I love preaching! In fact, few other activities bring me the joy of standing before God’s people delivering a message from His Word. I’m passionate about it! What I’m really passionate about is seeing the change it brings about in people’s lives. When I preach the Word faithfully and passionately, people change into Christlike disciples. And I change too!
As a matter of fact, I’ve changed a lot over the last decade, personally, pastorally, and as far as my preaching is concerned. It’s this last point I want to address in this article – the evolution of my preaching. I’d never place myself in the class of the world’s finest communicators by any means, but I have seen some maturing taking place in my proclamation of the Word over the last decade. I can even point out the phases of growth I’ve gone through in this regard.
Preaching With Training Wheels
My first sermon contained one point. It was about fifteen minutes long. It was on the very profound subject of “the gospel.” My family made up half the congregation that night, which only added to my nervous excitement. When I got done, I felt a little like an M-80 with not quite enough gun powder. So my Father-in-law, Danny Kirk, sat me down and shared with me some of the basic fundamentals of sermon construction.
Divide your passage and topic into logical points, add some illustration, and take your time in delivery. I made notes of all of this and my next sermon was… six minutes shorter! But it made more sense and definitely had better thought flow. I preached with those training wheels until college.
Peddling On My Own
I cherish every memory of Central Baptist College, where I learned the basic skills of expository preaching that every preacher should understand. Rather than simply presenting ideas, it was now time to dive into a single passage, allow that passage to divide itself, and then present a series of ideas all stemming from a single proposition. Keep the illustration, but let the Word speak for itself.
This is one of those timeless concepts. My Father-in-law had been doing this the entire time I’d sat under his preaching, I just hadn’t realized it yet. He had preached through the life of Joseph in Genesis and the book of Romans. I had listened to those sermons and had grown immensely under them, but it was later that I realized the power of his style. Expository etched out a place in my mind as the only kind of preaching worthy of my time and effort.
Learning a Trick or Two
In February of 2000, my Father-in-law and I flew to Orange County, California and attended the conference Preaching for Life Change, taught by Rick Warren, Pastor of Saddleback Church. I don’t agree with some of Rick’s philosophy about preaching. He’s convinced that expository preaching is not necessarily the way to preach on a regular basis in a seeking culture. In spite of my disagreements on that point, I learned some amazing things that caused me to take a mental red pen to everything I’d preached up until that point.
Rick shared the power of verbal preaching – preach for action and commitment. Let the points of your sermon be applications of the message, stated in plain but forceful language. Alliteration is out as a oratorical technique, practical application is in as a means of engaging the attention of listeners. Some may brand this as shallow – I do not. I think allowing the application of a message to become its stated points is a powerful way of bringing the Word home.
So I left California with this simple idea – be more practical. Don’t be any less biblical, but make your sermons “doable.” Don’t just talk about the Bible, allow the Bible to come alive as the life guide for every believer. Since that conference, I’ve tried never to preach another dry, boring, academic outline… and I’ve grown through the challenge of connecting the “there and then” of the Bible with the “here and now” of everyday life.
Two years ago, I read Communicating For A Change by Andy Stanley, and as a result conducted research into the sermonic stylings of some of my greatest heroes. Between Stanley’s basic assertion and my research findings, I’ve come to the conclusion that my very first sermon may have been one of the best of all. Why? Because instead of crafting a nice outline, I shared one idea with passion.
We preachers are taught to spot a good outline. Make sure it has a proposition, that the points of the sermon are logical in orientation and that they flow out of the proposition. Make sure it has a “hook.” That is, make sure there’s an opening illustration that grabs the attention of the reader. Add supporting verses, an emotionally gripping conclusion and you’ve got yourself a nice sermon… whether it changes a life or not.
I took those assumptions and used them like a transparency and placed them atop the preaching of one of my personal heroes, one of the greatest preachers of the last century – W. A. Criswell. Criswell was known to come out of the “old time religion.” He was labeled the “holy roller with a PhD.” But his preaching moved the masses. Thousands were saved and added to his churches because of his pulpit abilities. So what did his sermons look like?
Strangely, you can’t hardly outline a Criswell sermon. There are never three “P’s.” He also rarely started with an illustration. He read the text and dove into it headfirst, taking his congregation with him. His greatest source of illustrations was the Bible itself.
If I could sum it up, He preached a single point or idea each sermon as he moved through the Bible systematically and illustrated that point with the whole of Scripture. His sermons were rarely based on a simple outline – they were more like a cloud, or a timeline. He would trace one truth down the corridor of God’s revelation to its final conclusion and then press the appeal to respond. He was emotional and loud at times, but always effective in his communication.
I rarely prepare a preaching outline anymore. I’ve been preaching without notes for quite a few years, but even the notes I prepare in my study are more or less a skeleton. Instead, I focus on communicating a single, life-changing idea in narrative fashion. I use a sketchy outline at best and my ultimate goal is to live out the message and preach it so that others may live it out as well.
I have so much to learn. I have so far to grow. But I feel like I’m learning to fly and I’m loving it! There’s no going back. I would challenge every preacher and teacher of the Word to focus on results as the goal of the message – not numbers, but changed lives. This requires us to engage the Word, rely on the Holy Spirit, and communicate with creativity, which demands that we strip off the training wheels and peddle with all our might. We might just take flight!