One of my fellow elders teaches at a local seminary. He sometimes invites me to speak to his students from a pastor’s perspective about sermon preparation, preaching, and church ministry. During a recent lecture, one of the students asked me, “If you could go back and give advice to yourself as a beginning preacher, what would you say?”
I’ve been preaching now for more than 15 years. I don’t know if that’s enough time to make me a Jedi Knight preacher who’s fit to train newbies. But it does feel long enough to think of what advice I would give to myself if I could go back in time.
Here are seven suggestions for new preachers based on self-reflection, as well as from observing new preachers over the past decade and a half.
1. Preach the Word
This first word of advice should go without saying, which probably means we need to say it a lot: preach the Word. Commit at the outset of your ministry to expository preaching. What is expository preaching? It’s when the preacher makes the point of the text to be the point of his sermon, which is then applied to the congregation.
As I fielded questions from those seminary students, I had a sense many were wrestling with this doubt: “Am I really going to spend 10 or 15 or 20 hours each week using my seminary training to get at the meaning of the text?” I hope they do, and I hope you do too. The longer I pastor, the more amazed I am at how steadily preaching the Word imparts a broad and deep health to the congregation. Let regular exposition be the heartbeat and the respiration that pumps the life-giving Spirit throughout the body of Christ, week after week.
2. Trust the Word
Let’s take this one level deeper. Don’t just preach the Word. Trust the Word.
Even when practicing exposition, your heart can subtly lean on other things to affect the congregation. You can secretly trust in your humor, age, erudition, background, style, technology, or tattoos to be the thing that really reaches people.
If I could travel back in time and talk to the younger me, I would tell myself to stop trying to be so funny. I still use humor today; it’s just part of my personality. But that humor better serves the text now. God has graciously been helping me to overcome my fear of man and my deep-down desire for people to like me, and he has been replacing it with greater confidence in the power of his Word to save sinners and sanctify saints.
3. Preach Shorter Sermons
I sometimes advise young preachers to deliver shorter sermons, 25 to 30 minutes max. Why? So they can learn how to get to the point of the text.
We’ve all listened to rambling preachers. I’ve been one myself. Ramblers take us down rabbit trails and meander from one thought or verse to the next, without any clear structure or direction. If the pastor somewhat bases his sermonic wanderings on the Bible, then the congregation may glean golden nuggets, if they pay attention. But people may just as easily drift off while politely looking attentive.
By preaching shorter at first, you can discipline yourself to get to the main points and not get bogged down or off track. Once you develop ability to clearly communicate the message of the text itself, then slowly start adding time onto your sermons. I started preaching around 30 minutes and today preach closer to 45. But over the years I’ve learned some of the rhetorical skills necessary to keep more of the congregation with me for that length of time.
Beware of the fallacy that longer sermons are by definition more faithful sermons. Sometimes longer sermons are simply more painful.
4. Talk like a Normal Person
Understand what your seminary professors say, but don’t talk like them. Talk like the people in your church. Don’t make your sermons opaque with the theological, biblical, and historical jargon you learned in Bible classes.
I’m not arguing for dumbed-down preaching; I’m urging intelligible preaching. Definitely preach weighty theological truths. But please explain them. If you’re going to mention the efficacy of Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement, then explain to people what each of those precious theological words mean, and do so using the plain language of everyday people.
To the seminarians: think of this as an incarnational homiletic.
5. Work on Application
Sermons from freshly minted pastors can sometimes be long on biblical commentary and short on application. Seminary trains us how to exegete the text. But how do we learn to exegete our people and their hearts? It took me a while to figure this out.
Work hard at the art of application. Spend time during your sermon prep thinking about the applications inherent in the text itself. And just as importantly, get to know your people. Love is the secret to good application. As you fall in love with your flock and come to know them the way a shepherd knows his sheep, your application instincts will sharpen. You won’t just be preaching a biblical sermon, or making biblical applications. You will be preaching and applying the Bible to your people.
6. Get Feedback
Nothing will improve your preaching like thoughtful feedback. It’s encouraging to hear that weekly handful of “Good sermon today!” compliments as you stand in the foyer after a worship service. But you also need careful, constructive criticism.
If you have other skilled preachers on your church staff or among your elders, or even insightful non-preaching church members, ask them for regular critique. If you’re a solo pastor, make friends with other local pastors committed to expository preaching and evaluate one another. My pastors’ fellowship listens to and critiques one of the guy’s sermons each month. The practice is helpful to all of us. I didn’t seek preaching feedback in my early days. If I could go back in time, I would encourage myself to put it in place.
7. Be Patient
Finally, be patient with yourself. Give yourself permission to grow. There’s no substitute for time in the pulpit to find your voice, develop your skills, and learn from experience to trust in God’s Word and Spirit. If you’re not the primary preaching pastor in your church, then find some weekly venue for preaching and teaching, like a youth group talk, an adult education class, or an evening service.
Take the long view of your preaching. Don’t drown in despair because you coughed up a hairball of a sermon. Or two, or five. Be humble, retool, and try again.
All young preachers (and old preachers) should tape 1 Timothy 4:13, 15 to their wall: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. . . . Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them so that everyone may see your progress.”
Did you catch that last phrase? God is calling us preachers to show progress to our congregations, not perfection. I definitely haven’t mastered preaching, whatever “mastering” means. But by God’s grace I have shown progress over the past 15 years in the public reading of Scripture, preaching, and teaching. And by his grace you will too.