One of the most troubling elements in our “Christian Culture” is the elevation of preachers to a celebrity status. For ordinary pastors, like myself, this can create a subtle pressure to compete with the podcasts people are listening to, and to meet certain unfair expectations from the pulpit. The truth is that although God graciously gives the church eloquent and extraordinarily gifted men to proclaim His word (and I’m grateful to call some of these men friends), if we’re honest, most of us are not those men. Thankfully, God’s call in our lives is not to shine in the spotlight of mainstream Christianity, but to be faithful to our calling.
For this reason, and since preaching is one of the most fundamental elements of our calling as pastors, here are seven things we can do to be better preachers and preach better sermons.
1) Prioritize studying the Scriptures and not the culture
I sometimes see pastors putting much of their effort and focus to study “the culture” in order to be “relevant” and effective. I think there is value in knowing the demographics of your ministry, but never forget that the principles in Scripture transcend time and culture. We can focus so much in knowing every issue and trend that plagues our society today, that knowing the Bible ends up being neglected. Never forget that your main calling is not to preach to the culture, but to preach to your congregation to build them up and equip them for ministry (Eph. 4:12). Furthermore, if you primarily focus on being Biblical, you will certainly be relevant!
2) When you study the Scriptures (particularly if you don’t know the original languages) pick a good Bible translation
I cringe every time I see a pastor using the NLT or The Message! It isn’t that these translations are part of a conspiracy to erode the foundations of Christianity. The point is that these are not really translations… at least not very good ones. In an effort to make Scripture more readable, these “translations” make many interpretative decisions that can conceal and obscure what the original text stated. Think of it this way, if you truly want to learn about a book, any book, would you read the actual book or read someone’s summary/paraphrase of the book?
So when you prepare for your sermon, pick a more formal translation instead of a dynamic equivalent. Doing so will force you to study Scripture deeper and make you a better student of God’s word. Look at the following chart to help you choose a translation:
3) Stop looking for a new revelation and instead strive for faithful interpretation of the Text
I remember as a young Christian I would fervently pray and tenaciously read the Bible in order to find a new, perhaps hidden, revelation in the text. This is a trend very common among many preachers today. Please understand that this is not how we must approach God’s word. The Bible can be complex and there are things that we need to dig deep in order to understand. For this reason, our task as students of the Scriptures is not to find new revelation in the Bible, but to correctly understand what has already been revealed in it – this is interpretation. So don’t just pray and hope that something awesome will pop up in your Bible; study hard and ask the Holy Spirit to help you understand what the author originally meant in the passage you’re studying.
4) Preach verse by verse, and preach expositionally
If you want to become a better preacher and preach better sermons, pick a book from Scripture, and preach through it verse by verse. Catchy topical series and sermon titles can potentially take our focus away from the simple (not simplistic), and essential task of preaching though all of Scripture.
The next thing is to preach expositionally. Expository preaching seeks to present the actual meaning of the text and the intent of the author as he addressed the original audience. We must never read Scripture and immediately ask ourselves, “What does this mean to me?” When we approach God’s word, we must diligently study to understand what was the original intended meaning of the text and only then, to move towards application. This task requires us to study the historical, cultural, and literary context of the text in order to understand it and draw the correct applications for our lives.
And if you’re ready for the “meat and potatoes”, listen to Dr. John MacArthur and Dr. Steve Lawson’s lectures on Expository Preaching here.
5) Take advantage of the many resources available to us
A pastor once told me that we (pastors) don’t have to go to seminary in order to fulfill our calling, that all we need is the Holy Spirit. This sentiment is very prevalent in the church; in fact, just today I read a report that the majority of Evangelical churches are led by pastors without theological preparation.
Now I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit is more than enough for everything we do. This, however, doesn’t mean that we don’t have a responsibility in the things we do. We must never forget that the Bible was written in antiquity and in languages that are different from the ones we know today. This means that every preacher must deal with these important interpretative elements when preparing for a sermon.
Now the reality is that many pastors, for different reasons, are not able to attend seminary. This, however, doesn’t mean that we do not have resources that can help us grow as preachers of the word of God. If you can, buy a good Bible software – I recommend Accordance or Logos. Also, read good commentaries (more than one!) and wrestle the different perspectives of the different authors. Finally, read good books on doctrine and theology, and listen to expository sermons by various preachers.
6) Manuscript your sermons
I don’t want to spend much time on this and I understand that gifting and preference has a lot to do with whether you do an outline or a manuscript. However, in my experience, switching from an outline to a manuscript has been one of the most important transitions I’ve done in my ministry. Manuscripting has helped me be more organized, kept me from going off on tangents, and preach with more confidence and clarity. A great book that was influential in this transition was Saving Eutychus, I greatly recommend it!
7) Never neglect prayer and reliance on the Holy Spirit
Preaching is a complex task that requires hard work. However, we must never forget that our diligent study informs our preaching, but the Holy Spirit empowers it. To be a better preacher and preach better sermons we must not only know the Scriptures, but know the God of the Scriptures. Pray before you sermon prep, while you sermon prep, and after you sermon prep (look below for a sample prayer by Mike McKinley that I have found to be very helpful). And know that as you stand behind the pulpit, it isn’t simply the truths you are proclaiming that changes people lives, but Spirit of God that opens our eyes to see and to delight in them.
1. Lord, please help me to understand the meaning of this text and how it points to Christ.
2. Lord, please increase my love for the people who will hear this sermon.
3. Lord, please give me wisdom to apply this text to the lives of the people in our congregation.
4. Lord, please use this passage to help me grasp and love the gospel more so that I might help my hearers do the same.
5. Lord, please help me to see how this passage confronts the unbelief of my hearers.
6. Lord, please help me to be obedient to the demands of this passage. Help me to enter the pulpit having already submitted my life to this truth before I preach it.
7. Lord, by your Spirit please help me to preach this sermon with the necessary power and with appropriate affections.
8. Lord, please use this sermon to bring glory to your name, joy to your people, and salvation to the lost.