Over the last two years, I’ve transitioned from being a parish pastor with weekly preaching responsibilities to a position which allows me to do intermittent guest preaching and to listen from the pews more frequently. This transition is teaching me a lot about my own preaching and preaching in general. I don’t view myself as a particularly gifted preacher, but seeing lots of different preachers in a lot of different contexts in recent years, and having more time to read about preaching, there are several things I’m learning, all of which are proving helpful to my own preaching. Like you, I can be a little wary too much “how to” preaching advice, but if nothing else, I hope the list below stimulates some of your own thoughts for preaching in your unique context. Here’s what I’m learning about preaching:
- Be personable. Don’t be afraid to talk about yourself. Some preachers hesitate to talk about themselves out of fear of being egotistic, but most parishioners will get better traction with your preaching when you err on the side of being personable in the pulpit. It’s especially helpful at the beginning of sermons, and absolutely necessary if you’re guest preaching in front of people who don’t know you. It builds a trust that is crucial for the dynamic between preacher and congregation. It doesn’t mean you have to come up with a story about yourself. Sometimes it may just be a matter of sharing with the congregation what’s been on your heart and mind as you’ve sought to faithfully exegete and prepare a sermon. I once had a parishioner in my former congregation tell me that for a long time I seemed far away from them and my sermons didn’t have much traction until I started to share more about my life with the congregation.
- Use stories and illustrations wisely. Use them to identify points of intersection between the sermon content and the lives of your hearers. A story which has no resonance with people is actually quite a distraction and counter-productive. Some of the best sermons I’ve heard in recent years have included stories that had clear intersection with the sermon and the people in the pews. Some of the worst sermons I’ve heard included stories that were obviously forced and had little to do with the rest of the sermon.
- I find Andy Stanley’s advice for basic sermon structure to be very helpful, and I’ve shared with several pastors in our Macedonian Ministry program. It can be summarized as follows: me > we > God > you > we
The idea here is that my sermons should incorporate myself, the congregation, the scriptures, and the community into one cohesive whole. I don’t follow to a “t” all of Stanley’s application of this outline, as the content of my preaching would fall more in line with my theological tradition and context. But for me, this progression offers a helpful way of making sure I cover all the bases in a sermon so that it’s personable, communal, theologically rich, and applicable. If you’re interested in more details about this preaching, there are plenty of summaries of this approach online. Stanley’s book is called Communicating for a Change (Multnomah, 2006).
- Look up. It’s generally more effective to look someone in the face and paraphrase than stare down and say it as written on the page, no matter how well-crafted the written manuscript. This is an area where I really blew it as a pastor. But having sat in a lot of pews over the last couple years, I can tell you that it makes an enormous difference if the preacher is looking at the people in the congregation rather than a page. One way I’ve challenged myself in this area is to take only one sheet of notes into the pulpit. It’s also forced me to rehearse more, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.
- Don’t try to preach two sermons at once. Sometimes I leave a sermon thinking, “Wow, you preached two really good sermons today, and therefore I’m unlikely to remember either.” Perhaps the most difficult but most important part of the sermon preparation process is deciding what to leave on the cutting room floor. Focus. Focus. Focus. Save some of the content for another day. Doug Webster once reminded me that it’s not necessary to bring all the sawdust in the pulpit, just the finished woodwork. No one is impressed by the sawdust. One sort of good idea will always be more effectively preached than four really good ideas that you could save for another time.
- Let your personality come through in your preaching. Phillips Brooks famously defined preaching as “the bringing of truth through personality.” How very true this is. And how very frustrating it is to watch someone preach without their personality. I have so many good friends who are preachers who, when I watch them preach, all I can think is, “Come on! Be yourself!” What a shame it is to know someone who is so full of wit, humor, passion, intellect, who nevertheless neglects to be their self in the pulpit. One question I would ask most preachers is, “What aspects of your personality are not coming through in your preaching? Why not?”
- God is the subject. I was reminded of this last summer at the annual Barth Pastors Conference at Princeton Seminary. Rev. Fleming Rutledge was particularly forceful on this point, calling on preachers to have the courage to tell congregations, “God says…” I realized at that point that I was prone to referring to God in the accusative case or in the passive voice, often opting for phrases like “We’ve been called by God to…” instead of “God calls us to…” There is indeed a great difference in the power of God as subject. Have the courage to speak so boldly. As Richard Hays used to say, “It’s about God, stupid!”
There is much more I could add to this list, but these stand out to me as the most important elements of preaching I’ve gleaned in recent years. I only wish I could master them all myself! Many readers of this short piece are preachers from whom I’ve learned a great deal, and so I offer you my gratitude for being such faithful preachers. Thanks be to God for your courage and willingness to preach the Word of God. It is no easy task, but through your faithful perseverance you are honoring God and making a difference in a world that needs good news.