Imagine you had the opportunity to sit down for lunch with seven great preachers from today and from history. Can you imagine what that might be like? What would they tell you about their preaching habits? How could it inform your ministry?
You will never have an opportunity to invite the seven men featured below over for dinner (some have passed away), but they’ve all written and talked about their process. In his book, Deep Mentoring, Bobby Clinton describes the value of historical mentoring, learning from leaders of past eras by reading their books and biographies. The same is true for people who are alive today but not available to us on a consistent basis. Books become our windows to the lives of the great, effective preachers of yesterday and today.
Here are seven lessons you can take from the lives of these great church leaders.
1. Bathe your sermon in prayer. (Allistair Begg)
We all know the power of prayer. We’ve preached about it. We’ve counseled it in the lives of others. We’ve practiced it. But have we made it a priority in our sermon preparation process?
Allistair Begg suggests that a prayerless sermon has little hope of emboldening your congregation. He goes on to say that “We can do more than pray, after we have prayed, but not until.”
Only you can decide what this looks like in your preaching ministry, but one great way to start is to pray through your scripture each week. Ask God to make the message real in your own life as you prepare to preach. Then pray by name for people in your church who you know need to be touched by what the Bible is teaching you.
2. Make it shorter. (Tim Keller)
Tim Keller made the comment above after a Pew survey showed that the average evangelical sermon was 39 minutes (more than twice as long as the typical Catholic sermon). Keller’s own sermon preparation process, which he described in this interview with the Gospel Coalition, includes three distinct parts—studying the text, preparing the verbal presentation, and tightening it.
John Piper has a nice rubric to help preachers think about the length of their sermons (although he certainly tends to lean toward the longer sermons). He urges preachers to consider substance, the complexity of the text, the nature of the audience, your own gifting, and your situation when trying to determine if your sermon is too long or too short.
Maybe the best advice I’ve ever heard about shortening your sermon is to take some time between finishing your sermon and preaching the message. Give yourself at least a day after you’ve completed your preparation and then go back through the sermon and take out what’s not needed.
By the way, Charles Spurgeon had a great reminder for how to shorten your sermons: study harder. He said, “Spend more time in the study that you may need less in the pulpit. We are generally longest when we have least to say.”
3. Live your message. (Charles Spurgeon)
The Prince of Preachers once said, “Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst.” Spurgeon had little patience with hypocrites behind the pulpit. Yes, we’re all imperfect, but the Bible never gives us the freedom to use that as an excuse.
It’s no coincidence that Spurgeon recommended that preachers do anything else if they could. The ministry of the pastor is tough, not just because of the mechanics of the job but also because of the expectations. Some of them are unwarranted, but many are not.
Make sure you have people around you who can boldly speak truth into your life. Every David needs a Nathan (2 Samuel 12). Do you have one?
4. Saturate it with scripture. (John Piper)
In his book The Supremacy of God in Preaching, which focuses on lessons from the preaching ministry of Jonathan Edwards, John Piper urges pastors not to just base their preaching on the Bible but that it should “ooze” with scripture.
Every preacher’s ministry context is different, but the Bible must be the authority of our message. Yes, you can base your messages on biblical principles and limit the quotes, but ask yourself what you’re teaching your congregation about the sufficiency of scripture when you do that.
5. Simplify your sermon. (Rick Warren)
Rick Warren’s church sits in South Orange County, California, one of the most educated areas of the country. He has not simplified his message because his audience can’t understand it, but so that the message can connect with those he wants to reach more effectively.
Even in an era when we know fewer and fewer people in our audiences have any kind of biblical background, it’s easy to complicate the simplicity of the gospel. We think it makes us sound smarter and more profound. We think it brings us respect and authority. But could we, in our own hubris, be a stumbling block for the gospel? You don’t need to dumb down your sermon’s theology to simplify it.
6. Nail your takeaway. (Andy Stanley)
Most pastors who have spent any time engaging with content from Andy Stanley know some of the high points of the preaching strategy he employs. His one-point sermon centers on a single takeaway throughout a sermon (and the broader series). Stanley figures most the people he is engaging can only remember and apply one takeaway each week. So he makes sure they get that one takeaway without question.
You don’t need to subscribe to the one-point sermon method to make sure you’re doubling down on your takeaways each week. Be clear about what you want people to apply to their lives. Repeat it often. Look for additional ways to reinforce your takeaway through multi-sensory methods.
7. Always be ready. (Apostle Paul)
History’s most famous missionary reminds us to always be prepared to preach the gospel. His words to young Timothy weren’t prescriptive in how he was to preach. Paul didn’t give him an outline. He didn’t share with him the latest fad. Paul told Timothy to keep preaching and never give up.
That’s our calling, too. The message is too important to let discouragement get in our way. Preaching is hard work. The job of the pastor is never done. But preach the word. Be ready at all times to do so.
Learn from the great preachers. Soak in their wisdom. Whether you have a good mentoring system or not, make it a habit to listen to and read from preachers you admire. It’ll make you a better preacher.