Recently my family of eight packed into our mini-van for an early spring vacation. When I say "packed in" you may be thinking in terms of seats. I mean we were packed in. The trunk was filled to the top; the floor had shoes, books, bags, and blankets. The front seat was full of distractions for the little kids as well as entertainment for the adults and big kids. But when we got closer to our destination (10 hours away), we went to Costco to buy food for the week. In this we were now officially, completely packed in. Kids balanced cartons of eggs, coffee, vegetables, and milk while we finished our course.
The vacation ended, and my normal responsibilities at the church resumed. I prepared a sermon and then delivered it on Sunday. After reflecting upon it and critiquing various elements of it, I was drawn back to our road-trip. We preachers tend to stuff our sermons so full of content that it can make for a rough trip. Consider the parallel. Early in the week I prepare an outline and structure (packing list). Soon I'm writing and building on the homiletical bones (initial packing). Through my zeal and love for the content the paper usually fills up pretty fast. The car is nearly packed. However, as I stew over the passage and think about illustrations and implications, I always add more. A paragraph here, an illustration there, and before you know it—the sermon's van is fully packed.
But this is not all. In the moment, fully engaged with delivering the sermon, I am firing fresh arrows out of my preaching quiver. This is like a stop at the outlet mall or gift shop. Of course we can fit in some new running shoes for dad, new jeans for mom, or sleds for the kids. The car and the sermon are packed.
As preachers or Bible study leaders, this is good and important reminder: We can't pack everything into every message. Let me give you a few reasons why and then how we can pack it more effectively.
Why You Can't Pack Everything
It's impossible. Just like you can't bring your entire house with you on vacation you cannot download your Logos library to your congregation every week.
It's counterproductive. The preacher will undermine his sermon if he is going on and on about every single textual and theological dispute filling his favorite commentaries. It's still important, but it is not necessary to bring everything to the pulpit. After a while your sermon shocks will go out.
It sets an unrealistic picture. Elders are supposed to be an example to their flock (1 Pet. 5.1-3). Can you imagine the perception of the young Christian listening to seminary-level lectures every week? It's good for the pastor to read and enjoy these things, but the poor guy in the front row who's struggling with reading his Bible is not going to be encouraged. He is going to feel hopelessly lost.
How to Pack More Efficiently
Remember it is one sermon. As pastors we have the privilege of preaching on a regular basis. We have the advantage of time. This long view liberates us from feeling that we have to cover everything about everything in one sermon.
Establish a clear, succinct main point. If we have established and expounded the central point and main idea of the passage week after week, then we will be shaping the church from the Bible. If we do this over an extended period of time then our hearers will learn theology, hermeneutics, and discernment. Faithful, clear, biblical exposition in the power of the Holy Spirit over a period of time will grow mature Christians.
Know your congregation. Jesus reminds us that he knows his sheep (Jn. 10.14-15). Likewise as pastors who lead, feed, and guard the flock, we must know the sheep. Whom are you preaching to? What are their heart idols? What is the maturity level? I remember hearing D. A. Carson talk about how he does not put all the cookies on bottom shelf when preaching. Carson quickly added, "But I don't put them all on the top either." Instead, Carson advocated for challenging the most mature and the least mature hearer in his congregation every week. The only way to do this, he added, is through a robust but accessible gospel-centered, theological exposition. The preacher must take complex and even infinite concepts and make them understandable. You have to know your Bible and your people in order to do this effectively.
Plan. When I was trying to jam in the extra pair of boots and one more grocery bag into my van I rebuked myself for my lack of planning. The preacher can help himself and his church by simply taking some time to prayerfully plan out where he is going to lead the church from the pulpit. Things may come up that take precedent and alter the plan, but at the core, the preacher knows where he is leading the sheep. This front-end work liberates the pastor from overstuffing his sermons. He has thoughtfully and prayerfully planned the preaching menu.
If necessary, do a "walk-thru." If you have a central point and a plan it can be helpful to walk through the outline or manuscript to see what you can cut. Does that illustration add or subtract value? The quote by Keller is great, but is it necessary? Do you have any unbalanced portions of the outline? Can you make some things more clear so as to not overwhelm new Christians in your congregation?
Prayerful, thoughtful, and careful planning make for good sermons as well as good road trips. This is just another way the pastor can lovingly serve the sheep God has called him to lead.
Erik Raymond is the lead pastor at Emmaus Bible Church in Omaha, Nebraska. He blogs at Ordinary Pastor.