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Find the Edge in Your Preaching

Preaching is a high calling. We stand before God’s people with an open Bible and deliver an exhortation in the power of the Spirit. We open the Word to the world. Those of us who preach regularly must take care not to lose our wonder at this sacred responsibility.

Insofar as our message aligns with that of Scripture, we speak on behalf of God.

We’re chefs in the kitchen, taking the ingredients of God’s Word and whipping up a nourishing meal for people in need of growth in holiness.

We’re chefs in the kitchen, taking the ingredients of God’s Word and whipping up a nourishing meal for people in need of growth in holiness.

We’re pharmacists dispensing medicine, mixing the right components that can alleviate the maladies affecting the people entrusted to us, improving their spiritual health.

We’re coaches in the gym, training people for lives of godliness, comforting and challenging them so their spiritual muscles get stronger and their stamina increases, encouraging them to aspire to run the race of faith more effectively.

Missing Edge

Here’s a challenge every preacher faces: our effectiveness is diminished whenever we fail to connect God’s truth to contemporary concerns in a way that engages and holds the attention of our listeners.

We can be biblical and still be boring. We can exegete a text without having exegeted our congregation or the culture influencing them. The meal we serve can be substantive but so bland that our people walk away and leave their plates half-full. The medicine we dispense can lack the necessary sweetness to draw people toward the elixir. The spiritual workout engages the same muscles every week, so people are exhausted rather than exhilarated, having lost interest in your message.

To meet this challenge, I could point to several essential aspects of good preaching, but the one I’ll focus on here is noticeable when it’s missing and electrifying when it’s there. It’s what I call “the edge.” Good preachers find the edge.

When preparing a sermon, ask yourself these questions: How does this biblical text—its world of assumptions, attitudes, and application—cut against the grain of what passes for “common sense” in our world? Where’s the encounter or confrontation of this text with worldly ways of thinking and living? Where’s the sharp point of contradiction?

Find the edge. The world says one thing; the Bible says another. Don’t stop planning your sermon until the edge is clear. That’s what seasons the meal. That’s what sweetens the elixir. That’s what engages different muscles.

If you want people to lean in when you’re preaching instead of checking their phones to see what time it is, show them where the Bible is countercultural. And remember: the Bible counters not only the culture of the world but also the assumptions of the world that we carry into church. When you show where contemporary ways of thinking align with Scripture and cut against the Bible’s teaching, you heighten the drama of your exposition. You tell your congregation not only what the Bible teaches but why it matters—and how it makes you stand out.

Personal Example

A couple years ago, I chose the Lord’s Prayer as the basis for two sermons in chapel at Cedarville University. My first draft was fine. The outline was tied to the text. The manuscript was theologically sound, following the path of strong biblical commentaries.

When you show where contemporary ways of thought align with Scripture and cut against the Bible’s teaching, you heighten the drama of your exposition.

But the more I read over it, the more I felt it wasn’t all that interesting. It covered all the bases, but if I was bored rehearsing it, I couldn’t imagine the students being engaged when listening to it.

After giving it more thought and prayer, I realized what was missing. I hadn’t asked, What’s the edge here? The message was true, but it didn’t run up against falsehood.

Once I looked for the edge, the sermon was transformed. I went back through every line of the Lord’s Prayer and ensured I wouldn’t just expound on the original meaning but also incorporate sharper application: How does this line cut against the common sense of the world or the current practice of the church?

For example, how does praying to our Father expose our overly individualistic understandings of the Christian faith?
How does the picture of him being in heaven reveal popular misunderstandings of heaven and earth and how they relate?
What does it mean to pray for God’s name to be hallowed in a world where most people believe the purpose of life is to see one’s own name magnified?
How does praying for daily bread stand out in a world that prizes independence and self-reliance?
And on and on . . .

Finding the edge improved those sermons, and several students have since shared with me the influence those messages had on how they think about prayer in general and reciting that prayer in particular.

Unveil Cultural Narratives

One way to find the edge is to become familiar with the dominant cultural narratives in the West today. Tim Keller’s work is essential for this task. In his book on preaching, he points out five distinct narratives prevalent today—beliefs or storylines about (1) human rationality, (2) history, (3) society, (4) morality, and (5) identity.

Rationality: the view that the natural world is the only reality, which forms the basis of today’s technological culture that assumes objective, detached human reason (in sociology, psychology, technology, science) can solve what ails us.
History: the view of world events as unfolding toward progress in scientific, technological, and even moral spheres of life, so whatever is new is assumed better, as opposed to the benighted and regressive opinions of our ancestors.
Society: the view that the purpose of our social order isn’t to further the interests of any one group or promote values and virtues but to set all individuals free—only this freedom is negative in that it focuses on being freed from constraints over being freed for a higher purpose.
Morality or Justice: the view that human rights and the push for justice need not align with God’s moral norms but with whatever moral universe we create for ourselves.
Identity: the view that we find our identity not in something that comes from outside (duties or communal obligations) but from finding and expressing ourselves in opposition to outside constraints that require conformity.

Identifying these narratives helps you get better at finding the edge—that sharp line of distinction between Scripture and society.


Finding the edge shouldn’t put us in a posture of warring against those outside the church. Keller recommends the gospel-soaked sermon feel more like “a prison break than a battle,” because we’re pointing out not only the falseness of cultural narratives but their unworkability, their inability to deliver on their promises. The medicine should come as a relief because the edge has made clear the diagnosis.

Finding the edge also shouldn’t lead to an “us vs. them” posture, as if the Scriptures confront everyone outside the church while leaving those inside the church feeling secure in our self-righteousness. Christians aren’t immune to the cultural narratives that create the plausibility structures in our society. We breathe the same air as our non-Christian friends and neighbors.

Christians aren’t immune to the cultural narratives that create the plausibility structures in our society. We breathe the same air as our non-Christian friends and neighbors.

As an example, the identity narrative Keller mentions includes expressive individualism—the belief that the purpose of life is to find and express your true self. This isn’t just a problem out there somewhere. It affects churchgoing Christians as well. Just as Christians and non-Christians alike need the gospel (the nonbeliever, for salvation; the believer, for sanctification), so also do both the believer and nonbeliever need “the edge.” Christians can succumb to the allure of worldly philosophies too.

Finding the edge also doesn’t mean every sermon will counter the same worldly perspective. The text, not the culture, drives the sermon. We won’t hold the interest of our people if we get into a rut where every sermon counters the same one or two cultural narratives. We need to be on the lookout for the different ways Scripture goes against the grain of societal common sense or current church practice. If, in our sermon prep week after week, we can identify only one or two areas of contemporary thought and practice to be countered, we probably need to do more cultural exegesis alongside our biblical study.

No Silver Bullet

Finding the edge isn’t the only technique destined to produce more effective and engaging sermons. Many other factors matter, like biblical fidelity, solid structure, a steady pace, good illustrations, and vocal variety. But this practice enhances our preaching by facilitating the necessary encounter of the Bible with our world today. And, if done prayerfully, it can help a congregation experience God.

In the end, the Spirit of God is the One who applies the Word to the heart. We’re just instruments. The Spirit sustains with heavenly food. The Spirit dispenses heavenly medicine. The Spirit works in and through us as we work out our salvation. We rely on the Spirit as we look for the edge, trusting he’ll apply the living and effective Sword.


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