For the past few years I’ve been thinking often about how I can improve as a preacher. I’m 42 years old, and I’ve been preaching pretty much every week since I was 25. In that time I’ve preached around 75 different messages every year. You can do the math; that’s a lot of sermons. I hope my sermons are better than they used to be.
And I hope I am still improving. Preaching is a funny thing. It’s part science and part art. It takes a lot of hard work and discipline, but also a tremendous amount of creativity. As a pastor, nothing feels as satisfying as a good sermon, and almost everything feels easier to do.
Evaluating preaching is extremely difficult. I’ve heard sermons that are models of the craft, but lack all unction and power. I’ve also heard disastrous sermons, from a technical standpoint, that nevertheless communicate the biblical text in an effective way and connect with the heart on a deep level. I bet I’ve preached both kinds of sermons.
If homiletical evaluation is tricky, it’s also terribly subjective. I know some people think my preaching is too meaty. Other people have said I have too much humor. They may both be right, or both wrong. It’s hard to say. Even our preaching heroes elicit varying responses. Spurgeon was undoubtedly brilliant, but was he a model expositor? Lloyd-Jones is one of my favorites, but he had all sorts of habits that should not be imitated. There is no one way to preach a faithful, effective sermon, and no one way to evaluate sermons. Even if I could get the godliest members in my congregation to give me the most candid feedback about my preaching, I imagine I would hear—along with many common themes—a wide variety of strengths and weaknesses.
But back to my main point: I want to get better. I may be a leader, counselor, manager, team builder, writer, teacher, mentor, discipler, editor, fundraiser, and a dozen others things as a pastor. But as the senior pastor the main thing I do is preach. I’d like to be as good at this one thing as possible. If others are supposed to see my progress (1 Tim. 4:15), I hope one area in which they see progress is my preaching.
So I keep listening to other preaching (although less than when I was a younger preacher), and I keep on reading (and re-reading) books on preaching. I don’t hold myself up as a homiletical model. I resonate with Lloyd-Jones’s comment that he wouldn’t walk across the street to hear himself preach. But since the dear saints at Christ Covenant do walk across the street to hear me preach, I want to preach as winsomely and faithfully as I can.
Questions to Ask
Here, then, are 11 questions I’ve been asking myself as I think about improving as a preacher. I don’t use these as any kind of weekly checklist, but these are the sorts of things rattling through my head and heart.
- Am I cutting corners in my preparation? I’m not a slave to any particular rule about time spent in study. The whole “one hour in study for every minute in the pulpit” has always seemed ridiculously unattainable, and usually makes for overly stuffed sermons. The longer I’m a preacher, the less time it takes to produce a good sermon. That’s the way it should be with anyone in any craft. I’m also sympathetic to the pastor who has Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Sunday school, and Wednesday evening prep to do. There simply aren’t enough hours in the week to produce four (or three? or sometimes two?) quality messages. You have to borrow old material. You have to give one of those settings less than your best. But all those caveats aside, I want to make sure I’m not in the habit of recycling old material for the main teaching time, or leaning on the digested work of others, or letting all the demands of ministry crowd out my preparation week after week. Good sermons take time.
- Did I learn anything new in my preparation? I love teaching and preaching because I love learning. I have to use old material at times (especially when speaking outside my church), but the thrill of preaching is much less that way. Half the excitement is having learned something new during the week that I get to share with others. Basically, preachers can hold the congregation’s attention in three ways: with the force of their personality, with the genius of their stories, or with the intellectual stimulation of their content. Of course, the Spirit is at work too and can work through all of these. But I think too many preachers run out of interesting things to say so they fall back on their own pathos (sometimes manufactured) to keep people engaged each week.
- Was I personally moved by anything in my preparation? I don’t just want to learn new things in my study. I want to feel new things, or have old affections rekindled. It is hard for a sermon to move others that hasn’t first moved us.
- Did the best parts of the sermon come from my closest attention to the text? Too often, the real payoff in the sermon has little to do with exegetical insight from the passage. The power (or so it seems) comes from an illustration, a rant, or a well-placed aside instead of from the treasures we’ve unearthed from the Bible in the past week.
- Did the mood of the sermon match the mood of the text? Sermons sound the same when the text always takes on the personality of the preacher. So, if you are a caring, tender shepherd, every sermon sounds like a soothing balm of Gilead. If you are a rebuker and exhorter, every sermon feels like a finger in your chest. It’s impossible to completely divorce the preacher’s personality from the sermon, but every preacher must be careful that he lets the text set the mood not his personality. Gospel-centered preaching doesn’t mean every sermon feels like the same message about acceptance in Christ. Sermons should be comforting, threatening, indicative-based, imperative-heavy, transcendent, or immanent depending on the mood of the text.
- Am I getting enough sleep? It’s hard to be emotionally healthy, intellectually rigorous, and rhetorically creative when you are exhausted.
- Am I getting consistent exercise? You’ve read all the studies: our brains work better when are bodies are engaged in regular movement and activity. The best sermon prep is often a long walk.
- Am I reading well and reading widely? To be sure, you can be a good preacher without being an avid reader. Not all preachers in all places at all times have had the access to good books that we have. But most people reading this blog have access to an embarrassment of theological, educational, and literary resources. I know I am much better equipped for the intense outflow that is congregational preaching, when I have a strong inflow of ideas from other sources. That means I need books, articles, stories, lectures, or almost anything that keeps my mind fresh, stretched, and engaged.
- Am I thinking through the pacing and dynamics of my preaching style? We all have different personalities that will shape our sense of fast and slow, of loud and quiet. The key is not some rigid standard of uniformity, but the thoughtful variation of speed and sound. When I suggested on another occasion that we might want to shorten our sermons, the advice wasn’t meant to eliminate important content. Rather, the comment was borne out of the conviction that many of us can eliminate unimportant content. We spin our wheels in preaching instead of moving on to the next point. We stay at one emotional pitch during the entire sermon. We are tour guides who only know one way of showing people around the gallery.
- Have I considered experimenting with what I bring into the pulpit? I was taught in seminary to preach without notes. I did that for several years until I felt like I was wasting hours memorizing each week. I’ve tried using manuscripts too. That’s what most of my friends seem to do. The discipline is good for me, and it makes the sermons much more useful in the rear-view mirror. For most of my ministry, however, I’ve used full-ish notes. I used to bring 6-7 pages of notes, then 5-6, now it’s usually 4 pages. Each method—notes, no notes, manuscript—have their pros and cons. Why not try out one of the other approaches from time to time to see what you might like or learn?
- Did I pray?
I still have lots to learn, but I am hoping to get better. Preachers, let’s give ourselves to this task with renewed zeal and discipline. Congregants, please pray for your pastor when he stumbles and encourage him when he hits the mark. And if you think we need help, keep in mind most pastors are more sensitive than they let on.