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preachingIn no particular order, here are some reflections, musings, and bits of advice on the noble task of preaching the Word of God.

1. I’ve heard it attributed to Tim Keller that you have to preach at least 200 sermons to get good. (Or something like that.) I think this is generally true. For those gifted to preach, it does take a long time to hit your stride and become reliably good, and even then, you keep growing and refining. For those who aren’t gifted to preach, I think even reaching the 200 mark shows no discernable growth. Someone is ungifted to preach when they’ve been at it a long time and show no real development. Sermon 201 is probably not noticeably improved from sermon 1.

2. I personally favor the use of manuscripts, but I understand they’re not for everyone. If you can’t preach from a manuscript without sounding like you are reading a manuscript, it’s probably not for you.

3. When I started preaching, I used outlines (2-3 pages). I expected that as I got more experienced and confident in the pulpit, I would be taking less material. The opposite has proved true. The longer I go, the less I trust myself to speak without the train-track of my manuscript (usually 10-12 pages).

4. I don’t think short messages are usually very good, but there’s nothing worse than a sermon that is too long. Don’t try to say everything. Do the text justice, proclaim the gospel, and don’t feel the need to turn your weekly sermon into a conference talk. For most preachers, I suspect 30-40 minutes is probably the best range, but, again, a bad sermon can’t be too short.

5. I believe that your devotional prep should take longer than your exegetical prep. Don’t overcook your sermon, but don’t pressure-cook your communion with God.

6. Thinking missionally, I think there is some truth to the admonition to “preach to who you want.” But it’s not for no reason Peter says to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” Preaching to the congregation of your vision is often a great way to lose the congregation God in his wisdom has given you.

7. Work with the text on your own first, consult commentaries last. Always better to borrow than to steal.

8. I think topical sermons are fine so long as they’re preached expositionally. ;-)

9. If Christ is as glorious as he says he is, making him the point of the sermon--no matter the text--makes the most sense.

10. Preach a biblical text. The only reason not to is if you think your ideas are better than God’s.

11. A steady diet of “how-to” sermons doesn’t make Christianity more accessible or relevant to people; it actually, over time, burdens them and makes them feel constantly on spiritual probation.

12. It takes some people all the faith they’ve got that week to get through the church doors on Sunday morning. Why would we want to offer them anything but good news and the comfort of Christ?

13. If the Bible is right when it says the gospel is the power of salvation--and it is--and if the Bible is right when it says it’s only by beholding Christ’s glory in the gospel that people can be transformed--and it is--it doesn’t make sense to marginalize the gospel or save it for special occasions.

14. Preaching expositionally with the unity of the whole Bible in mind is a great way to make sure you’re emphasizing both law and gospel according to their biblical proportions.

15. Obviously, if you’re faithfully preaching God’s Word, it doesn’t really matter if you’re preaching from a music stand, lectern, high-top table, or with no stand at all, but I personally do like a good old-fashioned wooden pulpit, because I like the way it reinforces the idea that God’s word is solid, firm, “big,” an anchor in the stormy seas of life. A good solid pulpit conveys aesthetically the authority and the firmness of God’s Word. Again, no reason to be dogmatic about something so preferential, but maybe consider what your preaching environment communicates?

16. The sermon can serve as a biblical course of correction to pervasive disobedience in the church and a spur to repentance, but please don’t use your sermon to passive-aggressively address problems (or problem people) in your congregation. No subtweet sermons.

17. I learned early on that homiletical rants directed at certain subgroups--young men, for instance, who need to grow up or whatever--tended to be ignored by those who most need to hear them and instead hurt the hearts of sensitive souls who don’t necessarily need them. When I would yell Driscoll-like at young men especially, I learned that those in my crosshairs didn’t think what I was preaching applied to them and that I was stepping all over men who were already working hard. This is immature preaching. There are better ways.

18. You can’t make everybody happy. That’s not the point of preaching, anyway. Don’t preach as an employee of the church. Preach as a servant of God, accountable first and foremost to him.

19. Personal illustrations should mainly serve in the area of confession or self-deprecation. Always holding up yourself as a good example is a fantastic way to preach yourself instead of Christ crucified.

20. A simply good preacher who can look in the eyes of the flock beats a really great preacher on a video screen any day.

21. Passion, brother, passion. Give us your theology, yes. Don’t short-shrift us on the text. Don’t confuse yelling for preaching. That’s not what I’m saying. Give us your rhetoric and your logic sure, but give it to us affectionately. “Preaching,” as Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it, “is theology coming through a man who is on fire.” (See also #5 above.)

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11 thoughts on “21 Thoughts on Preaching”

  1. Bill says:

    Jared, thank you for this post. Can you please clarify what you mean by #6. I’m not sure I understand it. Thanks, Bill

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Bill, sure. Sometimes when pastors are trying to attract a certain demographic — young families, singles, theologically-minded people, lost people, etc. — they are told to “preach to who they want.” The idea is that if you start preaching to the congregation you want, eventually you will get those people (as church folks invite their friends and family who fit the bill or whatever). I am simply saying that while there’s some truth to this approach, it is not a good replacement for preaching with the congregation we actually have in mind. If we’re always concerned to preach to who we want that we don’t have, eventually we will alienate and perhaps drive away the people we already do have. Hope that helps clarify.

  2. Scott says:

    Thank you Jared for #’s 2 and 3. Too many times I have heard that taking a manuscript into the pulpit and depending upon it is not good. “Doing so limits your freedom and hinders the Holy Spirit from working”, so say some. In my own experience, I have not found this to be true. I have come to learn that taking my manuscript into the pulpit is okay. I know that I am still depending solely upon the Holy Spirit to help me deliver the message I pray He helped me prepare. At the same time, I am sensitive to “divine diversions” away from my manuscript. God bless the preacher who does not lean on a manuscript. God bless the the preacher who does. God has wired us all differently. Being able to accept that reality has helped me become, I hope, a better conveyor of God’s truth, rather than trying to be a preacher that I am not.

  3. Bill says:

    Yes, that clarifies and is helpful. Thank you.

  4. I get what you’re saying in #7, but the way you worded it gives the impression that using commentaries for sermon prep = stealing. By all means, the sermon needs to reflect the preacher’s own time and effort and woe be to the preacher who preaches another person’s work as their own, but using a commentary for ideas, examples, content, even structure can be a great help to a sermon.

  5. heath lloyd says:

    A good, good word brother. Thank you.

    Not to get too overboard, but aesthetics, interior design, details I think do matter. The big, solid wooden pulpit that is hard to move off of the platform SAYS something – preaching is important here. Likes using a hardcopy of Scripture as opposed to a digitized version. Even pews vs chairs, I think conveys something. Oh well . . . thanks again for your thoughts here.

  6. Jared, thanks for this man. Along with #6, I’d affirm your response…preach to the people in your congregation. Not the flock of someone else you podcast. Years ago I found myself preaching to an imaginary congregation as I unintentionally mimicked podcast preachers. It’s just goofy trying to sound like a guy in a metroplex when preaching to 120 in rural TN.

  7. Ray says:

    Really appreciated the very helpful and practical advice. Though I doubt if the opportunities will ever arise for me to break the 200 mark (I’ve only just had my first!) they are great points to bear in mind.

  8. Mike says:

    Out of curiosity where is the biblical support for point number 1? Is preaching a gift? For instance evangelism is a gift but we are all called to evangelize. Should someone who has the gift of teaching only be the ones teaching, that would contradict Col. 3:16? Shouldn’t all believers teach? 1 Peter 4:11 can somewhat support this claim but still would like to see some clarification behind point number 1 biblically speaking.

    1. Ben Thorp says:

      I think there is reasonable justification for suggesting that preaching is a gift. Take, for instance, 1 Corinthians 12:

      “[27] Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. [28] And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. [29] Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? [30] Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? [31] But earnestly desire the higher gifts.”

      Without getting into a debate over charismatic gifts, the implied answers to the rhetorical questions in verse 29 is “No” – not all are teachers.

      I would also suggest that, like your example, there are sometimes differences between those things that we are all admonished to do, but some are particularly gifted by God to perform. Everyone should evangelise, but some are gifted evangelists.

  9. Tim Campbell says:

    This encourages me over things I’m doing and not doing. Like you, I thought my notes would be less after 30 yrs of preaching/teaching. Always used manuscript that was easy to “bounce” eyes off of w/ looking like I’m reading. But, still take 10-12 pages — 14 pt — spaced well to pulpit. Easy to see from a few feet, but keeps my thought on point and less side roads. Thanks.

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Jared C. Wilson

Jared C. Wilson is the Director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Seminary, managing editor of For The Church, director of The Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church, and author of more than ten books, including Gospel Wakefulness, The Pastor’s Justification, and The Prodigal Church. You can follow him on Twitter.

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