I preached my first sermon in 1967 to a congregation of three people, having had no instruction and no training. I have been learning how to preach ever since. Here is my advice for those who are starting out in their preaching ministry.
1. Learn to love the Bible. We love God, so we love His words. We know the mind of God from the mouth of God and we live by every word that comes from His mouth. Preacher, learn to love all of the Bible. Learn to meditate on it day and night. Fill your mind and heart and life with God’s truth. If God’s words are not in your mind, heart, and life, they will not be on your lips. Learn the self-discipline to avoid reading your ideas into the Bible. Whenever you read the Bible, don’t think, “I know what this means, so I don’t need to read it carefully.” There is always more to find, more to uncover.
2. Engage in deep study of the Bible to the best of your capacity. Get advice on finding good resources such as commentaries, Bible dictionaries, and books on biblical theology. If you are able, learn Hebrew and Greek. When you read the Bible, ask the following questions: What is in the text? Why is it there? What is its theological significance? How does it relate to the whole book in which it is placed? How does it relate to the central gospel message of the Bible—salvation by faith alone in Christ Jesus alone? For what purpose did God put it there? What are the implications of what it says?
3. Listen to good sermons. We learn to do most things in life by seeing other people do them. Study the preaching of the pastors who have already influenced your preaching. Listen to good sermons from a range of good preachers. Think through how they preach, how they use the Bible, how they communicate, and how much love they show in their preaching. And, if you can, observe their lives as well.
4. Develop a range of preaching styles. Don’t preach narrative as if it were a New Testament letter. Don’t preach the Old Testament as if it were the New Testament. And consider the people to whom you preach. Don’t preach beneath them or above them. Revise and modify your preaching style each time you preach in a new context and every three years. Take note of cultural changes in the way you preach. Serve your congregation; don’t use them.
5. Set up a file on each book of the Bible, and set up files on current issues in society. Be constantly alert to what people around you are saying, thinking, and doing. Be aware of the deep assumptions of your society or subculture—its dreams, idols, blind spots, weaknesses, sins, and ideals. This is how you invest in future ministry, for your aim is not to preach one good sermon, but to be a preacher who keeps growing in maturity, godliness, and usefulness.
6. Learn to love people as you preach to them and when you are not preaching to them. When young preachers say to me, “I love preaching,” I ask them, “Do you love people?” For preaching without love is of little value. Learn to listen, not talk. Learn humility and servant-heartedness. Don’t abuse your hearers by using them for your own needs. Follow the Lord Jesus in humble suffering and service in your preparation and preaching. Be a servant preacher.
7. Learn the discipline of the two journeys. You must take the congregation with you to the Bible so that they can also know its meaning and power. Then you must bring the message of the Bible back to the ordinary life of the congregation. You must make two journeys, and they must make the same two journeys with you.
8. Exegete the text and exegete your congregation. In preparing your sermon, spend half your time working on the passage of the Bible—understanding it, noting its assumptions and application, uncovering its theology, reflecting on its significance in the book in which it is placed and its significance in the whole Bible. Ask yourself, “What was God saying to the people for whom this was written, and what change was He intending to make in their lives?” Then, spend the other half of your preparation time focusing on the people to whom you will preach. Pray for them as a part of your sermon preparation. Ask yourself, “What is God saying to these people through these words, and what change does He want to make in their lives?” Pray for them by name if you can. Think of representative people in the congregation: an inquirer, a new believer, a mature believer, someone in deep trouble, someone turning away from God. How will they hear this passage? What will they misunderstand? What do they need to know to understand it? What will they welcome? What might they reject? Think of how you can help them welcome and live by God’s words.
9. Remember that you are ultimately accountable to God for your preaching. Serve an audience of one, namely, God. You should not preach to meet your own needs, nor to gain appreciation and applause, nor to impress people, nor out of fear of criticism. Learn to live with delayed gratification in Christian ministry, because it is not until the Lord Jesus returns that He will say to His good and faithful servants, “Well done.”
10. Avoid a competitive spirit. Ministers and preachers, sadly, are prone to being competitive. And competition kills mutual encouragement and support. We are competitive when we envy the gifts and ministry opportunities of others, when we envy their “success,” when we envy them. Jealousy is a curse that makes us despise ourselves and so despise our gifts, our opportunities, and our people. We are equally competitive when we feel superior to others, thinking we are more able, more spiritual, more gifted, or blessed with better opportunities. Kill competitiveness or it will kill you.
11. Learn to die to sin and to live to righteousness. What will hinder your usefulness in ministry and preaching is not your lack of gifts, resources, or opportunities; it is your sin. And your sins include personal sins, relational sins, and sins of ministry. We sin in ministry when we use people or abuse them, when we do not pray for them, do not love them, do not serve them. I sometimes ask preachers, “How long has it been since you changed the way you live because of something you read in the Bible?” I sometimes ask ministers, “What are your current personal and relational sins, and are you putting them to death and living a new life in Christ?” I sometimes ask ministers, “What are your sins of ministry, and are you putting them to death and walking in newness of life?” And of course, I remind them, as I remind myself, that our greatest and most grievous sins are against God. But also I remind them of how wonderful God’s love is in Christ, the atoning sacrifice for our sins. And how powerful is the blood of Christ, which cleanses us from the guilt and power of sin. God even forgives sins of ministry. Learn to repent every day.
12. Don’t be a reductionist. The reductionist asks questions like, “What is the minimum I need to know, to do, to understand? What is the least I can get away with?” Reductionist Bible readers want the minimum they can get away with, not the maximum God has revealed. Reductionist preachers want to preach the minimum message. Reductionist believers want the least they need to know from the sermon, not all that the text reveals about who God is and what He does. Of course, we cannot say everything that God has revealed in one sermon. But we should be ready to challenge people to grow and learn and know rather than to submit to reductionist messages, reductionist gospels, reductionist theologies, or reductionist Christian lives. Beware—busy pragmatists are often reductionists.
13. Recognize that most of the Bible is actually addressed to God’s people, not to individuals. Even books such as Luke–Acts, Timothy, and Titus have wider audiences in mind. The gospel is not just God’s plan for an individual Christian’s life; it is God’s plan to create His own people for His glory. The Bible is addressed to God’s people, and we should use it for the same purpose. If you want to know how to preach that way, read Deuteronomy, 1 Corinthians, Hebrews, 1 John, or Revelation 2–3.
14. Learn to pray. Learn to intercede. Pray big Bible prayers for yourself and for your hearers (for examples, see Eph. 1:15–23; 3:14–21). Learn to struggle in prayer for your ministry and for those who will hear you. And trust that God will hear and answer your prayers.
Young preacher, I hope you will continue to implement this advice, honing your gifts, and learning to preach, all throughout your years of preaching.