When I think about sermon preparation and preaching, the image of a lighthouse comes to mind. I have a fascination with its mammoth size and fortitude to stand strong against an angry sea that pounds against its foundation. The lighthouse remains unmoved and forces the waves to break apart and retreat back to the sea. I am amazed at the power of the light to project a beam that can be seen kilometres from shore, penetrating dense fog and darkness, to warn passing ships of lurking dangers.

In the same way, an effective preacher must probe the fog of easy gimmicks and quick solutions to reach people’s hearts with the life-changing message of the gospel. Preaching is not easy work. It is not for the faint-hearted or the scattered mind. To carry the metaphor one step further, as ships can become lost and disoriented in dense fog, so, too, can people become lost in the circumstances of their lives. It is not easy to penetrate the mist and bring them to the Light, Jesus Christ.

Preachers can be tempted by wanting to impress the congregation. The pulpit is one of the few opportunities granted to us when we can take 20 minutes or more of a congregation’s time while everyone sits silently. We can become so consumed with the act of preaching itself that we conveniently leave Jesus out of the text or miss the whole point of what God wanted to get across to the people.

In his book Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today, David Helm notes that the goal of the preacher “is to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there. I have a great jealousy on this head; never to speak more or less that I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding.” This quote reminds me of my responsibility in studying and interpreting Scripture.

The following foundational points of good preaching should be kept in mind as we strive “to bring out of Scripture what is there.”

1. Start With Prayer
If we would speak God’s Word, we need to know God’s heart. That means spending plenty of time talking with him about what we’re putting to paper and listening even harder for his thoughts on what we are formulating.

We must saturate our sermon preparation in prayer, but not the endless chatter that comes from us. Prayer is a relationship language that engages our senses and heightens our awareness of God’s presence. And when we actively listen and practise the discipline of silence, we allow God to speak to us as we process impressions, thoughts and feelings that come to us as we’re reading the Bible, reacting to the text.

2. Invest the Time
We’ve slipped into dangerous times with easy access to websites that allow preachers to buy sermons, or even download them for free, on any topic they want to preach about. My wife and I co-pastored churches for 22 years and, in all that time, we have never used a sermon outline that is not original.

People come to church to be spiritually fed. As preachers, it is our responsibility to provide a solid message from God’s Word, one that we have carefully prepared and laboured over that will feed the souls of God’s people. Take time with the text you have chosen. Invite the Holy Spirit to guide you as you structure your sermon with an original outline and original thinking.

3. Seek Reliable Resources for Study
Preaching is not a fast-food vocation, where sermons can be churned out like burgers from an assembly line. None of us is so intellectually astute that we can’t benefit from researching and studying a significant number of resources: Bible commentaries, concordances, dictionaries and other theological books.

Seek out credible and intellectual works from scholars who have lived and walked the streets of biblical texts. They can help us master the translations and cultural implications of ancient texts. Online searches can also prove helpful, but don’t allow the Internet to be your only source.

4. Expect Personal Transformation
During my initial study, I search the Scriptures, believing God will have something to say to me and for me. I must be transformed before Sunday comes. I remember experiences of being broken before God as the text convicted me; experiences of elation as God revealed his activity in my life where, before preparation, I didn’t see it.

When I don’t experience God-movement and transformation in and for me, I become concerned about why it hasn’t happened. I wonder if I somehow didn’t pay attention to the Spirit and missed the message for me. I need that message, because without it, I struggle and lack confidence, wondering if what I have to say is what God ordained for the day.
An effective preacher must probe the fog of easy gimmicks and quick solutions.
5. Consider the Context
The reason we have any biblical text at all is because the author felt it necessary to provide insight and guidance on the socio-political, spiritual, economical and personal realities that existed at the time of writing. If it was significant enough that the Holy Spirit prompted the writer to record it, important enough that the writer wrote it down, and valuable enough that it was preserved for us in the 21st century, surely it is critical that we understand what precipitated it all. Context is always the place to begin. We have to know what it was about before we can tell people what it is about.

6. Make the Application (Contextualization)
In addition to knowing the original context of a biblical text, what it meant, we need to explore how the text applies to our present time, what it means. If by the end of a homily we haven’t demonstrated the relevance of the message for today and shown how it speaks into our broken and desperate lives, there was no point in the exercise.

On the other hand, in our desperate attempts and desire to contextualize the message, we can overextend our efforts and compromise the text. We face the danger of thinking that if we just understand cultural norms, we will be powerful preachers. That may hold some water, but the boat is leaking when we compromise the text.

7. Stay Humble
Preachers who have an appetite for applause or a lust for popularity run the risk of overdosing on the narcotic of pride. The remedy is humility. While it is human nature for us to want to be known and admired, we can’t allow ourselves to be distracted by the allure of making an impression in the pulpit.

As John Stott shares in his book Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today, in order to preach sermons that illuminate, we each must possess a humble mind (being submissive to the written Word of God), a humble ambition (desiring an encounter to take place between Christ and his people) and a humble dependence (relying on the power of the Holy Spirit). “Our message must be God’s Word not ours,” Stott says, “our aim Christ’s glory not ours, and our confidence the Holy Spirit’s power, not ours.”

May it be so.

Cover of Sermons That IlluminateThis article is an excerpt from Major Dale W. Pilgrim’s new book, Sermons That Illuminate: How the Bible Can Ignite Your Preaching to Connect People With God. This practical guide for preachers—both ordained and lay-leaders alike—explores the genres of Scripture, methods and models of preaching, the importance of self-care, and suggestions for moving toward healthy preaching. Available through Supplies & Purchasing at store.salvationarmy.ca, 416-422-6100 or orderdesk@can.salvationarmy.org.

Preaching on Sunday? 
Rick Warren offers some practical advice for sermon preparation in Eight Questions to Ask When Preparing Your Sermons
  1. Who are you speaking to?
  2. What does the Bible say about people’s needs?
  3. What is the best way to teach people what the Bible says about their needs?
  4. What is the most positive way to say it?
  5. How can I keep it simple?
  6. How can I make it personal?
  7. What is the most interesting way to say it?
  8. What is the most interesting way to say it?

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