When I was 23 and a very new preacher I asked a preacher I looked up to what his secret was to preaching well. He said something that has stuck with me: “I listen to a lot of different preachers. If you listen to one preacher you become a copycat. If you listen to two preachers you become confused. But if you listen to a lot of preachers who are different from you then you cant start to learn and benefit from them all.” You see, I was young and had the right drive and desire to preach the Word of God as well as I possibly could, but I needed opportunities and experience; more than that I needed to grow in my confidence in Christ and in holiness. In all honesty, at that point in time I really was only getting my queues from one preacher and that was my senior pastor, Alistair Begg. Alistair is as good of a preacher as I’ve ever heard, but even if the person you are copying is a really good preacher the issue still lies in the fact that the voice you will be preaching with will not be your voice, and you will feel the weight of trying to be like the person you are copying. I needed to expand my horizons and learn to channel from who and from where I would learn to become a better preacher. Here are 8 things I have learned since that conversation with that other preacher about 5 years ago.
- Preaching the Bible is mostly about loving those God has put in your care. You must evangelize in your preaching because God has called you to “Go and make disciples of all nations,” and therefore you must love your listeners by clearly articulating the Gospel. You must love your people by discipling them through your preaching also! You must love your listeners by preaching with the right tone. You must love your listeners by working hard on the context of your sermon. You must love your listeners by actually seeking to get to know them so that your application of the big idea will be more and more impactful for their lives. We are called to preach the Word in season and out of season as shepherds to God’s flock, and so therefore our heart in preaching must be the love and care of our listeners and not the love and care of ourselves or anyone else. This is something a young preacher like myself has to learn over time. When I first started preaching I was far more concerned with “How did I sound?” We have to learn to be more concerned with how accurate we were in articulating God’s message in the text and also “How did the people receive it?”
- Another big lesson I’ve head to learn in preaching is that when I preach a message it isn’t my message-it’s God’s. If we are properly expounding a passage of Scripture then what we are seeking to do is to identify the big idea of that particular passage. God is a communicable agent who has created us in His image with the ability to also give and receive messages (to communicate). For this reason, God has written His Word that He wants us to know as His people and He has given us preachers to regularly feed us with His Word. This means that as a young preacher we must understand the message we are preaching doesn’t belong within our own territory so we shouldn’t be territorial or defensive about what we see as our message because it isn’t actually ours and it doesn’t belong within our territory- the message that should be preached is God’s message! Surely we can contextualize it for our unique listeners but the big idea of the text doesn’t change even if the contextualization does change. Also, the main points of a text do not change either-God’s Word is set and fixed and objective, and so our job as preachers is to try and eliminate our presuppositions and opinions as much as possible, so we can rightly identify the big idea of a passage and its sub-points so we can effectively preach God’s message for our listeners.
- When I was mostly just listening to Alistair Begg sermons I was a copycat, but if we were to listen to only a couple of preachers; so let’s just say Alistair Begg plus Tony Evans-well then we will become very confused. We will probably receive similar objectives in the teaching, however, the personalities through which the message is coming to us are so vastly different that we will begin to elevate one over the other. Over time we will be confused and feel as if we need to pick sides. This is what happens in pews across the nation when a church has 2 or 3 pastors who preach and you hear people say “Well I really like when Bob preaches better….” The people are elevating personality over quality preaching and that is an issue.
- As young preachers we should try and find preachers to listen to who are different from us. I am a reformed, calvinistic, baptistic preacher, and so therefore, I need to find other gospel preachers who are arminian so that I can learn from what they emphasize and de-emphasize that may be different from my go-to’s. I’m also prone to philosophy and heavy doctrine, and so I find it helpful to learn from preachers who are more wired towards counseling and one-on-one disciple making. When I listen to preachers who are different from me it begins to help me see my weaknesses and I am helped by offsetting personality types. Also, I can begin to learn what is a central and core tenet of my own theology and preaching and what is merely a preference that I own or adhere to.
- Young preachers should find many different preachers they can listen to. I try to find preachers who are from different cultures, perhaps they have different accents, perhaps they minister in a context very different from my own, etc. So, let me just give you all an idea of who I might listen to if I’m writing a sermon message. I may listen to Tim Keller who ministers in an urban setting in Manhattan and is a Presbyterian. Then, I may listen to H.B. Charles who is a Baptist minister in a predominantly black church. Then, I may listen to a fairly heady British preacher such as Dick Lucas. Then, I may listen to an Arminian preacher from the Southern Baptist Convention, such as Ronnie Floyd. When I write a sermon I might listen to up to 5 different preachers throughout the course of that week. This allows me to pull main and plain trends from the text, and to decipher what I’m writing that is merely my own personality and perhaps even my own hobby horse so that I can cut that material out of my sermon as much as possible. This method also allows me to consider how the text can be contextualized in different ways depending on different people who may be listening and their unique settings. If you make sure you are listening to expositors rather than topical preachers then something remarkable happens when you listen to them- you will find that they are by and large articulating the same big idea, and the same sub-points regardless of their race, denomination, ministering context, or academic level. This should be encouraging for young preachers, because it shows that the message is God’s and not our own.
- In my experience as a young preacher I’ve had to learn to slow down. I asked a preacher I respect to listen to my sermon, and I bit my fingernails waiting to hear what he thought of my preaching. To my surprise, his only words to me were “slow down.” I’m not suggesting I’ve mastered this yet, but I’ve made strides in allowing the exposition to unfold as I remain patient in the process. I’m not talking about in the writing of the manuscript, but in the actual delivery of the sermon. There is a noticeable difference between a young preacher who is just moving too fast in their own head, or in their own heart, or whatever it may be, as compared to a young preacher who has or is learning to slow down and allow God’s Word to do God’s Work through God’s Spirit. Over my 6 years in full-time ministry I’ve had the opportunity to see this take place in the lives of some of my colleagues and it’s a wonderful thing to witness over time.
- Know your own weaknesses. It’s best to get to know your own weaknesses, or even your own odd peculiarities in the pulpit. These can actually become some of your greatest strengths in your preaching, but you must first identify them and then use your own personality to be endearing to your listeners. Preaching is presenting God’s Word and bringing its truth to bare upon your listeners, and God chooses to use human mouth-pieces and their personalities in this endeavor. It’s a mysterious and yet wonderful thing that God allows people who are infallible and imperfect to do such a thing, but isn’t that what James warns us when he says “Not many of you should be teachers, brothers, for we know we all stumble in different ways….” We are not perfect but God’s character is, and His character is revealed to us in His Word, and so when we are expounding His Word we shouldn’t be insecure, but we should allow God to use our weaknesses and our peculiarities to actually make our preaching better.
- We who are young preachers must stop fearing men and adopt the attitude of fearing the Lord in the pulpit. A big reason why we struggle with preaching is because we make it a competition. We want to be better than other preachers, or we want to become the next J.D. Greear, or we want to be well-liked by the people, or we want somebody listening to offer us a job as a Senior Pastor; all of these things are wrong attitudes to have when approaching the pulpit. Our fear needs to be of the Lord, not of men, and the preaching this produces is vastly different. On the one hand, when we are fearing men we are just obsessed with how we look, how we are dressed, and how they think we sounded, but when we are fearing God we are concerned about how our words made God look, how our words made God seem (was it accurate or not?), and also how the people received Jesus’ Gospel. If they reject the Gospel then that is because of their own hard hearts, but when we are fearing God we are not concerned that they rejected us but that they rejected the one true God and His perfect plan of salvation for them.
When it comes to this topic I could literally write dozens more points about it, but nobody would read that far and I think 8 is enough. Perhaps I shall do a follow up to this blog post someday, but for now I think this is enough for those curious and interested to bask in and benefit from.