Tag Archives: Preaching


How to Work Ahead on Sermon Prep

It’s Saturday afternoon, and your sermon is half-done, at best. Your normal sermon prep time got crushed this week by a big funeral on Tuesday, a crisis counseling situation that consumed Wednesday and Thursday, and your wife’s minivan breaking down Friday. And now on Saturday, supposedly your day off, you slump in front of the computer puzzling over the main point and application of the text, and straining for the creativity to write a clear, engaging sermon manuscript.

Ever have one of those weeks?

studying-the-bibleGod helps us preachers in those desperate moments. But clearly this kind of compressed, last-minute prep has serious drawbacks. And if we prepare our messages this way every week, we’re more likely to serve junk food sermons rather than the nutritious, expository feast that our congregations need for spiritual health.

Some gifted preachers can regularly wrestle down a text and craft solid sermons on an abbreviated schedule. But most of us mortals need ample time. We need time to puzzle over interpretive issues, time to pray over application, time to pick others’ brains, and time for our creative engines to produce helpful illustrations, introductions, and conclusions. We need time to marinate in the passage of scripture.

Plan for Getting Ahead

I want to share an approach to sermon preparation that for the past 17 years has given me a longer runway for getting sermons off the ground. I didn’t come up with the basic concept myself, though for the life of me I can’t remember who suggested it. Undoubtedly other preachers do something similar. Furthermore, I’m not suggesting this “system” is the right way or best way to prepare sermons. Every preacher is unique. But if you long for more lead-time to produce a message, I recommend this strategy.

Here’s the basic concept: work on three sermons every week.

Before you roll your eyes or hyperventilate, let me explain. By three sermons each week, I don’t mean researching and writing three full sermons each week. Rather, I mean working on different parts of three separate sermons.

I conceptualize the sermon writing process in three phases.

Phase 1: Research. This is where we translate, discover structure, study words and grammar, grasp the larger literary context, and consult commentaries (after we have done our own work, of course). Our goal here is to understand the main point of the text and its main applications.

Phase 2: Writing. Here we produce the sermon itself. We lay out the flow, work on introductions and conclusions, build sentences, and think carefully about transitions. Whereas the research feels more like a science to me, the writing feels more like an art.

Phase 3: Rehearsing. Hopefully we take a little time to walk through the sermon before we preach it. I go to my basement on Saturday night and preach the sermon out loud by myself several times. This process not only familiarizes me with the content, but it inevitably serves as a further manuscript edit. Written communication typically needs some adjustment so that it sounds normal as oral communication.

Here is where the three-sermon system comes into play. Let’s say you are preaching through Galatians, one chapter each Sunday, starting with Galatians 1 this Sunday. That means this week you will be researching Galatians 3, writing your sermon on Galatians 2 (which you researched the last week), and rehearsing your sermon on Galatians 1 (which you wrote last week and researched two weeks ago).

Next week you will research Galatians 4, write the sermon for Galatians 3, and rehearse your message for Galatians 2. And so on.

This approach has lots of benefits. First and most obviously, it gives me three weeks to ruminate on a text. You will be amazed at how many illustrations, applications, and insights will come to you as you cogitate over a three-week period. You will have a whole week to tweak your manuscript.

Second, this rhythm always keeps the broader literary context in front of you. As you’re writing a sermon for Galatians 2 you’re simultaneously pondering what comes before (Galatians 1) and what comes after (Galatians 3). This plan assumes you’re regularly preaching through books of the Bible, which I strongly urge you to do as the meat-and-potatoes approach to your pulpit ministry.

Third, this plan often dispels that oppressive feeling of pressure and stress that the main preaching pastor feels each week. We still have to do the same amount of sermon prep labor in a given week. And yet knowing on Monday that this coming Sunday’s sermon is already written changes your outlook. It is absolutely liberating.

How Do I Get There?

When I share this concept with other preachers, I usually get two responses. First, they say, “Wow! That’s amazing!” And then they say, “I could never do that.” How could a preacher writing sermons week to week ever move to this model?

Here’s an idea. Make it a six- to eight-month goal. In the next half-year, plan to have someone else preach for you two or three times, but don’t go away that week on vacation. Ask the youth pastor to preach or swap pulpits with another pastor and just re-preach something at his church that won’t require extra work for you. And then use that free week to start working on two sermons at once. And then do it again a few months later and, voila! You’re now working on three sermons at once.

Inevitably crazy weeks happen, and I fall off the three-sermons-at-once pace. Even as I write this article, I’m behind on the schedule. I’m now only doing two texts at once this week. But I’m still way ahead, and in a couple weeks I will have an opportunity to catch back up.

Even if you’re an associate pastor who preaches infrequently, you can use this method. If you know you’re going to be preaching on a certain date, then start chipping away at your sermon three weeks ahead of time, doing one phase each week.

Give it a try. With a little discipline and patience, you can break out of the week-to-week writing pace and give your heart and mind room to breathe. Who knows? It just might improve your pulpit ministry.

TGC Twin Cities Logo

We Proclaim Him: Signs of Grace in the Twin Cities

TGC Twin Cities

When the gospel of Jesus Christ renews churches, a spirit of cooperation and celebration replaces their tendency toward parochialism and territorialism. Churches see others proclaiming the gospel of grace and expanding their influence in a region as partners in ministry whose successes are worth celebrating. Why? Because the gospel locates our corporate identity not in the size and scope of our own ministry, but in our status as the people of God, united to Christ and other believers by sheer grace. Churches convinced by this reality become more willing to create gospel partnerships for the good of the world.

We are seeing these signs of grace here in the Twin Cities: pastors representing a wide swath of the denominational landscape have come together to affirm their desire to establish a local chapter of The Gospel Coalition aimed not merely at fellowship and mutual encouragement, but also at partnering with one another to advance the gospel in our metro area.

We are only in the beginning stages of this initiative, but one thing’s for sure: the Twin Cities needs all our churches to meet the unique ministry challenges of our region. No single church has all the resources necessary to participate in the gospel transformation of our five-county sprawling metro. The Gospel Coalition-Twin Cities exists to dream together how we can more effectively serve our community with the gospel of Christ.

All the Residents Heard

Our brainstorming began in earnest in mid-March at our first official chapter meeting. The substance of our discussion was borne out of a reading of Acts 19:8-10, where the apostle Paul comes to Ephesus and ends up “reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus.” The punch line is Acts 19:10: “This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” In two years, all the residents of Asia heard the gospel. Historians tell us that the message reached somewhere between 250,000-400,000 people!

TGC Twin Cities LogoWhat if The Gospel Coalition-Twin Cities was more than a place of robust fellowship, increased camaraderie, and ministry support? What if we also pursued a vision to saturate the Twin Cities metro with the Word of the Lord such that we could say that “all the residents” heard it?

The Twin Cities has more mega-churches per capita than any metro in the United States. But even in this highly churched region, the gospel that Paul preached does not dominate the discussion. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism rules here, which means that people converse in gospel jargon they don’t really understand. It’s like they know the lyrics to the song, but not the tune.

We cannot control or predict who will trust Christ-that’s the work of the sovereign Spirit of God. But we can control what comes out of our mouths—who we talk to and what we talk about. In 2030, about 3.2 million people will live here. How exciting would it be if we worked together, functioning as a true coalition, so that we could eventually say, “All the residents of the Twin Cities heard the Word of the Lord”?

Beginning of the Road

In preliminary discussions before our meeting, it became clear that social media would play a significant role in the advance of the gospel. So we invited Bill Evans, a 19-year veteran of digital marketing, to talk with us about gospel communication in a digital age. After his talk and a brief time of Q&A, we divided into groups and imagined what may have been Paul’s strategy for reaching Asia, as well as what some of our halls of Tyrannus might be. It was a wonderful and stimulating time of discussion.

For our chapter, this is the beginning of the road, but it’s a road we want to travel. Together. For the good of our city and the glory of Christ.

In the meantime, we will continue to strengthen one another for the ministry through our first annual pastors’ conference on May 19-20: “We Proclaim Him: Expository Preaching and the Gospel of Grace.” We have observed that it is entirely possible to preach an expository message without preaching the gospel of grace. If we are going to reach the Twin Cities, we need to be sure that our pulpits proclaim Christ every time we open up God’s Word. With the help of gifted preacher and teacher Simon Manchester, senior minister of St. Thomas’ North Sydney, Australia, we will reflect on how to proclaim Jesus Christ whenever we’re in the pulpit. If you’re in the Twin Cities and would like to join us, register at weproclaimhim.eventbrite.com.

Chapell Greear McKinley

How to Preach Books of the Bible You Don’t Like

How do you preach a passage you don’t particularly like? Many pastors, of course, would just find a different one. But for those committed to expository preaching, sometimes the text staring you in the face isn’t one you would’ve picked.

“If I don’t like a passage it’s usually because I either don’t understand it or don’t see how I’m going to preach it,” Mike McKinley explains in a new roundtable video with Bryan Chapell and J. D. Greear. Yet time and again, the pastor of Sterling Park Baptist Church in northern Virginia observes, ”I’ve learned God is pleased to use things that don’t impress me.”

“If I understand what the Lord is saying but just don’t like it, I have to learn to love it,” says Chapell, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois, and former president of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. “I’ve got to try to figure out the reason God put it there and then fall in love with that reason.”

“I look back on my early years and am embarrassed by how little confidence I had in the Word of God,” admits Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in North Carolina. ”But though there have been books of the Bible I didn’t think I would like, I can honestly say I’ve never preached one that didn’t prove to be profound and life-changing.”

Watch the full nine-minute video to see these pastors discuss Monday morning terror, why Chapell bowed out before finishing Daniel, when application unburdens, and more.

Difficult parts of Scripture from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

The Danger of Self-Awareness in Preaching

I once heard John Piper say in an interview, “Self-consciousness is the curse of the preacher.” The context of the conversation was concerning the infamous “gesturing” of Piper in the pulpit. He made clear that he does not practice, plan, or otherwise pay attention to that stuff. Furthermore, it would be deadly if he did.

crystal_spurgeon-300x221By self-awareness I mean the unhealthy fixation of the preacher upon himself. When the preacher is thinking about himself before he is preaching, when he is preaching, and after he is preaching, then he is dangerously self-aware.

And why would it be a danger for the preacher?

1. It could divert his focus.

The task of the preacher is to communicate God’s Word in such a way that his hearers will be captivated with the greatness of God. To this end the preacher must be focused on God. He must be enveloped in the majesty of God and speak as one who is personally impressed with him.

If the pastor spends his time trying hit the perfect inflection, making the right gesture, telling the right kind of story, or making the perfect face, then he is distracted. I have heard of some men who weekly watch videos of their sermons to improve. Doubtless some of this study can be helpful. But if you are breaking down your motions with the detail of an NFL commentator, then your focus may be off.

2. It may detract from God’s power.

The logic goes something like this: If we could just improve our craft a bit then perhaps they will trust and treasure Christ. But conversion and growth does not work this way. God has chosen to use the weak things—like imperfect people preaching—to show his power (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18-31). In this weakness God shows himself powerful.

So by all means, try to remove needless distractions. However, do not seek to make the message more powerful by putting some air in the gospel sails. You can’t do it. It will inevitably deviate from God’s plan and detract from his power.

3. It may lead to pragmatism and manipulation. 

I have often wondered how some preachers started doing certain things while preaching. Some guys wear outlandish clothing, say shocking things, and even deploy props on stage during their sermons. How does this happen? Nobody just wakes up on a Sunday morning and says, “I think I’ll ride my motorcycle to the pulpit today.” People don’t jump to pragmatism overnight.

I believe they really want to be effective. You can see how this type of thing could dangerously progress. The preacher’s unhealthy fixation upon himself can lead him down unexpected roads.

We know that manipulation has always been a pulpit felony. If the preacher is manufacturing emotion in himself or his hearers only to get a response (however “good” his end-goal) he must repent. Preachers, of all people, must not manipulate people. We proclaim truth!

But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor. 4:2 )

4. It may be quenching the Holy Spirit.

Another way preachers could be too self-aware is to try to defuse emotion in the pulpit. Some guys are greatly moved with emotion, even to tears, while preaching. There’s nothing wrong with this response. However, in his unhealthy fixation upon himself the preacher may try to resist this emotion. But if he is genuinely moved by God the Holy Spirit, how can he suppress being moved? Isn’t this hypocritical?

Think about it: we preach and pray for “God to work in people’s lives” only to resist him in our own? What an insult to the Trinity for me to mitigate the divine passion for his glory and honor by trying to preserve and promote my own! Being too aware of self could lead to a lack of awareness of the Holy Spirit.

Bottom Line

When a preacher fixates on himself, his preaching becomes a personal performance rather than proclamation of God’s Word. And the preacher can never let himself become the spectacle. He cannot be the show. He gets out of the way by being wrapped up in and carried away in the God he proclaims. I think this is what God the Holy Spirit is doing when he uses the preacher’s personality and expressiveness to serve the Word of God. As Piper teaches:

You want the significance of what you are saying to be seen and felt, and I suppose it is largely a personality thing as to how much expressiveness you give with your voice and how much expressiveness you give with you body. But for me, it is just who I am and what I do and it is part, it is just part of a language.

Be yourself and don’t be too conscious of yourself. Just preach the Word of God.


The Problem with Polemical Preaching

There are many ways to impair a sermon and muffle a ministry. Unsuspecting pastors have been doing it for centuries. One such way is by means of polemics. Polemics, strictly speaking, is a strongly written or verbal argument against another position. Polemical preaching then would be a sermon that goes after a particular practice or doctrine held by another person or institution.

LLoyd-JonesMartyn Lloyd-Jones called polemical preaching “thorny.” On the one hand, preachers can go wrong by being too weak, not adequately refuting the error of those who contradict sound doctrine (Titus 1:9, 2:15). On the other hand a preacher can become consumed with calling everyone and everything out. We now have ministries, churches, even websites that seem to build their identity on their reaction to error. After all, we live in a time that some have called the most undiscerning period in history, which means some preachers will undertake polemical preaching and ministry. But defending truth against error is only one part of faithful preaching. The question is not whether there is a place for polemical preaching but whether someone can do too much of it.

Some would say no. In fact, Lloyd-Jones (MLJ) interacted with them in his classic book Preaching and Preachers. In his chapter “What to Avoid” he speaks of a day-long conversation with a well-known preacher. MLJ talks about how he, unlike his friend, tended to avoid and rather dislike the type of preaching that “made mincemeat” of other preachers. In what follows I interact with and summarize MLJ’s points. They remain fresh for us today.

We want to win people, not destroy them.

Proponents of this type of preaching will often point out that even Paul opposed Peter in Galatians 2. Lloyd-Jones relays his response to this argument:

Yes I know that Paul tells that he had done that, but . . . I am interested in the result. I notice that the result of Paul’s dealing with Peter, his attacking him to the face at Antioch, was that he persuaded Peter that he was wrong and won him to his position. I note that Peter later on in life in his second epistle expresses his great admiration of the apostle Paul and his writings. Can you say the same about the people whom you attack?

Sometimes this type of preaching can get away from the goal of restoration and holiness. In the name of discernment, we could unwittingly preach in such a way that is unbecoming of the gospel. Seeking life change takes thoughtfulness and care.

Be careful that you are not knife-happy.

As a trained medical doctor, MLJ responded to the concern that preachers must recognize and remove cancer in the church. Just like a surgeon needs to quickly remove cancer from the body, the act of preaching should remove cancer from the church.

MLJ deftly replied: “There is such a thing as developing a ‘surgical mentality,’ or becoming what is described as ‘knife-happy.'” Before having surgery you would be wise to talk with your general doctor and not to the surgeon alone. You should not be surprised that a surgeon might well, like to do surgery.

Sure, aberrant teaching and living needs to be excised from the church. At the same time the pastor should be careful that he is not becoming “knife-happy” in his preaching. There are other ways to treat such ailments in the body than simply having surgery (such as counseling, discipleship, writing, prayer meetings, and so on).

While conflict draws crowds it does not build churches.

MLJ’s friend later appealed to the fact that such preaching increases his popularity and influence. We see this trend in our day as well. I could write 10 articles on my blog about the glory of Christ and see little excitement. However, if I were to write about a particular conflict or controversial subject or figure, the traffic skyrockets. MLJ would say to us, “I have noticed always that whenever there are two dogs fighting that a crowd always gathers. There are people who always enjoy a fight so I am not surprised that your circulation goes up.”

People will flock to conflict; we feed upon it in our flesh. But a crowd does not necessarily indicate actual gospel growth. In fact, ministries and pulpits built upon polemics tend to become more and more popular even as they narrow. Eventually, though, they alienate everyone else. This is the sad story that MLJ tells of the pastor in this conversation. He ends up “in isolation, and his church, from having been a great church was reduced in size and influence.”

While a pastor cannot and should not avoid polemics in his preaching he must not be characterized by them (1 Tim. 3:3; 6:4). There is a such thing as too much. This is a subjective line, to be sure. It is difficult to discern. However, in view of his goal of presenting every man complete in Christ (Col. 1:28), the pastor will prayerfully, thoughtfully, and tactfully pick his battles and how they should be waged. In this process he will aim to stay clear of the polemical vortex that tempts his flesh and undermines his preaching.

How to Preach a Stale Sermon

Sermon preparation is a delight and chore for the pastor. It is a delight because we love the Word of God and the people of God. After all, God uses preaching to initiate and sustain the joyful worship of his people, which in turn glorifies God (2 Tim. 3-4).

It is also a chore. This is because sermon prep is hard work. Thorny interpretive issues, homiletical hurdles, and church family dynamics often make sermon preparation difficult.

But there is another aspect of sermon prep that is too often either assumed or neglected. I am talking about the preparation of the pastor’s heart to actually preach the sermon. Preparing a sermon is not only about exegesis, reading commentaries, articulating propositions, and finding appropriate illustrations. Sermon preparation is also about personally discovering, digesting, and delighting in the truth.

This crucial aspect of preparation can be neglected or assumed. We might assume that the text is in us because we have read it, researched commentaries, and written our message. However, this is a costly leap. Instead of assuming that the text is in us, we must ensure that it is. Such subtle, oft-neglected oversight in preparation can become a foe to our preaching.

So why is it dangerous to neglect preaching the sermon to your own heart?

By not engaging your heart in preparation you neglect the spiritual benefit to your own soul.

The days of preparation during the week are like the laying down rocks in a riverbed—they keep the water moving quickly downstream. This crucial aspect of preparation prevents your heart from becoming a spiritual swamp.

Bypassing the heart in preparation will lead to your bypassing the heart in proclamation.

If you have spent time simply gathering facts then you will likely only relay facts to your hearers. You will become a lot like a spiritual tour guide or documentary narrator. This is not preaching. Just as there is a big difference between preaching about the Word and preaching the Word, there is a difference between preaching about people and to people.

Charles Spurgeon made the point this way:

To preach the gospel is not to talk about what the gospel is, but to preach it into the heart, not by your own might, but by the influence of the Holy Ghost—not to stand and talk as if we were speaking to the angel Gabriel, and telling him certain things, but to speak as man to man and pour our heart in to our fellow’s heart. This I take it, is to preach the gospel, and not to mumble some dry manuscript over on Sunday morning or Sunday evening. . . . Nay; to preach the gospel is to proclaim with trumpet tongue and flaming zeal the unsearchable riches of Christ Jesus, so that men may hear, and understanding, may turn to God with full purpose of heart. This is to preach the gospel.

This type of preaching comes out of a heart that has engaged with the text; he has discovered it, digested it, and even when preaching, delighted in it.

You will teach people to know things without feeling them.

It is common for people today to say they know something because they feel it. As Christians we are supposed to feel because we know something. In other words, the truth affects our mind and heart. When we preach we are teaching more than the text, we are teaching what we feel about it. We are communicating by our words and tone the depth of impact into our own heart. The only thing worse than never delighting in the truth is to see that you trained your people to do the same. May it never be.

So how can you deal with a stale heart in preaching?


Ask God as you study the text, “What do you want to teach me?” How does this passage “reprove, rebuke, exhort, and train” me (2 Tim. 3:16)? Keep asking questions. Prayerfully think through the implications for your life and the life of your church.


Jacob wrestled and refused to let go until he was blessed. Pastors love to spiritualize things, so here’s one: grab hold of that passage and pray. Refuse to let go of it until you are blessed with the divine privilege of delighting in the Word of God and the God of the Word (Ps. 119:47, 143, 174).


In order to digest the truth of the passage we must chew on it. Gather together the nuggets of discovery and delight and carry them around with you all day. Let the truths be like a spiritual lozenge in your mouth all day. Soon it will be in you.


I have been discouraged about the staleness of my own heart before preaching. Without fail, when I sit down and start talking to others, including my own children, I feel the increased sense of burden for them and excitement to proclaim God’s truth to them. I know that Mark Dever and others regularly meet with people in their church to gain insight into application. You might be preaching stale sermons because you don’t really know the people in your church.

The preparation process begins as soon as the preacher closes in prayer following the sermon. In less than 168 hours he will again be flanked behind the sacred desk to proclaim God’s Word. May those who preach not neglect their own hearts in view of reaching others.

Anthony Carter on Writing and Ministry

It’s no secret: pastors like books. We read them, we quote them, we give them away. After all, the foundation for our entire ministry is the written Word of God himself. Take away that book and we have no ministry.

But what about the writing of books? How should pastors think about putting words on paper for publication? Anthony Carter, lead pastor of East Point Church in Georgia, has written, co-authored, and contributed to a number of books, including most recently Blood Work.  Carter warns against the desire for attention and the distraction that writing can take away from pastoral ministry but also encourages pastors to pursue writing and publishing if they can. You can also read our interview in this series with Timothy Keller.

*        *        *        *

Should a pastor write? Is writing a valid part of pastoral ministry, or does it distract us from the people we’re called to care for? 

Carter_PX_webAll pastors are writers. For me, writing is just an extension of preaching ministry. Every week I write a sermon. All preachers do. Whether you write a full manuscript during sermon preparation or not, writing is indispensable to good preaching. Therefore, it is not a distraction; it is what all preachers do. Nevertheless, if the pastor pursues it apart from the pastoral ministry, then it could be a distraction and become a source of pride.

A young pastor comes to you wanting to be a published writer. What advice do you give him? How should a pastor evaluate and pursue a call to write?

All pastors should seek to get published. The process of writing and being published is a great learning experience. It causes you to think about how you communicate outside of sermonic sound bites and gives you another venue through which you can communicate to the congregation. So I would encourage the young pastor to write.

However, I would caution him against thinking more highly of his writing than he should. As I said, consider writing as an extension of the pastoral calling, and be contented if no one but people in your local congregation read your book. After all, you have been called to the local flock, not the world. If my congregation reads and is encouraged by what I write, I should consider myself blessed.

Writing for publication brings a measure of national attention. How does a published pastor resist temptations to pride and cultivate humility?  

Actually, most books get published with little to no national attention. If you write for national attention, you are writing for the wrong reasons. I would encourage any pastor to remember and take to heart this sobering reality: Most people won’t even know that you have published a book, and the rest won’t care.

In his book Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue, Andreas Köstenberger says, “Writing never just happens. If you are called to write, you must actively plan for it and doggedly persevere in it.” Take us into your writing routine. How do you actively plan for and doggedly persevere in the writing task?  

I write sermons practically every week. This is the bulk of my writing, and where my writing is primarily concentrated. Writing books or blogs is more a fruit of the preaching ministry than anything else. Consequently, I plan my writing like I plan my sermons. First, I start with an idea that grabs my attention. If I am not interested in what I am writing, I doubt others will be either. Second, I outline my thoughts with the end in mind. What do I want people to take away from this article or book? Then I develop the outline seeking to get myself, and subsequently my readers, to that end. Third, I set aside time where I can spend on the deliberate exercise of writing. Like anything else, writing takes discipline. Discipline is time and effort.

Are there any practices or disciplines that have helped you develop skill as a writer?  

I don’t know how much skill I have as a writer. I am sure many would say not much, and I would tend to agree. However, I find that I write better when I read good writing. Good reading is the best discipline I know for being a good writer. In fact, when I read good writers, it does two things: one, I am reminded of how weak my writing is and, two, I am encouraged to try and write better.

Preach to the Affections, Don’t Manipulate Them

Should preachers aim for the affections? Is this even possible without resorting to manipulation techniques? In a new roundtable video, John Piper, Voddie Baucham, and Miguel Núñez—all Council members for The Gospel Coalition—explore differences between “working the crowd” and awakening authentic, God-honoring emotion.

“As long as preaching unpacks the greatness of God, the emotions should be moved,” Núñez observes. Faithful exposition, then, is a excellent way to cultivate godly affection and safeguard against squalid manipulation.

A bored preacher misrepresents the God he proclaims, Piper adds, since God is not boring. Moreover, he explains, “the difference between emotion and emotionalism is whether you’ve awakened it with truth.”

Baucham references a complaint sometimes voiced in more traditionally emotional (e.g., black and Latino) cultures that emphasizing truth and theology amounts to “denying your culture, your heritage, your ethnicity.” But the call to awaken affections with biblical truth is not culturally specific. As Piper quips, “I want to be known as the best black preacher there ever was.”

Watch the full 12-minute video to hear these three preachers discuss Grand Canyon moments, when God looks boring, and more.

Preaching to the Affections from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

The Biggest Mistakes Old Preachers Make

We’ve considered some of the biggest mistakes new preachers make. But what about older preachers? Which snares tend to threaten the seasoned?

“Resting on your laurels” at the expense of making progress can be tempting, Bryan Chapell observes in a new roundtable video with Paul Tripp and Russell Moore. “It’s easy to keep returning to the familiar rather than pressing on in personal growth and understanding.” According to Moore, another trap is viewing the younger generation as a threat. Bitterness and undue criticism of younger pastors, he suggests, are often rooted in a nostalgic view of the past that’s simply unrealistic.

Additionally, veteran preachers must beware of overfamiliarity, of losing their awe. “The more you see something, the less you really see it,” Tripp explains. “And the more you’re around something, the less you really celebrate it.” No less dangerous, he adds, is the sense of “arrival” that can emerge in which “knowledge, skill, and experience begin to define maturity in your eyes.”

Watch the full seven-minute video to see these experienced preachers discuss weariness, numbness, Messiah complexes, and more.

Mistakes Old Preachers Make from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

The Easier Path to Sermon Illustrations

Many pastors find illustrations to be the most challenging part of preaching. Challenges can seem hard when you don’t know how to meet them. But when you get the hang of something you discover it’s not so bad after all.

We experienced this when mom or dad unscrewed the training wheels. We experienced this as we fumbled through changing our firstborn’s diaper the day she was born. But it wasn’t not long before we were popping wheelies and changing diapers in our sleep (literally).

Perhaps illustrations seem impossible to you. Your failed attempts end up with a trash can overflowing with crumpled pieces of paper. Your basketball shot has dramatically improved, but your sermon? Not so much.

While illustrations will rarely come easy, there is a way to make them easier: using a sermon illustration template.

“A template?” you ask. Isn’t that formulaic? Isn’t that inauthentic? Isn’t that uncreative?

Before you go Muhammad Ali on templates, let me point out that you already use templates for your worship service: welcome, singing, sermon, and benediction/closing. Your sermon has a template, too: introduction, body, and conclusion.

Far from suffocating preachers, the constraints of templates focus creativity. And with focused creativity you will write illustrations faster and better.

Sermon Illustration Template

This template lays out six steps of an illustration. Each step starts with “C,” which hopefully makes it memorable.

Conflict. Rather than spending time setting up the context and background of your illustration, go straight to the conflict. Good movies start out with the problem. The other night I was watching North by Northwest. Cary Grant is kidnapped in the second scene. The Bourne Identity is another example. Matt Damon is floating in the water in the first scene, and we immediately discover that he has amnesia.

Introducing the conflict early hooks the audience and makes them wonder how the problem will be resolved.

The purpose of illustrations is to take your people from not believing to believing, and from not doing to doing. There is an obstacle preventing them from making the jump. Match the conflict in your illustration to the obstacle that keeps us from believing God’s promises and living according to his Word. As your church follows the illustration to resolution, they will see their path to believing and also doing at the same time.

2. Climax. At this point your church wonders, What’s going to happen? To build the anticipation, tell the story in such a way that the problem gets worse before it gets better. Then watch everyone move to the edge of their pews.

As you build toward the climax, use concrete words to help your church picture the story in their heads. An abstract illustration is a contradiction in terms.

3. Conclusion. The next step is to resolve the conflict of your illustration. How does the story end? How does the hero win? How do they live happily ever after? How is the problem solved?

In the same way that the conflict of your illustration should match up with our obstacle to obeying, so also the conclusion should correspond to how Jesus helps us believe and do.

At this point, your illustration is over, but your work is only halfway finished. Now that you have illustrated your point you can apply it to your audience.

4. Connection. Connect the principle of your illustration to the point you are making from the passage. You must make the connection clear so that the Scriptures receive the functional power and authority in that moment of your sermon.

While it might be more artistic to imply the connection, or leave it entirely up to your audience to infer it, you must make the connection explicit so the church doesn’t miss it. As you do this, Lord willing, your listeners will transfer their emotional investment in the illustration (from step two) to the point of the passage.

5. Conviction. Was there ever a more effective illustration than Nathan’s story about the rich man who took the poor man’s lamb? David took the bait hook, line, sinker, and pole. He condemned the rich man to death, incriminating himself, though he didn’t realize it. Then Nathan revealed the significance of the story: “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7).

Every illustration you tell should have a “Nathan Moment” where you personalize it to your congregation. Our sin at least contributes to—if it’s not entirely responsible for—the conflict in step one. Don’t let your church think about how it relates to their neighbor, children, coworker, or spouse. Use the word “you” so that it is abundantly clear that no one listening is off the hook.

6. Christ. The Nathan Moment reveals our need for a savior, so the closing of your illustration must to point to the gospel. Our forgiveness and power to change is found only in what the Father has done for us through Jesus and applied to us by the Spirit. If you leave Jesus, the Hero, out of your illustration, your listeners will automatically assume that applying the principle is up to them.

In step four, you draw a principle from your illustration and your text. In step five, you apply the principle to your people. In step six, you strengthen them to live out that application in light of what God has done, and what God promises to do for us by his grace.

Nudge Forward

Do you find yourself staring at a blinking cursor when trying to think up a sermon illustration? This template is for you. Charting each step of the way helps get you going.

An illustration template is like the sail of a boat. It captures the wind of your creativity and thrusts you forward. Far from producing the same boring result, each trip out to sea is exciting in its own way. Similarly, different passages, various seasons of ministry, and your own continued growth as an illustrator will continue to fill this template with new, creative illustrations.