Nothing excites me more than the week in and week out ministry of preaching. The preparation is a joyous burden that shapes my character, challenges my skills, and encourages my personal relationship with God. And sermon delivery is a sacred honor. I’m awed by the fact that God and his people allow me to do this public work that has such personal, and yes, eternal, implications.
This wonderful work, however, has a few pitfalls that keep those of us who do it in a vulnerable position. We are but human, and language is the medium of influence. We preach with words, yet even Solomon said, “When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is prudent” (Proverbs 10:19, CSB).
Both written and oral words are opportunities for the Holy Spirit to communicate with power. Written words, however, are subject to the editor’s judgment before going public. The extemporaneous nature of preaching, on the other hand, while engaging, can also produce unhelpful words that distract from the message of God.
Anyone who preaches feels the weight of this, and we have all replayed unforced errors in our mind on Sunday afternoon only to hold out hope for a forgiving, or at least a forgetful, congregation. So prayer, sound exegesis, and common sense help us to preach better sermons. Avoiding these four phrases falls into the latter category.
Just trust me on this.
The Bible is clear. Theologians call it the “perspicuity of Scripture.” God is not hiding truth from us. We are not on a scavenger hunt looking for hidden clues that lead us to the next hidden clue. Every now and then, however, we run across a difficult text. Perhaps the text is clear, but the content is hard to take, like the subject of hell, for example. Or maybe the actual interpretation of the text is unclear. There are various views related to apocalyptic literature. Sometimes the meaning of Jesus’ parables is debated.
Whenever we preach a difficult passage, it’s tempting to simply state our interpretation and then run as fast as possible to the application. Perhaps we fear our congregation will get confused, perhaps we do not want to create reason for them to doubt the reliability of the Bible, perhaps we are in too big of a hurry, or perhaps we aren’t quite clear about what we believe and why. Either way, “just trust me on this” is not helpful.
Instead, when we come to a debated text, it’s important to take the time to walk the congregation through the various legitimate interpretations, explain why we believe what we do, and then offer a faithful application. While acknowledging that other Bible-believing people may have a different view of it, we trust the Holy Spirit to do his work in the hearts and minds of our people.
I have a lot to cover today, so hang on tight.
The whole western world lives crowded lives. We are often frustrated by our lack of time, skill, or both to keep the commitments we’ve made. So when our people come to worship, even the perception of a hurried message loses its impact.
One thousand lifetimes preaching one thousand sermons each day would never exhaust the depths of even the simplest Bible passage. So our goal in preaching is not to cover all the material but to communicate God’s Word to God’s people in a way they can hear, receive, and apply.
There is never too much text to preach in the allotted time, only too little preparation. So as we exegete the text and determine its main idea, we then structure the message for the time allowed. Our well-prepared, thoroughly biblical, unhurried manner of delivery will allow the congregation to slow down long enough to engage with us, toward the goal of hearing from and responding to God.
If you don’t like it, that’s just too bad.
Preaching often requires preachers to say hard things. The imperatives of Scripture cannot be ignored. Sin demands prophetic attention. The hard sayings of the Bible, however, are best spoken through tears rather than with taunts.
Sin is a problem common to man, even the man of God who preaches the Word of God. Preachers are never above repentance, but instead, should model genuine contrition before our people. The spiritual battles we face often challenge all us beyond our character, beyond our understanding, and beyond our abilities. Our people need to know we are with them, engaging and responding to God’s Word in the same way we ask them to engage and respond.
While some who sit under our preaching are living in total, abject rebellion against God, most people who attend each week are not running from God as much as they are struggling with him. Perhaps like Jacob who struggled with the pre-incarnate Christ Jesus at the Jabbok River, our people need the biblical instruction and the encouragement of heart to persevere until God finishes his work in them.
Ending well may be the most important thing we do in sermon delivery. It’s at the end that we offer our strongest appeal to action. It’s at the ending that we tie things up and drive home the main idea of the text. It’s often at the end where we appeal to the heart rather than just the head. It’s at the end that our people have a decision to make.
Saying the words “in conclusion” does not help any of that happen. Instead, “in conclusion” says, “I’m finished but I’m still talking.” It says, “You can stop listening now.” It says, “Musicians get ready to play and ushers get ready to take the offering.” It says, “Close your Bible and your hears, and gather up your things.”
A strong conclusion is essential, but it does not include the words “in conclusion.”