I loved the post last week from Mike Kruger, Note to Aspiring Preachers: Here are Seven Key Pitfalls to Avoid. His advice got me thinking about what advice I would give (or have given) to aspiring preachers, or any to preachers for that matter.
Below are seven practical ways we can improve our preaching. And please note: I deliberately use the words “we” and “our,” because I’m thinking of my sermons as much as anyone’s. These suggestions are things I continue to work on as a preacher, sometimes with success and often with less progress than I would like.
1. Make sure your points point to something.
It’s fine to say, “I have three points this morning: Abraham received precious promises. Abraham believed God. Abraham was saved by faith.” It would be better, however, to tell us what holds those points together. Are they three acts in the life of Abraham, or three lessons we can learn, or three reasons Abraham became the father of a great nation? Help orient your listeners so they know what the points are pointing out.
Take time in your preparation to think about these points and how to express them. Normally, the sermon is better if the points are related to the congregation directly. So instead of making the sermon about Abraham, make it about us. “We see in this text three marks of men and women of faith. First, they receive precious promises. Second, they believe those promises. Third, they are saved by those promises.” Of course, in the explanation of those points, you will talk a lot about Abraham, but the congregation should sense you have a word for them, not just a history lesson.
2. Work hard to be simple.
Let me commend to you J.C. Ryle’s address Simplicity in Preaching (recently reprinted in a little booklet by the Banner of Truth). I just read the booklet last week. I was helped a lot (and not a little convicted). Ryle is not arguing for light and fluffy preaching. Rather, he’s insisting on clarity in preaching. Use straightforward syntax. Use simple words, and explain any difficult ones. Employ illustrations. Maintain logical order and progression. And don’t try to do too much.
The best preachers, even when preaching on lofty and heady material, are easy to understand.
3. Don’t just tell the congregation what to feel, make them feel it.
The good preacher is a feeling preacher (see the suggestion #7), but feeling something yourself is no substitute for leading the congregation to feel the same. Don’t just say, “Oh Christ is glorious! He is marvelous! Isn’t his power amazing! We can scarcely fathom his love for us! What a Savior!” Those are all true statements, and the congregation may be encouraged to hear them again. But here’s the difference between a good sermon and a great sermon: A good sermon tells the people all those things. A great sermon opens the word, opens the human heart, and opens the gates of heaven so that by the end of the sermon the people want to exclaim those things.
Obviously, we can’t turn a hard heart into a heart of flesh, but we can labor in our preaching to show instead of only telling.
4. Don’t fall for lazy listing.
This is a besetting sin for many preachers (including this one). Suppose you are preaching on idolatry and say something like this: “We are all idol-makers. We worship false gods that cannot save. They may be gods of money or sex or power or children or career or relationships or comfort or health.” I’ve preached like that dozens of times. It’s not wrong. But a list like that is liable to whiz by most people. For one, it sounds familiar to regular churchgoers. And second, it is too high up the ladder of abstraction to penetrate the human heart.
This is another area where preaching is really hard work. Instead of settling for a list like that, spend another 30 minutes to come up with an example for each of those idols. Or better yet, share an illustration of someone who was tempted to make sex or money (or whatever) into an idol. Help us see the idols in our own lives. Don’t expect the listener to do your work for you.
5. Get down to business sooner.
Granted, some introductions effectively lay out the problem to be considered or appropriately set the stage for the text you are exploring, but too many introductions feel like a sputtering engine or a false start. It would be better to skip the introduction all together (“Thus far the reading of God’s word. I have three points this morning…”) then to take 10 minutes trying to find your groove.
My introductions are often too long and my conclusions are too short. If you have to shortchange one, make it the beginning not the end.
6. Keep pointing back to the text.
There are several goals in expository preaching, but surely one of them is to help the congregation understand the text. This means the preacher must not hover over the text or merely preach on general themes found in the text. He must constantly point people back to specific verses and words and phrases.
After a week of study, we may know the text backward and forward, but the people likely haven’t thought anything about the text until it was just read for them. They aren’t conversant with the ins and outs of the text like you are. Lead them through the passage. If our people can just as easily follow the sermon with their Bible’s closed, then we aren’t getting them in the text like we should.
7. Make sure your heart is kindled first.
You may be able to preach a good sermon without being stirred by the text, but you cannot be a good preacher. Every week, we should learn something from the text, be comforted by the text, be convicted by the text, be challenged, strengthened, or otherwise moved to faith and repentance by the text. Over the course of years and decades we will become empty religious professionals unless we are affected by the things we see in the Bible. The first sermon each week should be the one the Holy Spirit preaches to you in your study.