I hesitate to write about preaching. It is such a sensitive, emotion-prone topic. And most of us feel like we’re already great at it. Just about everyone thinks they are a good driver, a good kisser and a good preacher.
I love the story of the pastor who was driving home from church after a Sunday when he really thought he’d hit a homerun with his sermon. “How many truly great preachers do you think are out there, honey?” he confidently asked his wife. She responded, “One less than you think, dear.”
I don’t like to broach this preaching subject with preachers, but a couple recent incidents spurred me to bring up this topic.
1. Recently, we had several families move away from our area, and I suggested they attend some church plants we had started in their new areas. When they were back in town for a visit, I asked how their church involvement was going, and each family responded similarly: “Well, we don’t go to that church anymore. We really liked the planter, they have a nice family, but the preaching…” When I probed I heard, “We just can’t follow the sermons…” “It doesn’t seem like he puts in the time…” “The messages are boring.” Ouch.
2. I asked a church planter, Albert Tate, to share his thoughts on preaching at a church planter cluster not too long ago. Albert is an especially gifted speaker, and I expected him to share about his natural gift for communicating. But he did an amazing job talking about the mechanics of preaching, of story-telling, and of holding an audience. I was pleasantly surprised about how serious this great preacher takes his craft.
3. I was reading “8-15” by Tom Mercer—a book on how we can each reach our “household”—the 8-15 people God has strategically placed in our lives. It’s a great book. But towards the end Mercer says his book isn’t a way to grow a big church. He said if you want your church to get bigger, ask your church to fire you and hire a better preacher!
So, let’s talk about becoming better preachers, I mean, becoming even better preachers. Here are a few ways:
1. FIND FRIENDS TO SHARPEN YOU
As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.—Proverbs 27:17 (NLT)
I suspect that many preachers finish their last preaching class, and never really get help the rest of their preaching lives. No wonder they struggle.
At the church where I currently serve, our preaching team meets for instruction every month. But the best thing we do is gather in between our services (we have three services, so we meet twice each Sunday) for a quick, honest debriefing. Whoever is speaking that day gets the others together and asks, “Okay, let me have it. What do I need to change? Did that video work? How about that personal illustration, was it too long? Help me out.” That simple meeting has improved all of us on the team by at least a full letter grade!
Recently I gave what I considered one of my best messages. Seriously, I thought it was a winner. When I asked my team members for input, one said, “Why can’t my messages come together like that?” Another said, “Perfect!” Then another (my son) started in, “First, you need to start by telling people you are sick…” I realized that I hadn’t even considered how my cold was effecting my delivery. I really needed the help.
Maybe you don’t have a teaching team, but find some folks—other than your spouse!—to give honest feedback.
2. CREATE TENSION
There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.—Proverbs 6:16-19 (NIV)
Solomon knew how to create tension. There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him…Okay, I’m hooked! What are they?
I spent a year working with Haddon Robinson on preaching and there was one thing that stood out as they key to speaking. One element that is often overlooked but is crucial to communication. One primary component that sets great preachers above average ones…Do you get it? It’s creating tension.
O’Neil’s Law for writers says: “Always grab the reader by the throat in the first paragraph, sink your thumbs into his windpipe in the second, and hold him against the wall until the tag line.”
As preachers we need to give the listener a reason to listen. We have to raise the right questions so people must listen. This is a huge key in effective communication.
3. PUT IN THE TIME
Lazy people want much but get little, but those who work hard will prosper.
- Proverbs 13:4 (NLT)
Good planning and hard work lead to prosperity, but hasty shortcuts lead to poverty.
- Proverbs 21:5 (NLT)
Malcom Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become proficient at a particular task, so let’s put in the time.
I know there are many demands on our time—especially if we are planting a church. But we can’t neglect preaching.
Gene Appel says every six months he comes up with six strategic goals he must concentrate on as a pastor. But each time, “Preach well!” is on his list.
4. DISCOVER MY RHYTHM AND STYLE
Joyful is the person who finds wisdom, the one who gains understanding.—Proverbs 3:13 (NLT)
For years I have spent Monday-Wednesday working on administration, small groups, personal meetings and church business. I take Thursdays off. Then I devote all of Friday to message prep, and a good chunk of Saturday to putting together the visuals, Powerpoints, videos and such for my sermons. That’s my rhythm. It just is. I get PMS (Pre-Message Syndrome) every Friday. It works for me. It probably won’t work for you, so find your own rhythm and go with that.
My style is weird. I start with a Top Ten List. I tell a ton of jokes, use a lot of quotes, quips, and visual slides. Anyone who would try to copy me would get confused and eventually quit. So find your own style. It will take some time to find your rhythm and style, but keep at it and embrace how God made you.
5. CONSTANTLY COLLECT
Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.
—Proverbs 6:6-8 (NIV)
Haddon Robinson made me collect illustrations. My grade(s) depended on it. So, I stopped collecting baseball cards and started collecting jokes, stories, cartoons, book excerpts, top ten lists, sermon ideas and series starters…I have filing cabinets after filing cabinets of old illustrations I’ve collected. I’ve got three-by-five cards and four-by-six cards…Now I collect electronically.
6. APPLY THE MESSAGE TO MYSELF FIRST
Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge.—Proverbs 23:12 (NIV)
If the message doesn’t move me, how can I expect it to move others? That’s one of the reasons I work best later in the week, I want it to “hit” me fresh before I speak.
7. REMEMBER THE POWER COMES FROM GOD
There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the Lord. The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.—Proverbs 21:30-31 (NIV)
Albert Tate’s talk on preaching included these tips:
Think yourself empty
Read yourself full
Write yourself clear
Pray yourself hot
Be yourself but don't preach yourself
Great stuff! The message has to hit me, but the primary goal is to let God speak through us to the folks he has put in front of us.
Help me turn this list into a Top Ten List! I’d love your input—fee free to send your suggestion on improving our preaching to JDPearring@gmail.com.
You’re a great preacher! Let’s become even better…