Ten Things I’ve Learned About Preaching

November 2, 1998

In the twenty years I have been a pastor I have preached hundreds of sermons. I don’t consider myself an expert or even a good example of good preaching. Preaching is both an art and a science–and it takes a lifetime to learn to do it well. After twenty years I’m still very much in the learning process.

Here are ten things I’ve learned that I would like to pass along for your benefit.

1. Preaching is a noble calling.

In other generations that point would be taken for granted, but not anymore. Nowadays it is fashionable to poo-poo preaching as nothing more than one man telling a group something they don’t really want to hear. But preaching is much more than that. The Bible tells us that “Jesus came preaching” and that John the Baptist was a preacher of repentance. Peter was a preacher–and so was Paul. 1 Corinthians 1:21 reminds us that it is by the foolishness of preaching that God saves the world. Therefore, if a man feels God’s call to preach, let him rejoice. And let him learn how to preach–and to preach well.

2. Be yourself.

This is a hard lesson for beginning preachers to learn. When I graduated from Dallas Seminary, I had in my mind images of Howard Hendricks, Charles Ryrie, and Haddon Robinson. It took me years to learn that God could not bless me as long as I tried to be someone else. The 19th-century pulpit giant Phillips Brooks defined preaching as “truth through human personality.” First find the truth, then express through the personality God gave you. And don’t be afraid to change and grow as the years go on. If after 25 years you still preach exactly as you did the day you graduated from seminary, then you haven’t learned much from 25 years of ministry. Learn from others but don’t try to duplicate what they do. Be yourself in the pulpit and God will bless you.

3. Preaching sets the atmosphere in the church.

Good preaching builds a strong church. Let’s face it. When people look for a new pastor, they want a man who can preach well on Sunday mornings. consistently good preaching lays a foundation for spiritual growth, edifies the congregation, and sets a vision for the future. Years ago I heard someone say that trying to preach a “great” sermon usually gets you in trouble. Never overestimate the value of one “great” sermon; never underestimate the value of many good sermons week after week.

4. Start your sermon preparation early each week.

I find that if I don’t start working on the sermon on Monday, I’m in big trouble by Friday. It doesn’t have TO be long–just 15 minutes on Monday can make a huge difference later in the week. In recent years I’ve found it very helpful to read my sermon text out loud each day–often from different translations. This helps the text move from the printed page to my mind and from there it can go to my heart and eventually to the congregation on Sunday. I also find it important to rehearse my sermons on Saturday night or Sunday morning at least twice. In earlier years I used to get up early on Sunday and walk the streets of Oak Park, preaching my sermon to myself, waving my arms to make a point. From time to time people would remark (with a grin) that they had seen me “preaching” to the empty streets. Today I do my practicing in my office, but that “Pre-game warmup” is still very important to fix the sermon in my mind.

5. Don’t parade your knowledge.

Young preachers especially can fall into the trap of trying to say too much. Often they do it from the fear that they won’t have enough to say–so they fill their sermons with scholarly minutiae that might interest them but have no particular relevance to the congregation. Remember, the people in the pews want to know what God has to say. They aren’t nearly as interested in hearing you parse every Hebrew verb. Tell them everything they need to know to understand what God is saying–and leave the rest in your study.

6. Be a student of life.

This means listening and looking for illustrations during the week. I purposely keep a fresh list each week of interesting comments or questions from people I meet, things I watch on TV, current national and local issues, and news from the world of sports or entertainment or politics. Be sure to write it down. If you don’t, you won’t be able to remember it at 11:45 on Saturday night.

7. Simple sermons build strong saints.

I didn’t say simplistic, but I did say simple. As I look back over my own journey, I think my sermons have become quite a bit simpler and easier to understand as the years have gone by. I can remember walking into the pulpit 12 years ago with 8 or 9 sheets of paper, preparing to lob my hand grenades of spiritual wisdom into the unsuspecting audience. With the passing years I have learned to pare things down and to have a clear outline. It has been said that the secret of a good sermon is to tell them what you’re going to tell them, then you tell them, then you tell them what you told them, and then you sit down. That’s good advice for all public speakers. Two other quick points: A) repetition is the preacher’s best friend. Repeat your main points so that everyone has a chance to “get it.” Repeating the same thought in slightly different words is like running in place. It gives people a chance to catch their breath before you start the race again. B) When you get to the end of your sermon, tell them what you want them to do. Don’t leave people hanging at the end.

8. You’ll never get in trouble for being too brief.

At least I’ve never been accused of being too brief. It’s hard to keep an audience interested for 45 minutes these days. 30 minutes can be a major challenge. It is better to say something helpful in 15 minutes than to bore people in 25 minutes. Young preachers could cut 30% from their sermons and improve their impact by 50%.

9. Be a student of great preaching.

While I don’t believe in copying people, I do believe there is much to learn from the great preachers of the past and present. I have gained a great deal from reading Charles Haddon Spurgeon even though my preaching is nothing like his. I also gain from listening to Chuck Swindoll, David Jeremiah, Tony Evans, and many others.

10. Preaching depends on God.

Nothing I have said will matter in the least unless you have the “unction” of the Holy Spirit on your ministry. When Jesus said, “Without me you can do nothing,” he meant that quite literally. No one can preach without God. We can speak and talk and chatter and lecture and prattle on about religious matters all we want, but we cannot preach–not even for one second–without the aid of God’s mighty Holy Spirit. For many years I have taken the last few seconds before going to the pulpit to pray for God’s wisdom. I often quote Zechariah 4:6, “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.” I heard about a Puritan preacher who calmed his fears by repeating to himself, as he ascended the chairs into the pulpit, “I believe in the Holy Ghost. I believe in the Holy Ghost.” In recent months I have found myself saying these same words as I approach the pulpit to deliver God’s message.

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.

Other notes:

1) The purpose of an introduction is to: A) introduce the subject B) create interest C) touch a need in the audience. It is also help the preacher get excited about his own message.

2) Stay away from too much personal evaluation. Preachers often are the worst judges of their own sermons. When you finish preaching, commit it to the Lord, and forget about it.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?