This article is from GCI Equipper editor, Ted Johnston.
A challenge faced by all preachers is choosing the passage of Scripture (pericope) they will preach from. In GCI, we urge preachers to choose one or more of the passages specified for each week in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). An important and helpful feature of the RCL is the way it tracks with the Christian worship (“liturgical”) calendar. Here is a related comment from Fuller Studio (part of Fuller Theological Seminary):
The liturgical calendar spans the life of Christ in a single year—from anticipation (Advent), to hope (Christmas), to transcendence (Epiphany), to lament (Lent), to redemption (Easter), to the birth of the church (Pentecost), and through long, numbered days (Ordinary Time) back to Advent.
Following the RCL in our preaching aligns our sermons with the liturgical calendar. It that way our sermons stay focused on Jesus as, through the course of the year, we look again at his birth, presentation at the Temple, baptism, temptation in the wilderness, transfiguration, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, and his sending of the Holy Spirit. In that way, our sermons are shaped by the story of Jesus, rather than by some other story. Our sermons then show our congregants how Jesus’ story is their story, and from that perspective then address their particular life situations.
Some preachers object that following the RCL would stifle their flexibility in addressing topics they see as more relevant/needful for their congregations. While their concern is understandable, it’s important to realize that the Christ-centered and gospel-shaped way to address individual-situational needs is to start not with the need itself, but with the truth of the gospel. This approach is seen in Paul’s epistles, where he begins by proclaiming the gospel and then (and only then) identifying a particular issue (challenge, problem, sin), showing how the gospel points to the solution. Following the RCL in our preaching leads us to, even necessitates, this approach.
Another advantage of following the RCL is that the preacher will have their preaching plan for the year (and beyond) laid out in advance. This is helpful not only to the preacher, but also to other members of the worship team—worship leaders, musicians, the folks who prepare the weekly bulletin, etc. Following the RCL also helps multiple preachers in a congregation follow the same plan, thus leading to continuity of message over time.
To assist preachers in following the RCL, GCI publishes RCL-synced sermons in each issue of Equipper. For some preachers, these sermons are a resource to inform the writing of their own sermons addressing the RCL passages assigned for that week. Other preachers use thesesermons directly, adding illustrations and applications specific to their context. To learn more about following the RCL in your preaching, click here.
Why do people attend church? The reasons vary, but for many, the primary reason is to hear the Word of God. How is it that God’s Word is heard at church? Is it not through the Living Word, through the Spirit, through the Bible and, hopefully, through the preacher?
The preacher is called upon to preach and to be the mediator of “the very words of God” (1 Pet. 4:11). The congregants come hoping to hear words from God through the preacher that will somehow help them draw closer to God. They come to be edified, to be encouraged, and to find help with their hurts, trials, guilt, depression, or whatever their spiritual needs may be. What is required of the preacher is to preach accurately and faithfully the words of God, and to meet weekly the spiritual needs of the congregation in the sermon. How’s that for a challenge?
Preaching is a sacred responsibility and activity. It’s a complex activity involving body, mind and spirit. Those who take preaching seriously will always seek to improve. To help you do that, here are some key concepts to keep in mind:
1. Participate with the Holy Spirit
In the book of Acts we note the Holy Spirit is continually working in people’s lives ahead of the apostles and how they must hustle to keep up in order to participate in what the Spirit is doing (e.g., Acts 8:29-31; 16:14). In the same way, the Spirit is working in the congregation and the preacher must discern (spiritual disciplines are helpful) how the text to be preached can best be presented in order to participate with what the Holy Spirit is already doing in the lives of the members of the congregation. This can be viewed as exegeting the congregation as well as the text.
2. Preach Jesus
Whether your text (pericope) is in the Old Testament or the New, the lens through which it is to be understood is Jesus. Luke tells us that Jesus “beginning with Moses and all the prophets” explained to his disciples “the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27). It is helpful to consider how the pericope speaks to the question “Who is Jesus?”
3. Preach the gospel
Today, many preach the “good advice” rather than the Good News. Their sermons are about improving your marriage, rearing teens, being more successful in life, how to be a leader, how to improve your finances, etc. Such topics may be fine in a class or seminar, but the are NOT the gospel! The gospel is not self-help; it is not keys to success in terms of worldly wisdom; it is not instruction on how to do things. The gospel is not something we do—it’s something done for us, to which we are invited to respond. The gospel is the good news (and news is something to be announced) that through Jesus Christ we have been forgiven, redeemed and saved from alienation from God and each other.
4. Preach expository sermons
Expository sermons explain the meaning of a pericope. Using the Revised Common Lectionary is helpful in determining pericopes and when to preach them. It also leads the preacher to preach through the entire Bible rather than just selecting topics the preacher wants to talk about.
The opposite of an expository sermon is a topical sermon. In a topical sermon the preacher has an idea or subject in mind and then goes through the Bible to find texts that seem to back up that idea. This approach, known as “proof-texting,” leads to the preacher substituting their words for the words of God. All Scripture must be presented in its context in order to be properly understood. The preacher should use a process known as “exegesis” in seeking the meaning of a pericope. To exegete a pericope is to draw out carefully the exact meaning of a text in its original context; to determine the author’s intent and purpose; to determine how its original audience would have understood it; and based on that, how it applies to Christians today.
5. Preach with purpose
What’s the point? This is a question every preacher should ask themselves in preparing their sermon. If the preacher is not clear about the point of the sermon, how likely is it that the congregation will receive anything other than general information? A well-known authority on preaching, Haddon Robinson, calls it “The big idea.” What is the main and most important thing the congregation should get and respond to from the sermon? Whatever it is, the entire sermon should revolve around that.
6. Preach with passion
Will your sermon be memorable or easily forgotten? How much do you care about getting across the word of God to a congregation that really needs to hear it? How stirred are you about the word of God and its significance in the transformation of people’s lives? Passion is not just reflected in volume–a whisper or even silence can convey great passion. Passion can be a laugh or a tear. The word of God, being “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” is fully “able to judge the thoughts and intent of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). How can we speak such a word without intensity and passion? Our sermon conclusions, in particular, should be delivered passion and, frequently, include a call for response.
7. Remember that preaching is performance art
Preaching is spiritual and mental, but it’s also physical. Preaching is done by a physical person addressing a congregation of physical persons. It involves the voice and, in some ways, the entire body. In this sense, a preacher and a theatrical stage performer have much in common. The best exegesis and clearest Bible teaching will have far less impact on people if it is not delivered in a way that engages physical people. An effective preacher has a good voice and good stage presence, which includes body movements that enhance the reception of the message rather than distract from it. Thankfully, there are a number of good books and videos available on this topic. Also, critique from trusted colleagues can be of tremendous help.
This issue of GCI Equipper looks at the craft of preaching. Like many of you reading this, I love to preach—I love the challenge of taking a passage of Scripture and finding ways to share the gospel. I enjoy doing so in ways that make the gospel relevant—showing how God’s Word is alive; helping others grow deeper in their relationship with our Triune God.
As we think about the craft of preaching, it’s important to remember that we are called to preach, not merely teach. Whereas teaching involves imparting knowledge through instruction, preaching involves proclaiming the gospel with passion. As one author put it, preaching is “theology coming through a man who is on fire.” A sermon delivered with passion moves people to action by appealing to hearts as well as informing minds. Sure, some people teach with passion, but that’s not the same as passionate preaching that focuses people’s hearts and minds on Jesus and his gospel—the best topic in the world!
In a graduate homiletics class I took at Liberty University, the professor recommended that lead pastors not be out of their pulpits more than a couple of Sundays a year. Though we don’t have that requirement in GCI, even if you are preaching four out of every five Sundays, that’s 40+ sermons a year! It’s easy to see why it’s important to excel at preaching.
Whether you are a beginner or a veteran preacher, there are several aspects of preaching that this issue of Equipper addresses. I ask that you give them your prayerful attention and make growth in preaching ability one of your primary goals. To help you do so, I encourage you to ask yourself four diagnostic questions:
1) Do I spend adequate time wrestling with the text? Good preaching flows from meaningful personal study of Holy Scripture. As you interact with the written word of God, ask God to teach you—to make things clearer to you. Doing so will make for much better preaching than merely studying what you perceive your congregants need. Good preachers are first good students of the Bible.
2) Do I understand what the text meant to the original audience, and how it applies today? Hermeneutics is the study of biblical interpretation. In GCI, we begin by looking at Scripture, asking “Who is God?” and “What is he up to?” We then follow the scholarly practice of staying within context as noted in this statement from Focus on the Family:
Perhaps the greatest principle of biblical interpretation is context. The words used are important, as is the context of those words. Whenever seeking to rightly interpret the Bible, make sure you understand the immediate context. What is the passage about? What comes before the passage you are examining? What comes after? Along these lines, not only is immediate context important, but so is the broader context. In other words, given a passage that speaks to a certain topic, what does the Bible as a whole say on the subject? Don’t overlook the immediate context or the broader context.
It’s vital that we accurately present the text. We must avoid proof-texting, which means bending the text to fit our preconceived ideas. When we let God’s word speak for itself, we are using it to its maximum benefit. For more on this point, see Dan Roger’s article in this issue.
3) How is the Holy Spirit leading me through my study, sermon preparation and delivery? You’ve got your text, you’ve listened to God, you’ve looked at the text asking, “Who is Jesus?” and “What is he up to?” Now ask the Spirit to help you answer this question: What is the best way to preach this text with passion to my congregation? You don’t want to merely convey information—you want to inspire your members, to help them see Jesus more clearly, to help them desire a more intimate relationship with their Savior, to desire to bear his image more clearly, and to participate more fully in what Jesus is doing in their world.
4) Who is the hero of my sermon? Is your sermon focused on Jesus, the true hero of the gospel story? In your sermons, it’s fine to use various illustrations, biblical and historical characters, and personal experiences to achieve this Christ-centered focus, but don’t lose that focus through the use of your “props.”
Jesus is the Hero—he, alone, is the answer, the bread of life, the door, the way, the truth, the life, the resurrection. Jesus is the “I AM” that we are to proclaim. So, preach Jesus, and please do so with passion! Keeping these four points in mind will help you do that.
May God fill you with Jesus’ passion for his Word and his people, Greg Williams