This is a guest post from one of my students, Mike Harder. Mike is the Lead Pastor at Green Hills Church in Nashville, TN. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Theology and Preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can check out his sermons at greenhillschurch.org/sermons.
Being a preacher can be a terrifying proposition. On one hand, a preacher is given the incredible opportunity to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to people who desperately need good news. On the other hand, preaching is a crucible where the preacher’s skill, knowledge, and ability are judged mercilessly by his audience. In a sense, preaching a sermon is like presenting a research paper to most of the people you know. Your listeners will make judgments on how good you are at what you are doing which may cause them to leave your church and no longer be in relationship with you. But they are not simply comparing you with their own talents; they are comparing you with the best communicators in the world. They are comparing you to other sermons they have heard from John Piper, Tim Keller, Adrian Rodgers, and Matt Chandler. One other significant factor is in play. These people who are listening to your sermon are also the ones who pay your salary with their tithes and contributions. A final challenge is the tyranny of Sunday. Many preachers must preach every week to the same people. Favorite illustrations and Bible passages are quickly exhausted, and a preacher can quickly find himself intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally empty.
I have felt all these pressures in ministry. In fact, I feel them almost every Sunday. In view of the burden of being a primary preacher in a church, I have adopted some practices to allow me to preach the Scriptures boldly and with consistent joy. Not all these disciplines will help everyone, but they have certainly helped me in my pursuit of excellence in ministry.
Embody the Message
The first practice is to prepare my heart to be able to preach effectively. Marshall McLuhan famously said that the medium is the message. In this case, a preacher is the sermon. If I cannot embody the message of my sermon, then it is futile for me to preach it. Preaching is owning a truth and then communicating it. So much of my sermon prep work is bound up with identifying the central truth of the sermon and then internalizing it so that it exudes from me as I preach. As I prepare, I am constantly confronted with the truth of scripture and the message of the gospel and I must be willing to repent in the areas that Christ presses in upon me.
Preach the Word
The second practice is that I have decided to preach the Scriptures instead of my own wisdom. Look, I can come up with a lot of cool-sounding advice that may capture the attention of my listeners. However, I cannot give them the power of God without the preaching of the word of God. Therefore, I have resolved to let the word of God do the work of the ministry. I have chosen to embrace expository preaching and let the text of Scripture drive a message. There is a lot I am still learning in this discipline, but choosing to be rooted in the Scriptures has been the best decision I have made in my preaching.
The third practice I have chosen is to preach Christ in every message. I personally believe that it is impossible to preach a distinctly Christian sermon without mentioning Jesus. The reason I believe that Jesus must be preached in every sermon is that without appealing to the saving and transforming work of the gospel a sermon quickly devolves into moralism or self-help teaching.
Christians are tasked with making Christ known and loved, and the only way to do so is by preaching the gospel as the means of salvation and sanctification. For more work on this, I encourage you to read Tim Keller’s excellent book on the subject, simply called Preaching.
Whenever I preach, I always ask:
- What does this text teach me about Jesus?
- How does Jesus solve the longings of the human heart revealed in this text?
- How does Jesus fulfill my heart in a way that is better and deeper than the idols I am desiring to worship?
All these questions are essential to be able to apply Christ to the human heart.
Preach to the Unbelieving Mind
The fourth practice I have chosen is to preach to the mind of the secular listener. I believe that many preachers prepare their sermons thinking that their audience already agrees with them. Many preachers are literally preaching to the choir in their sermons and by doing so are missing an opportunity to preach sermons that attract and save lost people. Therefore, when I preach, I always try to explain theological terms, highlight common secular narratives, reveal areas where Scripture disagrees with culture, and paint a beautiful picture of what the gospel offers to both men and women.
Plan Your Sermons
The fifth and final discipline is that I have created a system to preach weekly. What I find is that many preachers struggle finding what the preach every week. They also struggle with the grind of preparing sermons every seven days. My system allows me to plan and prepare sermons so that I can feel rejuvenated instead of drained by the sermon-writing process.
I am a huge fan of advance sermon planning. What this means for me is that I plan my sermon series and individual sermon texts a year in advance. It takes a little time to do this kind of planning, but looking at a year’s worth of sermons is helpful in not duplicating sermonic content and allows me to think about what I am teaching my church at a macro-level.
On a week-to- week basis, I choose to schedule my time using 2-hour study blocks. I find that I can’t study well unless I have two hours to focus completely on my task at hand. Usually I assign strategic tasks to be accomplished in each one of the study blocks.
For example, on Mondays I read and study the passage. I read as many commentaries as I can on the text and seek out any other resources I need for the text.
On Tuesdays, I think about the philosophical obstacles in the culture that my sermon will be addressing as well as the implications from the biblical truth found in the text. I consider the defeater arguments that culture uses to disarm my arguments.
On Wednesday, I create my first teaching manuscript.
On Thursday, I polish the manuscript and make sure that the message is Christocentric and submit my notes to our creative team. I then leave it alone until Saturday night when I look it over before going to bed.
On Sundays, I arrive at the church early and go over my message, praying over it and fine-tuning it. Then it is game time! This system is one that works for me. I hope that it is helpful to you as you preach the text of Scripture regularly.