What the Sermon of the Year can do for preachers – and the church

The Sermon of the Year event is run by Preach Magazine and London School of Theology, and it's aimed at encouraging and celebrating the art of preaching. It's open to everyone, from those writing their first sermon to seasoned preachers and established ministers.

The top 10 shortlisted sermons may appear in a book published by Preach and available to purchase. This is a non-profit publication to record the best of each year's entries, and sales go towards the costs of production.

Rebecca Coatsworth was one of the finalists in 2018.

The top four finalists will be invited to preach their sermon live in front of an audience and a panel of judges. Prizes include generous book vouchers and, for the winner, a year's free study.

Christian Today asked Preach editor Louisa Lockwood about the event.

CT: What makes a good sermon?
LL: For a practical answer, I can point you to the guidelines for the Sermon of the Year event! We have set out a short list of six points that tell people what we will be looking for when they send us their carefully-crafted 1,500 word sermon... and I have to stop there already because to be honest, we receive a number of entries that ignore all the advice and just cut straight to the writer's own passionate, messy story of transformation in encountering God. These real stories that explain the impact of God's love in one person's life can be deeply moving – often I sense that the Holy Spirit has inspired them to write and share in this way through Sermon of the Year and that this is an important starting point for something new in their lives.

However, then I have to remind myself that there is a difference between a testimony and a sermon and that is why we have guidelines to follow and can call on the experience and wisdom of an external, impartial adjudicator to make a selection of 10, and then four finalists. All entries are made anonymous before they go to adjudication.

The world is so vast and our minds are so complex, we love to create structure and methodology to make sense of it and ourselves. So we start with a list only to find ourselves blown away by pieces of heartfelt writing that are soaked in God's presence.

CT: What makes a bad sermon?
LL: Perhaps the most seat-squirming sermons happen when the preacher shows no understanding about who they are talking to and who they should be talking about.

CT: Can a sermon competition be a spiritually healthy event, and if so how?
LL: We don't want to be exclusive – we want to encourage as many people as possible, at whatever stage on their own journey of faith and understanding of the Bible, to write a sermon. We have avoided using a direct Bible quote for the theme – instead reading Scripture around an idea, listening to what's relevant in the world, and extracting a short phase that we hope will resonate with many people.

The competition is a light-hearted device to encourage people from all sorts of backgrounds to write a sermon. The event itself is a celebration of the art of sermon-writing and live preaching. The team behind Sermon of the Year pray through all aspects of the event and continue to be astonished at the blessings that God pours out over this idea. Initiated by Jo Swinney and Matt Adcock, it's now in its fourth year and attracts entries from all over the UK, from Scotland to Northern Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. Entries come from those writing their first sermon or their 500th sermon; some are only 20 years old while others are in their 80s. Roughly equal numbers of men and women apply.

CT: What are you looking for in entries?
Initially that the guidelines have been noted. But ultimately, that there is an authentic, Spirit-led inspiration in the written and spoken word.

Oh – and that they are with us by midnight on Sunday March 3, 2019! Apply now.

CT: Who preached the best sermon you've ever heard, and what was it about?
LL: I've heard so, so many good sermons! I think we are blessed with an astounding range of God-inspired preachers in the UK. I've been moved by reading sermons from preachers long since dead; I've been moved by a sermon pre-recorded in California and broadcast days later at a conference; I've had tears and elation at early morning, intimate sermons in the Hungry Tent at New Wine; I've laughed at funny stories woven into great truths in Anglican, Baptist and Methodist churches – there is no best sermon. Each one depends on the dynamic relationship at that point in space and time between God, the preacher and the listener.

CT: How long should a sermon be?
LL: Ahem. 1500 words of course.

CT: How can preachers get better at preaching?
Some self-awareness is necessary in the early days, but we have to get over ourselves and really always come back to why we are preaching – to explain why Jesus is good news. It's not about us, it's always about him. How preachers engage with fellow, fallen, broken people is done in a myriad complex ways, with truths held in tension, and reliant on inspiration in the moment.

Prayer is a recurring theme in the How I Prepare column in Preach magazine – preachers start with their own relationship with the Lord and come to the sermon from that place. Thank goodness we can hand the ultimate responsibility of success over to the Lord – he opens up the ears, minds and hearts of the listeners and has already prepared the way. Just keep praying and preaching.

May I add a Bible reference from the forthcoming How I Prepare? It is written by one of the four finalists from Sermon of the Year 2018, Rebecca Coatsworth and she quotes Luke:

'Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent' (Acts 18:9)

For details of how to enter Sermon of the Year click here. The deadline for entries is midnight, Sunday March 3.

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