I’ve been preaching now for 24 years. If you asked anyone in my senior class if I would be a preacher, not one person would have said yes. As usual, I was an unlikely choice. That’s how God does it. He picks unlikely people to preach the word and reach the world. My first sermon was on Easter Sunday, 1993. It scared me to death to preach. My pastor, Elijah Mitchell, called me one evening to tell me I would preach Easter Sunday. I remember pastor giving me instructions:
- I was to encourage and not rebuke the people. If I rebuked the people, he would sit me down.
- I was to preach for 15-20 minutes or so that was the target.
I preached from Col 3:1-3. I still have the manuscript. I think the message lasted only 15-20 minutes. I read it. After, I remember one of the deacons saying, “We needed about 20 more minutes. It’s been a long time since that first sermon. I always like to joke around by saying, “the people did not deserve that first sermon.” Yet seriously, how does one learn to preach? What makes a message fresh? What’s the difference maker in preaching?
I’ve studied preaching for a while. I like to read a preaching book every year or at least review the basic preaching books throughout the year. I also like to listen to preaching. I listen to Charles Stanley, Louie Giglio, and Skip Heitzig. Preaching is worth the effort in learning at any and all angles. As I’ve listened to preaching, I’ve come to the conclusion that some preaching is too safe. What is safe preaching?
- Safe preaching lectures the Bible as facts rather than an engaging experience with the word of God.
- Safe preaching uses too many notes thus killing the preaching experience.
- Safe preaching avoids controversial topics.
- Safe preaching relies more on study than prayer.
- Safe preaching leaves people thinking “my toes got stepped on” while not seeing life change.
- Safe preaching doesn’t not ask people to do anything, especially to be saved, baptized, or move into places of spiritual growth.
- Safe preaching seeks to please people more than God.
I’m sure the list can go on and on. I do believe there is a thing called safe preaching. How can a preacher avoid safe preaching?
Pray more than usual for the preaching experience.
Preaching will always seem powerless when prayer is only minimal. Of course the preacher is prayerful as he prepares. If you want to play it safe, that works. If you want to see more, pray more. How? Get at least one prayer hour with a few others to pour out hearts over the lost, for the preaching, and worship at your church. Second, pray specifically for the message you will preach. Pray for the experience. Pray for the people as you don’t ultimately know their needs. Your prayer will open you for the Spirit to move in ways in your message that ministers to an unrelated need in a hurting person’s soul. Recruit a praying platoon at your church. Ask them to pray “during the message.” My simple prayer throughout the week and on Sunday morning is, “Lord, I can’t do what only You can do. Save souls and change lives.” What’s your prayer for preaching and teaching the word? Are you playing it too safe? Do you pray for the ending of your message?
Write a sermon brief or manuscript, but then leave your notes at home.
Many have written on sermon notes in preaching books. Many great preachers use notes, so I’m not against them. I started using a few more this year, but mainly I use no notes. Preaching and teaching without notes means a few things:
- Are you studied enough to be full of the word that you could preach 80% of it without notes? Preaching without notes does not mean I “wing it.” Preaching without notes means you have to study more, not less.
- Preaching without notes means you need to write more during week. I use Evernote, which has a voice dictation option. Some parts of the message need to be spoken out on paper rather than written.
- When you preach without notes, you really are not preaching without notes. Dr. Al Patterson once was asked “do you use notes when you preach?” He replied, “Yes I do. I use the Bible.” Dr. Haddon Robinson said the same thing when I was at Gordon-Conwell. Preaching without notes was mandatory at Gordon.
- When you are studied full, prayed up hot, then the preaching can be an experience in the word rather than a class lecture. Not all preaching with notes is this way, but if you use notes, use them sparingly. Look people in the eyes.
Don’t play it safe. Trust God’s word. Ditch the notes after you study hard. Or use only what you have to have as notes. It makes a difference. Let the Spirit do something fresh through you.
Throw your heart on the table in life and in preaching.
People want to know the preacher is a real person. When preaching, throw your heart up on the pulpit some. Don’t talk about yourself all the time, but don’t ignore your stuff either. When you are real about your sin struggles, your sin problems, your life challenges, people respect it. You don’t have to put all of your mess out. I’m not saying that, but it helps to be real in a natural way. It may surprise people at some point, but it changes your church culture from “sanctuary for saints” to “hospital for sinners.” Don’t play it safe by acting like you have it all together by never talking about your own struggles. You don’t diminish holiness by being honest. You actually pursue it. Take a risk. Throw your heart on the table.