relationships, or alternately, the right way to end one.

2.  Margaritaville—I love this song, so I might be pressing a bit to include I here.  I already have a sermon in which Margaritaville is prominent.  That sermon is about Nabal being a fool and Abigail being suddenly available.  If I preached it as retro-song series I think I would emphasize regret and lost opportunities.  Note, however, do not confuse Jimmy Buffet with Warren Buffet.

3.  I Wish It Would Rain Down—This one is for my wife.  Mrs. Greenbean is a huge Phil Collins fan.  Any person who is best known as having a group called “Genesis” ought to be in serious consideration for a retro-song sermon title.  This sermon could focus upon the desire every human being has for cleansing—but also for the fresh start that the rain represents.  Alternate take might be to pair with the traditional Christian hymn “Showers of Blessing” and speak about the heavenly rainfall of the Holy Spirit.

4.  Break on Through (to the Other Side)—Jim Morrison was demon possessed, I freely admit that.  However, this song title and subsequent lyrical beat call to mind the deep ontological angst of life and death.  The other side in Morrison’s twisted lyric is a drug tainted death or the afterlife.  The sermon could move from the myopic fatalism of the song to the hope of the gospel in Jesus Christ!

5.  All Along the Watchtower—This Bob Dylan song has been covered by just about everyone.  Recently, and to my delight, it was highlighted, in all places, in the remake of Battlestar Galactica.  Awesome.  While no one, including Dylan, really knows what it means I think the title could be used to emphasize the “watchmen” concept in the Old Testament or the “watch and pray” motif.  Needless to say the songs apocalyptic and medieval tone would also set up a nice “end-of-the-world” sermon.  But hey, save that for the next one.

6.  It’s the End of the World as We Know it (And I feel Fine)—R.E.M. is similar to U2 in that a great many of their songs have religious undertones and would be useful, such as Happy Shiny People.  However, I choose this one because it might be useful in an apocalyptic tone (see #5 above) or it could be helpful in speaking about how, when we come to faith in Christ our old way of living is gone—our old world and way of life ends, but there is a new world on the horizon that is better than the old.  2 Corinthians 5:17 comes to mind.

Okay, that is enough for now.  I resisted the urge to get more Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, or The Eagles in there.  Someday, though, I will preach these.