I think I am a pretty good preacher, but not a really good preacher. Still, my church council is urging me to strengthen this aspect of my ministry. Any advice?
Over the past decade in our work at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, we have had the opportunity to listen to and learn from preachers and congregations in several Christian traditions who have been working to strengthen Christian preaching.
One big lesson is simply this: with God’s help, preachers can improve. For some preachers, taking on the discipline of developing a sermon manuscript can be a transforming discipline. For others, transformation comes when they learn to preach without one. For some preachers, the discipline of spending ninety minutes in contemplative prayer early in the week is transformative. For others, engaging more substantive biblical commentaries can add spiritual protein that may have been missing. For some, learning to preach sermons that are five minutes shorter makes a transformative difference through concentrating and focusing the content of the message. For others, adding five minutes of content creates space for sermons to breathe. For just about every preacher, learning the art of telling a story well makes a difference—learning not to overexplain, not to add details that may cause listeners’ minds to wander. For some, simply ending an annoying habit they may not know they have removes roadblocks. Ultimately, the Holy Spirit wonderfully takes our imperfect sermonic offerings and does amazing things with them. The Holy Spirit also works through any number of learning processes to help us love the message and our hearers more. Discerning which to prioritize depends a lot on the cultural context of the congregation and the personality and strengths of the preacher.
Everything I have said so far focuses on the preacher. But perhaps an even richer area of potential for preachers and congregations is to work together to focus on both preaching and listening to Christian preaching. Ultimately, it is the hearing and living out of sermons that matter.
We notice thoughtful preachers doing things such as:
- Hosting discussions of sermon texts with different groups within the congregation—including seekers who may be newly exploring Christian faith—a few weeks before a sermon is preached. The preacher learns to listen to the questions people bring to a text and to speak directly to them. Participants come to sermons primed to listen more intently.
- Hosting post-sermon meal discussions to reflect not primarily on the sermon itself, but rather on how to live out the sermon’s message. Thoughtful preachers who listen to these discussions may well learn how to preach even more effectively about living out the gospel message.
- Crowdsourcing insights for a sermon. If a preacher is prepping a sermon on a psalm of lament, asking worshipers to send examples of lament songs from secular culture would likely generate a thought-provoking Spotify list and memorable sermon illustrations. It is also effective pedagogy to help people not just hear about the ways that the psalms speak to pervasive human needs, but experience that connection for themselves.
- Involving select groups in helping to choose sermon themes and texts. One thoughtful pastor I know asks council members every summer to identify five essential texts or sermon themes for autumn sermons. Another lectionary-using pastor invites high school students to select which of the assigned readings for a given week would be most fitting for their congregational context.
- Giving the congregation something to explore before a sermon. One pastor posts the week’s Scripture on social media about three days before a sermon along with a question or comment that invites people to begin to engage the text. Another posts a link to a thought-provoking article or podcast early in the week (the Zeteo search engine is useful for this). Another offers those links after a sermon to extend engagement.
- Helping the congregation embrace the gospel-centered takeaway. Imagine ending every sermon (at least for a season) with the line “We leave this place today with good news to share: ___________” and then asking the congregation to repeat the line out loud, perhaps both as the sermon ends and then later as the service ends. One week a congregation may declare: “We leave this place today with good news to share: God’s Spirit heals deep inner hurts.” The next week they may say: “We leave this place today with good news to share: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” And the next: “We leave this place today with good news to share: Jesus Christ conquers evil and invites us to rest in him.”
Each of these ideas is inexpensive, requiring no new budget lines. But they do require thoughtfulness over time. It’s not realistic to sustain every one of these, but over time, ideas like these can reinforce the sense that a church’s ministry of proclamation depends on both preachers of the Word and hearers and doers of the Word.