I’ve been blessed lately with the opportunity to preach a bit more. I love preaching, and I got excellent homiletics training at Covenant Seminary. But the more I learn about preaching, the more I realize how much more there still is to learn. For me, preaching is like a vast mountain, the top of which is hidden by clouds; and the higher I climb, the more it stretches up still higher above me.
I think every preacher who has some awareness of the grandness and height of his task knows this feeling. I’ve referenced before the statement by Martyn 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 Charles 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, Sunday by Sunday, we preach. And a little regular practice goes a long way to helping you get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. If you are a fellow preacher, trying to climb this vast and steep mountain alongside me, I hope these five reflections about what I’m learning might be helpful to you.
1. Stack, splice, and spread out your illustrations.
I used to think the primary purpose of illustration was to clarify to the mind, and that story/narrative is the typical way to do it. But based on what I learned at Covenant, and from Bryan Chapell’s excellent instruction on preaching, I’ve come to see illustration is mainly about engaging the emotions and the will—and there are all kinds of 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, so I borrowed from a line in C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces and compared it to a mosquito flying into Niagara Falls. So the sentence went from “We cannot see the face of God and live” to “We cannot see the face of God and live any more than a mosquito can fly into Niagara Falls and live.”
Though this only added 12 words and about 3.5 seconds to the sermon, it probably added a level of intellectual clarity and emotional force disproportionate to its length.
I’ve gotten to a point where I’m 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 isn’t “watering down” the sermon, as some 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 developed two illustration techniques. First, I stack illustrations up in a bunch. Sometimes I will use five or six word pictures in a row. (Martin Luther King Jr. 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 the text. 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, and so on. 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’s plays, whatever is rich and interesting—in large part to grow in my ability to communicate God’s Word in the pulpit. I’ve come to believe that to be an effective preacher you must be not only a good student of Scripture, but a wide reader and sensitive observer of life.
2. When explaining the text, depth trumps width.
A sermon differs from a lecture/commentary in many ways, but one of them, I’m learning, is this: the sermon need not, and cannot, be comprehensive. There’s simply no way to cover everything in the passage—and that’s not the point anyway.
I increasingly find that when explaning the passage in preaching, stating the main point clearly has far more value than offering a detailed overview of the entire text. For example, if I’m 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 35-minute sermon you simply can’t. You have to keep the main idea visible at all times.
This means my sermon prep is a fundamentally different kind of intellectual exercise than, for instance, my PhD studies. In my doctoral work I’m searching out intricacies in the text, looking for gaps in the literature, trying to make a unique contribution. That’s 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—it’s not about finding something new, but stating the old and the plain and the normal in a fresh, engaging, contextualized, gospel-oriented way.
I still read commentaries and study in the original language in my study time—but I do so a little less compared to the thought that goes into prayerful application, and I try to conceal my study as much as possible. People in the pew don’t need a detailed commentary and shouldn’t 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.
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 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 the particular people he’s addressing.
Every sermon should take on a particular shape based on the congregation. Two sermons on the exact same text at two different churches might end up as totally different sermons. This isn’t relativism; it’s the reality you’re speaking to particular people, and love requires you speak in order to be helpful to them.
It isn’t enough, then, to proclaim truth clearly. You must connect that truth to the struggles of real life—whatever issues are most entangling and hindering the people right in front of you. And to do so effectively you need not only courage and wisdom, but also deep enough relationships to know what those issues are.
I’ve found that when I “go there”—applying the truth to hot-button issues and elephants in the room—I rarely regret it. People want that. They expect it. If your church is struggling with gossip, talk about that from the text. If 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 and a riveting sermon can be this simple: how well do you know the people to whom you’re preaching?
4. Let your content determine your structure.
Some push back against doing two-point or three-point sermons or using alliteration. I grant there are forced and formulaic ways of structuring a sermon, and if you do the same thing every Sunday it may 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 two or three points. But you have to make the content of the sermon as easy to understand as possible.
In architecture there is a principle that “form follows function.” I adjust this to make my own personal preaching principle: “form follows content.” I don’t think there’s one right way to do structure, but I do think we have to be intentional about choosing it. If you’re just up there talking, that won’t cut it. That might be how your brain works, but it’s 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
Transitions are especially easy to skirt over. “Okay, now on to point two” 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 one, but we still need to see _____ in point two, and here’s why we still need to see that.” Another way to do this is to 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. It doesn’t work if you’re 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 the previous week, I can be a little 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 it’s a joyful one too.
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 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.