Preaching that’s predictable usually isn’t very powerful. If our listeners know where we’re going in a sermon and how we plan to get there, they will soon lose interest in the message, no matter how well we preach it. Without the unexpected and the element of surprise, even the best message will sound bland. Predictable preaching gave birth to the embarrassing simile “as boring as a sermon.”
There are two ways that congregations may discover our homiletical destinations and road maps and become bored with the journey. If you include a printed outline of the message in the worship folder, you’ve shot yourself in the foot before the journey begins. A sermon so complicated that the congregation needs an outline to understand it is obviously not very well prepared. Some preachers provide only skeleton outlines in advance and ask the congregation to fill in the blanks, a la the Primary Department in Sunday School, but that’s even more distracting.
I know all the arguments for handing out outlines in advance and I disagree with them. (In a Bible class or seminar, advance outlines are fine, but not in a worship service.) This “press conference” approach to preaching is based on the false premise that a printed outline is the same as a spoken sermon, and it isn’t – any more than a menu is a meal, a map is a journey or a blueprint is a building. Advance outlines please the fifteen percent of the congregation who are left-brained and want everything analyzed and explained, but they irritate the other eighty-five percent who are right brained and want the meal, not the menu. A message is more than “points” on a ‘piece of paper, for a message involves truth flowing through the mind and heart of a preacher, a shepherd who loves his sheep and wants them to draw closer to the Lord.
The second way congregations discover where our sermons are going is by listening to us preach week after week. Unfortunately, many preachers take the same approach to every text, whether it’s taken from a Psalm, a biblical narrative or one of Paul’s involved doctrinal arguments. Over the years, we develop unchanging homiletical habits, good and bad, and we’re prone to follow the same formulas and take the same approach Sunday by Sunday. No wonder our messages fail to accomplish very much in the lives of the people who hear us.
The logic of variety
If some visitor from outer space attended church services for several Sundays, he would probably start asking us, “If this God you talk about is so wonderful, why is the way you speak of him so ordinary, in fact, so boring? Didn’t this God create the heavens and the earth in which is so much excitement and variety? I understand that each flower, each star and each snowflake is different. Then why is each sermon about this great God just like the one the week before?” Yes, God is infinitely original, and we live in a world that is filled with infinite variety; but we don’t seem to incorporate that variety into our preaching.
But more than that: the Bible is a library of books that are marked by great variety. The Word of God is basically a storybook, and the story it tells involves all kinds of people, places, events, experiences and problems. It also includes many different kinds of literature: poems, proverbs, parables, laments, paradoxes, acrostics and narratives, to name only a few. Much of the time, the story reads like the Lord is losing, but we’re assured that He will win in the end. The characters in Scripture are as varied as any crowd you would meet at a department store Christmas sale, and no two are exactly alike. Since the Bible is a book of great imagination and variety, why don’t we show some imagination and variety in our preaching?
On May 18, 1879, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his ministry in London, Charles Spurgeon said:
I read but the other day a newspaper criticism upon myself in which the
writer wondered that a man should keep on year after year with so few
themes, and such a narrow groove to travel in;
but, my brethren, it is not so,
for our themes are infinite for number and fulness.
Every text of Scripture is boundless in its meaning; we could preach from the Bible throughout eternity and not exhaust it.
The groove narrow? The thoughts of God narrow?
The divine word narrow? They know it not,
for his commandment is exceeding broad.
[Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 25, pp. 295-296]
The people we preach to are a varied lot, unless we’re ministering to one of those cultic cookie cutter congregations that repels anybody who is different. Homogenized homiletics is easy with a church like that, because the people attend, not to be challenged and changed, but to be massaged and molded. They know what to expect, they get it, and a good time is had by all. But a true congregation exhibits variety, and this challenges preachers to do their best. Our messages must speak to everybody – the family folks and the singles, the senior saints and the teenagers, the confident and the questioning, the young believers as well as the mature believers. The preacher is like the mother of a large family who must prepare a variety of attractive food for everybody at the table.
Preparing my messages while traveling in my well-worn ruts may protect my comfort zone and keep my work relatively manageable, but it doesn’t challenge my people and make them want to grow. Spurgeon told about two farmers who met at the Monday morning market, and one asked the other, “How was church yesterday?” The man replied, “Oh, the same old thing – ding, dong, ding, dong.” His friend said, “Well, you’re better off than we are. All we get is ding, ding, ding, ding!”
That’s not what people mean when they say that a sermon really rang the bell.
Lest you think I’m campaigning for novelty and eccentricity in the pulpit, I’d better hasten to say that true variety grows out of vibrant spirituality. The Holy Spirit of God is infinitely original and He enables the growing minister to discover new aspects and applications of familiar passages and new ways to package the truth so it doesn’t look like the sermon was put together on an assembly line. Novelty can build a crowd but it takes variety to build a church. Sameness leads to tameness, but variety leads to vitality.
Let’s take inventory of ourselves and our preaching by honestly answering some pertinent questions, all of which relate to creativity in the pulpit.
Jesus said, “Without me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We aren’t simply handicapped or somewhat limited; we’re producing nothing, even when we work hard! My first obligation is to examine my own heart and see if anything has damaged my personal walk with the Lord. Where there’s vitality, there will be variety.
If preparing messages is a comfortable and easy task for us, we may be in a rut. If so, then we need to broaden our understanding of the Scriptures and of the art and science of preaching. If we’re locked into a homiletical “system” – even a good one – we need to be set free. Preachers trained from the Forties through the Sixties may need to catch up on the present, but those trained from the mid-Sixties onward may need to catch up on the past. Phillips Brooks delivered his famous lectures on preaching at Yale in 1877, but they are as fresh and powerful today as the latest book on homiletics. Over the years, I’ve tried to read a significant new book on preaching every year, and this has greatly helped me. I’ve also regularly read the printed sermons of preachers from a variety of Christian communions, and this has opened my eyes to new insights and approaches.
We all have our “homiletical hobbies” and we need to abandon them. A godly deacon in a church I was visiting said to me, “If our pastor preaches one more series on prophecy, I may have to sit the series out.” The doctrine of Christ’s return is important and must be declared, but let’s find fresh new ways to deliver the message. Those of us who enjoy expository preaching through Bible books may want to take a vacation from that approach and set the table with a little more variety.
It’s a sad day in the life of a church when preaching is divorced from pastoring. I don’t how this “great divorce” began; perhaps it was in our schools, or maybe it was the influence of the so-called megachurch. But whatever the cause, the cure is obvious: we must get back to the example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. I’m weary of reading books on “Christian leadership” that are nothing but baptized versions of secular business manuals, as if the flock of God is led like IBM or General Electric. Yes, the church must follow good business principles, but the “bottom line” isn’t profit; it’s godliness, a harvest of the fruit of the Spirit. Jesus cursed the fig tree because it had “nothing but leaves” when He was looking for fruit.
Phillips Brooks was right: “The preacher needs to be pastor, that he may preach to real men. The pastor needs to be preacher, that he may keep the dignity of his work alive. The preacher, who is not a pastor, grows remote. The pastor, who is not a preacher, grows petty” (Lectures on Preaching, p. 77). In short, the pastor needs to be a preacher to have authority, and the preacher needs to be pastor to have sympathy. Authority without sympathy is tyranny, but sympathy without authority is futility.
If physicians were trained the way most pastors are trained, many of us would be dead. If the physician never touched a patient or spent time asking questions, if they made all their contacts over the telephone or through the intermediary help of a nurse, how could they prescribe? Jesus preached to great crowds, but He had time for individuals, even when it must have been inconvenient. (Is it ever convenient?) If you have a shepherd’s heart, then the people in the pews will think you’re speaking only to them, and that makes for effective preaching. What God has joined together, let no one put asunder; and preaching and pastoring go together.
This doesn’t mean we bring every shepherding experience into the pulpit, because that’s the best way to ruin both the preaching and the pastoring. The dear Scottish lady who was dying touched a raw nerve when she said to her pastor, “Now don’t you go and make a story out of me.” A time is coming when what was said in secret will be shouted from the housetops, but that time isn’t during the Sunday morning sermon.
If the church family has a variety of people in it, then the ministering pastor will run up against a variety of needs, challenges and blessings. New believers are often the cutting edge of the church just as the more mature believers provide the balance and wisdom needed. A preacher with a pastor’s heart can’t help but enrich himself and his sermons as he cares for the flock. The Lord has taught me many spiritual truths while I’ve been with His sheep in hospital rooms, anniversary celebrations and standing beside open graves, as well as in those casual times when we’ve met unexpectedly in a parking lot or at the shopping mall. Jesus didn’t have consulting hours but used every contact as an opportunity to glorify the Father and help people with their problems.
Variety in our preaching comes from variety in our living, and if we’re always with the kind of people we enjoy the most, we may never have opportunity to grow. Perhaps the people I feel the least comfortable with are the ones who will do me the most good.
Take this matter of intellectual openness and growth. Our pastor son gave me a copy of an anonymous prayer that has helped me considerably:
From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,
From the laziness that is content with half-truths,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
O God of truth, deliver us!
All of us were raised in a certain Christian tradition that’s meaningful to us, and there’s no reason why we should abandon it; but there’s something to be learned from other traditions as well. Doctrinal convictions are both walls of protections and bridges of opportunity, and if you and I disagree, we at least have solid places on which to stand as we reach out to understand each other in Christian love. “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Augustine was right.
The Christian life is a life of risk, because risk develops faith and pioneers new opportunities for growth. Church boards ask the pastor for a five-year plan, but Abraham went out by faith, not knowing where he was going! We live a day at a time and we see ahead only a step at a time. To be sure, we must be people of vision, but we must also be people of revision, ready to move in different directions at a moment’s notice. God rarely gives us a road atlas, but we do have His Word as our compass, and we can still see the sun and the stars.
When you reach page four of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, you meet this cryptic sentence: “I have traveled a good deal in Concord.” He didn’t need to follow his neighbors and visit Europe in order to mature; he learned how to do it right at home. He opened himself to each season of the year, to the morning sun, the clouds, the snow and rain, the birds, animals and plants, and he learned to do without the artificial stimulants that fool the crowds into thinking they’re alive. Tumbleweeds travel farther than oaks, but oaks go deeper, do more good and know how to face the storms.
Coming to grips with change, facing the crises of life and opening up to whatever God has planned for us will keep us fresh and vital, and this will help to add variety to our preaching. When you listen long enough to preachers, it doesn’t take long to find out if they’re really live or just putting on a religious demonstration. It’s been said that Abraham Lincoln preferred a pastor who preached “like he was fighting bees.” That may be a bit extreme, but it’s better than listening to somebody who’s been embalmed and is being eaten alive by worms. A growing minister who faces courageously the many and varied demands of life, and with God’s help is an overcomer, is the one whose preaching will manifest variety and interest and power.
The accelerating speed of life is robbing all of us of the treasures that produce dividends in a quiet heart. (See Hyperculture: The Human Cost of Speed, by Stephen Bertman, published by Praeger.) Preachers who run from conference to conference and seminar to seminar aren’t always learning and growing. Talk to their family members and church officers and you’ll often find that these preachers are becoming dull and uninteresting. They come home with new jokes, slogans and programs, but they don’t know how to tell the “old old story” in a way that changes people’s lives. And too many of the religious “superstars” who address these meetings gradually become echoes of themselves (have you ever given the same message forty times?) and stop growing, but don’t realize it. While they stand before the public in the spotlight, their lives at home are in the twilight zone because their priorities have gotten out of kilter.
Some people do their best work in the morning and others at night, but whatever your “best time” is, give to the Lord and get your work done. Ministry is work – hard work – and anybody who makes it easy hasn’t read the Bible with much attention or gotten acquainted with the heroes of the faith. One of the paradoxes of Christian ministry is that the more we give to others, the more we receive from the Lord. We don’t “spend” time with our people, and we certainly don’t “waste” it, but we do “invest” it and the Lord pays the dividends.
Start each day with the Lord, the great Source of all that is alive, interesting and creative. Take time to be holy. The Jewish priest was awake early in the morning and went to the altar to offer a burnt offering the Lord, and that’s a good example for us to follow (Rom. 12:1-2). King David wrote, “Listen to my voice in the morning, Lord. Each morning I bring my requests to you and wait expectantly” (Ps. 5:3 NLT). The phrase “bring my requests” describes the priest laying the pieces of the sacrifice on the altar. If under law, a priest could start his day early with the Lord, how much more should a child of God do who lives under grace? When the day starts right, we have an easier time making the right use of the day.
Plan your day. Yes, there will be interruptions, but as the Romans used to say, “When the pilot doesn’t know what port he’s heading for, no wind is the right wind.” You may not get everything done that you listed in your planner, but you’d get none of it done if you hadn’t made a list. “Plan your work and work your plan” may be an ancient adage, but it still proves to be true. The aimless preacher becomes a busybody instead of a busy servant, activity replaces ministry and another day is lost that could have been used to glorify the Lord and help His people.
According to Charles Spurgeon, “it will be our dull sermons that will haunt us on our dying beds” (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 7, p. 13). Some of us don’t have to wait until then because those sermons are haunting us now! Now that we’ve admitted it, let’s do something about putting variety in our preaching.
Note: Two books that may help you are: Variety in Your Preaching, by Faris D. Whitesell and Lloyd M. Perry (Revell, 1954), and Variety in Biblical Preaching, by Harold Freeman (Word, 1987).
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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).