What I’ve Learned About Preaching

Not long ago I was asked to give a lecture on preaching. More specifically I was asked to talk about what I have learned about preaching over the years. My only qualification to address this topic comes from 40 years of trying to preach. I am what you might call a working preacher as opposed to a professor of homiletics. I preach because that is what God has called me to do, not because I possess some special talent in this area. But if you preach long enough, and in enough different settings, and if you listen to enough sermons by other preachers, you are bound to develop some convictions about the way things ought to be done.

During a recent trip to Uganda, I addressed a group of young men, most of whom had very little formal training, on the topic, “Ten Things I Have Learned About Preaching.” We met in an outdoor tabernacle, on a warm morning, the young men listening with intense interest to what I had to say. When I was finished, they pointed out that I had only covered my first four points. Or perhaps it was three. They weren’t quite agreed on how far I had gone, but they all knew I had not covered my ten points.  I promised them that I would commit my thoughts to writing.  So this is the result, and it is mostly for the benefit of my friends in Uganda and also for my own edification. And in the spirit of preachers everywhere, I have added an 11th point.

I hope you find some benefit in what I have written. Needless to say, some other preacher would emphasize other points or perhaps would disagree with something I say here. That is perfectly fine because preaching is as much an art as a science, and one man’s method may not help someone else. I offer these as my own observations on preaching, nothing more. Read on at your own risk. Or at least read with a curiosity to see what I have to say. If it helps someone, I am glad. It certainly has helped me to write out my thoughts.

So, then, where shall we begin? Let’s start with a point that needs new emphasis in our day.  

1. Preaching is a Noble Calling and the Central Work of the Ministry.

It is generally agreed that preaching itself is not very popular nowadays. If someone gives us advice we don’t like, we’re apt to say, “Don’t preach at me.” One source defines preaching as a “moralistic rebuke.” But the Bible says that “Jesus came . . . preaching” (Mark 1:14 KJV). And Paul reminds us it is by “our foolish preaching” (1 Corinthians 1:21 NLT) that God saves the lost. Christianity has always been a preaching religion. As Paul points out in Romans 10:13-15, the divine order is preaching, hearing, believing. Unless we preach, the lost have nothing to believe for salvation. The word “gospel” literally means “good news.” And what do you do with good news? You share it, you tell it, you pass it along, and you preach it. That’s why Paul told young Timothy to demonstrate his calling by his godly life and by devoting himself to preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 4:12-14). Or to put it more simply, “Preach the Word" (2 Timothy 4:2).

Christianity has always been a preaching religion.

No matter how the world may devalue preaching, it remains the core of a pastor’s ministry. Just check out the churches seeking a pastor. They all say the same thing, “Send us someone who can preach well.” Other things may be optional. If a man can preach but he can’t administrate, the church can always hire an administrator. If he can preach but can’t counsel, the church will hire a counselor. If he can preach but doesn’t always dress well, the church can buy him a new wardrobe.

Whenever I think of this, I recall my first week at Dallas Seminary 36 years ago. Like all first-year students I was required to take a course called “Bible Study Methods” taught by Dr. Howard Hendricks. In the very first class he made a remark that changed my life. “Men, if you can learn to teach the Bible and do it well, you can cut a wide swath in any direction. You can go anywhere you want because there is always a need for Bible teaching.” Then in passing he added this thought. “If you can learn to teach the Bible and do it well, you can take care of your family for the rest of your life.” That got my attention because at that moment I had been married for less than a week. Now that 36 years have passed, everything Prof Hendricks said still seems perfectly true to me.

We need to recapture the Reformation view of preaching. John Calvin said that when the preacher is truly preaching God’s Word, God speaks through him. Therefore, if we are called to preach, let us learn to do it well. Dr. Todd Wilson, pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, IL, puts preaching in its proper place with these words: “The pulpit is ever the earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world.”

2. Be Yourself-Not a Pale Imitation of Someone Else.

When it comes to preaching, expectations are higher and patience is shorter than ever before. Because of the Internet, you can now hear the best preachers in the world right in your own home, 24 hours a day. You can stream Charles Stanley or John Piper or you can listen to the late, great Donald Grey Barnhouse, or you can hear Matt Chandler or David Platt or Joe Stowell or some other fantastic communicator. Because great preaching is only a click away, that means your own pastor can sound rather boring by comparison. And people do compare preachers. Don’t doubt that for a second. There is nothing to do be done about that, and it is bound to get worse in the future. Every Sunday the preacher is weighed in the balances and someone is sure to find him wanting. There is only one solution to this problem:

If we are called to preach, let us learn to do it well.

Be yourself.

No one else preaches exactly as you do because no one else is wired exactly like you. Most young preachers learn to preach, at least in part, by modeling themselves upon some favorite preacher. This is all to the good, and is in fact one of the best ways to learn how to preach. But pity the young man who after ten years still sounds like a pale copy of his mentor. At some point a man must develop his own voice, his own style, his own method of preaching. If being yourself is not enough, then being a cheap imitation of someone else will never do. Perhaps you are not qualified to pastor some churches. So be it. Paul was not universally admired either. But better to be yourself than to try vainly to be someone else.

Along that line, let me encourage you not to preach “great” sermons, whatever that phrase means. One writer says that great sermons generally are a great nuisance. Focus instead on preaching good sermons week after week.

Never overestimate the value of one great sermon.
Never underestimate the value of many good sermons.

In baseball terms, you don’t have to hit a home run every Sunday. Just get on base and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. I once heard a famous preacher say that his goal was to raise his “batting average” of good sermons. When he started out, he said that he could preach a good sermon maybe once every seven or eight times. Through hard work over the years he had raised his average so that he reckoned that now he preached a good sermon twice a month. There are several things to criticize about that comment, the most obvious one being that the preacher is often not the best judge of his own effectiveness. Let him ask his wife if he really wants to know how he’s doing. That said, I think the general approach is right to try and raise your “batting average” of good sermons. My mentor in the ministry, Ed McCollum, told me 41 years ago that the only way to learn how to preach is to preach. Preachers aren’t made in the classroom. They are made in the pulpit, week after week after week.

Know yourself, said the ancient philosophers. But that is the work of a lifetime and it is never really finished. Learn from the master preachers, sit at their feet, study their style, their technique, the way they approach a text, their introductions and their conclusions. When you hear a great sermon from a gifted communicator, ask yourself, “How did he do that?” Learn all that you can, then put it all aside and preach the message God gives you. Be your own man in the pulpit. If that’s not enough, trying to be someone else won’t work anyway.

3. Preaching is About Ideas, Not About Texts.

This may be the most difficult truth for young preachers to grasp. Biblical preaching starts with a text but does not end there. Let us suppose that I ask what you plan to preach on this Sunday. If you say, “I’m preaching on Galatians 4,” you have told me nothing at all. There is a lot in Galatians 4. I know because I’ve preached it myself on more than one occasion. I doubt that very many preachers try to preach on the entire chapter in one message. To announce a text is not to announce a sermon. It only indicates a beginning point. You still have to decide what you plan to say about Galatians 4. What does the text say? What does it mean? What part of it do you plan to bring before your people?  It will not do to simply offer “Collected Observations on Galatians 4” or even “Things I think the Lord showed me from Galatians 4.” Actually, the latter is better than the former because it at least suggests the beginning of an idea.

Be your own man in the pulpit.

Suppose you plan to preach on “sin” this Sunday. A very worthy topic because “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." But “sin” by itself is not a sermon topic. What will you say about sin? I am reminded of the old preacher who said that he planned to preach on sin one Sunday. “What are you going to say about it?” “I’m against it,” he replied. At least that’s an idea. Better to be against it than to be for it.

To be more specific, an outline is not a sermon. Now at this point we must be careful because every sermon requires an outline or else it becomes the sort of “collected observations” I already warned against. A good outline indicates some sort of progression of thought. But I am thinking of those alliterated outlines that seem to promise much but lead the listener nowhere. For instance,

An outline is not a sermon.

The Power
The Plan
The Purpose

That’s an outline but in most cases, it will not qualify as an actual sermon. What you have are 3 “P"s arranged in order. I once heard a sermon with five points, all beginning with the letter U. Something like this:

Undivided.
Unrivaled.
Undefeated.
Unexplainable.
Unrepeated.

Never mind that the fourth word doesn’t fit with the others. The real problem here is that the listener is forced to think about the outline instead of the message itself. While we marvel at 5 “U"s in a row, we miss whatever message the preacher intended to convey. To be sure, if those five “U"s accurately reflect what is in the text, by all means cast your “U"s upon the congregation and perhaps your people will rise up and call you blessed. More likely they will walk away shaking their heads, wondering what that sermon was all about. Or worse, they will admire your cleverness without hearing a word from the Lord.

Outlines are good and necessary, and people need to see the progression of your thought. The human mind craves order so it is perfectly fine to make your outline very obvious. If it helps, go ahead and say, “That’s my second point.” One of my teachers said, “Let your outline hang out plainly so your people know where you are going.” Indeed, but remember that an outline is just that, an outline and not a message itself.

Worse yet is the sermon that comprises nothing more than a running commentary on the text. I know of some preachers whose idea of preaching is to give 45 minutes of comments upon a text, laboring over every single word and clause, explaining every nuance of Greek and Hebrew, demonstrating nothing so much as the fact that they belong in a classroom, not in the pulpit. Now again we must be careful here. If a man has studied his text carefully and thoughtfully, he will have far more than he can give in 30-40 minutes on Sunday morning. And if he hits on a passage like Luke 5:1-11, or perhaps something controversial such as Hebrews 6:1-8, he may have enough material for six sermons. Very well then. Let him preach six sermons if the people will sit still for it. But do not cram six sermons into one.

Thirty years ago I spent two days listening to a preacher who has gone on to become world famous, and justly so. “Do not fiddle with the text” was his command. He meant something like this. “Do not use the pulpit to parade your special knowledge to your people." Mention Greek or Hebrew where it is relevant to your sermon. But where it does not matter, leave the Greek in your study where it belongs. Say enough about the text to bring out its meaning. Sometimes that requires close analysis of the words. But often you can read the text and focus on its plain and obvious meaning. Say what needs to be said about the text and nothing more. Very few people wake up on Sunday morning and say to themselves, “I can’t wait to hear what the preacher has to say about the allegory of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4.” That there are such people I do not doubt, but mostly they are to be avoided in your preaching. Do not preach to them or for them or else you risk losing the rest of your people who think Hagar is a comic strip character.

Don’t fiddle with the text.

And use pithy proverbs if you can find them. Here I am not speaking so much of the major sermon idea as of short statements that bring home the truth of the message. The Bible itself offers many examples:

“Be sure your sin will find you out.”
“Pray without ceasing.”
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”

Short statements, often repeated, help the sermon stick in the mind:

“When you need to know, you’ll know.”
“He’s God and we’re not.”
“Doubt your doubts, not your faith.”

4. The Best Preaching Resembles an Ongoing Conversation.

One writer described preaching as going from vapors to floods. What the preacher receives from the congregation in vapors, he returns to them in a flood. The wise preacher listens all week long. He pays attention to the questions he receives. He becomes a sanctified eavesdropper so that he can discover the heart of his own people. The longer he stays at a church, the more he will come to know about his people. Or perhaps we should say, the longer he stays, the more the people will become his people. Remember, the congregation is not yours on your first Sunday. When you first come to a church, the people will say, “This is our new pastor.” If you do your job well, they will eventually say, “This is our pastor.” It is a grand thing for the people to feel pride in their pastor and to see him as the shepherd who feeds them week after week. No man can rush this process, nor should he try. But blessed is that pastor who listens well to the heart-cry of his people so that he knows what they are going through during the week. If he knows them, he will not make the mistake of preaching down to them. Nor will he preach about them or around them. But starting with the Word of God, he will preach from the heart to the heart. And they will say, “That was a Word from the Lord meant for us today."

The wise preacher listens all week long. 

So listen and listen some more. Get to know your church. Get to know its history. Listen and the people will tell you the “story behind the story." And while you are at it, get to know your community. A church has a context, a history, a place in the ongoing conversation. The First Nazarene Church is as different from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church as Shanghai is from Nairobi.

And to push the point in another direction, read the commentaries. I have known some preachers who acted as if all truth has been discovered in the last 15 minutes. Very relevant they were, but deep they were not. For 2000 years the best minds in Christendom have been discussing every facet of our faith. Find out what they have said. Think of it as an ongoing conversation the past has with the present. By all means begin with your own study but give Spurgeon a hearing also. See what Calvin had to say. Perhaps Origen has an insight you need to know. Or Joseph Parker. Or Augustine. Or Richard Baxter. Or E. M.  Bounds. Or John Wesley. Or Jonathan Edwards. To paraphrase Chesterton, if tradition is the democracy of the dead, by all means give the dead a voice by hearing what they have to say. I’m all for reading Tom Wright and Tom Friedman and Stephen King, and Stephen Colbert for that matter, but do not limit your reading to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who happen to be walking around. Give ear to what the ancients have said. That at least means reading some books written before 1970.

5. Strive for Simplicity.

Simple sermons build strong saints. By simple I mean sermons that are clear and direct and built around one main idea. You don’t need to tell everything you know about the text in every sermon you preach. Beware of saying too much. Say what you need to say, say it as simply as you can, and then sit down.

I often think of the words of Professor James Denney of Scotland. “No man can give at once the impression that he himself is clever and that Jesus Christ is mighty to save.” If they see Jesus and forget about you, that’s better than seeing you and forgetting about Jesus.

Simple sermons build strong saints. 

Pray for the gift of clarity. If Paul prayed (and asked for prayer) that he might make the message as clear as possible (Colossians 4:4), how much more should we pray the same thing?

As far as my own preaching goes, it feels to me like I’m getting simpler as the years roll along. Maybe I tried to cram too much into my sermons 25 years ago. As J. Vernon McGee pointed out, “Jesus didn’t say, ‘Feed my giraffes.’ He said, ‘Feed my sheep.’ Put the hay on the lower shelf so all of God’s sheep can get to it."

6. Start Early in the Week.

Now I freely admit to being an offender in this regard. I usually wait until Saturday night to put my sermon in its final form. But you can’t wait until then to start the process of study. You’ve got to start early in the week. This illustrates the great advantage of expository preaching through books of the Bible. If you are preaching through James or 1 Samuel or Genesis or Romans, the study of the previous weeks lays the foundation for this week’s message.

You’ve got to start early in the week. 

Here are some things I have found helpful:

1. Read your text out loud.
2. Ask questions of the text.
3. Outline the text.
4. Pray Psalm 119:18.
5. Read the text in six or seven different translations.
6. Read the notes from different study Bibles.
7. Read the commentaries.
8. Read sermons on your text.
9. Discuss your sermon topic with a few key friends.
10. Practice preaching your sermon in its key points.

John MacArthur says that the preacher should stay in his seat until the work is done. And he says you’ll know when that moment comes. He’s right on both counts. You’re more likely to be ready on Sunday if you don’t wait until Saturday to get started.

7. Write Out Your Sermon.

Writing out your sermon helps you in two ways: First, it forces you to clarify your thoughts. Second, it preserves the sermon so you can use it later. That’s exactly how the 825 sermons on the Keep Believing website got started. I typed nearly all of them myself. You can always improve a sermon once you have a manuscript, but it’s hard to improve a sermon that exists only in your head.

In his book on preaching, Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that in his early years, he always wrote out one of his sermons in longhand each week as a kind of personal discipline. Writing a sermon teaches you to think clearly and concisely. Writing helps you find new ways to say old truths. Writing wipes away the cobwebs (or it at least helps you identify where they are). Writing forces you to confront the central question of any sermon: What exactly do I want to talk about? That’s always a challenging question, but you can get to the answer quicker by writing out your thoughts. And while I’m at it, let me offer this piece of advice. Make liberal use of your “Delete” and “Backspace” keys. Don’t fall in love with your own words. They’re only words, and they can always be improved.

8. Get to the point!

For the first few months after we moved from Chicago to Tupelo in 2005, Marlene and I had the privilege of attending many different churches. I found it instructive to sit in the pew for the first time in 26 years and simply take in what was happening all around me. Here’s something I noticed early on. Sermons seem a lot longer in the pew than they ever seemed in the pulpit. I was amazed at how quickly my mind would wander. I recall one Sunday when we attended a very fine church that happened to have a guest speaker. The bulletin said he was going to preach on Romans 8:28-30, one of the greatest texts in the New Testament. It was obvious that he was known and loved by the congregation. When he got up to speak, he started talking about this and that. He gave a few personal anecdotes, he updated us on his family, he told about what he had been doing lately. There was nothing wrong with anything he had to say, but after ten minutes, I wanted to stand up and say, “Do you have anything on your mind that you want us to know? If you do, please tell us because we want to hear it."

Sermons seems a lot longer in the pew than in the pulpit.

This is not a call for shorter sermons, but it is a call for purposeful preaching where every word counts. Preacher, this Sunday if you have something to say, tell us plainly. Don’t keep us in suspense. Don’t trick us or play with us. Tell us why you called this meeting. Don’t be afraid to put your purpose statement right up front. John Piper does that often in his sermons. Good for him. Tell us why you think it matters that we listen. And do it quickly because we are easily distracted.

9. Make a Weekly Illustration List.

Several years ago I wrote an article called My Sermon Prep Idea about how to find timely sermon illustrations. It’s based on three assumptions:

a. You don’t know what you’ll need when you start your preparation.
b. The things you’ll need are all around you.
c. You can depend on God to bring those things to your attention.

It basically involves making a list of things you run across during the week-a comment, an unusual quote, an item from the news, something your kids did, something you saw on TV, a song you heard on the radio, or anything else that grabs your attention. It could literally be anything at all. You just jot them down in a running list. The goal is to have 60-75 items on the list by the end of the week. Out of that list you may use only 5 or 6 things in your sermon.

This has proven very helpful to me because it forces me to pay attention to life as it happens around me. And since the list is new every week, it gives my sermon a sense of speaking to a particular moment in time.

Why does this work? It works because in the providence of God, he supplies around us every day the things we’re going to need later in the week.

10. Prepare Your Own Heart to Hear God’s Word.

Several years ago my friend Robert Odom shared a simple prayer that he uses before getting up to speak: “Lord, help me to preach the message I need to hear.” I’ve used that prayer many times since then and it always calms my heart. For one thing, this prayer takes me off the pedestal and puts me on the same level as the congregation. I need to hear from God just as much as anyone else. And it keeps me from thinking, “I’ve got a message these people need to hear.” Instead I must say, “Lord, as I speak, give me ears to hear what you are saying through my own message. Speak to me as I speak to others.” We need that perspective because preachers need to listen every bit as much as we need to speak.

11. Remember That Preaching Depends on God.

No one can preach without God. Older writers use the term “unction” to describe the work of the Holy Spirit in giving power to the preacher. The hymn “Brethren, We Have Met to Worship” declares that “all is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down.” And did not our Lord say, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5)? I come back to that again and again because it reminds me that all my work, my preparation, my planning, all my sermonizing, even the careful study of the text and the prayerful preparation of the message, all of it amounts to nothing without the mysterious moving of the Holy Spirit. It is said that the great Charles Spurgeon would repeat “I believe in the Holy Ghost” as he ascended each step that led to the pulpit at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London.

“I believe in the Holy Ghost."

We desperately need the help of the Holy Spirit as we preach. All of us who preach have had the following experience. It’s Saturday night and as we put the final touches on our sermon, we sense a “glow” about it that fills us with joy. As we go to bed, we can’t wait to get up and preach on Sunday morning. The service begins and finally the moment comes when we stand to preach. We walk to the pulpit, open our Bible, glance at our notes, look at the congregation, see their expectant faces, and realize in one blinding flash of reality that the sermon that seemed so powerful to us on Saturday night has disappeared. Who stole our sermon? And who wrote those notes that seem so cold and lifeless? It is a terrible thing to be 30 seconds into your sermon and realize you’ve lost the congregation already. It happens. Believe me, I know.

And we’ve all had the experience of struggling mightily all week long with our sermon, sometimes very distracted by the many demands of the ministry, only to find that the sermon seems to be lifted by the Holy Spirit so that preaching becomes very easy.

I can think of many times when someone has said, “You meant that sermon just for me,” when I had no idea who they were, much less what their needs were. And on occasion people have quoted something I said in the sermon that God used to change them when I never actually said what they thought they heard. Such is the mystery of preaching.

The major conclusion I draw from this is that since preaching ultimately depends on God, I am not a good judge of my own effectiveness. When I think I have preached like Billy Graham, the sermon may produce little visible results. And when I feel like a failure, I may find out later that God used that message to bring someone to Christ or to give hope to someone about to give up.

I’m not a good judge of my own effectiveness.

Preaching is about God!
Preaching is from God!
Preaching is for God!

Preaching is not about us, not about our ideas or theories, not about our clever stories, and it’s not about our gifts and abilities. If the Lord should see fit to use our halting efforts in some way, it is because he used his Spirit through his Word to touch those who hear us. At best we are only the messengers who bring Good News. If we do our job well, the credit belongs to the Lord alone.

I conclude that preaching is the most demanding and most rewarding work of the ministry. To preach well calls forth all that we have. And to preach well week after week, year after year, stands as a worthy goal that will take a lifetime to reach. A few months ago I was asked to contribute a quote about preaching for a Christian publication. After meditating on it, I wrote the following:

When we preach, miracles happen. The first miracle, that people come to hear us. The second miracle, that we have something to say. The third miracle, that we proclaim God’s Word to those who listen. The fourth miracle, that God’s Word through us changes lives. The fifth miracle, that we get be part of it. I can’t imagine anything more exciting.

To me preaching is the highest calling in the whole world, worthy of the greatest effort week by week, as men called by God rise in the power of the Spirit to deliver the Word of God to a waiting congregation. God bless every faithful preacher, and Oh Lord, please call forth more preachers to send forth your Word to the world. Amen.

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