I began my preaching ministry as a 21 year old college student. I still have some of the manuscripts that I wrote for that congregation in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. The overwhelming feeling that I get when I read them is: “What was I thinking?!?
I’ve learned some things over the last 32 years. . .below are the Top 10 most important lessons.
#1 – Pray – Very early in my ministry, my father wrote me a letter after hearing me preach. He said some wonderful things that I have treasured in my heart. But he also challenged me: “Make sure what you say with your mouth is also real in your heart.” The only way to cultivate authenticity in preaching is by having a personal, deep, ongoing relationship with Jesus through prayer.
#2 – Read – The first source for good preaching is obviously the Bible. It is absolutely primary and it comes with the promise that it won’t return void. One of my mentors challenged me: Read the Bible from cover to cover in a year for 10 years straight and then you will be ready to preach. I’ve done this and it has produced much fruit. I’ve also found that some of my best sermon ideas have come from reading good Christian books. And here’s the kicker, those ideas may or may not have come from the pages that I was reading! Engaging in spiritual truth has opened my spirit to the creative voice of the Lord. God seems to be a multi-tasker. This has also been true when I am listening to a good sermon. Truth opens us to even more truth.
#3 – Write – You’ve got to create some systematic way to record God-given ideas when they come. If you are young right now, trust me in this…you’re crystal clear youthful memory will not always be there for you! Begin now to develop a habit of jotting down ideas and stories that grip your heart.
#4 – Notice – Pay attention to the clustering of ideas along the same themes. When reading scripture, I like to systematically move from OT Historical books to OT poetic or prophetic books to NT readings. It gives the Lord a chance to highlight themes that run throughout scripture. When I engage those themes, the Lord often has a message He wants me to share. When I am focused on a Biblical theme and keep my eyes and ears open, it is amazing how the Lord will add illustrations and insights from what I am reading and listening to in daily life.
#5 – Work – If you are a faithful pastor, you have a whole lot of stuff vying for your attention. But there are few things as important in your ministry is being prepared to declare the Gospel to your people. It takes discipline, a strong will, and tough skin to give yourself to faithful sermon preparation. In 30+ years of preaching, I have averaged 15 to 20 hours of work for each 30 to 40 minute sermon.
#6 – Stop – This is a BIG one…Ask the Lord to help you know when you have accumulated enough insight and information. I think the biggest mistake many preachers make is too much information. Once you have dug up the gold, it is very difficult to not want to show it off!
#7 – Organize – You’ve been praying, reading, writing, noticing, working and stopping…you’ve been driven by a theme. Now it is time to take that broad theme and ask the Lord to funnel it down so that you can answer two questions: 1). What is the purpose of my sermon? 2). What do I hope people will do after they hear it? If you can answer those two questions, then figure out how to grab their attention in the beginning, how to segway through a couple of main points, and how the Lord can grab their hearts at the end.
#8 – Edit – Some of what you have dug up is not gold, get rid of it. Some of it is gold and is not for that sermon. This step is what separates the good from the great. Other than prayer and scripture reading, the next most important step in preaching great sermons is figuring out what you don’t have to say.
#9 – EDIT – (this is really important, notice the bold letters with caps!) If you could see a transcript of your sermon before you preach it, it would be so clear how many words were not absolutely necessary. If fact, it may not be a bad idea to write manuscripts of your sermons for a while. I did this for the first 10 years of my ministry. I learned that sermons were not only about ideas, but words…the right words.
#10 – Pray – Great sermon preparation begins and ends with prayer. This not only brings authenticity but expectation. I love to ask the Lord to give me a vision of what He wants to see at the end of the message. Often I get a picture of the meeting room, the people and their response. I remind Jesus that without Him I am still that college student who held on to the podium for dear life, kept his head down through most of his speech and barely got a “C” in that class. I ask Him to help me be clear and real and love the people I will be speaking to. And I challenge Jesus that He is responsible for the response.
I’ve been preaching for 30+ years. I started in a one room church with an outhouse in Eastern, KY. I’ve pastored denominational churches, traveled the world as an evangelist, planted non-denominational churches and led a house church. I’ve preached to crowds of 15,000 and 5. In this season, I pastor a church that can have 80 people meeting on the beach in the summer and last week our winter crowd was a whopping 8. Through the decades I have always been lost in the wonder of this grand blessing: We get to preach the timeless truth of Christ’s kingdom. It is a high and holy calling. I pray that you do it well this week.