I have been preaching pretty regularly since I was about 17 years old. In the early days it was “as you have an opportunity.” Later, it was Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night prayer meeting. An occasional revival, conference or retreat of some kind added to the ongoing whole.
The pastor under whom I was called to preach, and under whom I sat during my most formative years, was a very straightforward, verse-by-verse expositor. Our church once spent seven years in a single 5-chapter book in the New Testament. That is about all I remember about it.
What I do remember is his immense reverence for God’s Word and his commitment to try and faithfully teach it. Were I to listen to some of those sermons now there would likely be areas of disagreement theologically, but the gravity would be as clear as the noonday sun.
After all these years of preaching (now approaching 35) the weight of preaching I feel each week is attributable to men like my former pastor and evangelists who passed through our church. While I have many, many foibles and weaknesses, and my sins are too numerous and shameful to list, I can honestly say I’ve never phoned in a sermon or entered the pulpit with less than the eternal stakes in play on my mind.
I fully believe the weight of preaching, if taken seriously, is as great a burden as can be born by a believer in this life. I have both seen and felt it.
In recent weeks a well known pastor from North Carolina preached a sermon in which he made some questionable interpretations. He was supported by some; he was vilified by others. By the end of this week he offered two apologies–one for some erroneous content in the message, the other for a snarky response he made on social media to critics.
What was clear to me is he felt the weight of preaching, acknowledged his error and wants to move on using this as a chance to become a better preacher. His confession should reignite, reawaken, or remind the rest of us: preaching is a human attempt to tell others what we sincerely, and honestly believe the Bible says. Any of us can have erroneous interpretations, misstatements, or change our minds on any number of positions within the bounds of orthodoxy. It is critically important that we do all we can do to have clarity and teach with it.
Here are a few things I try to keep in mind about preaching:
1. Preach the Word. This seems to be a no brainer, but opinion creeps into interpretation as quickly as water through a busted pipe seeps into the surrounding soil. It is the Word of God that will not come back void, not my opinion. If someone has no intention of preaching the Word, then why is that person not doing landscaping? People have said to me over the years, “It’s just hard to find someone who actually preaches the Bible.” Huh?
What else is there if not the Bible?
2. Preach it thoroughly. You might not be preaching verse by verse, but you can go idea by idea. We live in a biblically illiterate generation. EVERYTHING has to be explained starting with the which comes first in the Bible, New Testament or Old Testament. Don’t make “the epistle is the wife of an Apostle” jokes, since, likely as not, someone just wrote it down as a fact. We who communicate God’s Word can no longer assume a baseline of knowledge. It simply is not there.
3. Preach it simply. The greatest compliment a teacher or preacher can receive is, “You make it so simple anyone can understand it.” One of our best examples is the Sermon on the Mount. If anyone has to leave frustrated at your communication make it the geniuses rather than Joe and Jane Regular Person.
4. Use helpful communication tools. I read a lot of complaining that pastors try to use too much entertainment in the pulpit. Not exactly sure what that means since “entertainment” can be a broad word, but preachers should use every tool in the toolkit to communicate truth. Our listeners are text learners, audio learners, visual learners, and experiential learners. Lecture style preaching is fine to a point, but what about people who need graphics to get the full impact? (It is worth remembering that a spoken sermon is but audible text and limited by nature in effectiveness.)
Using a video clip, music clip, interview, current event illustration, personal narrative, image pulled from the Internet, or live demonstration are not entertainment (unless they have no other point). I once cut all the fat from a picnic ham during the sermon to demonstrate how lean our budget had gotten. Another time I used a coat and coat stand to talk about truth. Another time I brought students on stage to demonstrate how legalism creeps into the Christian life.
A preacher who runs out of something to say, then launches into 3-minute segment of familiar preaching phrases to get a bunch of amens or applause is just as guilty of “entertainment” as one who shows a 5-minute comedy clip that has no bearing at all on the sermon.
5. Leave the impact to God. Several years ago a church member complained to our children’s pastor that his child could not remember by the middle of the week what was taught in Children’s Church on Sunday. Our children’s pastor wisely said to the father, “What was the sermon about in ‘big church’ Sunday?” The child’s father drew a blank.
People are busy, and an enormous number of regular church attendees do not remember week by week the focal point of your sermon. The preacher, however, cannot take this as a personal offense; some will remember, and they will be changed. Make is your attempt every week to “leave it all on the floor” and leave the impact to God.
The weight of preaching can be very, very heavy. Each time I preach I leave the stage more or less exhausted, usually mentally and emotionally drained, sometimes physically, too. The responsibility of “this is what God’s Word says” can be crushing.
It is one of the reasons I remain so very grateful for those who stand week by week, humbly, haltingly, faltering, sometimes failing, or powerfully, confidently, clearly, and steadfastly try in the power of God’s Spirit to feed His sheep. I am humbled and thankful to stand with them all.