I often feel guilty for how much I enjoy my job. Full time ministry is a rare opportunity; few people have the chance to do what they love the most in the world full time. I am so thankful for my job.
However, it has not come without growing pains, mistakes, and learned lessons. I decided to write a brief blog about some lessons I have learned, specifically in regards to preaching.
I do not write this as an expert. I am young and still learning the life-long skill of crafting and preaching excellent sermons. Instead, I write this as a novice: someone who has learned from godly, skilled pastors. I write as someone who has grown from mistakes. My target audience are fellow novice preachers, and anyone who has the desire and call to preach, granted their call has been affirmed by their local church.
Here are four pieces of advice I have for young, developing pastors:
1. Sanctify Your Language
One of the quickest lessons I learned was to sanctify my language outside of the pulpit because bad habits follow you into the pulpit. Unless you preach full manuscript (which I do not recommend), much of your sermon diction is on the fly. Your theological points are in your notes (unless you preach without notes), but your language is not.
The problem arises with the fact that there are some words we might feel comfortable using outside of the pulpit, but would not use in the pulpit. However, habits die hard.
I once found myself using a word that would not have brought me conviction in normal conversation, but from the pulpit, seemed crass and distracting. I realized that I needed to forfeit some words from my everyday common use in order to improve as a preacher.
This is not only relevant to vocabulary words unfit for the pulpit, but extends to more basic elements of sloppy speech. Filler words need to be filtered out of common speech. Meaningless utterances like “Um,” and “like,” are abused in every day conversation. Those habits will chase you into the pulpit.
Sanctify your speech outside of the pulpit so you can bring mature speaking habits with you into the pulpit.
2. Avoid Obsessive Theology
Much of my early theological training came from my Roman Catholic apologetics. For three years I was regularly engaged in debating the issues that divide Roman Catholics and Protestants.
I love discussing these issues, and through my debates, I became well versed in the texts of Scripture related to each of the major points of contention. Through rigorous encounters with Roman Catholics and through reading a load of books on the subject, I gained a deep knowledge of these texts and issues. I thoroughly enjoyed the debates and knew the texts at hand well.
Because of this, I had the temptation early on to try and force those theological issues into every text I preached, or to reference Roman Catholicism often. Some of my leaders, as well as trusted lay members, noticed that all of my sermons were sounding less like a sermon, and more like the rebuttal portion of a formal debate. My preaching would often come across as aggressive and confrontational, debating all of the non-existent papists.
Avoid constantly teaching and referencing your favorite doctrines. This is the breeding grounds for sloppy exegesis and irrelevancy. It is not exegesis to turn every text into an issue you love talking about, and it does the congregation no good to refute ideas they are not flirting with, or to answer questions they don’t have. This is not to say that anticipating possible questions and objections is wrong. That is a great thing to do in a sermon. But those need to be based on the text, and your understanding of your own congregation specifically.
This habit is important to kill now. Soon, the young preachers I am addressing will not only be preaching more often, but will be choosing the preaching texts and topics. If you have the habit of addressing the theology you enjoy, you will not be giving your congregation the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20: 27). Preaching on the same issues repeatedly can make a congregation grow tired and bored, and it starves them of the whole of Scripture.
The way to combat this is to preach through books often, and be faithful to the text; do not allow hobby-horse theology to creep in to every single sermon. I have listened to preaching that obsesses over one point of doctrine regularly, and even when it was doctrine I agreed with, I still grew tired.
The pulpit it is not a time to obsess over your favorite doctrines, nor to slam your least favorite. If your favorite talking points are in the text at hand; so be it. If the serious theological errors you want to dismantle are relevant to the text you’re preaching, go for it. Preach the text in front of you; that is always what your congregation needs, and nothing else. The whole counsel of God was the Apostle Paul’s interest; therefore, it should be ours as well.
3. You Have Nothing to Prove
As a very young pastor, I struggled with (and continue to struggle with) insecurity. Most of this is self-imposed. I have a church that has been nothing but kind, supportive, and gracious to me. After all, this is the church that called me. It is a church that has always been understanding of my youth, and has encouraged me in my strengths. However, it continues to remain a struggle to feel confident, equipped, and suited for my work. I often seek refuge in Paul’s words to Timothy regarding this (1 Timothy 4:12).
One of the temptations I experienced early on in my preaching was the desire to load my sermon with heavy, academic thoughts and jargon in order to establish credibility and prove my worth. Anything I could dig out of a commentary that was rigorous and sophisticated would find its way into my sermon.
The fact of the matter is that with every text comes some academic information that is irrelevant to the congregation. Discussions involving higher textual criticism, or the semantics of the Greek language, and many other topics do not need to be in the vast majority of sermons.
I have been paralyzed in the past with fears that my sermon would be “too shallow” or “too simple.” I wanted every single sermon to “wow” and impress the members. However, like my father used to always tell me, “You’re not going to hit a home run every time.”
The fact of the matter is, some theology is simple, but if it’s the Word of God, it is still profound. If the text before you is communicating simple theology, then preach a simple sermon. Simplicity is not a synonym for “shallow,” nor is it an antonym to “profound.”
Even the theological concepts that are not simple need to be made clear and simple; that’s your job. In a certain sense, all of our sermons will be “simple.” The aim of a sermon should always be to create a simple, clear thesis that the church can understand, remember, and articulate (outside of fidelity to the text and the exaltation of Christ).
The interest of the pulpit is not to prove how smart you are, but how wonderful Christ is. The aim of every sermon is to faithfully communicate God’s Word in an intelligible way, not to make much of a preacher’s intellect.
It is crucial to preach the meaning and application of the text; that is what the sheep need. To go down academic rabbit trails often only confuses people and distracts from the overall thesis of the sermon. There is a time and a place to know those issues and discuss them, but rarely is the Sunday morning sermon that time and place.
4) Utilize Commentaries after Studying
Especially when coming to a difficult text with many loose ends and complicated passages, the temptation to rush to the commentaries and online study tools is powerful. But I have learned there is far too much value in reaching your own conclusions, studying the text, and praying, before turning to the commentaries. I have experienced two reasons for this:
- The Calling is Yours
Commentaries are a gift from God. They should be utilized. They are helpful, corrective, challenging, and they keep us tethered to the church historic. However, any person can regurgitate study notes from academic researchers. Most college students do this very thing in their classes.
The church has recognized God’s gifting in you and has called you to be pastor; they have called you to preach.
Establish your own voice. Create and craft your own sermons. Allow the Lord to speak to you primarily through His Word. Your sermons are yours to preach, and the gifting required to read the text, understand it, craft it in a sermon, and communicate it has been given to you from God.
I recommend a good amount of study, sermon outlining, and prayer before turning to the commentaries (and I do recommend turning to commentaries).
2. Commentaries are a Gauge
One of the most fulfilling things I have experienced in sermon preparation is coming to a conclusion about a text, especially a difficult one, and then seeing the commentaries I read all affirming my conclusion. The commentaries and other resources we use to prepare a sermon are a great way to gauge our understanding of the text. The point is not to say that all commentaries are infallible and never disagree. But when our interpretations of passages are falling into good company, both modern and historic, that is an encouraging sign that we are seeing these texts the way God’s church and God’s pastors have seen them too.
Lessons I have learned in my short tenure of preaching, which I pass on to fellow novice preachers, are to develop sanctified speaking habits, preach the whole counsel of God, be content with the Word of God itself impressing people (rather than your intellect or charisma), and trusting in the gifts God has given you.
The pulpit is a sacred place, and it is truly an honor to be able to mount the pulpit within the context of a local church. And so, as a young preacher, I would like to commend all the local churches out there who are able to invest in young men. All of the churches who are humble enough to submit to men younger than them for the sake of developing leaders for the future of God’s kingdom, I commend you.
All of the pastors who give up their pulpit to allow young men to develop and be trained for the sacred and noble task of shepherding a church, for those men who aspire to hold the office of an elder, I commend you.
For all the congregations that have sat through the growing pains of young pastor’s sermons and biblical teachings, I commend you. This is kingdom work, and the Lord is pleased with your humility, your love, and your desire to send mature, experienced men into the world.
Keep calling us, keep encouraging us, keep training us, and continue to model righteousness for us, that we might then do the same for other young Christians when our time for that has come.