Today is Monday, a brutally blue day for my tribe.
I am a preacher.
I wish I could put words to the way I feel inside this morning, but I used up all my colorful adjectives yesterday. My creativity has expired. As I slog into the office, my worship pastor makes me laugh out loud as he meets me at the door and describes his sangover from Sunday. Evidently, Monday is tough for his tribe, too.
For the most part, I bottle up these feelings and hold them secretly inside. I never would want my church family to misunderstand my mood or question my commitment to ministry. I hope they know how much I love to preach. When I say that I LOVE TO PREACH (in all caps), I mean few things in this life fire me up faster than the sacred task of proclamation. Preaching is one of the rare activities that can jolt me out of bed in the morning. I side with Spurgeon, who said, “Draw a circle around my pulpit, and you have hit upon the spot where I am nearest heaven. There the Lord has been more consciously near me than anywhere else.”1
I preach because I am a preacher. The Lord made me for this ministry, and I do not doubt my call. Still, fellow preachers can identify with the unnatural numbness of Monday. To paint a picture: It feels as if the heart has been placed on a solid block of ice, rotated every two minutes, and now suffers short-term insensitivity. Thanks be to God that the ice begins to melt by Monday night! In fact, by Tuesday 10 a.m. my heart is more akin to buttered popcorn. I literally can feel my soul waking up and warming up to God as I climb back into my study chair—gearing up for another go-round in five days.
In his book An Invitation to Biblical Preaching, Donald R. Sunukjian speaks to the challenge of careful, biblical preaching. He says,
“Such preaching is the hardest and the best thing we will ever do. It’s the hardest, for it will take the most rigorous mental ability and discipline God has given us. We will find ourselves tempted to do anything but the hard study required—we’ll schedule meetings, arrange counseling appointments, tackle administrative tasks, clean our fingernails, find a sermon on the Internet, or settle for some superficial approach to our passage—anything to avoid the sheer labor required.”2
Sunukjian is spot on. If he were preaching, I would shout AMEN! Strangely, I was encouraged by his camaraderie and his candor. I am not alone in this. He, too, feels the squeeze of the weekly sermon—the frustration of a mind that wants to wander and squander. Solid, scriptural preaching is hard work and it simply does not happen by accident.
Staying the Course
In addition to the Monday moody blues, there’s another thing you should know about me: I have zero sense of direction. Driving through my own small city is a game of “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.” I get turned around so easily. I often lose my way. Likewise, as I preach week in and week out, I am beginning to take notice of my natural, wayward tendencies. There are a few small choices I must make early in the week to stay on course for a great Sunday. On this low-energy Monday, it makes sense for me to plot my way. As you consider my list, you could add a few of your own, I’m sure.
Decision 1: I must stay focused in my study.
Great spiritual meals are cooked in the study. One of my seasoned seminary professors once shouted, “Keep your seat in the seat!” Of course, he was not suggesting a life of monasticism—that we neglect the needs of our people by tethering our beaks to books. He was simply saying that our selfish, indwelling sin always works against our careful concentration on the text. My personal experience has proven my professor’s words to be true.
Poring over a book is the least romantic part of sermonizing, perhaps the most neglected, as well. Study is the part nobody sees except God. As a result, a preacher easily can con himself into sloppy exegesis as he settles for a lackluster outline. After all, the sun is shining out his window, and he always can set the alarm an hour early on Sunday morning! Nonsense. That notion never works. The preacher must enslave himself in the study if he hopes to run free in the pulpit.
Every solid textbook on preaching will cover the big three in sermon craft: content, design and delivery. Take note that the process begins with the search for substance. In the privacy of his study—while his parishioners are out and about buying and selling, pecking out email and tapping out texts—there the preacher resides. As a boy in detention, he sits in isolation, but he is exactly where God wants him to be. He must persevere in his search for content! Charles Bridges in his classic work The Christian Ministry rightly records, “No powers of imagination, natural eloquence, or vehement excitement, can compensate for the want of substantial matter.”3
We all have heard our fair share of cotton candy sermons. That kind of message tastes sweet at first, but it leaves us hungry for a solid meal. When a pastor shortchanges his study, he walks out of the church on Sunday with a troubled conscience. He knows he could have done better. Not only that, but his church members walk out starving for food—physical and spiritual. The preacher must study to show himself approved (2 Timothy 2:15). Dealing with the depression of Monday is far easier when he knows he gave it his all on Sunday.
Decision 2: I must give the sermon time to take shape.
All preachers feel the pressure to apply the final polish and set this sermon aside. I know I do. With a funeral on Thursday, a Sunday night vision talk still foggy in my mind and a growing pile of pink-slipped callbacks, I hear the rising rumbling outside the walls. I sometimes picture a growing mob of neglected people picketing and shouting in unison for my attention. Is that a battery ram outside my door?
In this moment, the pastor must demonstrate poise under pressure.
Premature writing leads to immature sermons. The preacher must be patient and allow the sermon to take shape in its own time. Some weeks, this process plays out in a jiffy. Like an X-ray technician, he shines a light on the text, and the bones become immediately obvious. Other weeks, the form of the sermon proceeds as painfully slow as paint drying on a damp day. He grits his teeth and bears it.
Recently, I had the privilege of listening to the esteemed James Earl Massey as he lectured on the subject of “Creativity in the Pulpit.” “What is required for creativity to occur?” he asked. One of the essential items he listed was “a controlling sense of order.” A sermon has to have structure, and the bones must not be borrowed from someone else! “Stealing other people’s sermons,” said Massey through a furrowed brow, “is like telling God that you don’t trust the talent He gave you.” He went on admonishing: “We must search for the soul of the text!” Great preaching requires enormous patience as the sermon slowly takes its form, and the soul of the text comes forth.
Expository preaching offers some relief in this regard. Topical preaching ties itself to no single text, so the sermon can be ordered in a million different ways. When I preach this way from time to time, the options can overwhelm me. However, when a preacher commits himself to serving the author’s intent of a given passage, then his message must be built in like manner. He honors the integrity of the inspired pen. In his book Expository Preaching, Jeff Ray confessed:
“When I am to make a sermon, I have found it an easy job, quickly performed, to deduce a topic and dress it up in platitudinous superficialities and palm it off as a message from the Word of God. But I have found it difficult, laborious, and time-consuming to dig out an adequate interpretation of a passage of Scripture and coordinate the results of that patient digging into an effective, logical outline.”4
It is that effective logical outline than must not be rushed. Let me be clear: This is no slam on all forms of topical preaching. Such preaching can be very effective when done carefully. The point I am making is that expository preaching simplifies the process as the preacher follows the flow of the author. He searches for the skeleton that is already there.
Is it always wrong to borrow another person’s headings or main points? Of course not. We all can learn from one another. There is a difference, though, between a pupil and a plagiarist. While originality is not the aim of the expositor, he does seek to make the message his own. He refuses cheat sheets and crystallizes the controlling sense of order in his own mind. Relying too heavily on others will rob him of much joy, and his pulpit delivery will lack passion.
Decision 3: I must practice my delivery.
A sermon is not a manuscript or a copious set of notes. A sermon must be spoken—out loud. Preachers who write their messages, devoting careful attention to word choice and logic, are wise. As Francis Bacon said, “Writing maketh an exact man.” However, great communicators are much more than animated readers. They speak to their people, not at their people. There is a profound difference.
Some time ago, I sat in a convention meeting of my denomination (which I love). It was time for open mic, and this activity often leads to lively debate and discussion. A well-put-together chap made his way to the microphone marked “3.” With his power tie and his notes spread across his Bible, he launched into a diatribe on an issue of extreme importance (to him). With great pathos, he challenged the convention to change its mind on this matter. As I listened to him talk, I actually agreed with his proposal. He made well-reasoned points, and he clearly had done his homework. For that, he could be commended.
The kudos stopped there.
This man climbed under my skin. What really bothered me was the way he came across. I could not get past the cutting tone of his voice. His harsh style of delivery made me want to cover my ears. In fact, if my 7-year-old daughter had been sitting beside me, I am certain she would have nudged my arm and said, “Daddy, what’s wrong with that man? Why is he mad?” As you might expect, the man’s proposal was defeated. The convention voted against him, and he returned to his seat more perturbed than ever.
As the man rediscovered his chair, I observed him. I thought to myself: “I’ll bet he has no idea how he came across.” He took his seat and whispered something to a friend. I wondered if his friend would love him enough to tell him what everyone observed.
Effective speakers have something substantial to say, but they also know how to say it. Both sides of this coin are important; herein lies the collision of science and art. The compelling speaker works at the delivery and seeks to make an immediate connection with the audience. He has labored far too long to let it go to waste!
How does a preacher ensure the proper delivery of his message? One word: practice. Practice is prerequisite to excellence, and a sermon should be spoken several times before it’s publicly shared.
Now, I must be honest. Watching myself on a flat screen is far from comforting. I loathe listening to my own voice on my wife’s voicemail! Most of my colleagues share my sentiments. We never would subscribe to our own podcasts. In fact, if I have 30 minutes to burn on a busy day, I want to give my ear to a hero and learn from him. I never would go willingly to my own archives. Having said that, in the past year I have come to appreciate the winsome way some men speak. I want to make strides to say things more smoothly. I want to know how I am coming across.
Without a doubt, the study of sermon delivery has fallen on hard times. The detractors cite Scripture for support. The apostle Paul, they argue, placed far greater emphasis on substance over style. Indeed, it is true that Paul viewed his sermons as a demonstration of the Spirit’s power (content) and not so much an exhibition of eloquence (delivery). While Paul’s humility is refreshing (1 Corinthians 2:3), it seems obvious he was a far greater communicator than he gave himself credit for. His gospel needed no dressing up, but Paul became a high-powered mouthpiece for God. Many people were won to Christ through his message. They connected with Paul. A quick flyover of Acts reveals the man knew how to address an audience.
At the end of the day, I can understand the caution concerning sermon delivery. Every gospel-preaching pastor would choose the meat of a message over its methodology. Substance trumps style; still, the way a sermon comes across remains worthy of our attention. Little changes can make a big difference.
In their book Preaching with Bold Assurance, Hershael York and Bert Decker suggest nine skills for effective communication. Not one of these skills will appear earth shattering. We have heard it all before: eye communication, gestures and facial expressions, posture and movement, dress and appearance, voice and vocal variety, words and fillers, humor, listener involvement, the use of transparency. All these things sound small, but they add up! York and Decker’s circus illustration is worth reading:
“Consider the juggler. Every juggler first learned by starting with one ball, just to get the rhythm, then added another to practice with both hands working together. Finally, a third ball was added, and more, until the juggler juggled proficiently. Becoming an expert in interpersonal communications is much like juggling. You master one skill at a time, and add to them once they become a habit.”5
Preachers can benefit greatly in watching themselves on a screen, in listening to themselves in the car, and of course preaching the sermon to imaginary friends. Oral preparation is a must as we translate written word to spoken word.
Decision 4: I must plan weeks in advance.
Most preachers I know live Sunday to Sunday, paycheck to paycheck in their preparation. On Monday morning, they are found sniffing out a text to print in the bulletin. Even with the frozen feeling of Monday, time marches on and he must work through the writer’s block! For several years, I have functioned this frantic way. Only recently have I made the effort to plan my preaching weeks in advance. I am indebted to Stephen Rummage and his challenging book Planning Your Preaching. His little paperback socked me between the eyes and changed my strategy.
Planning ahead not only provides an emergency fund (Dave Ramsey would be proud) for when life brings the unexpected, but having sermons in the hopper gives each message time to marinate. With a little more leeway, the message has room to grow. Additional illustrations pop up. Fresh quotes later come to mind. The text becomes increasingly clear through a morning commute. Devotional readings mysteriously tie into the message. Planning makes ministry feel lighter—and more fun!
I once heard Christian comedian Ken Davis teach a seminar on how to prepare creative messages. He was speaking to youth pastors who are notorious for flying by the seat of their pants. I was one of them. Mysteriously, he made eye contact with my 23-year-old face and whispered, “The secret to a super message is T-I-M-E.” Creativity comes with time. Sadly, I didn’t apply his wisdom then. I do now.
Do you know Warren Wiersbe? Of course you do! His biblical commentaries likely don your shelves, consulted often by Sunday School teachers, as well. Recently, I discovered Wiersbe has written extensively on the role of creativity and imagination in preaching. He boldy challenges every pastor to add color to his messages:
“God gave each of us an imagination—the picture gallery of the mind—and He expects us to use it…Because many preachers (and some who teach preachers) have forgotten that basic fact, hermeneutics has become analyzing, homiletics has become organizing, and preaching has become catechizing. The sermon is a logical outline, a lecture buttressed with theology, that majors on explanation and application but ignores visualization. We have forgotten that the bridge between the mind and the will is the imagination, and that truth isn’t really learned until it’s internalized. ‘The purpose of preaching,’ wrote Halford Luccock, ‘is not to make people see reasons, but visions.'”6
What you put into your preaching is what you get out. Settling for a borrowed outline, bland words, predictable conclusions and last-minute additions will mean mediocrity. That mediocrity in the pulpit often will be matched by mediocre effort by supporting staff, mediocre enthusiasm from the laity. The act of preaching sets the tone for the entire church. Not only does God’s Word require the best of our thinking, but the church of God will be empowered by your work! In this way, the preacher spurs them on to love and good deeds.
This year, I celebrate 10 years of preaching. I still feel as if I am in my rookie season and haven’t matured above the Monday morning blues. I am learning to view the exhaustion as a sign of success, however. When the bleeding woman touched the outer cloak of Jesus, He immediately knew “power had gone out from him” (Luke 8:46). Spiritual power had been supernaturally passed. In the same way, the lack of strength I feel each Monday serves as a stark reminder that preaching is more than a lecture, more than a sales pitch, more than a speech. Preaching is a matter of life and death, and we must push past our weak human emotions. As we battle discouragement, as we fight to find the soul of the text, we gain the power to connect with the hearts of people. We gain the joy of seeing lives transformed.
It’s worth it.
1C.H. Spurgeon, The Mourner’s Comforter (Columbia, MD: Opine, 2007), 110.
2Donald R. Sunukjian, Invitation to Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapid, MI: Kregel, 2007), 15.
3Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry (East Peoria, IL: Banner of Truth, reprinted 2009), 193.
4Jeff Ray, Expository Preaching (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1940), 81.
5Bert Decker and Hershael W. York, Preaching with Bold Assurance (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2003), 259.
6Warren W. Wiersbe, Preaching and Teaching with Imagination (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994) 24-25.