Listening to sermons has always bored me — during my childhood, my adolescence, and even now during my adulthood. For the first five minutes I’m usually able to stay focused on the preacher, but then my mind inevitably begins to wander, coming back to the sermon only now and then to see if I’m missing anything worthwhile (which I’m usually not). I feel guilty having difficulty listening to sermons since I am myself a preacher, but at least it has given me a determination to create sermons that even I could listen to.
My first experience as a preacher came at the age of 15 when I was asked to preach a sermon on Youth Sunday at my home church. From my adult perspective it was not a very good sermon, but that is beside the point. The experience was thrilling, and my soul found its calling. I have since come to believe that the act of preaching represents the most awesome mystery we are ever likely to witness: the translation of God’s supernatural Word into human words for our moment in time. So, despite the difficulties and dangers, and the ever-present possibility of boring my listeners, I have dedicated my life to preaching.
When I was in college I noticed a curious fact: I could easily listen to an hour-long lecture, hanging on every word, but I could not keep focused on a 20-minute sermon. What was the difference? I decided that a lecture presents new information, whereas most sermons present old information I have heard many times before. The content of a lecture cannot be anticipated, but the content of most sermons can be guessed within the first couple of minutes. I decided then that a good sermon should seek to present new information and a fresh perspective.
After college I had my chance to test this when my home church hired me as a youth pastor. I preached a few times that year, tackling fresh topics in new ways, and I received many positive comments. But my pastor was less than enthused. She challenged me to keep my sermons biblically focused and biblically based. This turned out to be wise advice which saved me from a headlong pursuit of increasingly exotic topical preaching, further and further removed from a scriptural basis.
During this time one of my older brothers who was an agnostic made a point of coming to church whenever I was preaching. This was quite a challenge for me because I knew he was highly critical of religious platitudes, easy answers, and unexamined beliefs. If my sermons were going to hold any water for him, I would have to preach with as much honesty and thoughtfulness as possible. My skeptical brother became my greatest asset in preaching. Whenever I wrote a sermon, I pretended he was looking over my shoulder, helping me cut out every shaky proposition and shallow sentiment.
Following my year as a youth pastor, I entered seminary, and while there I worked as an assistant pastor at a nearby church of another denomination. In that congregation I was exposed to a style of preaching entirely different from what I had experienced in my home church. The senior pastor never preached from the pulpit, but instead wandered around the front pews as he preached without notes. His sermons were always intimate, easy-going, and practical. He also had a flair for drama, often using brief, illustrative skits that were unrehearsed. Although I have never intended to copy his style, he freed me to explore the endless, creative possibilities in preaching.
But my deepest lessons about preaching have come from the hard work of having to preach a new sermon every Sunday for the past 14 years. Through this relentless spiritual discipline, I have developed three themes that have kept the fire in my bones.
A sermon is an experience of God, not an explanation about God. When I look back through my files, I discover that most of my sermons have been creative Bible lectures, not true sermons. In my desire not to bore my congregation, I relied on lots of interesting information, fascinating facts, and scholarly speculations. But a sermon is not a lecture, and its ultimate purpose is not to teach — no matter how entertaining and provocative that teaching may be. The purpose of a sermon is for people to encounter holiness, to experience God.
Among the Sufis there is a saying that there are three ways to know fire: to hear about it, to see it, and to touch it. In my sermons, I am no longer content for people to hear about God; I want them to see God and even touch God. As someone has said, “‘No one has ever gotten drunk hearing the word ‘wine,'” and no one has ever been transformed by merely hearing about God. And so, I do not seek primarily to explain a biblical text, I now seek to have my congregation experience the spiritual reality within the text.
Images, not ideas, transform our souls. For most of my life I have assumed that people are persuaded and transformed by logically presented ideas. Because of this assumption, I have created many sermons laden with powerful ideas carefully presented in a logical sequence. But when I look back on my years of pastoral ministry, I see that I have persuaded only a few people with my logic, and as far as I know I have never transformed anybody with an idea.
Ideas speak to our cognitive minds. New ideas may persuade us to think differently, but ideas rarely on their own, transform us. Images are the key to deep transformation. As many have argued, what we cannot imagine, we cannot enact. Whereas ideas are the language of the mind, images seem to be the language of the soul, and it is in our souls, not our minds, that we most deeply meet God and are transformed.
So when I’m creating a sermon today, I usually take out as many ideas and abstractions as possible. Instead, I try to speak in pictures: through metaphor, simile, and story. Interestingly, this is exactly how Jesus preached. This does not mean that images should totally replace ideas (which isn’t possible anyway). We live in our minds as well as our souls, and a good sermon speaks to both.
The preacher is a prophet, not a scribe. When Jesus preached, the crowds “were astonished at his teach-ing, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22 NRSV). I find it ironic that the Christian faith is founded on a person who spoke with prophetic authority rather than academically interpreting tradition, and yet most preaching today is academic interpretation of His tradition rather than speaking with the bold spiritual authority Jesus did.
Ultimately, our task as preachers is to go beyond speaking about Christ. As Richard Jensen says, “We don’t talk about Christ. We speak for Christ. Christ speaks through us.” We are not mere rehashers of tradition and scripture, but prophets inspired by the Spirit of Christ to proclaim a new word congruent with the scripture. In our preaching we are actually giving voice to God’s ever-speaking Word. Our highest calling is to become prophets, speaking directly God’s Word for the congregation in this place, at this time.
To do this we must first become good scribes: able scholars and interpreters of scripture, theology, and church history. But unless prophets emerge from among the scribes, the Word of God will become merely words on a page.
As important as the three preceding themes have become for my preaching, there is another which is more basic and essential. It applies to every preacher regardless of leanings and inclinations. All other theories of preaching may pass away, but this one truth I am sure remains constant: the power of preaching is always connected to who we are personally. No technique can cover up character. We preach who we are. My most important task then, from now until I preach my last word, is to mature in Christ. I keep in mind the words of the Catholic saint, Anthony Mary Claret: “If God’s word is spoken only naturally, it does very little; but if is spoken by a priest who is filled with the fire of charity — the fire of love of God and neighbor — it will wound vices, kill sins, convert sinners, and work wonders.”

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