“Aim carefully son … and take your best shot,” were my dad’s simple and empowering words. His enabling instruction freed an eight-year old lad to squint down the dark barrel of a Winchester bolt-action, single shot, .22 caliber rifle pointed at a distant target. “Aim carefully … and take your best shot,” my dad said, and that is what I did.
“Aim carefully … and take your best shot” are words of permissive empowerment not only for shooting a Winchester bolt-action, single shot, .22 caliber rifle, but for preaching as well. And not just any kind of preaching, but the kind of preaching that often begins with an inquiring phone call from a pastor: “I am planning a vacation for my family. Would you preach in my absence?” or a pleasant invitation, “We’re having a special ‘Homecoming’ service. Would you be our guest speaker?” or even a panicked call that comes while eating breakfast on a Sunday morning that begins with an apology, “Please forgive me for calling so early. This is Joan Mason, Jack Mason’s wife. Jack awoke this morning nauseated and with a fever. I think he has the flu. Jack wants to know if you would preach for him this morning. I know it is short notice, but could you help him out?”
Pastoral preaching is, of course, a special kind of preaching. It is distinctive because sermons are birthed and shaped within the crucible of on-going relationships. A preaching pastor has in his sermonic reservoir messages that address almost every conceivable topic of interest and involvement related to the Christian life and church. In a typical pastor’s repertoire are biblical sermons addressing evangelism strategy and personal witness, doctrines, church growth, pastoral care, social concerns, missions, ministry, celebrations of ordinances, observances of seasonal and denominational events and emphasis, and a host of other topics, all for the purposes of motivation, education, celebration, and growth.
Each sermon is linked with all other sermons delivered by a preaching pastor to set direction, give focus, and create a positive and responsive spirit within a particular fellowship of believers over an elongated period of time. Linked and authenticated by the observed life and ministry of the pastor, sermonic strength seldom rests upon one preached message alone but on the combined power of a transparent life and a consonantally apt word. Thus, some speak of a “powerful pulpit” or “power in the pulpit” — meaning that the preaching pastor has established a pattern of meaningful and effective sermons over a period of time substantiated before the congregation by a consistent lifestyle.
“Aim carefully … and take your best shot” preaching (what some call “one shot” preaching) is a special kind of preaching also. However, it is a different kind of preaching. It is preaching often framed by an urgent request that provides little or no time for preparation. It is preaching conceived and delivered with what may be minimal or no on-going pastoral relationship between the preacher and the congregation. It is a preaching assignment usually focused on the service(s) of worship of only one Sunday. Generally “one shot” preaching does not portend an expectation of any further or extended involvement of the guest preacher in the on-going life of the congregation.
“One shot” preaching is often occasioned when a preaching pastor cannot or chooses not, for a variety of possible reasons, to deliver the sermon in a particular service of worship when he or she might otherwise be expected to do so. Clustered into this category of preaching may also be invitations to address congregations during special events or for particular emphases that call for a single sermon by a guest preacher.
When the invitation is unexpected and preparation time is short, what is a preacher to do? When there is only one sermonic “shot,” what is a guest preacher to say? When an invited guest has little or no direct and on-going relationship with a particular congregation, how will he know what to preach? Of course, no one teaches this in seminary. Even (or especially) someone who has preached many years may be placed into such a puzzling circumstance pregnant with possibilities, possibilities of squarely connecting with the listening congregation or missing them altogether, possibilities of fully and powerfully using the preaching occasion for good and grace and God or of missing the hope of many who gather to hear a word from the Lord. My dad’s long ago advice comes to mind, “Aim carefully … and take your best shot.”
It may be the only thing to do is prayerfully dip into the sermonic barrel and hope whatever comes up will somehow communicate once more. Perhaps the sermon that best “connected” in some other church on some other Sunday will again “connect” … a sort of “If lightning fell once, maybe it will fall again” philosophy. Or it may be that a current topic of interest, issue of concern, favorite scripture passage, exciting word study, or personal struggle in the guest preacher’s own life could provide the direction needed. Perhaps the story of one’s own spiritual journey could be just the thing to grace the sermonic offering. If invited for a special occasion, it will be the nature of the occasion that points toward a suitable sermon topic.
While leaning on the Spirit’s guidance, trial and error and reasonableness have profited my decisions about and practice of “one shot” preaching more than anything else. Three simple and obvious questions now guide my praying, thinking and sermonic choices when invited to preach “one shot” sermons: 1) What do I know about the church? 2) What can I surmise about the church? and 3) What do I not know about the church? Each question provides it’s own set of hints that inform the guest preacher in preparation and delivery.
What do I know about the church?
Even a guest preacher who has never been to a particular church can easily ascertain certain basic information that is helpful in sermon preparation or choice. Likely through general observation answers to the following are already known. If not, a simple inquiry to the pastor or local judicatory leader can glean the needed information.
What are the obvious characteristics of the area where the church is located? Is it urban, suburban, county seat, open country? Is it a community in transition? Is it dominated by industry, shopping centers and malls, active farming, high or low-end housing? Is the area known as a place where urbanites and/or professionals live, congregate, and/or work? Is it known for its proximity and/or ministry to university or seminary campuses or other sociological groupings? Is the church located in an attractive or deteriorating setting? For what ministries or events is the church known?
Every social, demographic and ministry characteristic has its own intrinsic set of values and commitments. What the preacher is seeking from these questions are the cultural points of reference, general values, mission and ministry commitments, and probable spiritual beliefs held by those to whom he or she will preach.
Good and noble values, biblical beliefs and attitudes and behaviors need to be supported and promoted. Affirmation of what is important to people will gain some access to their hearing and lives. If preachers understand what is important to the people to whom they preach and can join them in affirming the values, beliefs, and behaviors held dear, they will lend initial attentiveness to what else the preacher may have to say. In fact, an entire message could be framed around a “keep on keeping on” theme.
On the other hand, a congregation’s current values, beliefs or behaviors may be spiritually, ethically, or morally askew. Perhaps a particular congregation needs to hear a desenting voice. Perhaps their collective beliefs or behaviors need to be challenged. Here is an opportunity for true “prophetic” preaching — not harsh and condemning, but loving, corrective, redemptive.
The celebration of relationships with God and fellow saints are always needed and appreciated. Every congregation benefits from a periodic ‘”at-a-boy!” from persons outside of its fellowship. Here are rich possibilities for solid biblical “one shot” sermons.
Remembering the internal and external culture of a church will be helpful for sermon choice, preparation and delivery also. Words are important. Words have meaning. Nomenclature and illustrative material will either enhance or hinder intended and needed sennonic communication. For instance, the average farm community resident will likely have little interest in the origin of the Old Testament Umin and Thumin, but Jesus’ stories about the sower and the seeds, a day’s fair wage for a full and fair day of work, the needed early and late rains sent from God, laborers sought for the harvest, and the farm that owned a fool would immediately strike an understanding and responsive cord.
A young upwardly-mobile urban couple would not likely have great interest in where Cain and Able got their wives but would immediately be interested in God’s laws for success or how to find peace without losing your mind or what God’s Word has to say about rearing a strong-willed child. Jesus’ stories about counting the cost before committing to discipleship would catch the hearing and heart of any mid-Life person pondering where to invest the mature years of life.
What can I surmise about the church?
There are both specific and non-specific inferences to be made about any church. Denominational affiliations will provide a hint. What particular beliefs, doctrines and behaviors does a particular church’s denomination hold as true and appropriate?
Sermon content and the preaching style of a church’s pastor may be a second hint. Is the congregation weekly served up a healthy sermonic portion of “hell fire and brimstone?” Are church attendees nurtured by repeated challenges to fashion a kingdom vision, to live as a growing disciple with openness and teachability, to personally be on mission and do ministry, to discover and appropriate each one’s spiritual giftedness, or to address urgent social and spiritual needs in the world about them? Is the pastor-preacher “balanced” in his/her personal spiritual life, approach to ministry, and biblical interpretation? Is he known as a shepherd that provides pastoral care and encouragement through the preaching ministry? Is he/she an authentic Christian? These and similar questions are answered more by an acquaintance with the minister’s reputation than a particular awareness of the church. All of this, however, hints at the nature and need of a particular congregation.
As much as any thing, the parable of the Prodigal Son has helped my “one shot” preaching. You and I and everyone who shows up at church on any given Sunday know something personally about being lost, or alone, or guilty, or disappointed, or broken. We know something experientially about being smug or confident or judgmental. We know something soul-deep about waiting anxiously, watching intently, or carrying love’s burden. Every Sunday there are countless people sitting before the preacher feeling the same feelings and thinking the same thoughts as the prodigal son or the older brother or the waiting father. Any sermon addressing the attendant feelings and thoughts of prodigals, older brothers and loving fathers will be helpful and appreciated.
What do I not know about the church?
A plethora of unknown things await the preacher as he stands to take his “best (sermonic) shot” for the occasion. Things like, where are the alligators out there? (A Florida friend once observed, “There are ‘gators in every pond. A preacher needs to know where the ‘gators are in the church.”) Are there tensions brewing under the surface of congregational life? What on-going issues are being faced by the church? What recent victories have been recorded and/or celebrated? The truth is that more will be unknown to the guest preacher than what is known. That fact, however, cannot be allowed to diminish the preacher’s power, deflect the spirit of the preaching event, or steal away the meaningful content of a message.
Always to be remembered is that this is a God-sized appointment. This is a moment when God uses the instrumentality of a human being to declare eternal truth. This is an occasion, not so much for a sermon to be brilliant and a preacher to be profound, but for the Spirit to be loosed in worship. Even an ordinary sermon delivered by an ordinary human can catch spiritual fire when offered to an extraordinary God.
What do I know? What can I surmise? What do I not know? After reflecting on those questions, I have always found these to be true:
1) Many a previously preached sermon can be easily and quickly modified to speak to a particular group of worshipers. Introductions, illustrations and conclusions can be altered to give the sermon freshness appropriate to the occasion.
2) Eternal principles are always true, no matter what the occasion or audience.
3) God is in control. All God expects is that a preacher do his/her best. Even the most unlikely sermonic offering can be used of God to accomplish His purposes.
4) Fulfillment and joy are always the reward reaped by a “one shot” preacher, even with little advanced notice before preaching or little preparation time.
5) You can count on God. He knows what the people need to hear. He is able to take what you offer and press it home to the heart and mind of any that needs a word from Him.
So the next time you’re called on to deliver a single message in an unfamiliar setting, “aim carefully … and take your best shot.” God will honor your effort.

Share This On: