I’ve been blessed lately with the opportunity to preach a bit more. I really enjoy preaching, and the homiletics training I received at Covenant Seminary during my M.Div. was excellent. But the more I learn about preaching, the more I feel like I’m just beginning to learn what it even means to preach. Preaching to me is like a vast mountain, the top of which is hidden by clouds and cannot be seen, and the higher I climb, the more it stretches up still higher and higher above me.
I’m not looking for encouragement when I say that, or trying to be deliberately modest. Its honestly how I feel. I think every preacher who has some awareness of the grandness and height of his task feels acutely his own unworthiness. I’ve referenced before the statement by Lloyd-Jones that “any man who has had some glimpse of what it is to preach will inevitably feel that he has never preached.” To that could be added the testimony of Spurgeon: “There is no good preacher who is not moved almost to the point of tears at the end of every sermon at how poor was the message he just delivered.”
And yet, by the grace of God, Sunday by Sunday, we preach. Here are 5 lessons I’m learning along the way. If you are a fellow preacher, trying to climb this vast and steep mountain alongside me, I hope these might be helpful to you.
1) Stack, splice, and spread out your illustrations
I used to think that the primary purpose of illustration was to clarify to the mind, and that story/narrative is the typical way to do it. Based on what I learned at Covenant, and from Bryan Chapell’s excellent instruction on preaching, I have come to see that the primary purpose of illustration is to engage the emotions and will, and that there are all kinds of different ways of doing it. One is word picture, for instance. Recently I was trying to describe how it is that a human being cannot see God’s face and live, and so I borrowed from a line in C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces and compared it to a mosquito flying into the Niagara Falls. So the sentence went from this…
“we cannot see the face of God and live…”
“we cannot see the face of God and live, anymore than a mosquito can fly into the Niagara Falls and live.”
That only adds 12 words, and about 3.5 seconds to your sermon. But it probably added a level of intellectual clarity and emotional force far disproportionate to its length.
I have gotten to a point where I am almost unable to do explanation without illustration, and for just about every propositional truth I want to communicate, I try to anchor it to concrete and narratival particulars. This is not “watering down” the sermon, as some people suggest, any more than Jesus was watering down his message by using parables (Mark 4:34). Because the human mind tends toward the concrete, we are enhancing, not reducing, the truth of Scripture for our listeners when we translate it into the particularity and situatedness of everyday life.
So in addition to traditional narrative illustrations, I have on my own developed two techniques for illustration that I share here in case others might find them helpful. First, I stack illustrations up in a bunch. Sometimes I will use 5 or 6 word pictures in a row. (Martin Luther King used to do this in his speeches—it’s not repetitive, it usually enhances the meaning.) Second, I weave in and out of illustrations throughout the sermon. So I will often come back to my opening illustration, after having explained the text it was illustrating, and tie the illustration back to it. That cements the connection and makes it crystal clear. Too often I fear people remember our illustrations, but forget what they were intended to illustrate!
I’m also learning to look in a variety of places for illustration: movies, history, literature, current events, my own life, etc. I find that the part of my library that is the weakest is literature. I have a ton of theology books, but not enough stories to pull from for illustrations. In the years ahead, I want to read more literature—Shakespeare, Greek myths, children’s books, Camus’ plays, whatever is rich and interesting—in large part to grow in my ability to communicate God’s Word in the pulpit. I have come to believe that, to be an effective preacher, you must be not only a good student of the Bible, but a wide reader and sensitive observer of life.
2) When explaining the text, depth > width
There are many ways that a sermon is different from a lecture/commentary, but one of them, I am learning, is this: the sermon need not, and cannot, be comprehensive. There is simply no way to cover everything in the passage, and that is not the point, anyway.
I increasingly find that when doing explanation of the text in preaching, stating the main point clearly has far more value than offering a detailed overview of the entire passage. For instance, if I am preaching on Psalm 90, the sermon should basically be about human ephemerality before God, and the implications of this truth for our lives in relation to the whole gospel. I will only go into ancillary textual details insofar as they relate to this larger thrust of the psalm. In a lecture you’d have to be more thorough, but in a 30 minute sermon, you simply can’t. You have to keep the main idea visible at all times.
This means that my sermon prep is a fundamentally different kind of intellectual exercise than, for instance, my PhD studies. In my doctoral work I am searching out intricacies in the text, looking for gaps in the literature, trying to make a unique contribution. That is a whole different universe from sermon prep. Sermon prep study is about figuring out how to best accent the main strokes of the biblical text for your particular congregation—its not about finding something new, but stating the old and the plain and the normal in a fresh, engaging, and contextualized, gospel-oriented way.
This does not mean that I don’t read commentaries and study in the original language in my study time—it means that I do that a little less relative to the thought that goes into prayerful application, and that I try to hide and conceal the study in the sermon. The person in the pew does not need a detailed commentary, and should not be impressed by the preacher’s erudition. They need a clear and application-geared explanation, and should be impressed by the Bible’s clarity and power.
3) Your application should be fueled by your counseling
I believe that no one can be a good preacher without digging deeply into the lives of his people. The pastor who neglects to engage in counseling and personal discipleship and hospital visitation and so forth is going to be weaker in the pulpit as a result. He may be a great speaker and exegete, but he won’t be good at applying the truth to this particular people he is addressing.
I believe every sermon should take on a very particular shape based on the audience. Two sermons on the exact same text at two different churches might end up as totally different sermons. This is not relativism, it is the reality that you are speaking to particular people, and love requires you speak in order to be helpful to them.
It is therefore not enough to proclaim truth clearly. You have to connect that truth to the struggles of real life—whatever issues are most entangling and hindering your people in their spiritual lives. To do that, you need not only courage and wisdom. You need to have deep enough relationships with the people in your congregation to know what those issues are.
I have found that when I “go there” and apply the truth to hot button issues and elephants in the room, I rarely regret it. People want that. They expect it. If your people are struggling with gossip, talk about that from the text. If the marriages are weak in your church, speak to that from the text. Go there. Don’t shy away from the real issues. Be bold. Be a lightning rod when you need to be. You are not there to be nice, you are there to kindle a fire and let it burn. But to speak to the hot issues, you have to know what they are.
Sometimes the difference between a boring vs. a riveting sermon can be this simple: how well do you know the people to whom you are preaching?
4) Let your content determine your structure
Some people push back against doing 2 point or 3 point sermons, or using alliteration. I grant there are forced/formulaic ways of structuring a sermon, and if you do the same way every Sunday it may actually become more of a hindrance than a help. But whatever enables people to follow the sermon and adds clarity to the presentation should be welcome. Of course, you don’t have to have 2 or 3 points. The point is to make the content of the sermon as easy to understand as possible.
In architecture there is a principle, “form follows function.” I adjust this to make my own personal preaching principle: “form follows content.” I don’t think there is one right way to do structure, but I do think we have to be intentional about choosing structure. If you are just up there, you know, talking – that will not cut it. That might be how your brain works, but it is not how most people listen. You need to submit to the discipline of seeking clarity and organization.
The biggest areas where I tend to get lazy are:
- summarizing previous points (especially in the conclusion)
- re-reading the text in my explanation
Especially transitions are easy to skirt over. “Okay, now on to point 2” is pretty bland. It’s usually better to show the logical relation from one point to another and say something like, “okay, we’ve seen ___ so far in point 1, but we still need to see ____ in point 2, and here is why we still need to see that….” Or another way to do it is build a crescendo or heightening from one point to the next. Or another is to problematize the points so that the listener feels a tension from one point that the next point is intended to resolve. But it almost always helps to have some kind of logical, deliberate flow and sequencing.
Of course, we should always be willing to break away from structure—but that should be the Spirit’s leading, not the fruit of laziness in sermon prep.
5) Go for it every time
Preaching is like dancing or singing or playing sports or asking someone out on a date. It doesn’t work if you are on your heels, half-engaged, tentative. You have to go all out every time. You have to give it your absolute best shot. You have to lean into it. I have learned this the hard way. Sometimes, if I feel good about my sermon last week, I can be a little bit flat-footed in my preparation for the next one, and then it’s a down week. I hate that.
The best way to preach is to treat every sermon like it’s your last. Each week, from Monday morning to the closing prayer, we have to try to scale that mountain all over again. It is, and should be, an emotionally and spiritually and psychologically exhausting task. But a joyful one too.
I find that every single time I get up to preach, I have to surrender to Christ all over again, almost as if I were becoming a Christian for the first time. The pulpit is sacred space, holy ground. It requires a posture of submission, self-abandonment, stretching out in faith.
Many times, even when I’m leaning on the Lord, I feel like I’m falling short. But there are also those moments when God shows up and you are conscious—despite all your unworthiness—of being an instrument in his hands. There is no joy quite like that feeling. If God lets me, I hope to spend the rest of my life chasing it.