KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP) — My first sermon was nearly 20 years ago, and I now find myself at a different stage of life and ministry, with a different set of concerns and observations.
As a more veteran preacher, these practices are on my mind to suggest to those who are no longer in the early stages of ministry:
Vary your Bible reading plan
Your best preaching is always the natural overflow of your personal Bible study. Unfortunately, time constraints sometimes force you to study the Bible for sermons as opposed to developing your sermons organically from your Bible study.
While I commend reading through the Bible in a year, doing so in a formulaic, stale way can lead to stale results. To help avoid this, consider occasionally altering your Bible reading plan.
For example, over the past year, I have taken a few different approaches. I read through all of the Pauline letters, consecutively, on an international flight. I also spent a few weeks reading, rereading and reflecting on 1 Corinthians, and I am currently reading through the New Testament in a month. Each one of these approaches has invigorated my Bible study, prompted fresh looks at familiar passages and led to new sermons.
More study, less notes
In my early years of preaching I wrote out, in longhand, every aspect of the sermon — yes, everything! Every single word, including the introduction, logistical information, transitional phrases and even personal stories were all included in my word-for-word manuscript. These manuscripts usually totaled 12-15 pages.
Oddly, I actually spent so much time writing, and rewriting, the manuscript that it took time away from my study of the text. Additionally, the manuscript served as an unhelpful crutch. I leaned on it more than I should.
These days, I typically enter the pulpit with copious notes, but not a fully drafted manuscript. Doing so affords me more time to actually study the passage and liberates me from being overly dependent upon my sermon notes.
More preparation, less polish
Similarly, early in my ministry I anguished over the homiletical outline and the sermon title. I often spent hours brainstorming and then tweaking them both. Trust me, if you are committed to alliteration, it will be a tough taskmaster. What is more, too many preachers have pressed the meaning of a text to fit a cute outline.
I still spend similar time preparing sermons. I just devote less of it to the polish, and more of it to the substance of the sermon. If an alliterated outline or captivating title more naturally arises, I will employ them. But I no longer feel the pressure to manufacture them.
Re-preach passages, not sermons
Occasionally, I will be in a jam and have to re-preach an old sermon. I absolutely loathe doing that. For me, half the joy of preaching is studying the text. Reheating old sermons robs me of the full joy of preaching and makes me feel as though I am bringing leftovers to the table.
It is true: If a sermon is not good enough to preach a second time, it probably was not good enough to preach the first. But as you re-preach it, make sure you are re-preaching the passage — freshly working through the text and sermon, not just heating up leftovers.
Preach the hard texts
If veteran preachers do not preach the hard texts, who will? Just as it is unhealthy for beginning preachers to select the most challenging passages, it is cowardly for veteran preachers to avoid them.
Tackling the paradoxes of Scripture, the hard sayings of Christ, and the less inviting passages will be good for the church. And as you discipline yourself to study them, it will be good for you too.
Be aware of cultural concerns, but not driven by them
One of the benefits of expository preaching is that it anchors the sermon in the text of Scripture, not current events. The Word of God is perennial, never needing to be updated or improved upon. At the same time, faithful preaching brings the Word of God to bear, actually pressing it upon the lives of the hearers.
Work to maintain balance in application. Both bending texts to address current events or studiously avoiding them will leave the sermon lacking. Be aware of our cultural moment and, as the text speaks to such issues, do just that.
Preach to people, not at them
The sweetest preaching is not the mega-stage at a major conference, it is the faithful, week-by-week preaching by the under-shepherd to his sheep. This is one of the things I miss most about pastoring, getting to preach to God’s people, not at them. The latter views them not so much as people, but as an audience. Preaching at people leads to more clinical sermons, and, at times, a too prophetic tone.
Seeing the congregation as God’s gathered people, who have been entrusted to you, and reflecting on their struggles, their temptations and their trials will lead you to preach to them, and not simply at them. This subtle difference is one of the key distinctions between the beginner and the veteran preacher.
Be more and less confident
I once heard about a newly-minted seminary graduate who bounded into the pulpit to preach his first sermon. He crammed three years of Greek and systematic theology into his sermon notes. His outline was spit-shined, and his sermon title un-improvable. The young man could not have entered the pulpit more confidently.
But as soon as the sermon started, it went off the rails. He forgot his second point. He lost his place in his notes. He sensed he was about to crash and burn and did just that.
He entered the pulpit strutting but he exited it humbled before God and man. After the sermon, a wise, elderly deacon told him, “If you entered the pulpit like you left it, you would’ve left the pulpit like you entered it.”
Whether you are a beginner preacher or veteran one, cultivate a sense of dependence on Christ. Be confident in Him, in the power of His Word, in the certainty of His call, and in the ministry of the Holy Spirit. While these tips might be of help, only God can turn a message into a sermon.