Leaning into the Sermon– Part Two

There is of course a long history of preaching, inside and outside of the church. It’s called a sermon or revival message inside the church, evangelism outside the church, though it’s only one form of evangelism of course. My concern in this post is to talk about the rather drab and dismal state of preaching in some quarters these days, even in Evangelical churches.

While of course it is true that the Holy Spirit is involved in the process of preaching, and provides inspiration and guidance, the Holy Spirit should not be used as a labor saving device. The Spirit brings to mind things you have previously learned and put into that brain of yours. I once had a student who came up to me frustrated. He said ‘I don’t know why I need to learn all this NT stuff, I can just get up into the pulpit and the Spirit will give me utterance’. My reply was ‘yes you can do that, but it’s a shame you are not giving the Spirit more to work with.’ This little series is meant to help us get focused so we do give the Spirit more to work with.

The first thing to be said….which ought to be obvious is that while there are many possible styles and kinds of sermons, at the root a sermon is supposed to be an explaining and applying of some text or texts of the Bible. You are not supposed to be preaching your own experience, or your latest counseling theories, or the latest self-info you think is neat. Nor should your sermons be based on human wants and needs. Your sermons should be grounded in the word of God, helping people understand and live out of that Word. If you do that, of course the genuine needs of people will be addressed.

There is a problem with preaching that is needs-based. First of all, such preaching is based on what the pastor or the congregation perceives as their needs. Perceived needs are not the same thing as actual needs. More often than not, they are more like wish lists or wants, than actual needs. And in any case worship is not about giving people what they want and crave, its about giving God what he desires and requires. And what God requires of preachers is that they preach the Word, in season and out of season, when it’s popular and when it’s not.

In order for preaching of the Word to actually be done competently it requires actual study, actual reading of resources, actual perusing of good commentaries (I would recommend the socio-rhetorical commentary series of Eerdmans and Inter-Varsity I have been involved with). Ideally, it involves the actual exegesis of the Hebrew or Greek text of the Bible. There is nothing like original language study of the Bible to produce all sorts of exciting insights into the Word. Failing that, you should rely on reading 3-4 good exegetical commentaries on any given passage. Illustration books or sources should be consulted last, after you have done your detailed textual work. And illustrations should illustrate some point you are actually making. The danger is that the illustration or the joke or the poem, or whatever takes over and becomes the only memorable part of the sermon. So choose illustrations that illuminate what you are actually preaching.

All of this takes time, and this means that you the preacher must set aside adequate time to do this task of sermon preparation well. This is in some ways the most important thing you do for your people. Even Jesus thought so. In Mark 1.38 Jesus tells his disciples he did not come mainly to heal, or to administer a congregation, or to visit the hospitals, or to visit people in their homes. or to have committee meetings…. he came into this world to proclaim the Good News. It’s important that the preacher make the main thing the main thing, and delegate to the priesthood of all believers a lot of these other tasks, instead of thinking one has to ‘do all the ministry’ just because you might be paid to do ministry’. Too often the pastor’s ego gets caught up in trying to be all things to all people, to be pastor superstar, and instead of enabling other people for ministry, he or she ends up disabling other peoples gifts, instead of ‘equipping the saints for ministry’.

‘Leaning into the Sermon’ in this case means having the discipline to jealously guard the time each week to prepare excellent messages from the Word itself. When a preacher simply recycles older stuff, you can tell. And it stultifies his or her own growth when he does so as well. If you were to read through my Eerdmans collection of sermons (entitled Incandescence) you would find messages that today I would often preach differently because of re-engaging the same texts and learning new things. I won’t even discuss the problem of recycling other people’s sermons. There is no living engagement with God’s Word in that. You can get ideas from other sermons, and learn from them— but they cannot be your own sermon text. That requires you, prayerfully engaging with the text and listening to what the Spirit is saying to your church or churches.

In our next post, we will talk about what should happen on the day of delivery in order to ‘lean into the sermon’.

  • shaun morton

    These two posts are much appreciated Dr. Witherington. take care.

  • David

    Dr Withrington,

    It would be good if you could provide a short booklist for the layman preacher: who has not attended seminary and is not trained in Greek/Hebrew but is reasonably educated ( say graduate level) and who wants to be better equipped to exegete the word and a better grasp of church/bible history.

  • Brett

    What are your thoughts around preaching that is an invitation to a living testimony? As I observe the church, limited as one view might be, I sense we are not at a lack for words, even powerful, anointed, depth-finding preaching, but the living testimony of those hearing the words is wanting.

  • http://micahcobb.com/blog Micah Cobb

    “Too often the pastor’s ego gets caught up in trying to be all things to all people, to be pastor superstar, and instead of enabling other people for ministry, he or she ends up disabling other peoples gifts, instead of ‘equipping the saints for ministry’.”

    Wow. I might have to print that out and pin it up in my office.

  • Anonymous

    David if you are asking about commentaries, I can recommend no series more highly than the Eerdmans socio-rhetorical series written especially for folks just like you. The most recent volume in the series is Philippians (see the column to the right). Ben W.

  • Brad

    What would you recommend for “illustration books or sources”?

  • Keith

    While in Seminary I remember watching a video with Dr. Fred Craddock. He talked about the need for the preacher to sit in two chairs during sermon preparation (not literally however). The first chair is the “hard” chair where you do the background reading, exegesis, language studies etc. The other chair is the “soft” chair which is used for the illustrations, application, stories, etc.

  • Charlesbell07

    Where do we get the hour or hour-and-a-half long sermon idea anyway? Isn’t a ten or fifteen minute message (sermon) as much or more effective in most cases than a long, drawn out sermon, one that research shows people don’t retain the content the very nexy day? (unless you’re a professor type, of course.) Doesn’t seem effective or honoring to God. Jesus spoke to the masses, but most of his time was spent “discipling.” The church seems to have it backwards. How did we get away from a “discipleship-based” church to a “sermon-based” one, especially sermons that are lecture-based. These type constructs aren’t reaching people, (outside the academic body, of course). Academic people love long, deep sermons. I’m talking about the average Joe out there! Shouldn’t the gospel be framed for everyone, not just academia? Jesus certainly though so! Just curious to your input on this. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    As for illustration material I recommend reading great preachers books— books by Craddock, Barbara Brown Taylor, books by Buechner etc.

  • Mike Taylor

    Amen to all this. And, I would add, those of us who are not so well trained and teach Sunday School from time to time, also need to take time to prepare carefully. We need humility in abundance. Very often, in my experience, people do not remember a sermon years on but will remember many discussions in Sunday School.