Preparing To Preach
(It's more than just study!)
My pastoral journey has taken me from the wheat farming community of Hobart on the southwestern plains of Oklahoma, where I learned that the ministry is the people business...to the county seat town of Ada, where its rich pulpit heritage challenged me to become an expository preacher...to the cultural chaos of the eastern seaboard in Fort Lauderdale, where I was privileged to ride the waves of church growth for a decade and a half and saw God do what few other churches experienced...finally to the concrete canyons of downtown Dallas, where I found afresh the stewardship of pastoral authority and the respect that goes with heritage and history.
I have pastored every size church in every size town and have found that while preparing to preach to rough, calloused-handed farmers or more sophisticated, calloused-hearted professionals, sermon preparation has at least three common elements. There is a practical dimension, which involves the hand. There is a spiritual dimension, which involves the heart. And, there is an intellectual dimension, which involves the head. All three of these are vitally important in our preparation and in winning the honor of the right to be heard from a listening congregation.
To begin with, there is the element of the hand in sermon preparation. Many never consider this. By this practical dimension of the hand I mean the work ethic that is involved in pastoral ministry. I actually considered my Monday evening and Saturday morning personal visitation time as a part of my preparation to preach, not simply a part of my pastoral ministry.
I was fortunate to have a wonderful "father in the ministry" in Dr. W. Fred Swank, who led me to Christ as a 17-year-old young man. He instilled within me the passion to never stand and preach on Sunday morning without personally sharing the gospel with someone one-on-one during the preceding week. Not only does this bring credibility to your pulpit but also it makes a tremendous difference in the preaching event itself.
This practical element of preparation, the hand, brings integrity to your message and does something that is a tangible intangible when you stand in the pulpit and make a public plea for men and women to place their trust in Christ.
There is also a spiritual dimension to our preparation to preach that involves the heart. The preacher’s own heart is a vital element in the preaching event. As our church in Fort Lauderdale continued to grow, I realized a growing need to stay in touch with my people and somehow, some way be able to feel their heart needs as I prepared to preach to them week by week. I adapted a prayer ministry whereby I prayed for five families by name in our church each morning. Two weeks before their appointed day, they would each receive a card from me letting them know I would be praying specifically for them and their family on the given date and encouraging them, if they had any prayer requests, to confidentially return them to me.
While the primary purpose of this prayer time was to pray for my people, words are useless to attempt to express how it served to burn into my own heart the needs, struggles, burdens and challenges of my people as I was preparing my weekly messages. I would hear from men who had been laid off from their jobs and were facing financial needs. I would hear from desperate couples who were having drug and/or moral issues with their kids. I cannot tell you what living with the heartaches and burdens of my people did for me when I came to my study desk and how it helped to frame my messages in more of a Biblically compassionate and encouraging manner.
In order to be most effective, the actual sermon must emerge from a burning heart. Too many clever communicators produce little abiding fruit and deliver their messages with little or no spiritual anointing. To me, it is always as important what I am when I preach as it is what I actually preach. The only way to keep a burning heart is to be like those two Emmaus disciples whose hearts burned within them as He spoke to them along the way. The preacher without a consistent and effective personal prayer and devotional life will not be effective in the pulpit for an extended period of time. The hand and the heart are often overlooked, yet vital elements in the pastor’s preparation to preach.
Of course, the intellectual dimension, the head, is essential to effective exegesis and exposition. This entails the actual work of in-depth study of the text and the ability to both illustrate and apply it. The calling and vocation of the pastor is one in which study never has an end. It is like the never-ending endings of the Greek verbs! The pastor must constantly be about the business of reading and study.
For too many, determining the text or what subject to preach is one of the most time-consuming and difficult tasks of preparation. For me, this has always been the easiest because I preach through books of the Bible and seek to do so in a culturally relevant way while being true to the text and applying its truth to modern-day issues. Thus, my next text, usually a paragraph or so of Scripture, is always before me.
I begin by reading and re-reading the passage scores of times. Often I write it down in the notes on my smart phone and keep it with me so that during the day I can meditate on it while waiting on phone calls or sitting in traffic jams or in a doctor's waiting room. I put an inflection on a different word in the verse each time I read it and ask, "Who? What? When? Where? and Why?" When inflecting different words and asking these questions, it is amazing how an analytical outline begins to emerge in my mind. Next I do the exegesis of the text. There are enough Internet sites available today that this can be done even with someone who does not have a working knowledge of Greek or Hebrew. With an outline in mind, I next construct the one specific object of the text. Then, and only then, do I go to the commentaries to glean what others have found and follow this up with an emphasis on personal illustrations and applications. Once the message is completed I "live with it" for a couple of days so that I can preach it without notes, which brings a freedom in the delivery and an eye contact with the people that is a vital part of communication.
Caution! Avoid going to seed on any of these three elements. Some go to seed on the hand and spend so much time among the people that little is left for prayer and study. Some go to seed on the heart, thinking they can get by with little to no study because their heart is right. Others go to seed on the head, spending so much time isolated in their study that they become out of touch with the people to whom they seek to communicate. Balance is the key.
Having finished my preparation with the hand, the heart and the head, I always ask three questions of myself. Have I exalted the Lord Jesus in the message? Have I explained the text adequately? Have I extended the gospel? That is, is the gospel prominently a part of the message? Then I preach it...prayerfully for God's glory and the people's good.