The Ministry of Preaching

For the last 20 years I’ve taken a keen interest in the ministry of preaching. For as long as I can remember – almost 40 years – I’ve been exposed to it. During my childhood alone, I’ve probably listened to (more like sat through) hundreds, possibly even thousands of sermons. It wasn’t until college that I ever considered doing it myself. Our college pastor was an excellent preacher and over time he gave me ample opportunity to preach. And when I did, something twanged. I became hooked. And since that time I have relished the preaching event (both the doing and the hearing). And since coming to seminary, my wife and I have been exposed to a great variety of preaching traditions and styles. From my years of exposure and experience, I can tell when preaching is at its best (that’s not hard to do) and when it’s just plain lacking (especially in my own stuff).
I’ve thought long and hard about what makes and brakes good preaching. I try to pay close attention because I believe a lot rides on the event. There is an incredible amount of potential locked up in that moment of time. It has the power to INSPIRE, to FEED, to CONVICT; or to lull, lumber about, and fail to connect. Every week we have a fresh opportunity and people give us their undivided attention. They do so with the anticipation that they could get nourishment and a clear word from God. Within the first 10 minutes they can usually tell if that will happen. “Oh yes,” they think “this is good” or “Oh boy… maybe next week.” Eyes are either riveted or they simply glaze over. What are some of the things that make the biggest difference? Well, below I have compiled a list of observations and personal convictions that I have formed over the years. Of course, each list could be a mile long, but I tried to pick the most salient things that make the difference. I even tried to rank them in order of importance, number one being the most significant. So here it goes…
WHAT KILLS PREACHING:
  1. Not interesting. This might sound brutal, but it’s the honest truth. Sometimes our sermons are just flat predictable and if there’s anything God and Scripture is not – it’s predictable. For whatever reason (and there’s many) sermons just fail to capture our imagination.
  2. Wandering and rambling. Nothing kills preaching quicker than this. Where is the sermon going? If a path isn’t clearly seen people get inwardly frustrated. People want to follow the preacher, but if there’s clutter or disorganization listening becomes a big chore. So… most check out and the sermon is dead.
  3. No application. This is most clearly seen in an expository approach to preaching (which happens to be my favorite style). When a text is explained, but no life application offered, you feel like you’ve just read a textbook and the sermon is flatter than a board.
  4. Hobby-horse preaching. This is a topical sort of preaching that gets stuck in a rut. Certain preachers have their favorite topics and every text is somehow bent into shape. But, people get weary of the well-worn paths. The Word of God is a wild rough, so please, let’s be willing to cut fresh trails and show our folks new vistas.
  5. Preaching morals. 5 steps to a happy… 3 steps to a successful… Yeah, yeah people may take notes, but it grossly misrepresents the complexity of life. God loves to mess up our lists and show us what walking by faith really means. In the long run this type of preaching becomes therapeutic deism.
  6. Unnatural tone or demeanor. When a preacher assumes a certain tone in the pulpit that he never would otherwise , I just wanna roll my eyes. Certain circles have their flamboyancies and I want to say, “Keep it real. Tone it down. Don’t be a carbon copy.”
  7. Being too ‘Spirit-led.’ I always wince when a guy gets up and says, “Well, I prepared a message this week, but I really feel the Spirit taking us in another direction.” Ugh! Again, I want to say, “Please preach the one you’ve prepared.” Because, invariably, this ‘new direction’ typically becomes a canned religious stream of consciousness, a stump speech of sorts.
  8. Ranting and raving. Yes, yes, we know how bad things have gotten. We don’t need take all our time to bemoan what is wrong in the world. And also, when pastors use their sermons as an opportunity to scold congregants then we know things have gone real awry. There’s too much good nectar in the Word for us to be spending all our time hissing from our pulpits. Undue sarcasm can fit here too.
  9. Too much content. Sometimes preachers get too fond of their material and have a hard time eliminating the unnecessary.
WHAT MAKES PREACHING GREAT:
  1. Gifting. Some people just have a knack for communicating God’s Word. Others are gifted in other areas. A call to the ministry does not necessitate preaching. But, when a person is gifted in such a way, it’s sure a pleasure listening to them.
  2. Preparation! You can tell when somebody has really put some time into their sermon. It becomes apparent very early on. I think this is the antidote for the #1 sermon killer on the previous list. Adequate preparation usually makes the sermon interesting to listen to. It has content, meat on the bone. And people are always blessed to know that the minister spent a good deal of time in the kitchen and has a deep dish meal to serve! Long Snifffff – Ah… that’s gooooood!
  3. Organization. When things flow and transitions work, when you’re carried from one point to the next and you feel like you’re being led somewhere it becomes a pure delight to follow! Simplicity and clarity makes the sermon magic.
  4. When the sermon actually deals with the text. I prefer expository preaching. I love when a minister will take a text and stay with it throughout the duration of the sermon. I feel like I’ve been fed! But, whether it’s topical or expository as long as the scripture is being handled there is plenty of food to be had. Main thing is… draw out what’s there. Let the scripture do its own talking.
  5. Prayer. #6 on the list? ONLY because preachers have to do their part before they have anything to pray over. (This is not to say one should wait to pray until this point). Prayer alone does not make a sermon. There’s a lot of human work that goes into it. BUT, if it’s human work alone that we offer it won’t amount to anything in the end. Even if it appeared to be a home-run sermon, the fruit simply won’t last. It has to be in God’s hand for it to be of any lasting value. As E.M. Bounds has said, “Prayer makes preaching strong, gives it unction, and makes it stick.”
  6. Seeking to Communicate. If preaching means volume, force, and speed then quit preaching (those things rarely work). Instead, just try communicating and do it in the most natural way you can from the heart.
  7. Stories. They have to be appropriate and if they are they open a window and let fresh air into the sermon. People may not get your sermon, but they do get stories. Using stories gives our preaching flesh. And without flesh our sermons walk around like disembodied spirits. Abstract and good for nothing. We want our sermons to be as human as the people we address.
This is my working list and there are certainly exceptions to some of these ‘rules.’ But, this is what I’ve observed to be the things that make or brake good preaching. SO much of our time is dedicated to the preaching and hearing of God’s Word that it behooves us to periodically stop, evaluate, and make the necessary adjustments to make our preaching all that it can be.
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4 comments

  1. oooh. I can't believe I'm the first to get to say this as a comment on your blog! So, although I can hear the groan before I even say it, here goes: “Preach It Brother!”

  2. Yes… and I'll try not to kill it! 🙂

  3. I remember sitting in the back row one night at my college youth group, hanging with a guy in my band, whom i have a lot of respect for, and we were both in awe of what a gifted preacher you were. It was one of the first nights you were preaching, and we both agreed that this was your calling, and that we should get rid of the other guy who babbles up there the other times…

  4. And I remember sitting down watching you lead worship. Something special about the way you did it. 🙂 Love you buddy.

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