In 1977, I graduated from Harvard Divinity School having won the preaching award two out of three years. As I look back today perhaps a half-thousand sermons later, I find five major changes which the parish experience has made in my preaching.
The seminarian learns to preach largely in a vacuum; that is, he studies the major elements of classical preaching form and style, and perhaps practices these on classmates. In the parish, however, I learned that while form and style are important a sermon cannot exist apart from a congregation — that is, those whom the sermon is intended by God to touch.
An artist, for example, may paint a picture entirely out of his or her own imagination with no sense of what particular person or group of persons might especially appreciate it.
Not so for the preacher.
A Needed Question
Certainly the fresh-out-of-seminary preacher knows only too well that he must speak to a congregation with particular needs. Indeed, early in my ministry my unspoken prayer while preparing sermons was, “Lord, let me look good. Let my sermon please everybody, so they will like me.” I was either enthusiastic or fearful about preaching, depending on how many “good sermon ideas” I had stored in my head. As I read books, went to seminars, talked with other pastors, I would note especially “good ideas” with a sigh of relief: Ah, that’s one more Sunday I don’t have to worry about!
Then, one especially “dry” Saturday I could not come up with any good idea or anecdote. I had run through every commentary, anthology and memory bank I had, all to no avail. Late that afternoon I began to panic until at last I just cried out to the Lord in desperation, “I haven’t got a thing to say tomorrow! Not a thing!”
As I sat there at my desk absolutely empty, a sense rose within me to kneel and pray, “Lord, what do you want me to say to these people at this time?”
At once, a sensation of freshness washed through my mind and I knew this was the question I had needed to ask all along in my preaching ministry.
I began in that moment to recall the various hurts and needs I had encountered in my pastoral calls during the week, and through all of them an underlying theme seemed to emerge. I decided to go with it.
The topic, frankly, was not very interesting to me personally, and I cannot now even remember what it was, but the response from the congregation was overwhelming. “You must have been reading my mind!” one lady said.
Sermon preparation, therefore, is not something a pastor does but, rather, something God does within receptive, faithful pastors throughout the week. Ten minutes on your knees in prayer are often more productive than ten hours fretting through your library over what commentary to quote or illustration to use.
The question no longer is, “What can I put together in the few hours I have on Friday or Saturday?” but “What has God been putting in me throughout the week?”
A sometimes helpful prayer for me is, “Lord, show me Your church here as You see it.” I then wait for feelings and impressions and images to focus on. Certainly, since at best we can only “see through a glass darkly” in this present age, I have missed the mark occasionally and gone off on a message which I later realized was my own and not the Lord’s. At those times, I try to remind myself of God’s forgiving grace, trusting that, even so, God was able to use something of what I said for His purposes.
Second, I have learned that if, indeed, a sermon is a word from God, then it must meet the ancient criterion of aiming for a fundamentally positive effect on the listener. As Paul noted,
The one who proclaims God’s message speaks to people and gives them help, encouragement and comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3).
As a younger man, I was especially impressed by the more critical, harsher words of the prophets. I realize now that I was then harboring much unresolved anger in my personal life, which I had confused with the righteous anger of the prophets. I believed that people do not face their sins because they are simply stubborn; the preacher, then, must be persistent in pointing out their sins if they are to face them.
Today, however, after having been confronted with many of my own sins, I have come rather to believe that we do not admit our sin because we are afraid that no forgiveness is available for it. That is, “Why should I confess my sin if everyone else will simply judge me the worse for it?”
Mercy over Judgment
The Good News which a sermon proclaims is precisely that God has come in Jesus Christ to bear our burdens, not to increase them. That’s why Jesus excoriated the legalistic Pharisees for tying “onto people’s backs loads that are heavy and hard to carry” (Matthew 23:4). As James declared, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (2:13).
Granted, pardon requires conviction but the sermon which focuses mostly on convicting parishioners of their sin will likely only solidify their defenses the more. Rather, preaching on the love and mercy of God cultivates the emotional soil so the seeds of hope may be planted and nurtured. And when the hope in salvation has accordingly taken root, the person is far more likely to come forth in honest self-examination.
I do not discount direct confrontation altogether. We need not be milk-toast pollyannas, patting folks on the back when they need a bold word of truth, but we must be certain that our word to them is God’s word; that is, shaped by love and not our own anger. As James noted, “Man’s anger does not achieve God’s righteous purposes” (1:20).
Our license to confront another with his or her sin is our love for that person and our faith in God’s mercy through Christ. “Speaking the truth in a spirit of love” (Ephesians 4:15) was the guideline of the ancient Church, and it must be ours today.
At a new member’s class, I once asked a young mother why she came to our church. “One Sunday after church where we used to go,” she replied, “my four year old turned to me and said, ‘Mommy, why is that man up there always so angry when he talks?’ Right then, I knew that wasn’t the kind of experience I wanted for my child — or for myself — in church.”
God in His People
Third, I have learned to be very cautious about using published stories, anecdotes, jokes and similar illustrations in my sermons. The story which a sermon needs to tell is what God is doing in the lives of His people. It was “the great things that God has done” (Acts 2:11) which passers-by heard the earliest Christians proclaiming in various tongues at Pentecost, not some classical poem, philosopher’s reflection or famous person’s quip.
Nothing, that is, must supplant the active workings of God as the focus of the sermon because that is, in fact, the Good News: That in Jesus Christ, God is alive and working among His people unto today.
If, indeed, a pastor has no workings of God to report from his own or one of the congregation’s experience over the past week, that in itself is a symptom of a spiritual malady far more serious than any “good story” can remedy.
Furthermore, you have no idea what extraneous connections the person in the pew may bring to bear on your prefabricated illustration.
I recall once preaching on the importance of being open and honest about your hurts and needs, quoting as a negative example the old song, Smile: “Smile though your heart is aching/Smile even though its breaking,” etc. Afterward, one particularly repressed lady shook my hand delightedly and said, “Why, thank you for talking about that grand old song — it’s always been one of my favorites!”
We dare not underestimate the human urge to ignore or gloss over God’s Word. Far too many persons are able weeks later to remember the joke told in the sermon, but nothing of its substance.
As long as a pastor believes that God is alive and well and working even now as in biblical times, he will have eyes to see and will not lack for Good News to report.
I shall never forget Presbyterian laywoman Dolores Winder, who was healed after sixteen years in a body cast, preaching on the power of God today. As she told of the many healings she had observed, everyone’s eyes were riveted upon her.
She used no canned jokes, yet there was definitely humor in her stories as incredulous church folk came to accept God’s healing power. She used no “outside” references except the Bible and she never raised her voice above a conversational level. And the congregation hung on every word.
Certainly, a sermon may well include items from the newspaper but the focus on these must be on what God has done in such situations and can therefore do even now through willing servants such as ourselves.
My own general rule is that first-hand stories are to be preferred above all others.
Getting Involved
Fourth, therefore, I have learned that in order to become an effective preacher, one must first become an authentic person.
At the beginning of my ministry, I believed that the more removed I was personally from my subject matter, the more authority I would communicate. This, however, was simply a mask for my pride.
In fact, I was afraid that if people knew me better, they would discover my shortcomings and judge me as incompetent. It was safer, I decided, to hide behind the proven stories and reflections of “experts.”
As I began to include in my sermons stories about “what God has taught me through my mistakes,” I gained considerable credibility among my parishioners who, I realized, are themselves struggling with their own shortcomings and how to become more sensitive to God’s lessons in their own everyday experiences.
For many years, I balked at preaching on any subject I had not thoroughly studied and reached firm conclusions about. Then, a few years ago in our suburban Los Angeles community, an apparent ring of child molesters was discovered operating in many pre-schools, and the instigators were reported to be active in satanic cults.
After much inner wrestling and leaving many questions unanswered, I decided to go ahead and preach on this issue since so many in the congregation were concerned about it. In my sermon, I presented the biblical understanding of evil, the facts of the molestation case as reported and the few conclusions I had reached. I acknowledged that there remained areas about which I was not at all certain and I invited the congregation to continue in prayer themselves for a further word of truth.
Afterward, many people thanked me especially for not “pushing one view” of such an emotional topic but, rather, for confessing my own uncertainties. “That made it easier for me to accept the fact that sometimes we have to live in those uncertainties and trust the Lord to reveal the truth in His time and way,” one person expressed.
Furthermore, I felt freed myself from the burden of being God and having all the answers myself.
Honest questions serve God’s purpose far better than compulsive, contrived answers.
Such honesty, of course, includes sharing your beliefs openly when appropriate. A fellow pastor, for example, told me how at his first parish he had preached a “seminary perfect” sermon with many quotes from authorities and illustrations from various books.
Afterward, a parishioner nudged him aside. “You told us what all the experts believe, now what I want to know is, what do you believe?” Translation: “What has God done in your life which helps you understand this issue?”
Letting God Through
Fifth, I have learned that a sermon must prompt an experience of God’s presence, not merely an intellectual challenge or stimulation.
In my first years of preaching, I simply trusted that my own rhetorical skills were enough to “make the point.” If a parishioner could later say with some authority, “That’s what my pastor preaches,” I would be satisfied.
In those days, however, I did not have a close relationship myself with the Lord; in particular, though I knew I could talk to God in my prayers, I did not think God would speak to me. It therefore never occurred to me that the Lord would speak to the people in the pews, even to confirm or refine what I had said in the sermon.
As I matured in my faith, however, I began to realize not only that God had much to say to me but was in fact saying it. I simply was not listening — much as radio transmission waves are everywhere but cannot be heard until the radio is tuned in properly to the station. As I learned to listen for and receive God’s word to me through such means as silent prayer, fasting, prayer groups and extended praise, I knew that God had much as well to say to my parishioners.
I therefore asked, “How might my sermon encourage persons to listen for God’s word in their lives and, indeed, provide an opportunity to do that in the moment?”
In my first years of preaching, I had essentially “come up with a good idea” and exhorted people to “go out and do what I’ve told you.” Now, I decided instead to say essentially, “This is what I sense God is saying to us this morning. Let us now each offer it to the Lord to ask in a moment of silent individual prayer how God would put that word to work in and through your life today.”
For example, if my topic were forgiveness, I might say, “Let’s take a moment for silent prayer, and in it I invite you to ask the Lord if there is someone you need to forgive.” If the topic were world hunger, “ask the Lord to show you ways that you can make a difference, perhaps in changing your lifestyle or making a gift to an agency.” If the topic were knowing God’s love, “ask the Lord to pour out His love upon you” — and then, after that, “ask Him to show you others you can share that love with.”
My role at this point is to model faith by trusting the Living God to speak to each person there appropriately. That is, I must let go of any claim I have on “making sure everyone hears what I’ve said,” then get out of the way and allow God the final word in each person’s heart.
In order thus to let go of “my” sermon and “my” parishioners, I must be going to the cross daily to let go of myself. My prayer for my fellow preachers, therefore, is that we might each proclaim as the ancient prophet,
The Sovereign Lord has taught me what to say, so that I can strengthen the weary. Every morning he makes me eager to hear what he is going to teach me. The Lord has given me understanding, and I have not rebelled or turned away from him (Isaiah 50:4-5).

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