I’ve been blessed lately with the opportunity to preach a bit more. I really enjoy preaching, and the homiletics training I received at Covenant Seminary during my M.Div. was excellent. But the more I learn about preaching, the more I feel like I’m just beginning to learn what it even means to preach. Preaching to me is like a vast mountain, the top of which is hidden by clouds and cannot be seen, and the higher I climb, the more it stretches up still higher and higher above me.
I’m not looking for encouragement when I say that, or trying to be deliberately modest. Its honestly how I feel. I think every preacher who has some awareness of the grandness and height of his task feels acutely his own unworthiness. I’ve referenced before the statement by Lloyd-Jones that “any man who has had some glimpse of what it is to preach will inevitably feel that he has never preached.” To that could be added the testimony of Spurgeon: “There is no good preacher who is not moved almost to the point of tears at the end of every sermon at how poor was the message he just delivered.”
And yet, by the grace of God, Sunday by Sunday, we preach. Here are 5 lessons I’m learning along the way. If you are a fellow preacher, trying to climb this vast and steep mountain alongside me, I hope these might be helpful to you.
1) Stack, splice, and spread out your illustrations
I used to think that the primary purpose of illustration was to clarify to the mind, and that story/narrative is the typical way to do it. Based on what I learned at Covenant, and from Bryan Chapell’s excellent instruction on preaching, I have come to see that the primary purpose of illustration is to engage the emotions and will, and that there are all kinds of different ways of doing it. One is word picture, for instance. Recently I was trying to describe how it is that a human being cannot see God’s face and live, and so I borrowed from a line in C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces and compared it to a mosquito flying into the Niagara Falls. So the sentence went from this…
“we cannot see the face of God and live…”
“we cannot see the face of God and live, anymore than a mosquito can fly into the Niagara Falls and live.”
That only adds 12 words, and about 3.5 seconds to your sermon. But it probably added a level of intellectual clarity and emotional force far disproportionate to its length.
I have gotten to a point where I am almost unable to do explanation without illustration, and for just about every propositional truth I want to communicate, I try to anchor it to concrete and narratival particulars. This is not “watering down” the sermon, as some people suggest, any more than Jesus was watering down his message by using parables (Mark 4:34). Because the human mind tends toward the concrete, we are enhancing, not reducing, the truth of Scripture for our listeners when we translate it into the particularity and situatedness of everyday life.
So in addition to traditional narrative illustrations, I have on my own developed two techniques for illustration that I share here in case others might find them helpful. First, I stack illustrations up in a bunch. Sometimes I will use 5 or 6 word pictures in a row. (Martin Luther King used to do this in his speeches—it’s not repetitive, it usually enhances the meaning.) Second, I weave in and out of illustrations throughout the sermon. So I will often come back to my opening illustration, after having explained the text it was illustrating, and tie the illustration back to it. That cements the connection and makes it crystal clear. Too often I fear people remember our illustrations, but forget what they were intended to illustrate!
I’m also learning to look in a variety of places for illustration: movies, history, literature, current events, my own life, etc. I find that the part of my library that is the weakest is literature. I have a ton of theology books, but not enough stories to pull from for illustrations. In the years ahead, I want to read more literature—Shakespeare, Greek myths, children’s books, Camus’ plays, whatever is rich and interesting—in large part to grow in my ability to communicate God’s Word in the pulpit. I have come to believe that, to be an effective preacher, you must be not only a good student of the Bible, but a wide reader and sensitive observer of life.
2) When explaining the text, depth > width
There are many ways that a sermon is different from a lecture/commentary, but one of them, I am learning, is this: the sermon need not, and cannot, be comprehensive. There is simply no way to cover everything in the passage, and that is not the point, anyway.
I increasingly find that when doing explanation of the text in preaching, stating the main point clearly has far more value than offering a detailed overview of the entire passage. For instance, if I am preaching on Psalm 90, the sermon should basically be about human ephemerality before God, and the implications of this truth for our lives in relation to the whole gospel. I will only go into ancillary textual details insofar as they relate to this larger thrust of the psalm. In a lecture you’d have to be more thorough, but in a 30 minute sermon, you simply can’t. You have to keep the main idea visible at all times.
This means that my sermon prep is a fundamentally different kind of intellectual exercise than, for instance, my PhD studies. In my doctoral work I am searching out intricacies in the text, looking for gaps in the literature, trying to make a unique contribution. That is a whole different universe from sermon prep. Sermon prep study is about figuring out how to best accent the main strokes of the biblical text for your particular congregation—its not about finding something new, but stating the old and the plain and the normal in a fresh, engaging, and contextualized, gospel-oriented way.
This does not mean that I don’t read commentaries and study in the original language in my study time—it means that I do that a little less relative to the thought that goes into prayerful application, and that I try to hide and conceal the study in the sermon. The person in the pew does not need a detailed commentary, and should not be impressed by the preacher’s erudition. They need a clear and application-geared explanation, and should be impressed by the Bible’s clarity and power.
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