I have learned many lessons over my past 50 years of preaching. Here are seven of the most important:
1. Confine the sermon to a text; limitation sponsors power.
Water limited to the sluice of a hydroelectric generator turns the blades that create the power. Air confined to the cylinder of a pneumatic tool drives the tool.
Confinement to a text generates sermon power. No great preacher has ever been a collector of cross-references or teller of endless, unrelated contemporary stories.
The Latin verb “texere” denotes the act of weaving. Weave the sermon in and out of your announced text. Stay in the text. Exhaust the text.
Do not take a vacation from the text. If you do, when you “come home” to the text, the congregation may not be there.
2. “Aim at helpful sermons, not great sermons,” as Clyde E. Fant advised.
If you swing for the fences every Sunday, you may not even hit a single. Seek to help folks and sometimes your sermons will be great. Aim at great sermons and you may not even help.
Avoid what business calls “the encore syndrome.” Every Sunday does not have to be better than the previous; just be helpful.
3. Find a sustainable, competent way to prepare each week.
Business folks call that “best practices.” Your chosen method should be as comfortable as an old sweater. Do not reinvent preparation every Monday morning.
Avoid studying where you administrate, otherwise every problem on your desk will scream at you.
The late Duke McCall proposed a safety pin as the best aid for sermon preparation. Pin the seat of your pants to a chair and resist the first 50 urges to get up and do something else.
4. Live the preaching life.
Consider everything you hear and see a candidate for the sermon. Bus bench backs, bumper sticker, billboards, signs, opera and Willie Nelson, Rembrandt and Jackson Pollock, bell ringers and rappers.
Read the Sunday New York Times book review section and the New York Review of Books.
When you see it, write it down. The dullest pencil is better than the sharpest mind.
Believe in divine prearrangements for sermon material. I have found beyond dispute that God puts stuff under my nose for the coming sermon.
Carl Jung proposed the name “synchronicity” for this phenomenon. Random events come together meaningfully.
He proposed that all individual minds make up one big world mind. I believe it is Jesus. God is on your side getting ready to preach.
5. Exegete, exegete, exegete.
Alexander MacLaren exegeted a biblical chapter in Hebrew or Greek every day. He died in 1910. We read him still.
Close, careful, meditative, ruminative exegesis alone feeds a lifetime of preaching. You do not have enough cute stories about you and your family to last 50 years. Live in the study of the text.
Learn to make exegetical reading devotional reading. A participle can be a prayer closet, a verb a vital encounter with God.
You should see exegesis as an extended “lectio divina” – the ancient practice of combining Scripture reading, prayer and meditation.
I am not ready to preach until I stand up and start preaching out loud to nobody in the midst of exegesis. Make friends of your favorite exegetes and listen to them as trusted companions in the task.
6. Declare peace between pastoral ministry and preparation to preach.
They are two corners of the same room, serving the church. Your sermons will float above time if you do not sit in the hospital, drink coffee with people who come by to waste your time and go to the middle school basketball game.
George A. Buttrick, one of the greatest of all, visited everyone in his Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church every year and made 10 pastoral contacts per day. He did that while editing the Interpreters Bible.
Remember your greatest pastoral act for most of the people most of the time is preparation to preach.
7. Include “pathos” in preaching if you want to change folks.
Henry Mitchell, the great African-American homiletician, insisted on this. You must make them feel something because you feel something.
Those folks in the pew have set you aside to do what they cannot do. While they are teaching school, working on the line, sitting by a dying spouse or arguing a case, they are paying you to see something they do not see and hear something they do not hear.
You are commissioned to get with God and feel something deeply, not just know something correctly.
Until a text makes you laugh or cry or get mad or feel something intensely, you are not ready to preach it.
How much preaching today is an emotive flat line? Feel it before you say it. Mind and heart.