Many of you earnestly desire to hear your pastors preach better sermons. While you can tell that he labours away, you long for more passion, more earnestness, more deliberateness, or more clarity. That’s understandable. Most preachers would like to grow in these ways as well. (And the ones who don’t really need prayer.)
One of the best ways you can help your pastor’s preaching is by praying for him. But did you know you can do even more than that? And it’s not that difficult, either.
The Big Question
It’s a personal question, but it’s one that must be asked: What has it cost you to follow Jesus?
This past Sunday I had the privilege of preaching Luke 6.12-26. There Jesus considers those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and rejected as ‘blessed.’ They are to be happy. He even commands them to rejoice!
Why would that be blessed? Doesn’t all of human history testify to our striving as a race to get away from poverty, hunger, weeping, and rejection? Why should these people be happy?
Jesus answers: Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Their future reward is greater in eternity which will never end. They will be comforted, they will laugh, they will be accepted. You see, it’s not the mere notion of poverty that Jesus prizes, but rather the reason for the poverty:
Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!
These people are not blessed because they have nothing; they’re blessed because following Jesus has cost them everything. See the difference? They valued Jesus so much and this world so little that they gave up this world and its passing comforts for the next world and its unfading riches.
In sermon preparation this week, I’ve been struck again by the simplest of realities. (Why is it always the simplest things that I have to re-learn the most often?) As I was praying over my study for the day — with my mind wandering from sustained prayer to thoughts about the text, and then back to prayer again — I found myself burdened with this reality:
The point of the text is the God of the text; apart from knowing the God who breathes the words, the knowledge of the meaning of words means nothing.
What does it profit a church-goer to gain a whole dictionary of knowledge, but forfeit the opportunity to know God? It is God himself who is exceeding joy, and whose love is better than life (Psalm 43.4; 63.3). It is God who is our refuge and strength, and God alone who proves himself to be for us when all else seems against us (Psalm 46.1; 56.9).
Don’t get me wrong. Rigorous study is an absolute must and precise attention to grammatical and contextual and historical detail is absolutely essential, lest we misunderstand what God is actually saying. But in the midst of the grammatical trees, we must not miss the covenantal-relational forest: Our God has revealed himself to us! He gave us these words that we would know him, and love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deut. 29.29; Mark 12.29-30).
The reason any person speaks is for the purpose of being known. Our God speaks that he might be known, and that we might live in covenant with him. If my sermon — or any sermon — explains the words of the text, but doesn’t bring people face-to-face with the living God who spoke the text, it must ultimately be deemed a failure.
We must work with all diligence to discern the meaning of the words of the speaker, so that the speaker might be understood, cherished, and loved. May God make that true of me this week and every week!
Maybe it’s because I’m naturally a pessimist, but the most natural way for me to figure out how I can grow as a preacher is to identify what mistakes I most commonly make and try to work on improving those, by God’s grace. For the purpose of self-evaluation and ‘fanning into flame’ the preaching gift that I have, I decided to list out the mistakes I most often make in sermon preparation and delivery.
I imagine that I’m probably not the only preacher who makes some of these mistakes with regularity, so I thought I’d share them here in case my list ends up helping any of you brothers who are working on preaching evaluation / improvement as well.
Top Mistakes I Make in Sermon Preparation
1. I Don’t Pray Enough
This one is simple. There are more weeks than I care to admit when there is very little by way of earnest, extended times of prayer for the ministry of the preached word. This reflects self-reliance, and a disturbing amount of trust placed in my gifts rather than the one who actually has the power to do spiritual work in the hearts of the hearers. This one is first because it’s clearly the worst offence.
2. I Don’t Study Enough
This doesn’t happen quite as much for me, but sometimes I think my sermons are lacking in power because I just simply haven’t studied broadly enough. If I’m not absolutely confident that ‘this’ is what the text says, then I can’t preach it with absolute conviction.
I’m thankful for the 10 reasons for expository preaching listed by HB Charles Jr. Though I am committed to expository preaching through successive biblical texts as the norm for our church, it is all too easy to forget the reasons why, and to just assume the practice without thought to the reason.
In particular, one item on Charles’ list stuck out to me:
Expository preaching addresses the needs of the people which never occur to the preacher
I simply cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen this. Almost invariably, when someone feels that something in particular in a sermon is ‘for them’, it is not something I knew was going on in their life. It was not a need I was aware of now. But it is a need that God knew of so long ago when he inspired the text and ordained for me to preach it on this particular Sunday.
Viewed from that perspective, of knowing the needs of human hearts, we actually begin to see something of the audacity of not habitually preaching expository messages. Preaching topically, or as I see fit, actually places more faith in my ability to assess the needs of our people than it does in the sufficiency of the revealed word and will of God.
Expository preaching forces us to preach on topics and texts that we would never choose. Expository preaching forces us to be controlled in what we talk about next.
If the medium does indeed convey the message, then expository preaching in and of itself serves both the preacher and the people well in that it says: ‘This man is being told what to talk about; he is not the one who knows what we need.’ It militates against the projection of the false image of the pastor as the one who is ultimately setting the vision for the church. If the vision for the church is biblical, people will see it as it is drawn out from the word, rather than created in the mind of the ‘visionary’ pastor.
Imagine for a second that you’re inept in the kitchen (for some of us, that’s not much of a stretch). Picture this: you need to make one cookie. It has to be in a specific shape. Thankfully, you have the right cookie cutter and the right ingredients. But one problem remains: how do you make just one cookie?
Of course, since you don’t know how to make just one cookie, you find a recipe that makes a dozen. You make the dough, roll it out, and get ready to use your cookie cutter.
But which part of the dough do you use? Which part is the best? That’s your first tough choice. So you pick a part that you think looks the best.
But that leads to your second tough choice: what in the world do you do with all the extra dough?
These are some of the tough decisions that your pastor needs to make every week. We study a text all week, examining historical backgrounds, thinking about the linguistic realities of the text, placing it in its canonical context, figuring out where the truth fits in our systematic theology, studying what experts have said about this text, and thinking hard about how it applies to ourselves and others in our congregations.
Our Sunday afternoon series over the past 8 weeks at Grace Fellowship Church has been focused on trying to help Christians learn how to interact in thoughtful, loving, and engaging ways with people of other worldviews. We began by thinking about our own worldview, and how it is grounded in the gospel. We also examined the nature of ‘worldview’ in general.
Over the last few weeks we’ve been dealing with common objections to the Christian faith and asking, ‘How do we understand this objection within its worldview? And where does the gospel-oriented worldview of a Christian intersect that worldview?’ This past week we were blessed to have Ian Clary come and speak to us about ‘The problem of evil’ and how to engage people who see this objection as a basis for rejecting Christianity. I highly recommend giving it a listen.
You can download Ian’s message here
Ian made many good points and gave us all a lot things to think about as we seek to speak truth in love to our neighbours for whom this problem poses a genuine difficulty in coming to faith. He taught us about syllogisms and even some Latin phrases — and we had some fun with it. But one thing stuck out to me.