What Preaching Is
Preaching is the authoritative declaration of the Word and will of God, with the intention of revealing Christ to the hearers. Christ is seen through a window, and not painted on the wall. The medium of the preacher is to be Windex, not oil base paint. This definition has three components -- the manner, the content, and the purpose of the message. The manner is authoritative declaration. The content is the deposit given to us in Scripture, in all its parts and relations. The purpose or goal is to declare Christ, and make Him known.
The goal of preaching is not controversial among evangelical believers, although when we expand on the first two elements, we will discover that the goal, while not having been altered, has nonetheless grown enormously.
Authoritative declaration is first. The sermon is not a place where men give their opinions about God. The sermon is the place where Christ speaks through His ordained heralds. The minister should go to church expecting Christ to speak through Him there. The congregants should go to church expecting to hear Christ speak. This relates to the goal of revealing Christ. In the last analysis, only Christ can reveal Christ, but He has chosen to do so through His servants.
"How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14)
I cite this verse in order to quarrel with a particular translation in part of it. "Of whom" should actually be "whom." How shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear Christ without a preacher?
So then we come to the content. The preacher is to be a man of the Scriptures, steeped in them. Preaching scripturally does not mean sweating over this text or that one, trying to wring it out like a dishcloth, but rather reading the Bible such that he comes to understand the narrative of the whole Bible, and is able to explain that narrative to his listeners, regardless of which text is his starting point.
Christ is to be found throughout the Bible, and to fail to reveal Him through that particular window is really a function of some form of unbelief. When the Scriptures are preached in all their appropriate parts and relations, the result is necessarily Christocentric.
Preaching Christ from all of Scripture will protect us from various distortions and hobby horses. Christ is not the Victorian pantywaist. Christ is not the liberation freedom fighter. Christ is not the distant Byzantine angry guy. Christ is the Savior of the world.
Preaching and Cultural Transformation
Early on in Moby Dick, Melville has this great statement about preaching, comparing it to the bow of a ship.
"What could be more full of meaning? -- for the pulpit is ever this earth's foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God's quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world's a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow" (Melville, Moby Dick, p. 60).
Preaching is an instrument of cultural transformation, not because preaching is motivational speaking in a highly charged religious manner, but rather because preaching reveals the Christ, who is the Savior of the world.
So church services are not rallies. The speaker is not there to get the troops whipped up so that they go out there and "make a difference." They will make a difference, and God bless them, and future historians will be able to write learnedly about it. But that is not the mechanism that makes this work.
Because of sin, the world is chaotic, formless. There are remnants of the previous forms, but sin has done its destructive work. Over this chaos, the Spirit of God moves on the face of the waters. And then what happens? God speaks, and when God speaks, He names. And when He names, what He names comes to be. And He speaks through His ordained speakers.
We have to get away from this notion that naming is a matter of attaching labels so that we can keep track of things. Naming shapes, naming forms. When I speak of the coming glories in the future of this sorry planet, I am not predicting, as though I were an observer on a balcony somewhere. "Don't bother me right now," the preacher might think. "I am busy making a new world."
And of course this elicits a charge -- just who do you think you are? Oh, I don't know. Just a nobody that is not sufficent for these things, just like St. Paul wasn't either, only much worse than that.
Pulpit sins can be divided into two general categories -- sins of attitude and sins of delivery. Mechanics of the pulpiteering arts want to reduce everything to the latter, but the real adjustments in our day have to begin with the former. This is nothing less than the classic Pauline division between credenda and agenda, things to be believed and things to be done.
This not to say that delivery is unimportant -- it is actually crucial. "And it came to pass in Iconium, that they went both together into the synagogue of the Jews, and so spake, that a great multitude both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed" (Acts 14:1). The way they spoke had something to do with the results. But the way they thought and believed had something to do with the way they spoke.
The principal pulpit sin of attitude is unbelief. Not knowing what God has said about preaching, or knowing it and not believing it, results in other attitudinal sins. Those other sins would include things like timidity, the fear of man, and arrogance, which results in others falling into the fear of man. And of course there are some petty sins of attitude as well -- vanity, for instance. But no matter who you are, or where in church history you are, the act of preaching should require courage.
Some common sins of delivery include the following: 1. Being bored with the material, and therefore being boring with it. 2. Running out of material ten minutes before the end of the sermon, and circling the airport aimlessly until it is time to land. 3. Preaching the whole counsel of God every fifteen minutes or so. 4. Refusing to enunciate. 5. Garbling your point so that you are, like the last of the Mohicans in the deep woods, very hard to follow. 6. Hopping from one foot to the other like you were a cat on hot bricks. 7. Thinking that conviction of sin comes through yelling and upbraiding. 8. Drawing attention to yourself instead of away from yourself.
There are others, but you get the drift.
The Holy Spirit and Sermon Prep
We must first smite and slay the extempore bias. From at least the time of Rousseau, we have been taught that that which is spontaneous is that which is honest, fresh, sincere, and untrammeled. On the other end, we have been taught that that which is prepared beforehand is stiff and insincere.
But like many very effective lies, there is an important truth here. You do want it to be fresh. But that is why you have to prepare to be fresh. You will get what you prepare to get. Freshness is no accident. When preparation results in stale messages, it is because you didn't seal the bag right. If you want fresh, then prepare for fresh. This is the discipline of a pianist practicing scales so that she can sit down and play a glorious piece "spontaneously."
But before the message can be fresh, the man must be. Prepare the man before you prepare the message. The first issue relates to character -- confess sin, grow in grace, resist temptation, feed your soul something other than spiritual Doritos.
Then there is your family, the place where the man lives and thrives . . . or not. Love your wife, spend time with her, love your children, give yourself to them. Your household is your first church, your foundational church, your probationary church. Don't work on your sermon all week, and give your family the dregs of your time. Give yourself to your family in such a way that you have something to say to your second church.
Third, you prepare the man who will preach the Word by concerning yourself with his mind and heart. Feed that part of you that will be doing the preaching. Read, listen, grow. What constitutes the leaf mold of your mind? What is composting there? Don't read like you were studying for a test. Read like you are covering the forest floor with half a foot of leaves. Don't bother keeping track of them.
Then we come to the mechanics of sermon prep, remembering that the Holy Spirit doesn't pop into existence on Sunday morning. In learning about this, don't copy slavishly. Don't let a tuba player teach you how to carry your snare drum. Work through this kind of thing selectively.
That said, Wednesdays are my sermon day. I try to have the outline done by late morning or early afternoon. If I have a topic or a fresh idea that has been forming in my mind, then I just do the outline. If I am preaching through a book, then the first part of the day consists of reading in the commentaries, followed by composition of the outline.
My outlines follow this general pattern: 1. Intro 2. Summary of the text, which unpacks the text in such a way that every major teaching is repeated, along with any necessary contextualization. 3. Three or so major points from the text that I want to develop or apply at greater length. 4. Conclusion and application.
This outline is almost always done by Wednesday. I then leave it to sit for a few days. I pick it up again sometime Saturday and read through it. Sunday morning I look at it again, and jot down any additional thoughts I may have in the margins. I then preach from the outline. My outlines are generally around 1,200 words, and an average sermon would be about 5,000 words.
On Sunday morning, I get up at 6 am to spend a couple hours reading in books that I have set aside for Sunday morning only. They sometimes give me something that appears in the message, but their main purpose is to frame my heart. For example, I read from Scripture, Matthew Henry's Method for Prayer, Pilgrim's Progress, The Psalms of Sir Philip Sidney, George Herbert's The Temple, Spenser's The Fairie Queen, and Dante's Divine Comedy.
I also spend time composing prayers for the Lord's Day. These are written prayers, but are just for personal use, not for use anywhere public. I open a file on my computer, and begin to write out my prayer. After a bit of work on that, I offer it to the Lord. The next week I open the same file and expand that prayer. I do this for some months, until the prayer is a couple pages long. Then I close that file, and start a new one. Everyone once in a while, I rotate through the older prayers. These are (my) prayers for the worship service primarily.
The Spirit is with you as a minister of Christ. There is no reason that the Holy Spirit cannot bless you in the study as well as in the pulpit, if you are rightly seeking that blessing. You are His servant in both the preparation and the delivery. Why would He be with you in one place and not in the other?