As you explore God’s calling to ministry, you will find that others will recognize that call in you as well. (No surprise – the Spirit who leads you is leading others). As a result, you may be asked to preach. This may excite you. It may terrify you. It may do a little of both. But understand preaching is just like any other craft. It takes time to become a master. So take a deep breath when that first moment finally arrives. Here is some advice consolidated from several seasoned pastors. If you follow it, you will have a great start to becoming a preaching veteran. (Proverbs 13:20)
Select a text, not a topic.
This is harder if you are just speaking once rather than multiple times. It is easier to preach through Ephesians over several weeks rather than just a few verses in chapter 3 but it can be done. Here are two simplified steps to the process of speaking from the text: Discover what the passage meant to the original recipients. (meaning) Then, in light of that discovery, what does that mean for us today? (application)
- Pray – This is where you begin. The first step to a great sermon is seeking God about what He wants to say to his people.
- Keep the focus on the text – Read through the passage several times, giving the Spirit the opportunity to speak to you.
- Get the “I” out of the message – The power to change hearts, minds, and lives comes from the Word and the Holy Spirit, not your carefully crafted message. You are just the vessel. (2 Corinthians 4:7) The power comes from God, not you. Preach the text.
- Illustrate when needed, but keep the ideas on the meaning of the passage. You could tell a couple of compelling stories but once again, life-changing transformation comes from the Word.
- Keep it simple. Don’t try to tackle difficult passages like explaining who the Nephilim were in Genesis 6 or attempt to reconcile faith versus works from Ephesians 2 and James 2. Keep it simple in the early years of your ministry – The Beatitudes, the Prodigal Son, Colossians 3, etc. If you pick the right passage, it will almost preach itself.
Prepare – God always honors preparation.
In the moment, the Spirit may move you to be spontaneous. If He does, great! But God always honors preparation. So do your best to prepare for the occasion. Colossians 3:17 The most experienced pastors will often spend 15-20 hours in preparation. In the beginning, a good rule of thumb is to double the amount of time you think you will need to prepare the message.
- Being prepared is not the same thing as being comprehensive. It is ok to not share every single verse or thought the Bible has on your topic. Keep it focused. Continually ask God, “what do your people need to hear?”
- Use resources. In the beginning, you won’t have many. But over time, work to expand your library. Here are a couple of great, inexpensive resources. How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth by Fee and Stuart and The Beginner’s Guide to Expository Preaching by Stephen McQuoid (both can be found for less than $10 online) Until you obtain your own study resources, ask your pastor or another staff member to loan you their materials.
- Seek advice from experienced preachers. This dovetails with the bullet point above. Ask your pastor or another minister how they prepare to preach.
- Practice and rehearse. You will want to avoid reading your notes. (Nothing will derail the sincerity of your message like reading it. If it wasn’t important for you to learn, why should it be important to the audience to listen?) This takes time. You can’t study, write, and rehearse a message on Saturday night.
- Plan to make a good first impression. Right or wrong, appearance matters. People take cues off of your appearance. Jesus is worth making a good impression on others Colossians 3:17. Shave, comb your hair, iron your shirt, etc. You don’t have to overdress – a tuxedo at a youth camp is a distracting overkill. A good rule to follow is to try to look a little bit nicer than everyone else in the room. Are the teens in shorts? Wear jeans. Everyone wearing jeans? Wear slacks. If you don’t know, ask the pastor of the church were you have been asked to speak what to wear.
As you prepare, keep the audience in mind.
- Avoid an awkward start – In the words of Robert “Gypsy” Smith, “it’s the message that’s important, not the messenger.” People do not want to hear about your invitation to speak or how you arrived at what you were going to talk about. It’s important to you, but it has nothing to do with speaking God’s Word. After the introduction, be gracious, take a deep breath and begin with your icebreaker, your first illustration, or even the text “open your bible to Mark 2….”
- Avoid an awkward dismount – Have the end in mind as you prepare. Do not neglect this part of the message. Spend as much time on this as the rest of the sermon. From the very beginning, ask this question: From the text, what is it that God wants the audience to do? Change an attitude? Repent? Serve? If you don’t know, there is no way they can get there. Howard Hendricks said it best: “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pews.”
- Avoid jargon or technical details – This is a common mistake from biblical studies majors. It’s great that you learned what antediluvian means. Jessica, the single mom with two kids in the third row, doesn’t care. She wants to know does God care about her. Just speak conversationally and say “before the Flood.” One of the big mistakes pastors make is after hours of study, they begin answering questions that no one is asking. No one has ever said, “I’ve always wanted to know how to say sacrifice in ancient Hebrew,” If how it was said is important to the understanding of the text, relay that importance, but remember who you are talking to – people like Jessica, not seminary professors. Jesus spoke to children and they understood his message.
- Manage time well –Time management will be a skill that you need to develop. This all goes back to preparation. People are in one of two camps: You will either think you have spoken for twenty minutes and it will only be three, or you think you have spoken for five minutes and it will be forty. Learn which group you are in and make adjustments. Longer sermons don’t mean better sermons. Length doesn’t mean quality. The famous preacher Charles Spurgeon said “If you ask me how you may shorten your sermons, I should say, study them better. Spend more time in the study that you may need less in the pulpit. We are generally longest when we have least to say.”
Evaluate and seek feedback. You can’t be the best you can be without the help of others. Reggie Joiner says being made in the image of God means that we have the capacity to improve. So be diligent about improving. Nothing will improve your preaching like the honest evaluation of others.
- Set up in advance who will help evaluate you. It’s always nice when church members shake your hand and say “I liked your message.” It’s more helpful to get some more constructive feedback. Enlist a few respected people who can give you legitimate assistance. This doesn’t need to be everyone in the congregation. You’ll find the best advice will come from the ones who have preached. So talk to your pastor, a deacon, or association director to give you feedback. Or ask all three. Proverbs 15:22.
- Get Immediate feedback – Talk to people about your message as soon as possible, preferably Sunday afternoon while it is still fresh in their minds.
- Listen to or watch yourself. We tend to be our own worst critics. Hearing or watching a recording of your message will often reveal annoying mannerisms (swaying, pacing, wild gesturing) or verbal idiosyncrasies (stuttering, speed talking, “umm”) that you did not know you had. Want to be a better preacher? Review your message.
- Grow. Give yourself permission to grow. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Good leaders are learners. So study, read, listen to podcasts on preaching, etc.
- Walk in the Spirit. Trust God will transform you into who He made you to be. Allow God to use your early experiences to sharpen you and make you a better preacher in the future. We have to walk before we run.
- Relax Philippians 4:6-7 Simon Crowe synthesizes the points of this article well. He says, “When you’re nervous or anxious all your focus is on you. You’re worried if you’ll do a good job or not, if people will like you and if people will think that you are a good preacher. That’s not important. Get your thinking off of yourself and instead focus on the message God has given you to preach. Keep the main thing the main thing….”