Thirty minutes, sixty minutes, or somewhere in between? Use notes or no notes? Set structure? Pulpit, table, or nothing? Standing or sitting? Paper Bible or iPad? Preach through books of the Bible or topical series? Altar call or no altar call? Humorous illustrations or no humor? These questions, an many others, are asked by pastors today. We have countless decisions to make on how we prepare and deliver sermons.
I have preached for the past twelve years. I study it by reading books, articles, and blog posts. I have watched, and listened to, seminary lectures, conference messages, and podcasts. Along with studying preaching, I study preachers, each with their own unique style and approach.
All the possible decisions, with all the various advocates, can be paralyzing. The result? Many pastors resort to imitating their favorite preachers or marrying a monotonous method adopted in seminary. Preaching resources love to give rules. Most of the preaching rules given are really just someone’s preference. The majority of the rules taught are not able to be applied to actual sermons found in the Bible.
My conclusion on preaching: follow guiding principles instead of rigid rules.
As a young preacher, I was easily swayed by the latest pastor I heard or book I read. I can go through years of manuscripts—if I wasn’t in my “I don’t write manuscripts” phase—and see how often I changed. It is exhausting to live this way. Perhaps some of you are still there.
Be liberated from rigid rules by crafting guiding principles. The following are my guiding principles:
1. I’m Most Effective When I’m Me
Attempting to preach like someone else is defeating to me and dishonoring to God. Yes, we listen to, admire, and seek to be faithful like other preachers, but we don’t copy. I have gifts, experiences, a culture, personality, and a church that is different in nearly every category than my favorite preachers. Copying them ignores this fact. God has created me to be me. He doesn’t need me to be the preacher in Texas, D.C., or Minnesota that I enjoy. Following this liberates me. I can use my insight into Scripture, personality, and knowledge of my context to preach faithful and fruitful sermons.
2. When People Engage, They Change
It is non-negotiable for the sermon to connect with the congregation. Through humor, stories, illustrations, application, or other means, I must meet them where they are. I must get them engaged. The goal of getting people engaged helps inform whether I preach through a book of the Bible or do a topical series, or have a stand-alone week. Engaging requires me to use language that fits my context, not impresses them with my brilliance or offends them with my crassness. This is why copying other pastors is not helpful for my congregation. When folks are engaged in the message, and I’ve connected with them, they are exponentially more likely to be changed by the truth of the gospel. Disinterested people rarely change. Bored people are rarely transformed. I must connect with them.
3. Grasping the Scriptures Inspires Awe and Wonder
I do not have a fixed time for explaining a text. Some sermons require more time than others. I steer clear of story-time with a verse thrown in. I also avoid eschewing stories and illustrations under the auspice of their being beneath a good sermon. The goal is to make the text clear, to bring Scripture to life, so people hear and understand God’s Word clearly. Psalm 119 reveals that David saw the infinite worth of God’s Word. I want my congregation to see it too. I must labor for clarity.
4. Affection-Driven Preaching Is Powerful
I must get the truth of God’s Word deep within my heart before preaching. My affections must be provoked by the marvelous reality of God’s love shown through Christ. I must behold His wondrous Word. I found a John Piper quote years ago, that I pasted inside my Bible cover, to remind me of this principle:
“Don’t say by your face, or by your voice, or by your life, that the gospel is not the gospel of the all-satisfying glory of Christ. Do not lie about the value of the gospel by the dullness of your demeanor. Exposition of the most glorious reality is a glorious reality.”
If I want people to not only believe, but love God’s Word, then I must it embody it.
5. Jesus Is Always The Big Deal Worth Shining The Spotlight On
Regardless of the topic or text I am preaching on, I must show how the gospel of Christ informs our response to Scripture. To avoid Pharisee-like pride or guilt-laden dejection, which both emerge out of our performance, my goal is to show how following Jesus is the foundation for all obedience. A key question during sermon preparation: how does Christ’s finished work at the cross, and resurrection, guide the desired response to this sermon? Flesh-fueled efforts fail. Trying harder is the antithesis of the gospel. I strive to turn every eye upon Jesus.
These guiding principles give me freedom in preparing and delivering sermons. I can learn from others, while remaining who God has called me to be. I can preach on the subjects my church needs to hear. I can preach in the style and manner that fits me and my context. I can structure my sermon to best communicate the truth of God’s Word. My advice—because woe to me if I give you rules after a post against them—is find your guiding principles and ditch the rigid rules.