Preaching from God’s Word…What a Concept!

Seven months ago, when I became a pastor, I suddenly switched from preaching once a month to three times a week. I suddenly switched from having several weeks to prepare one sermon, to having just a few days to prepare three. And it was rough for awhile. I was in the habit of writing out my sermons word for word.

I got into this habit due to my seminary education. I realized just how important the sermon is. It’s not merely a chance for the preacher to get up and ramble for a little while on how we need to be better Christians. It’s an opportunity to teach and explain the Word of God. Paul gave Timothy, the pastor of the church in Ephesus, the following instructions:

“Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.” 2 Timothy 4:2

And to most effectively maximize the time allotted for God’s Word to fulfill these objectives, a full manuscript is extremely useful.

But it’s also extremely time consuming. While this forced me to think through every word ahead of time, it often took 20 hours or more to prepare a single sermon. And although I’ve read that pastors who spend that much time in sermon preparation have effective ministries, it seems silly to spend so much time on a single sermon that last less than an hour.

Fortunately, I’m learning that I don’t have to write a full manuscript for every sermon anymore, though it might still be helpful sometimes when addressing sensitive issues. I’m learning that I can normally preach from a good one page detailed outline. This cuts down on preparation time significantly.

I’d like to get to the point that I don’t need an outline at all. I’d like to get to the point that I know the sermon text so well (from many hours of study) that I’m able by the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit to stand up and passionately correct, rebuke, and encourage from God’s Word, with great patience and careful instruction. I’m not there yet, but by God’s grace I hope to be there within the next few years. No manuscript. No outline. Just preaching from God’s Word…what a concept!

Selecting the Sermon Text

One of the first tasks in preparing a sermon is simply selecting the biblical text to preach from. While it seems like such a simple thing, it can often be a monumental task. The text will determine the message. Preaching from a particular text will mean that some things will be said, and other things will be left unsaid. It will mean that you will address certain topics thoroughly while other topics are ignored completely. Time, energy, and thought in selecting the sermon text should not be neglected.

There’s no one way to select a sermon text. There’s no verse in the Bible that says, “This is how you go about selecting a passage to preach on.” So there’s a certain amount of ambiguity and flexibility involved. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that we should follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit in sermon preparation, which includes the selection of the sermon text. Here are a few habits that I’ve developed that help in determining what I will preach on in the coming weeks:

  • Prayer. I simply ask God to guide me in what to speak about.
  • Follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Often God will lay a particular passage on my heart.
  • Read through Scripture. By simply opening God’s Word and reading, a passage will often jump out and me.
  • Select a passage that contains one complete thought. Sometimes this will mean preaching on 50 verses in one sermon. Sometimes it will mean preaching on half of a verse. Keep in mind that the chapter and number divisions are not inspired. They were added to the Bible centuries after it was written in order to help in finding and referencing passages in the Bible. So don’t be limited or bound by those divisions. A couple more notes about preaching on one complete thought.
    • Sometimes a section of Scripture that contains a complete thought will still be based on the passage before it. We find this a lot with passages that begin with “For” or “Therefore.” As often as possible, I try to back up a few verses in order to show what the text that I’m preaching on is based upon.
    • In the same way, when I preach on just a verse or even half of a verse, I almost always read more of the passage around it in order to make the context of the verse clear.
  • Do a sermon series on a topic. Perhaps use a concordance to find several passages that talk about repentance, and focus a week on each passage.
  • Preach systematically through books of the Bible. I love this method because it forces the pastor to preach on many different texts and topics, and doesn’t allow him to just pick the ones he’s most familiar with.  That being said…
  • Try to preach on passages and topics that you’ve never preached on before. It’s okay to preach on passages and topics that you’ve heard preached before (as long as you don’t just re-preach their message, and always give credit for illustrations and ideas that you use). But it’s easy to get into a rut of preaching on the same things week after week because we’re familiar with those things, neglecting the rest of God’s Word.
  • Determine a preaching plan for the next few months or years. I’ve yet to plan an entire year in advance, but I hope eventually to plan about 3 years in advance. Such plans should be tentative, allowing for flexibility as various needs arise, but can be extremely useful.
  • Take a look at a lectionary. Lectionaries are basically plans to read and/or preach through all of Bible every 3 or 4 years (depending on the particular one used) so that no part of God’s Word is neglected. This is different from preaching systematically through books of the Bible because it doesn’t always go through a book from start to finish, but often jumps around.
  • Take a look at the calendar. Not only are there many Christian holidays, but the calendar is full of days to observe and note (such as National Day of Prayer and Right to Life Sunday).
  • Take a look at the top news stories. When something major goes on in the world, your nation, or even your community, people want to hear what the Bible has to say about it.

Of course, I don’t always incorporate all of the above habits in selecting a text for every sermon I preach. I vary in how I select a text any given week. For instance, I sometimes preach topically for a few weeks before determining what series I will start next, and of course if you preach long enough, you’re going to start preaching on passages that you’ve preached on in the past. But some of the above habits ought to be practiced in preparing every sermon, such as prayer and following the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

I certainly don’t have the definitive steps in how to select a sermon text, but I hope that what I’ve learned is useful to someone else. Ultimately, we can’t go wrong in selecting a text to preach from, as long as it’s in the Bible. The Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, and it will not return void.

Abnormal: The New Normal

The holidays are over, so it’s time for our schedules to return to normal, right?  Well, I’ve yet to determine what a normal schedule is as a pastor, so I’m not sure how I’m supposed to return to something that I haven’t yet established.

I have weekly routines and goals, but rarely does a week go by that I follow my plan perfectly.  There is simply a lot of variation and flexibility in my role.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  It’s a blessing because I often have meetings and special events that I need to schedule around, so a flexible schedule is very beneficial in that way.  But it can be a curse because in order to get things done, I need to be self disciplined.  And I’ve met very few people who are truly self disciplined.

I’m learning, though, to embrace an abnormal schedule.  Some days I head to my office early in the morning, and some days I don’t go in until after lunch.  Some weeks I have my sermon ready to go on Monday, and some weeks I don’t put the finishing touches on it until Saturday.  Some days I spend all of my office hours on long-range planning and goal setting, and others I spend my time exclusively on sermon preparation.  And I’m learning to be okay with all that.

Sometimes I envy the person with a set schedule.  They know when they’ll be at work and when they’ll be at home.  There is a fine line dividing their work life and their home life.  I don’t have that.  It all kind of blends together.  But God is teaching me how to be a self starter, and I’m grateful that He’s patient with me during this process.

An Unexpected Phone Call

While driving home from the church office this afternoon, I got a phone call just as I saw a car blocking the road ahead.  I answered the phone while taking a detour, and found out from the church member that called why I was being rerouted.  Apparently, a man had a gun and was talking about killing himself.  This was taking place in a restaurant in town.  I prayed with the church member over the phone for the man’s well being, and asked her to keep the situation in prayer as well.

I arrived home and told my wife the situation.  She suggested that I drive back to that area and let them know I was the pastor of Grace Baptist, and offer them any assistance that I could.  She let me know she would pray for me as I hopped back in the car, drove to the street that the restaurant was on, and spoke with a fireman who was redirecting traffic.

“Hi, I’m the pastor of Grace Baptist Church.  Is there anything that I can help with?”

“Just a second.”

The fireman pushed the button on his walkie talkie and after saying some technical walkie talkie stuff, a voice on the other end said, “Go ahead.”

“I’ve got the pastor of Grace Baptist Church here, is there something he can do to help?”

“Not at this time, just get his cell phone number and tell him to stay on hand…On second thought, send him to City Hall.  We can use him there.”

The fireman looks at me and says, “Go to City Hall, they’ll be waiting for you there.”

I hopped back in my car and drove around the block.  The most direct route was blocked by police cars and officers.  I called my wife and let her know how she could pray for me.  I got to City Hall, walked in, and told the first person I saw who I was.  He directed me to a room and left.  There were two women sitting in the room.  I told them who I was and asked if I could do anything to help.  One of them spoke.

“He’s my husband.”

I sat down near her and asked if she would like me to pray with her.  She nodded and reached for my hand.  I held her hand and bowed my head to pray.  I said a brief prayer for the man, asking God to help him through this.  I prayed that he and all of the officers involved would be safe.

After we said “Amen,” I continued to hold the woman’s hand and attempted to comfort her.  After just a moment, she received a phone call and left the room.  I turned my attention to the other woman in the room.  She stated that she was the wife’s cousin.  She did not seem to want to talk or for me to pray with her.  I let her know that I would continue to pray for all of them, and I left the room.  As I walked by the man’s wife, who was still on the phone, I touched her arm and mouthed, “God bless you.”

As I drove home, I wondered if I should drive back and give them a business card, or give a business card to the fireman that I spoke with earlier, but I didn’t.  I pray that I provided some helpful ministry to the man’s family, but the reality is that I probably will never know if what I did will make any difference.  Much of the minister’s job has this same ambiguity.  All I can do is go and do as I feel led, and trust that God is using me along the way.

Being a Young Pastor

A pastor I’ve come to respect recently told me that my greatest asset as a pastor right now is my age. The statement struck me. I hadn’t really thought of my age as an asset before. With age comes experience. With age comes knowledge and wisdom. With age comes a degree of respect from others in the church because they know that you’ve counseled people through problems, you’ve preached faithfully for many years, and you’ve served the church through years of ministry.

But I understand why my pastor friend might have said that. At least I think I do. Young pastors typically have a zeal about them that’s contagious. Young pastors typically have charismatic personalities and a passion in ministry. People seem to love to listen to young pastors preach because they bring a youthfulness, excitement, and singularity of focus to the church that Christians long for.

But when I think about those advantages of being a young pastor, I see myself in them very little. I don’t have a charismatic personality. I’m not an awesome preacher. And while I have a passion to reach people for Christ, I certainly don’t have the kind of demeanor that people flock to listen to.

If you ask me, my greatest asset as a pastor is the same as every other pastor, despite their age. The gospel is my greatest asset. The gospel is what changes lives. Romans 1:16 starts out, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” I think some pastors have become ashamed of the gospel, and they try to attract people to the church through various events, programs, and young pastors – everything but the gospel itself. There’s nothing wrong with those things, and they can be used in mighty ways to point people to Christ. But if we truly realized how powerful the gospel is, it would be our greatest tool in bringing people to join the church: through introducing them to Christ so that they would experience the grace of God.