First of all, I’m no expert on the subject of preaching — far from it. I’m not a brilliant orator by any means. I took homiletics classes in college, and I have several years of sporadic hands-on preaching experience. That’s the extent of my preaching “expertise.” For the uninitiated, homiletics is the art of preaching. It seeks to teach the pastor how to craft and deliver a sermon. Homiletics is also concerned with looking at the great preachers of the past and present, and learning from them.
I loved reading about the preaching prowess of Spurgeon, Chrysostom, and Criswell. But, I learned that I could only be me when it comes to preaching. I love to hear good Christ-exalting, God-honoring, Spirit-empowered, Gospel-centered preaching. I would consider myself a connoisseur, if you will, of fine preaching. That being said, I do get asked from time to time about my philosophy of preaching, if you will. To your benefit (or peril) I offer these few humble thoughts.
Jesus is the theme. It seems apparent that Jesus even thought that he should be the central aim of preaching. All of scripture points to him (Luke 24:27). He is the final word (Hebrews 1:1-2). Therefore, preachers should direct people’s attention to him, no? Too many preachers preach as if Jesus is one of many characters in a Bible story, and not THE singular message of the Bible. This is why, to me, making Jesus the theme has to be the pulpiteer’s singular intention.
Don’t preach for the ‘amen.’ Too many preachers, I think, are concerned with saying something pithy than saying something substantial. They stress more about eliciting ‘amens’ from the crowd rather than “well dones” from God. I take my cue from Paul that “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5). Paul didn’t mean that he wasn’t wise in his preaching, or persuasive – preachers should be both – but that his words only had effect if preached in God’s power.
This principle also ensures that I never listen to those blustery, screaming, amen-addicted preachers from the Dark Corner.
Don’t be afraid to go deep. Preachers sometimes sell their hearers short and assume that they are not ready or willing to go deep into the the Bible. They are afraid to examine and unpack the deep things of God. Throughout my preaching “career,” I’ve had well-meaning pastors either tell me explicitly or imply that I needed to “dumb down” the message in order to reach a wider audience. While I do agree that the gospel message is simple, it is not simplistic.
I believe many preachers shy away from the heavy stuff because they are ill-equipped to take the deep concepts of God’s Word and present them in a simple and direct fashion. In my opinion this leaves the congregation in diapers and stunts their spiritual growth (Hebrews 5:11-6:1). It does a disservice to the church, and leads to many problematic issues.
Preach what the text actually says. This should be a given, but unfortunately it is not. Many pastors allow their presuppositions and long-held ideas to twist the text into saying what they want it to say, and not what it does say. This is called eisegesis. I could give endless examples of sermons I’ve heard which have done this. Suffice to say, this is a common occurrence in my experience. It’s any preacher’s job to look at the context, the audience, the bigger picture, and where the preached text fits before trying to craft it into a sermon for their contemporary audience (this is called hermeneutics, and it’s much more interesting than it sounds). I feel embarrassed for those preachers who get up, announce a text, then preach a totally different message than the announced text. Just read Fee and Stuart’s How To Read The Bible for All Its Worth, for goodness sakes!
Stay on target. This is another one I am nitpicky about in my own preaching. I hate hearing preachers start off with a text, get into it, then go off the message and start preaching about something else entirely unrelated to the message. This is called “chasing rabbits” here in the South. That’s why I believe it’s important to have a good grasp of what your subject is going to be, what you’re going to center on, how you’re going to help the congregation apply it, and how you’re going to wind it down.
Remember: If you aim at everything, you’ll hit nothing.
I’ve heard sermons that started off about Jesus healing the sick, and derail into rants about the clothing teenagers are wearing these days! This will cause any audience to lose interest and you’ve wasted their time and yours. That isn’t good. Keep the sermon on point.
Cut them, then heal them. God’s word is dangerous. It wields the power to pierce the hearts of men, often painfully so (Hebrews 4:12). A preacher has to understand that his message will hurt someone. It will not please everyone. It seems unbiblical to think otherwise. That is why I believe that if you preach the Word the way it’s intended, people’s hearts will be stabbed. When someone is confronted with the truth, it isn’t always pleasant. Too many preachers try to present a palatable message devoid of any piercing truth.
I also believe that if you preach the Word, hearts will be healed (Psalm 107:20). The Gospel is a gospel of healing, hope, and reconciliation. If people have been wounded, they need healing and relief. The Word shows us our broken and needful condition then shows us how God in Christ fixes it.
I think too many preachers err on one side or the other. They’re either constantly slinging the sword meaning to stab, or cuddling people in their sins. To be effective in changing minds and hearts, a good preacher will do both in the same sermon.
There is my “philosophy” of preaching. I didn’t touch on everything, but these are the main points I think about when I’m going to preach, or when I’m listening to preaching. How about you, what would you add to the list? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Addendum. Who are my favorite preachers? I’ve included a list of preachers and links to audio sermons in no particular order. Inclusion on this list does not mean I endorse every theological position held by everyone I’ve listed, but you can be sure they are solid and sound on the essentials of the Christian faith.