By Steve Sivyer
I’m finishing up my sermon outline and materials for Sunday, Father’s Day. It’s Friday night at 10pm as I write this, though by the time you read it the message will have long since been delivered, recorded, and posted to the website, and thereby given over to posterity. I don’t know at this point if it’ll be a good one, a bad one, or -- my biggest fear -- a middling and forgetful one (at least a bad sermon, the hypothetical message where I drift off into theories about how Jesus is just one of many gods in the pantheon or some other heresy, would get you fired up and talking about it).
The truth is, we never know exactly what the message will be until it’s delivered. This is the pleasant burden of preaching: somehow God uses the preacher to his own ends, and not the preacher’s. There have been more occasions than I can count when someone has come up to me following a sermon -- especially following a sermon I didn’t think ended up coming together very coherently -- and recounted some point I didn’t even realize I’d made with pinpoint precision, or snagged me a week or two or twenty later to tell me that they were still being challenged and growing from something I couldn’t remember saying.
The point is, we know that all the preparation in the world isn’t enough to stop the Lord from delivering his word as he wants it delivered. Our duty as preachers, then, is to do our best to get out of the way. Should we prepare? Absolutely, again and again, as if each were the last sermon we’d ever preach. Just take a look at this sermon’s “pre-notes” -- not my outline, mind you, but just the research, verse references, word studies, and commentaries I’ve pulled together to create background for what will likely be just a 25-minute message!
From my limited experience, talent, and skill as a preacher, here are some thoughts on what we need to consider when preaching:
Pick your passages carefully. Our church has chosen to teach “expositorily”, which is a catchy buzzword meaning we pick a book of the Bible and work through it verse-by-verse until we’re done. By no means do we think that’s the only way to preach, but we do think it’s an excellent way to prevent your church from becoming a church of “Bible Bits”, picking passages haphazardly based on whims and never looking at scripture as a whole. Our goal is that, if you attend Coquina long enough, you’ll hear every verse of the Bible preached through. (Expository preaching has the added benefit of unifying your preachers, should you have more than one. A new voice doesn’t seem so jarring if it’s just picking up from where last week’s preacher left off.)
Read your passages aloud, in their entirety. God has chosen to speak to us primarily through his word. He could’ve chosen anything: speaking aloud to us, sending signs in the form of birds and weather, sending prophets. He’s done all of these things at one time or another, but he primarily uses his written word to tell us what he wants us to know. So the most important part of your sermon is reading his word aloud. To go along with the first point, it’s our goal that someone attending Coquina over a lifetime would hear the entire Bible read aloud.
Don’t try to solve the passage and fit it all into one sermon. The word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. It is breathed out by his spirit. It contains everything we need to know about our salvation. You will never preach the final sermon on your passage, no matter who you are or how much time you speak -- so don’t try to cram every possible observation into your message. Yes, you could talk for an hour or five, but you still would not have exhausted the scripture -- but you would likely have long since exhausted your listeners. Every church culture is different, but the human capacity to listen to a single speaker is finite. Long sermons are not necessarily better.
We can probably move quicker through scripture. Going along with the last point, the expository preacher might consider tackling larger chunks of verses. Very little is more frustrating to a parishioner than to be in, say, Galatians -- a letter that takes maybe 10 minutes to read aloud -- for a year. Pastors, consider taking a broader approach to more scripture so that your people can hear from more of the Bible. To paraphrase John Piper: sermons don’t change people; paragraphs do.
Don’t be flippant or “wing it”. You’re teaching God’s children, after all. Jesus has harsh words for those who would lead his children astray: better that the leader tie a rock around his neck and drown himself than to deal with the consequences Christ will mete out. Know what you’re going to say, whether that’s a solid outline you stick to or writing the sermon out longhand (I’ve done both). I’d rather you literally read a sermon aloud (Spurgeon did that!) than waste the listeners’ time with flippant, easy messages. Effective speaking is simply a learned skill, and can be mastered with practice; love and respect for God’s word is a character trait.
Make sure the important issues are covered, and then get into the trivia. Every passage of scripture tells us something about Jesus, something about us, something about sin, and something about the good news. Have you covered those points? If not, make sure you do. The trivia is important -- but not more important than the essentials.
What if you’re not a preacher -- does this blog apply to you? Yes! All believers are leaders and teachers in some sphere, because one of the great identities we have in Christ is disciplers. Approach discipling others with the same care as you would if you were a preacher delivering your last sermon ever -- because the person you’re leading may indeed be your last disciple.