I have been part of a number of churches, but they have all been one of two types: conservative evangelical or charismatic. It is interesting to compare and contrast the preaching styles in these two types of church.
The best preachers from each group are actually quite similar. They present and explain the Bible in a clear and interesting way, inspiring, challenging and encouraging their listeners. Their love of God shines through. At the end of a sermon you feel you have learnt something new, or at least been reminded of something important, and you know what you should do about it.
The worst preachers from each group diverge in opposite directions. A charismatic will concentrate on whipping up emotion, and may rarely refer to Scripture at all. Such a sermon may be almost free of objective content. On the other hand, a conservative may try to bore his audience to death by reading his notes in a monotone. He will constantly refer to Scripture, but will sometimes contradict what it actually says. Both of these styles dishonour God and show scant regard for his word. God is neither frenzied nor boring. The charismatic will ask you to believe things which are not in Scripture; the conservative will ask you to disbelieve things which are in Scripture.
Consider an account in Acts of a healing carried out by Paul or Peter. A charismatic may teach from this that we can heal too, and that God always wants to heal people. He forgets that Paul/Peter are Apostles and so have a special anointing from the Holy Spirit. A conservative will take a completely different approach, and spiritualise the passage into an illustration of the gospel's ability to save us. There is an element of truth in both approaches, but ultimately both abuse the message of the Bible. The passage is about a healing, so the sermon should be mainly about healing too. The special nature of Apostles should be taught, to illustrate the passage and correct those who expect instant healing all the time. The reality of God still being the same should be taught, so we can still see healings today. Then it would be OK to extrapolate to the healing from sin which the gospel offers. The result is a sermon which does justice to the passage. Very rare!
Perhaps I can get away with another example, also relating to healing. There was a place where Jesus could not do many miracles because of their lack of faith. A charismatic will teach that healing is God's response to faith, so lack of healing shows lack of faith in the sick person. A conservative will want to strongly deny this, but then go on to deny what the passage actually says. So it was not lack of faith which prevented Jesus from doing miracles, because that would infringe God's sovereignty and we can't allow that, but Jesus simply decided not to do many miracles there because the people would not have glorified God. Again both are wrong. The lack of faith was plural i.e. corporate. It was the town which lacked faith, not the sick individuals. So what the passage is teaching is that a society or church which lacks faith will see few miracles. This of course knocks at the pride of the Western church. We can't blame the sick for their lack of faith (like the charismatics), or explain it away as being down to God's sovereignty (like the conservatives); instead, we have to admit that as a church (whichever flavour) we lack faith. Simply trotting out the party line, as most do, misses the actual teaching of Scripture. Churches which have corporate faith do see healing miracles from time to time, even if their doctrine or practice is imperfect.
The two styles (at their worst) seem to arise from two different fears. The charismatic is afraid of showing a lack of joy or quenching the Spirit, so feels he has to maintain a high emotional state. The most extreme charismatics will do little or no sermon preparation; they expect God to give them the words as they speak, which is to confuse prophecy and preaching. In reality this can result in them having to make it up as they go along. The conservative is afraid of saying something wrong and misleading his hearers, so he will spend many hours in preparation and even rehearsal. The danger then is that instead of teaching what Scripture actually says he will merely repeat the party line, as set out in his favourite commentaries. Like so much Quality Assurance in industry, his fear of getting it wrong may sometimes guarantee that this is exactly what happens!
Of course the preachers are to some extent responding to their market. Charismatics may want to be emotionally stimulated, while conservatives may prefer to be intellectually stimulated; both may actually be seeking a strange form of entertainment rather than personal spiritual development. Conservatives will make copious notes during a sermon, as though they were facing an exam. Some charismatics will use highlighter pens to mark verses in their Bible; as this practice wrests a verse from its context, their doctrinal understanding may never go beyond sound bites and bullet points. Traditionalists can of course buy a ready-highlighted Bible, in which the publisher has tried to print God's own words in red - the snag being that this markup is not in the original text so is bound to be wrong in places.
I used to wonder how ordinary sensible Christians became such poor speakers. Now I think I know. First, not all preachers have been called by God to preach so not all have been equipped by him to do this task. Some conservatives do not even accept that such a calling is possible, as they believe that God is now speechless. Second, some preachers have been taught to do it badly; perhaps they have followed a bad example.
The first thing I must say is that you should not copy me! If God has called you to preach then he will equip you to do it in a way which suits your own personality. There is no place for acting in the pulpit, and God does not believe in cloning. So be yourself.
The second thing to say is that you need to be sure of your calling. This may be difficult if you come from a tradition which does not believe in calling (except possibly for salvation itself). If you are sure of your calling then you can be sure of your equipping, although like all gifts from God you need to develop your skill and confidence in using your gift.
You may be given a topic or a passage of Scripture on which to speak. If not, you will have to either ask God or decide for yourself. If you have a topic then you need to find the passages of Scripture which most clearly relate to that topic and then, usually, select one of them to concentrate on. So you now have a passage of Scripture to speak on.
At this point I always ask God what he wants me to say. That is, of the many things I could say from this passage, what are the things he particularly wants to say to this group of his people on this occasion? Sometimes he will give me a word or a phrase, other times he just tells me to work through the passage. If given something specific I then need to check that it really is in the passage - this is not because God may misuse his word, but because I may mishear him.
I usually then see what the passage actually says, bearing in mind what I feel God has said to me. Sometimes I work through a verse or two at a time, sometimes I take an idea from a whole chunk. I illustrate or expand the ideas by referring to other relevant passages, or giving illustrations or practical applications. My aim is to explain the Bible, so I try not to import into the passage ideas from elsewhere. I also try to avoid 'explaining away' the passage; I have heard far too many sermons where we end up in the position that we would have been in if that passage had never appeared in the Bible. I rarely use commentaries, as I find they never explain difficult verses satisfactorily and usually just push a particular party line. They can be useful for setting the historical or literary context.
There are a few books I do find useful. The notes in the NIV Study Bible give helpful background material, but have a bias towards conservatism. For doctrinal issues I usually turn to Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem - he carefully explains all major views on a topic before saying why he plumps for one of them. This means that Grudem is worth reading even on those issues where you disagree with him. Sometimes the meaning of a passage can hang on a particular original word. I have a copy of Vine's Dictionary and a Greek/AV/NIV interlinear text of the New Testament. I can't read Greek, but my training as a physicist means that I do recognise the letters and hence the major words.
I usually don't move around very much when I am speaking, especially if I am using a fixed microphone. I do try to make eye contact with everyone in the room, so they know I am speaking to them and not to my feet or the wall behind them. Even when I am saying something hard and challenging I need to remember that these are God's people I am talking to; Christ loved them so much that he died for them, so I must love them too. I must lead them into truth, not harangue them for their error. I try to adjust my voice to the size of the room and the quality of the PA. I dislike preachers who mumble or shout, so I do neither. I do try to vary my voice according to what I am speaking about; some preachers talk about heaven and hell, sin and joy and so on using exactly the same tone of voice so giving the impression that they don't really care about any of this but are merely acting out a role. I never read my sermons, in fact my sermons don't exist in written form. My notes are just that: notes, giving headings, references and any direct quotes from others. This makes it much easier to sound natural and adjust what I say as I go along, according to time and audience reaction. I know I can speak for about half an hour from notes written on a single sheet of A5; folded in half this just slips neatly in my Bible, so there is nothing else to lose or mislay. I always feel nervous before preaching, and rather drained afterwards, and regard both as a sign that I am still relying on God.
I usually like to have at least two weeks notice of preaching. This gives me time to choose a passage (if necessary), consider it, pray about it and hear from God. I usually read the passage through a couple of times, and then just let it mull around in my head for about a week. This is when the sermon preparation actually takes place, although if you saw me you might think I was driving, cooking or watching TV! Then I sit down for a couple of hours and write my notes; sometimes I do a rough version first. Finally, before leaving the house, I spend about 5-10 minutes reading through my notes and checking that the references are correct. Spread thoughout this entire process is prayer. I know I can't speak, but I find that God can speak through me while I remain dependent on him. If I try to do it myself it always goes horribly wrong.
On a purely technical level my preaching is nothing special; you won't get a polished performance. My aim is to encourage faith, and challenge assumptions. I am really pleased when someone acts on what I have taught them. I remember hearing a girl of about 12 years of age saying why she was about to be baptised: one of her reasons was a talk she heard on baptism in the children's club some months earlier. She had long forgotten who the speaker was, but I knew it was me and I was very chuffed to witness her baptism.
So, to sum up: don't do it unless God has called you to do it. Don't do it if you think you can do it on your own. Don't do it if you don't love God's people. Don't copy someone else. On the other hand, if you have been called and equipped then you can stand up and, with authority, declare God's truth to his people.
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updated 19 Sept 2008