Howard F. Sugden & Warren W. Wiersbe
Is preaching really important to the ministry of the church?
Preaching is, of course, only one way God has given for the proclamation of His Word; but we sincerely believe it is the most important. We certainly proclaim His Word at the Lord’s Table and in baptism, as well as in the spiritual ministries of the individual believer (“Let your light so shine…); but there is really nothing that can take the place of the preaching of the Word of God in what we know as the sermon. When God would present His Son to the world, He sent a preacher named John the Baptist. Much of our Bible is made up of messages delivered by men of God. Whether we like it or not, the spiritual level of the church rises or falls with the preaching of the Word. Church members will tolerate almost anything in a pastor, but if he does not feed them and teach them, they will turn him off – and possibly turn him out! The pastor who does not believe in the importance of preaching, and who does not work at being a better preacher, is going to have a rough time. Perhaps he should serve as some preacher’s assistant and develop the gifts God has given him.
How many politicians or educators could get crowds to come and hear them week after week, year after year? Yet millions of people each week go to church to hear a man preach the Word of God. G. Campbell Morgan called preaching “the supreme work of the Christian ministry.” It is also the hardest work in the ministry, if it is done faithfully.
Why has preaching declined in recent years? For one thing, the churches have been too easily influenced by the latest secular fads – counseling, group dynamics, dialogue, drama, and so forth. While all these may have their place in the a ministry of a church, none of them can adequately substitute f9r the preaching of God’s Word. Men may be moved in one way or another by movies and drama, music and debate, but they will never be changed and lifted higher, apart from the proclamation of the Word of God.
Perhaps the main reason people have criticized preaching is the fact that so much preaching is poorly done and does not meet the needs of the people. The pastor who runs around town all week, making himself think he is busy, and who turns out a sermon on Saturday evening, is digging his own grave. Sad to say, he may take his church in with him! Real preaching is hard work. Perhaps this may explain why some pastors look for substitute ministries.
If preaching is important to you as a pastor, everybody will know it. They will know that you spend time daily studying the Word. They will see you visiting and counseling so that you are better acquainted with the needs of your people. They will sense that you are a man living by priorities. Most of all, when they hear you preach, their hearts will be helped and they will give thanks to you and to God that they have a pastor who loves them enough to work hard at preaching.
The next time you are tempted to
question the centrality of preaching in your ministry, remember what the
preaching of the Word accomplished in Martin Luther’s Europe and John
Wesley’s England. Think of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, Billy
Sunday and Dwight L. Moody. And think of your hungry sheep who come
week by week to be fed. Paul puts it so pointedly: “Woe is unto me, if I
preach not the gospel!” (1 Co 9:16).
How can I improve my preaching?
Begin by never being satisfied with it or believing all the marvelous things people say about it. While we appreciate the encouragement that comes when a message helps a needy heart, we must never rest on our laurels and become complacent. After he had been in the ministry over a quarter of a century, Spurgeon told his congregation, “I am still learning how to preach.” The satisfied preacher will never grow. He will become the center of a mutual admiration society, not a source of spiritual power.
We improve the preaching by improving the preacher. Phillips Brooks was right: preaching is the communication of divine truth through human personality (Lectures on Preaching [New York: Dutton, 1877], p. 5). “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (Jn. 1:6). As we grow in grace and knowledge and cultivate a satisfying devotional life, we cannot help but improve our studies, our sermon preparation, and our delivery.
Don’t be afraid of kind criticism. In the early days of his ministry, Spurgeon received a letter every Monday from an anonymous hearer, in which the man lovingly pointed out the preacher’s errors on the previous day. Instead of resenting this constructive criticism, Spurgeon welcomed it and profited from it. Here is where a tape recorder comes in handy – if you can bear to listen to yourself! A faithful wife is also a helpful critic.
Hear other men as opportunities come your way – not only the well-known preachers, but local men who as yet have no fame. You can learn from every man, either what to do or what not to do. Many excellent preachers have sermons available on tapes and cassettes. Warning: don’t become the blind disciple of some great man. Thou shalt not worship the tape recorder.
Read good books on preaching, and read sermons. George Morrison used to read a sermon a day, selecting them from many different preachers. Read them for your own spiritual benefit first. Then read them for an understanding of the preacher’s technique – his approach. Don’t imitate him, but learn from him. John Henry Jowett confessed that he often asked in his studies, “How would Spurgeon deal with this text? How would Alexander Whyte lay hold of it?” He called this “looking at the theme through many windows” (The Preacher: His Life and Work [Garden City, N.Y.” Doran, 1912], pp. 127-28). By all means index all the sermons in your library so you can locate them quickly, read, and compare them.
Dare to move into new territory. Too many of us enjoy the preaching on our favorite themes, and we resist breaking new ground. Paul admonished Timothy to give himself wholly to the ministry and to meditate on the Word “that thy profiting may appear to all.” That word profiting means pioneer advance. Paul wanted Timothy to pioneer into new spiritual territory! Beware of promoting homiletical hobbies.
There is a wealth of enriching spiritual food in the proper use of the original languages of the Bible. We say the proper use, because there is a wrong way to use Hebrew and Greek.
Your people want the meal, not the recipe; and bombarding them with cognates and tenses and other grammatical artillery can take away their appetite for deeper spiritual things. There are many tools available today, even for the man who has not been able to master these languages. Devote yourself to their use and you cannot help but grow yourself, and help your people grow.
If you are sincere in wanting to improve your preaching, God will give you opportunities to do so. He will permit situations to come to your life that will drive you to the Word and prayer. One of the best places to read God’s Word is in the furnace affliction. When God wants to proclaim a message, He prepares a man. Be that man!
Can you give me some suggestions for effective sermon preparation?
Be yourself. Your best self, of course; but be yourself. Many of us prefer expository preaching, and we heartily recommend it to you. But many effective preachers were not expositors of the Word: Phillips Brooks and George W. Truett are two classic examples. Please don’t imitate some great man and miss what God has planned for you. Learn from everyone, but be yourself.
Plan your preaching. Don’t spend most of the week frantically hunting for something to say. Preach through a book, or give a series of messages on a connected theme: the prayers of the Bible, the parables, the miracles, or character studies. It is amazing how the Spirit uses messages in a series – to meet needs that we did not know even existed. Don’t become a slave to a plan, however. If some crucial event occurs – or if God burdens you to give a different message – by all means follow the Spirit’s leading. In fact, interrupting a series will give the message that much more meaning. If you know where you are going week by week, you can be thinking ahead.
Start working early. If you are preaching through a book you can do your spadework on a larger section than you intend to preach from, and in that way get ahead for the subsequent weeks. Get started early in the week and early in the day. Give yourself some deadlines: aim to have both Sunday sermons in final form by Friday noon. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to get a week’s work done on Saturday afternoon!
Be systematic. Many preachers use a desk portfolio to keep their notes in as they study. You can find these in your local stationer’s, Have one page and pocket set aside for the Sunday morning message; another for the evening message; a third for your prayer meeting message, and so on. Take your notes on little pieces of paper, perhaps three inches by three inches, instead of regular sheets. Put only one idea or fact on each little note-size sheet. When the time comes to organize your notes all you have to do is sort out the papers!
Start with the Word. Before you turn to your books, concentrate on the Book. Get the message from the passage or text. Jot down the ideas the Spirit gives you. Use the original languages if possible; use several translations. Then turn to the commentaries and correct any wrong ideas you may have had. Ask yourself four questions four questions about the passage: (1) What does it say? (2) What does it mean? (3) What does it mean to me? and (4) How can I make it meaningful to others? Do not bypass that third question! A sermon becomes a message when it is filtered through the heart and life of the preacher.
Organize your material. Clear preaching begins with clear thinking. You should be able to state your message in one concise sentence. Your main points should develop and support this one sentence or proposition. An outline is important; it helps people follow your message and remember it. It also helps you digest it so you can preach with freedom. Find that place where divine truth touches human life: that is where your message is.
Let the Lord use you. Sermon preparation is a spiritual experience. It can be compared with wrestling, or fighting a battle, or even the travail of a woman with child! The Spirit must speak to us before He can speak through us, so receive God’s message first to your own heart: “What does this mean to me?”
Keep in contact with your people. There is no conflict between pastoring and preaching: they complement each other. As pastors, we get to know the needs of our people; as preachers we use the Word to meet these needs. Often you will find a message spring full-blown in your heart while ministering in a hospital room or standing at a new grave. The ivory tower preacher, who descends twice a week to deliver an oracle and then retreats into his sanctuary, may have great scholarship and homiletical excellence; but he will not have warmth and that personal touch. It will be the “sea of glass” not “mingled with fire.” “Within the veil” and “without the camp”: these two phrases from Hebrews describe the life of the faithful minister.
Keep alert! We are always preparing messages! Keep your eyes and ears open for illustrations, ideas, and new approaches. Jot down ideas in your pocket secretary or else you will forget them. Keep a sermon notebook or file and keep adding material to it. Andrew Blackwood called this the “sermonic seed-plot.” You never can tell when some seed might blossom into a helpful sermon.
Each man must work out his own schedule. The old adage is right: “Plan your work and work your plan.” And keep in mind that you are involved in eternal business that deserves the very best you can give.
How can I keep balance in my preaching so I don’t end up riding some hobby that I especially enjoy?
Spurgeon told about the two farmers that met at the Monday morning market. “Did you go to church yesterday?” the one asked the other. “Yep,” was the reply. “Well, what did you hear?” “Oh, the same old thing – ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong!” “You’re fortunate,” said his friend. “All we ever hear is ding-ding-ding-ding!”
Your own personal growth, through study and service, is the best way to assure your people a balanced diet from the Word. 2 Timothy 3: 16 gives us “all Scripture” and Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4, italics added). Keep digging into the Word and daring to pioneer into new territory, and you and your people will grow.
This is where expository preaching becomes valuable. The wealth of the Word makes its demands on those of us who preach it. You cannot play the music of heaven on one string! Let God direct you to a Bible book, and preach your way through that book, come what may. We suggest you select the book carefully, and read it through several times, before announcing a series. Otherwise you may begin to build and have to stop!
Major on the great themes of the Word and avoid like the plague clever sermons on obscure texts. Deliberately tackle passages that you have avoided or even feared. Plan your preaching so there is balance. A wise wife plans her menus, and a wise pastor plans his messages: Old Testament and New Testament, evangelism and edification, duty and privilege, history and prophecy, conviction and encouragement.
Just because one man can preach for ten years in Romans does not mean every man can do it. Early in his ministry, W. Graham Scroggie began a long series on Romans and saw his congregation dwindle. A note from one of his listeners convinced him that his plan was foolish; and ever after he stuck to short series. Spurgeon told about a man who preached for years in Hebrews. When he came to 13:22 – “suffer the word of exhortation” – Spurgeon commented, “They suffered!” There are those few gifted souls who can preach through a book, verse by verse and phrase by phrase, but unless we have those gifts, we had better concentrate on preaching paragraphs take us through the book in a sensible length of time.
It is vital that the pastor know the spiritual needs of the flock and feed them accordingly. This is why pastoral visitation and personal counseling are important. Variety and vitality – an unbeatable combination!
Some people in my church think I am liberal because I sometimes refer to other translations of the Bible besides the King James Version. Many of our young couples and new Christians use modern translations and paraphrases. What should I do?
Don’t criticize or belittle the beloved King James Version. Feel free to amplify, its meanings and explain some of the archaic phrases, but never belittle it. Every translation has its strengths and weaknesses, and you accept a translation for its strengths and in spite of its weaknesses. If you are acquainted with the languages of the Bible, you can be fairly independent of translations, good and bad.
Take time to explain to the church how the Bible came to us. Explain what translation is all about. Perhaps a missionary involved in translation work can assist you. Why prepare up-to-date versions for the missionaries and still retain older versions at home? For most Christians, it is simply a matter of education, and this takes time. (We knew a dedicated church member who actually believed the Bible was written in Swedish!)
It is necessary to warn your people against popular translations that may not be accurate; but do so with kindness. Some translations and versions we use for reading, and others we use for study. Some are excellent for their treatment of Greek tenses, others for their scholarly notes. Some churches have conducted a Bible Study Fair, with the church young people manning booths that display various translations and aids to Bible study. The young people explain to the visitors the merits of the translations and the uses of the aids such as Bible dictionaries and concordances.
If the majority of your people use the King James Version, then use it yourself. If you sense there is need for a change, then work with your officers and plan the change carefully. Some churches have voted to put a modern version in the pews, and this has encouraged people to accept the change. Often Sunday school classes are easier to influence than the entire church; but be careful not to split the church! And be sure that the version you adopt is really an improvement!
Don’t make versions a test of fellowship. There are a few fussbudgets in almost every church who think one version or another is God’s gift to man. Love them, be patient with them, and be thankful they read the Bible at all! That is more than many church members do!
©1973 When Pastors Wonder How, pg. 51-60 All rights reserved.a
Dr. Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019) was an internationally known Bible teacher, author, and conference speaker. He graduated in 1953 from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. While attending seminary, he was ordained as pastor of Central Baptist Church in 1951 and served until 1957. From September 1957 to 1961, Wiersbe served as Director of The Literature Division for Youth for Christ International. From 1961 to 1971 he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky south of Cincinnati, Ohio. His sermons were broadcast as the “Calvary Hour” on a local Cincinnati radio station. From 1971 to 1978, He served as the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago 1971 to 1978. While at Moody Church he continued in radio ministry. Between August 1979 and March 1982, he wrote bi-weekly for Christianity Today as “Eutychus X”, taught practical theology classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and wrote the course material and taught a Doctor of Ministry course at Trinity and Dallas Seminary. In 1980 he transitioned to Back to the Bible radio broadcasting network where he worked until 1990. Dr. Wiersbe became Writer in Residence at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids and Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. In his lifetime, Dr. Wiersbe wrote over 170 books—including the popular Be series, which has sold over four million copies. Dr. Wiersbe was awarded the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA).