Preaching is such an odd experience, even though I’ve been doing it weekly for over thirty years. The sermons I think are really awesome on paper can be turkeys while the sermons I think are really stinky can enjoy a great reception. I chalk it up to the fact that God is at work when His word is being preached. I have no other explanation. Sometimes people thank me for something I said and I’m pretty sure I didn’t say anything about it. I’ve also said some things in sermons that I did not prepare and I had no idea where they came from. I’ve heard Terry Rush stop his preaching and say something like, “Thank you Lord! Somebody write that down!” Never try to remove the mystery from preaching.
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. – Hebrews 4:12 (NRSV)
Even so, I’m not of the mind that preachers should just get up and start talking about whatever comes from the top of their head. Preaching is important, but not because preachers are important. Preaching deserves full attention. I know I’m not alone in this, but I thought I’d share some of my commitments when it comes to preaching. There are probably more, but these come to mind.
STUDY IS ESSENTIAL FOR GOOD PREACHING. Sermon preparation takes time. I have known of preachers who would tear a page out of a sermon outline book and head to the pulpit with it. Sermon preparation in terms of study, reading, and prayer should lead the preacher to wrestle within so that what emerges has touched the heart of the proclaimer first.
CONTENT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN PERFORMANCE. I’m sure that both are important and there’s a place for paying attention to these aspects of preaching. I’ve heard some ‘WOW’ sermons that were devoid of much Scripture and I’ve heard some ‘boring’ sermons that were rich with life-changing truth. It seems to me we ought to do our best to present the message with energy and vigor, but there is a responsibility on the hearer to make every effort to hear a word from the Lord.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. – 2 Timothy 4:1,2
LET THE SCRIPTURES LEAD YOUR PREACHING. Nothing is more powerful than the inspired word of God. Not great stories. Not personal testimony. Not amazing quotes. All of these can assist the message, and should. But the power is in the Word. I’ve heard of church members who counted how many Scripture references were in a sermon and felt that it wasn’t very good if there were less than fifty! I prefer to pick a passage and stick with it. I’m not opposed to using some supporting material from other passages, but if you allow a passage to lead your sermon you are much more likely to get to the meat of that passage rather than just tossing out a bunch of verses that may or may not even be related to the subject of your text. Proof texting is not evil, it’s just sloppy. What is the context of your passage? How does it fit into the larger story of Scripture? These are important anchors for sharing the word and will of God.
STRETCH YOUR PREACHING BEYOND FAVORITE PASSAGES. If all the ink is worn out on your page containing Acts 2 or John 14, then it might be time to realize there are 66 outstanding documents bound up together in your volume! One reason I have preached along with the Revised Common Lectionary over the past four years is that it pushes me to preach from passages I might otherwise pass over. You may have the self-discipline to do that on your own. As for me, I appreciate being on a journey through the Scriptures each year that recognizes the high points of the life of Jesus and the Christian calendar.
SEEK TO INCREASE YOUR STOREHOUSE. When it comes to Bible knowledge we all have a storehouse that is probably well-stocked. But that shouldn’t ever be taken for granted. Personally, when I look at my old sermons I thank God at how patient the church has been with me. Growth has to be intentional. I used to preach about some things that are no longer on my palette. It is not that I was unfaithful then … it’s just what I knew then. Now I know more. And I hope that continues into the future.
I DON’T USE SERMONS AS A WEAPON. I’m thinking about people who sit in front of me each week and listen to what I have to share with them. That is such a precious privilege. I do not use my sermons to attack people. I don’t believe God has presented this opportunity to share the Word with His people (and any others who may be present) so that I can cut them down with the Scriptures. I know the Prophets were pretty plain and also direct. Maybe there’s a time for that. But I also know the Prophets were inspired directly by God to deliver those messages. I think it is the right thing to consider that in every pew is a broken heart, a thirsty soul, a person who needs to know the love of Jesus. If there is rebuking or correcting to be done, let the Word do it. I’ve heard some angry sermons by preachers who exalted themselves and it wasn’t pretty. Trying to provoke and correct and even manipulate people with the sermon moment is, to me, an abuse of the pulpit. Issue a challenge! Point them to God who deserves our all! Show examples of those who chose well and chose poorly. But never use the pulpit for your own personal means of telling people off.
BE RESPECTFUL. Be respectful of God and His word. Be respectful of the senior citizens in your audience and be respectful of the younger crowd. Be respectful of your faith-family’s heritage. Be respectful of your elders or church leaders. Be respectful of your wife and children. Be respectful of the struggles your parishoners have gone through. I’ve heard all of these violated over the years and it’s absolutely painful. I’ve also seen those preachers move every year or two, never able to settle down and live through the journey of life with fellow Christians. It’s never wrong to be kind.
Those are some of my commitments in preaching. I don’t always hit a home run, but I do always do my best to keep these things in mind when I preach. I think they are not necessarily ‘ten steps to preach at a big church’, but they are some thoughts that will help you love your church and be loved by your church.
LINK: A post from 2013 with some ruminations about preaching and some similar ideas.
Thanks for reading, JD