I have been pastoring and preaching in churches regularly for 20 years or so now. I love to preach and even though my primarily calling now is as a professor, I care very much about the art and craft of preaching.
But despite regular preaching, rarely have I been in the position to do what I’ve been doing this past month – preaching four weeks in a row. I have just finished preaching each week for our church’s four-week series on Meals with Jesus in Luke. This experience of preparing and preaching each week has given me the opportunity for some reflections from a semi-outsider of what it is like to preach regularly.
I have 8 reflections on “The Professor in the Pulpit,” which I will post in a series across the next couple of days. These are in no particular order and are offered merely as an opportunity for me to articulate some thoughts I’ve had about preaching over the years.
(1) Good, well-written commentaries are a great gift to the Church.
The commentary genre is as old (really, older) than Christianity itself, and commentaries in various forms have always served God’s people well. Good preachers regularly take advantage of commentaries, which can be thought of simply as the written record of other teachers, both living and dead, both near and far.
So it may not seem much of a reflection to say that commentaries are important.
But as I prepare to preach each week, with the press of time and the pressure of wanting to have something thoughtful and beneficial to share, I am aware of what a gift we have (especially in English) of having so many well-researched and well-written commentaries, the fruit of the labors of many men and women who have given their years to training and expertise.
I am also reminded of how good and important it is to have different kind of commentaries, technical, historical, exegetical, expositional, theological, and applicational. For this series in Luke I have simultaneously benefited from more traditional modern scholarly commentaries like Joel Green’s excellent NICNT volume on Luke as well as the more homiletical variety of Philip Ryken and R. Kent Hughes. Each of these has different and mutually informing things to offer.
I myself have recently completed a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount and am under contract to write others. This recent personal experience of how beneficial commentaries are for weekly preaching has motivated me again to give myself to the great labor of commentary writing. I would also like to see the western Church spend more resources helping Christians throughout the world have more access to good commentaries both in translation and written by nationals.
(2) There is a difference between a good sermon and good preaching – the Holy Spirit.
Good sermon writing takes a lot of work. Not everyone is willing to do this work. And regardless, some people are simply more able and more talented than others, both in crafting and delivering sermons. Giftedness and labor work together in a mysterious way.
But anyone who has preached regularly knows that there is also something uncontrollable in the actual preaching moment – that good preparation doesn’t guarantee great preaching, and even more inexplicably, sometimes spontaneous preaching (or moments within an otherwise well-prepared sermon) can be the most powerful and effective.
We understand from Holy Scripture that this difference is the work of the Holy Spirit, who blows where he wishes and whose sound we hear but we don’t know where it is going (John 3:8). It is the Holy Spirit alone who reveals God to us in Christ and opens the eyes and hearts and minds to understand (1 Cor 2:6-16; Eph 1:17-23).
Thus, while the preacher has the responsibility and obligation to labor diligently and carefully in preparation – the means by which God normally ordains to utilize – ultimately the effectiveness is the work of the Holy Spirit, first in the preacher’s own preparation and also in the hearing and taking to heart of the message.
In Tim Keller’s recent book on preaching he makes this same helpful distinction between great sermons and great preaching. Great sermons are a function of the skills, giftedness, and preparation of the sermon writer; great preaching is the work of the Spirit.
These reflections have encouraged me simultaneously to work very hard at understanding the texts and at crafting well-written sermons and preaching well-spoken messages, and to recognize that the “success” of my messages is not ultimately up to me. God wants to speak to his people and I want to simply line myself up with his voice as much as possible and trust him to do what he wants in the actual preaching moment.
(3) The most important labor should go into personal and practical application.
Speaking of the importance of labor and diligence in sermon preparation, I have long been convinced that the most essential yet the most neglected part of sermon writing is thoughtful, personal, and practical application. (Rare among hermeneutics books is much on application, but Dan Doriani’s excellent Putting the Truth to Work is an exception).
Many preachers, maybe especially within the evangelical movement, spend much of their preparation time and speaking time seeking to understand what the text is communicating. This is good and right. But I would suggest that this is only half of the work and is actually not the most important aspect of preaching, which is helping hearers to receive the scriptural message and bring it to bear on their real lives. Of course, this is a both-and, not an either-or. But the application deserves as much focus as the explanation.
If preachers preach texts in a way that is exclusively or even primarily saying what the text says – which is essential and powerful – but don’t spend as much labor in thinking through how a particular text speaks into the real and daily lives and struggles of non-preachers, then I would consider the sermon incomplete and maybe even a failure.
It is difficult for someone inclined toward biblical and theological studies and trained in this to understand that most people are not inclined this way nor trained to do so. Nor must they be! This is precisely the job of the preaching-pastor – to be a primary instrument of the Holy Spirit to grant personal and applicational understanding of the texts of Holy Scripture. This is the division of labor God has established in the Church and the difference between those called to lead and those who aren’t (most people). The vast majority of Christians do not want or need to understand half of what the preacher wants and needs to understand any more than I need to understand the construction of a silicon chip to use my MacBook nor the function of a fuel injector to drive my car. I can and should have some understanding, but the preacher’s role is to serve those who have other callings by helping them apply.
This service of helping people apply Scripture to their lives should not, therefore, be an afterthought or something the preacher tacks on out of obligation to what they consider to be the “real” work, exegesis. Quite the opposite, to preach a text well is to apply it well.
This takes work, work that is hard because it means looking inside to our own hearts and asking the penetrating and honest questions of how this text can go from being merely ideas to transformed thinking, feeling, and doing.
It is also hard because it is a work involving the organ of our imaginations. Preachers need to not only think about how a text might apply to their own situation, but also how it will be heard and how it can be received by people very different than themselves. Even as it can be difficult for a preacher to understand that not every Christian views the world and life the same way they do (and that’s OK!) so too the preacher needs to be consciously intentional in considering how a text can be applied to different people.
Always remember that the hearers of a sermon are going to be as diverse as humanity itself. If we think along the lines of the differences in personality types, using for example, the Myers-Briggs analysis, there are 16 distinct ways in which people view the world and themselves, different ways in which love is received and given, diverse modes by which people are motivated. A big part of personal maturity and ministry effectiveness comes from preachers recognizing that they are individually but one of these 16 types (most commonly ENFJ’s) and therefore what communicates hope, grace, love, encouragement, is very likely different for them than for most of the congregants.
And this is only speaking of personality differences. A congregation is full of people with vastly different experiences in terms of families of origin, biopsychosocial experiences, sufferings and pathologies, and circumstances.
A good preacher will write and deliver a sermon that is sensitive to the great diversity that is humanity in both make-up and experiences. One way to do this well, I have found, is to think specifically about how the message will be heard and how it can apply to specific groups/types of people and address them. For example, I will sometimes speak specifically to how the teenagers might apply the message, or those who are in a season of trial, or those in a difficult marriage, or those who feel lost or hard-hearted. This takes creative thinking but is the obligation of the preacher who wants to do more than share ideas, but truly minister grace to people.
My reflections are continued in Part 2.
Here are the sermons I preached in the Meals with Jesus series: