Three Challenging Words for Preaching
As one who has preached weekly for the past few decades, I will admit my preaching has changed through the years. I am not unique. Many have experienced this evolution. John Wesley said, “Once in seven years I burn all my sermons; for it is a shame if I cannot write better sermons now than I did seven years ago.” I believe my best sermons are in my future.
In the beginning, my sermons were directed by the lectionary. At the end of the three year cycle my people heard a balanced Gospel. I still value lectionary teachings. I preach the incarnation at Christmas and I preach the resurrection at Easter. I am sensitive to the themes of Advent and Lent. However, in the past decade, I have moved away from the lectionary. Like many, I have moved toward sermon series. This move has reinvigorated me and sparked a new level of creativity.
There is nothing easy about preaching a sermon series. Organization is vital. With my Bible in one hand and my calendar in the other I dream of the possibilities of the year. Some sermon series are shorter in length because the calendar only gives you a few weeks. For example, I preach a four part sermon series during Advent or a six part sermon series Lent. Some sermon series are longer because the calendar is more open. During the summer months, I examine a single Old Testament character. Each sermon series takes on its own qualities.
There are three words I always try to remember when I am preaching a sermon series. They are words you must wrestle with in sermon preparation, especially in longer sermon series. Each word comes from my experience and various preaching workshops I have attended through the years. There is nothing easy about preaching. It takes both work and time. Each week I do my best to be prepared to present God’s word. There is no excuse for not being prepared. These three words help me to be prepared. Each word comes with its own challenge. The first word is attractive. The second word is accountable. The third word is action.
The first word you must wrestle with is attractive. Did you know 42% of Americans say their favorite color is blue? That makes blue the most popular color in our country. It doesn’t mean blue is a better color then any of the other colors. It just means blue is the most favored. That fact is important for only one reason. Everyone has an opinion about every thing. I am not just speaking of colors. I am speaking of everything in the life of the church. Some church members like contemporary worship and some like traditional worship. Some church members like the sanctuary warm and others like it cool. Some church members believe we should only support local missions and other value international missions. Everyone has an opinion about everything.
It is also true in preaching. One style of preaching is not going to be attractive to everyone. That is why it is important to lay out your preaching for the entire year. Some people are drawn to more straightforward exegetical sermons. For example, I have preached through First Peter and am planning on preaching through Ephesians. On the other hand, some people find more secular-sounding themes more attractive. For example, I have preached sermon series entitled "Desperate Households" and "Can You Hear Me Now?" when those terms/phrases were culturally commonplace. It is only a matter of marketing the series. All the messages are based on scripture. The first word you must wrestle with is attractiveness.
The second word you must wrestle with is accountability. It is impossible to live out the faith in isolation. We are striving toward perfection together. Laying out your preaching schedule for the year takes this accountability to a new level.
At the moment you release your preaching schedule for the coming months, you are making yourself accountable to your congregation. It is important to make available to everyone the titles, scriptures, and dates you are preaching. You are promising to be prepared to preach on those scriptures on those dates. The congregation should promise to be present and prepared to listen. Good preaching requires being prepared to talk and listen. The second word you must wrestle with is accountability.
In 1890, Jacob Riis released his book, How the Other Half Lives. It explored the lives in the tenements of New York City. Theodore Roosevelt was one of the countless individuals who read his book, while he was living in Oyster Bay, New York, on Long Island. He was so moved by the book that he took the subway to Riis’s office. Unfortunately, the author wasn’t in his office that day so Roosevelt was forced to leave a note. He simply wrote: "I have read the book and have come to help."
The third and final word you must wrestle with is action. Preaching is more than entertaining people. Good preaching challenges us to do something. Through the years I have asked my people to do many things. I have asked them to learn the name of a stranger within the congregation. I have asked them to support the next mission trip. I have asked them to pray for the spiritually lost and I have asked them to recommit themselves to Christ. Through the years I have asked the same question in multiply ways. How is the faith altering your life? Our church is filled with many wonderful people who want to make a difference in our world. What are you asking your people to do?
Recently, I came across this piece of history. It is a true today as it was then. King George frequently commented on the sermon as he left the church. If he had been blessed by it, he would say in a cheerful voice, "That will do very well. That will feed souls!" When the preacher's delivery was cold and his words were lifeless and barren of Gospel teaching, the king would shake his head sorrowfully as he left the pew and mutter under his breath, "That won't do. That just won't feed souls!" That is the ultimate question we must answer each week. Do our words feed the souls of our people?