I can remember the moment like it was yesterday. I was sitting in a revival service in First Baptist Church in Moss Point, Mississippi. The night before my girlfriend (who is now my wife), surrendered to full-time Christian service. The Lord had been stirring in my heart regarding ministry in the months prior to that time. Now, my girlfriend was making a life-changing decision.
That night, we attended the services as we had previous nights. However, something happened that changed my life. While sitting there I had an overwhelming sense that God wanted me to preach. I can’t explain it and I certainly don’t want to bore you with the details. When we left the service, I said, “I believe God wants me to do that. I believe He wants me in the ministry.” I didn’t do it because Terri had done it the night before. It was what my friend Roger Breland calls a ‘lovely moment’ when you know God is up to something.
G. Campbell Morgan wrote, “The only way in which a man can possibly enter the ministry is when the Holy Spirit of God bestows upon him a gift from the Head of the church. By that gift he is made a minister of Jesus Christ.” A. W. Tozer advised all who would consider the ministry, “The true minister is not one by his own choice but by the sovereign commission of God.”
We left the service and hurried across town to another revival. The youth minister in my home church was preaching there. When the service was over, I told him what I believed God wanted me to do. We rejoiced, hugged and then reality set in. The pastor of that church said, “Great, you can preach for me in three weeks.” All of the sudden, I wasn’t sure. Three weeks? How about a little notice here. What would I say? I’m a talker by nature, but preaching? I tried to back out of it, but he insisted. Three weeks later, I preached my first sermon.
The text of that sermon was from Luke, chapter fourteen. I preached a message entitled: ‘Counting the Cost of Discipleship.’ For three weeks I read everything I could on that passage and put together enough material to last at least three hours. Because I was so nervous, I crammed three hours of material into twenty-five
minutes. I was totally amazed when six people responded to the invitation that night. Knowing my inadequacy, it was my first glimpse of the power of the Word of God to change lives. If you could hear the tape of that night you would believe that it was the second time that God spoke through a donkey. Brian Edwards writes, “Preaching is the miracle of God communicating himself to a fallen world through the words of a fallen man.”
That sermon was the first of several thousand. Over the years, I’ve preached more sermons than I can count. I’ve preached to twenty and I’ve preached to nearly 6,000. No matter the size of the crowd, I love to preach. Preparation and study time are labors of love for me. I will admit that at times, preparation for a sermon can be 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Sometimes I have to just put my backside in the chair and study, study, study.
In the church where I’ve been privileged to serve for the last twelve years, I’ve only repeated about four sermons. One of the great aspects of expository preaching is that even over the course of many years, you never run out of things to say. Systematic study of the Scriptures will help you and your people mature. It will take you to texts that you might otherwise avoid. It will keep you from chasing rabbits and getting on a tangent.
It takes hard work to stay fresh. Most pastors make the mistake of thinking their people won’t remember a sermon from a few years ago. I have folks in my congregation who make a note of the message and date in their Bible. You do to, even if they haven’t told you!
Let me briefly summarize how I approach a study. First, I do my background work months in advance. This is time-consuming and in the average week, I don’t have time to do all this research and build a sermon at the same time. Secondly, I try to read commentaries anywhere from one to three months in advance. I underline what I want and then my assistant types the summary notes. This means I can reduce thousands of pages in the commentaries to a hundred or so in my files. In reading all the commentaries at the same time, I quickly discover who is borrowing from someone else and it speeds up my reading.
During the year, I take two or three study weeks. I go off to the mountains and get alone with God, the Bible and my notes. It is there that I begin to plan the messages. During this time, I organize my titles and texts. If you can’t do this because of money or allotted time off, then I want to encourage you to find time when you can block a few days and lock yourself up in a conference room, public library or a motel. Trust me, your people will see the value of such discipline.
Every Monday, I spend some time in my study (separate from my office) going over the notes I’ve made. I begin to formulate a few ideas. After all, Sunday is just around the corner. I am expected to have my outline ready for printing by Wednesday. On Tuesday, I spend all day in my study. I do not accept phone calls and only if there is an emergency am I to be interrupted. On Tuesdays, I will spend between 10-12 hours wrestling with the texts and putting my thoughts on paper.
Begin with the text, not your favorite commentary. Let the text speak to your heart. Read it with your people in mind. All of this must be done in a prayerful spirit. I’m always praying and looking for a good zinger to start. The average congregation comes to church thinking about everything but God’s Word for the hour. If you are going to get their attention, you need an attention getter. It can be a story, a video or a statement. Whatever you do, as you prepare your message, don’t lose them in the first two minutes by shooting over their heads.
By Wednesday, I have the outline to my assistant. This outline is then printed and also transferred to our IMAG system so the congregation can see the points as well as hear them. On Saturdays, I rarely take appointments or eat out. I spend most of Saturday resting up for Sunday. Sunday is game day for me. I can’t be out late or watching a movie and be prepared when Sunday rolls around. Saturday night, I take my notes and read them over and over. I find myself editing, adding and deleting even early on Sunday morning.
Preaching every week, sometimes two or three messages is challenging. The churches we serve, expect a word from God when we walk into the pulpit. Too many of my peers are preaching off the Internet or from a ‘Simple Sermon’ book. While there is nothing wrong with gathering information from a variety of sources, the message needs to be something that is from your heart to your people. Most of us don’t like leftovers for meals and your people will get tired of leftovers if you are preaching messages that don’t apply to them.
Remember, louder doesn’t make it better. Don’t be one of those preachers whose motto is, “When in doubt, scream and shout.” If you have a weak point, don’t pound the pulpit. If you want to be a great preacher, it’s going to take time. Becoming an expositor and communicator doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a painful process. You don’t learn to snow ski by correspondence and you can’t learn to preach without getting up and doing it. I’m glad someone gave me my first chance. I’m amazed that thousands show up every Sunday, week in and week out, to hear me do it now.
To be a good Shepherd, I have to also be a good sheep. I need to be fed myself. I need to learn what God is saying before I can tell my congregation. Preaching is not a performance. It is not entertainment. Preaching is communicating the truth and person of God to man. It demands nothing less than our best. If you choose to fly by the seat of your pants in your preaching…if you choose to preach other’s sermons without doing your own work…you will move every two to three years. Then, you’ll end up repeating the same messages to a new church. The material may be good. What will be lacking is a sense of urgency and passion. You may even find yourself giving your new congregation a word that was only for your old congregation. There are some messages that are timely but not necessarily timeless. Don’t be guilty of being a communicator of information without inspiration.
Although I have a Bible degree from College and other degrees, I realized that even with my training, I had very little in sermon preparation and presentation. My preaching classes in Seminary were weak. I’ve had to go outside of the academic world to get help with my preaching. I’ve attended Stephen Olford’s Seminar and talked with my mentors and hero’s about how they prepared messages. Whether your training is formal or informal, don’t be afraid to ask for help, criticism and input. Someone has said, ‘As leaders we spend 80% of our time communicating with people and only 3% of our professional training time was spent in learning how to communicate.’
Let me give you a few thoughts along this line, before we move on. One mistake we make is to think that the length of a sermon is its strength. All of us have taken too long to make a point. We’ve chased the rabbit until he was in the next county. We’ve ridden a dead horse until it was stiff. There’s a world of difference between a conviction that pours out of our hearts and getting something off our chest.
In my library are dozens of books on preaching. Some are helpful. Some were written by people who couldn’t preach their way out of a paper bag. I also have about 5,000 tapes of sermons. I like to listen to preaching to glean ‘idea’s from others. Some I listen to because I like their structure. Others because I admire their ability to make a practical application. As preachers, we need to have our own distinct style but we do need to be constantly in a learning mode.
There’s not a preacher out there that hasn’t had a sense of failure at one time or another. We’ve all preached sermons that bombed. We’ve all wished we’d done more in-depth study of the passage. We’ve all been in the middle of a series (usually Revelation or Daniel), looked toward heaven and said, ‘I’m confused and clueless. Could you have communicated this in plain English?’ Let’s be honest, we’ve all started a series or a sermon and somewhere in the middle of it said to ourselves, “Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus!” Unfortunately, reality says that’s what some of our members might amen that when they listen to us ramble on, filling time.
There are other times when we are immersed in a text and we want to squeeze every drop out of the passage. Sometimes we go over the heads of the common layman. Someone told me one day that Reader’s Digest is written on an eighth grade reading level. Most of our people aren’t deep thinkers. It’s a balancing act to educate the membership without boring them. Vance Havner said, ‘We aren’t called to feed giraffe’s. We’re called to feed sheep. Put the food where they can get it.’
Preaching is a balancing act between then and now. Then is using your reference works, lexicons, word studies, background material and commentaries. Now is finding illustrations that are current and applications that are applicable. A blending of the two is important if your sermon is going to achieve the results intended.
At this point, I want to adapt and amplify some notes from a lecture by the late Ron Dunn. Ron was one of the best communicators I have ever known. He was an incredible story teller. Ron could paint a picture like no one I know. He was also a master at exegesis. Let me summarize a few points I learned from him along the way.
One. Put anticipation into your introduction. People should anticipate that you are going to answer a question or meet a need. Most people aren’t interested in how big Belshazzar’s palace was, but they are interested in their kids and the next mortgage payment. You are answering two questions: What did it say? What does it say today? Unlike topical sermons where the preacher is free to bounce around the universe, the expository message must be preached in the context of the text. Then, we can tell people how this Word from God will help them.
Two. Tell your audience how Scripture applies. Read what Paul said in Second Timothy chapter four, beginning in verse nine. “Make every effort to come to me soon; for Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service. But Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments.”
Ron said, “No one gets beyond their humanity. Paul is saying to Timothy that he is lonely (come soon), cold (bring the cloak) and bored (bring the books. You would think someone as godly as Paul wouldn’t need anything but Jesus. But no one gets beyond his or her humanity.” The word is applicable to daily life.
Good exegetical sermons include both exegesis and application. You can not skip the hard work of digging into the text or your application may be flawed and faulty. If you spend all of your time on what it said in the past, you may end up with a boring history lesson. If you neglect to apply it, your church will be Biblically illiterate.
Three. Require action. Ron felt, the end of the sermon, like the end of all truth, is to obey. The sermon is not given to satisfy curiosity or give information, but God reveals truth to obey. I once had a pastor who would often say, during the invitation, “God doesn’t reveal his will for you to consider it, vote on it, think about it. He reveals His will for you to obey it.”
Four. Be simple. People can be profound if they have the books. Often, deep preaching can be muddy. Ron was the kind of preacher who would amaze you with the depth of the sermon but at the same time, young people and older children could grasp what he said. Martin Luther wrote, “He is the best teacher that preaches most plainly.” Don’t try to build Rome every Sunday. Can you summarize your message in one sentence?
When I read the great preachers of the past, G. Campbell Morgan, Morrison, MacLaren, Parker and others, I am amazed at how clear and concise their words are. They don’t have filler material. Every word is rich, but it was always written and preached with the common man in mind.
Five. Use illustrations. Put your points into concrete images rather than abstract terms so people can understand them. Ron said, “I don’t understand math because the teacher told me how. I understand because she stood at the board and worked problems so I could see them.” The best illustrations come from everyday life, just like the parables of Jesus. He also said, “I come up with illustrations first to explain a concept to myself. I struggle over it until it is simple enough for even me to understand.” One word of caution, be careful of too many illustrations and not enough text. Illustrations are like windows, but we don’t need glass houses. We need some structure.
You’ve heard the counsel, “Preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.” I’ve heard a few sermons where I concluded the preacher knew more about the sports page than the Scriptures. Preaching that is focused on current events can be drained of the transforming power of the Word. The task of preaching, even in the days of the prophets was not to give a perspective on current events. The task was to announce God’s Word. It is not so much to answer the questions people are asking as it is to challenge the worldview that gives rise to the questions.
There’s much more to this lecture, but let me conclude with some closing questions that Ron asked and give some of my own input. Did you address ‘that audience’ out there rather than each member? When you preach, you should picture yourself speaking to each person individually. Preaching must connect to communicate. You don’t always shout when you speak to individuals (at least I hope you don’t). Why do we always feel the need to shout when we preach?
When you were preaching, were you imitating your favorite speaker? All of us have heroes. I’ve heard men preach and could tell who their role model was. The old joke among Southern Baptists’ years ago was how many young seminary students sounded like W. A. Criswell, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas. They would use the same mannerisms and voice inflections. More often than not, they would even steal his sermons.
One of the hardest things about being a preacher is being yourself. We’ve seen ‘successful’ preachers and we want to be like them. How many preachers use, ‘The Bible says..’ because Billy Graham uses it? God didn’t call any of us to be someone else. God called us so that he might speak through our personality. When we copy someone else, we are, in some ways, insulting the God who made us to be unique.
Vance Havner said, “Better to be a free preacher who can walk into any pulpit responsible only to God, immune to praise or blame, than a ventriloquist’s dummy.” Our temptation, when we aren’t getting the results we want, is to change our methodology, change our style or copy someone who we think is getting the results we want. We must avoid this temptation and be ourselves.
This is a difficult thing to do, especially when our congregations have 24/7 access to radio and television preachers. We can convince ourselves that we have to compete with an Adrian Rogers, Jack Hayford, Chuck Swindoll, David Jeremiah or a host of others. We don’t. Our people don’t expect us to. They want a message directed to them, for them, with their needs in mind. Only a local minister can know the needs of his congregation. While we can be blessed by national ministries, it is those who serve in the trenches that are most needed week in and week out.
Did you read the Scripture this past Sunday as if you were changing a formula? The reading of Scripture is a second level of incarnation. The minister is given the task of taking the Word of God in print and putting skin on it. Did you concentrate on what you were saying? Did you read the text enough that you didn’t stumble over certain words? Did you pause at appropriate times to let something sink in? Selah.
Was your introduction too long? The introduction should give an indication of what the message is going to be and the route that will be taken to get there. Did you say anything that people can hang on to as they walk out the door? Unfortunately, most of what we say in any given message is forgotten by the next day. I’ve chosen to hand out an outline of the message, where the members can fill in the blanks. This lets them have some idea of where we are going without giving away the message before they even hear it.
Lawrence O. Richards said of preaching, “This form of communication has been shown most unlikely to change attitudes and values and consequent behavior. Preaching seldom leads to whole-hearted response.” We know that’s true. We’ve all stood at the altar after we’ve poured our hearts out, only to sing two verse and go home.
The Scriptures tell us that God has chosen the ‘foolishness of preaching’ but that does not mean that He made a mistake in telling us to use an ineffective method.
Here are some suggestions for your sermon. First of all, have a simple organizational structure. Secondly, Make it very clear what your main points are. Repetition is a good learning method. Third, the points should clearly be interrelated. Finally, transitions should provide a linkage between the points.
Your job as the preacher is to clarify and communicate the Word of God. It’s a sin to bore people in your audience. Make the Word come alive – first in your own heart, then in your notes. There can be no fire in the pews if there’s a wet blanket in the pulpit. Tony Evans said, “A mist in the pulpit will produce a fog in the pew.” Chuck Swindoll talks about Longhorn sermons. He describes them as, “A point here and a point there and a lot of bull in between.” Preach the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Then, get out of the way and let God work
©2002 MCC This article is copyrighted by the author and is for your individual use.
Reproduction for any other purpose is governed by copyright laws and is strictly prohibited.
Michael served as the President of the Large Church Roundtable, the Southern Baptist Convention as an IMB Trustee, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Preaching Conference, Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and President of the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. He has spoken at conferences, colleges, seminaries, rallies, camps, NBA and college chapel services, well as The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Michael is the recipient of The Martin Luther King Award, The MLK Unity Award, and a Georgia Senate Resolution in recognition of his work in the community and in racial reconciliation.
Michael and his wife, Terri, have two grown daughters, Erin and Hayley.