What I’ve Learnt About Preaching
I think I preached my first (short) talk about 15 years ago at a summer mission. Now I’m five years out of Bible College, preaching every week, and yet I reckon I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. So as a relatively young preacher, I thought I’d jot down some thoughts on what’s helped my preaching improve in the last few years.
1. Preach the passage to yourself first
I’ve come to appreciate this more and more. Often the sermons that have the most impact on the listeners have been ones that I’ve had to wrestle hardest with in my own life. This works especially well in the Aussie context or where you’re younger than the people you’re preaching to. Lots of people don’t like being preached at by some young dude. But if your preaching is with the humility of ‘Hey, I’ve had to wrestle with this myself and this is how it’s challenged me’, often you get an even stronger impact.
2. Get preached at lots
I probably listen to at least 3-4 sermons a week on average and I find that I get influenced a lot by those I’m listening to (mostly for good, sometimes for bad). And I go through fads. For a while I listened to every John Piper sermon I could get my hands on. Then it was Mark Driscoll. Then Matt Chandler. And now I’m consuming vast amounts of Tim Keller. Listening to other preachers not only grows you as a follower of Jesus, it also gives you an opportunity to work out why they’re good and what makes them good.
3. Do lots of teaching out of the pulpit
Probably the best stuff that makes my sermons have come from informal one-on-one or small group teaching. The best illustrations are stories I’ve told lots of times before. The best and clearest explanations are ones I’ve used a hundred times (often in evangelistic contexts). I reckon the more I teach out of the pulpit, the better I teach in the pulpit.
4. Try to graduate from full script to notes (or even go ‘commando’)
Believe it or not I was still bringing up full notes until the beginning of this year! I resisted for ages ‘coz it was a huuuge security blanket. But now that I’ve got out of using full notes (and sometimes without notes), I understand its benefits. For me the benefits have been:
(i) It allows me to ad lib better and respond to how the Holy Spirit might be directing me at various points in my sermon
(ii) It allows me to gauge the congregation’s mood/vibe/level of reception and concentration better and respond accordingly
(iii) It forces me to commit more to memory and I end up having more material in my ‘back-pocket’ for those times when I need them
5. Preach apologetically
I learnt this from Mark Driscoll and Tim Keller (who I think got it from the Puritans). I’ve found it super helpful to answer potential objections in the minds of those whom you are preaching to.
6. Application, application, application
My training and background has been very strong on exegesis and handling the text. That’s all really important still, no question. However, where my preaching has improved in the last few years has been understanding the importance of application. Time has to be spent on thinking about how this text impacts on the world and the people and the culture. The Puritans were brilliant at this and that’s why they preached such long sermons. I’ve found that as much time in my sermon (both preparation and final product) should go into application as it does to exegesis.
7. Preach to an audience of many but…
I guess related to the above, I’ve realised that I need to know my congregation – both those sitting there as well as those whom I want to be sitting there. The more I know them and am among them, the better the connection between me as preacher and them as congregation. I gotta be thinking about how the text might apply to the entire range of different people in our midst: the single mum, the wealthy retiree, the depressed, the joyful, the unconverted religious, the teenager, the unemployed… That’s hard work.
8. Preach for an audience of One
And last but not least I reckon this has really helped me. Sometimes I leave the pulpit feeling pretty crummy. But in the end, I’m not asked to be spectacular, I’m asked to be faithful. Criticisms come for good reasons or not, but ultimately, it’s my Father’s approval that matters.
I’d love for more points to be added to this ad hoc list. Comments welcome!