I have yet to meet a pastor in person who didn’t want to preach the Word. I’ve heard they exist, but I have yet to meet one. All of the pastors that I have met and spent time with want to faithfully obey Paul’s charge to Timothy: “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2). Yet, what if our approach to preaching is actually hindering us from accomplishing our goal of preaching the Word? What if our convictions about the Bible and preaching are not coming through in our Sunday sermons?
Could it be that our convictions are right, but our execution is lacking?
This was true for me. I began preaching in high school and later went to college to learn how to be a pastor. During my Freshmen year I took my first preaching class. It was in this class that I was introduced to the idea of expositional preaching - simply letting the main point of the chosen biblical text be the main point of the sermon. (1) I was convinced that this is how I wanted to preach. Since then, I have believed that this was the best way to fulfill Paul’s command to “preach the Word.”
But I had a problem. At the end of the semester, every student had to deliver a sermon to the class. I chose Matthew 5:1-12 as my text, the Beatitudes. I prepared and studied and preached the passage as best as I could. My classmates said I did a great job. My professor had given me a good grade. However, at the bottom of the paper he had written in red ink with all caps: “NOT EXPOSITIONAL.”
I was devastated. I thought I was preaching the Word. I thought that my convictions about the Bible were shining through, but they were not. I realized in that moment that if I was going to truly obey Paul’s command to preach the Word then I needed to change my approach. The method that I was using was not helping me accomplish the goal of preaching the Word, rather my method was hindering my aim.
Maybe that’s true for you as well.
So then, what can we do to avoid that mistake and make sure that we are actually preaching the Word?
Identify the Goal
In one sense, the goal of preaching is simply what Paul charged Timothy to do: preach the Word. Yet, what does this mean?
It may be helpful to ask this question: Will my listeners better understand what this text means and how it applies to their lives when I am done? The goal is “solid explanation...powerfully applied.” (2) Therefore, if my chosen passage is Matthew 5:1-12, then I must be studying and preparing to teach the meaning of that passage (exposition) so that followers of Jesus can live that out in their lives (application).
Worldly entertainment is not the goal. Being liked is not the goal. Merely filling up the time is not the goal. The goal is to preach in such a way that the listener better understands the text so that they can live their lives in joyful obedience to King Jesus. This is what it means to preach the Word, and it leads to another important question - Is my approach to preaching (my study and my delivery) best suited to accomplish that goal?
That question leads us to a second suggestion.
Tweak the Process
In order for me to become an expositional preacher I had to completely change my approach to preaching. Previously, I had always started with an idea and then looked for a passage that I thought would fit. But, in order to truly preach the Word I needed to change my starting place. I needed to start with the text (not my ideas) and let the text (not my ideas) drive the sermon.
It wasn’t that I was previously preaching heresy (at least I don’t think I was), but I was not letting the text determine the message either. I needed to change my approach.
Such a change can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it could be simpler than you think. It starts with choosing a biblical text. I strongly recommend preaching straight through a book of the Bible, but even if you choose a text for a different reason, the goal must remain: preach the Word. Preach that text. That simple approach can get you moving in the right direction.
If you are tempted to start with an idea, even a brilliant idea, or an event that happened that week in the news, then I encourage you to tweak your approach. Start with God’s Word, not man’s ideas. Start with the biblical passage and study that passage to understand its main point. When you have a good idea what the main point is, structure your sermon around specifically teaching that main point.
These main points may sound something like this: “Mark 2:1-12 teaches that Jesus doesn’t merely have the power to heal your body, but Jesus has the power to save your soul.”
John Stott comments on this process: “So then, in our sermon preparation, we must not try to by-pass the discipline of waiting patiently for the dominant thought to disclose itself. We have to be ready to pray and think ourselves deep into the text, even under it, until we give up all pretensions of being its master or manipulator, and become instead its humble and obedient servant.” (3)
Once you find your main point, continue to study the text and develop an outline. Then, you can move on to reading commentaries and look for various ways to illustrate and apply the message of the passage. Now, if there’s a major event from the week – something on everyone’s mind and heart – that will seamlessly fit as an illustration at this point, then use it. But, don’t force it into the sermon.
Remember, your goal is not to provide analysis for current events, but the goal is to preach the Word. Make sure your method is working to achieve that goal. A few minor tweaks can go a long way toward moving you in that direction.
Seek Good Feedback
After we have delivered a sermon, how can we know if we have actually “preached the Word?” Some preachers may simply just trust themselves. They may assume they accomplished the goal. But, that can be dangerous.
What if your convictions are not actually being revealed in the sermon? Your intentions may be right, but your execution may still be lacking. What do you do? Many pastors turn to their congregation at this point. Such a move is not bad and it’s better than just listening to yourself. Though, most church members are not equipped to give correct feedback. Many well-intentioned church members would never want to offend their pastor by critiquing a “man of God.” Perhaps some may think any sermon under 35 minutes is wonderful. Still, some church members may just like good stories and illustrations. You could very well be a “good preacher” in their eyes and still not be preaching the Word. That was true for me.
A better option is to look for brothers who agree with your convictions about preaching and will give you faithful, constructive feedback. They need to love you. They need to be able to identify true, biblical exposition. They need to be willing to help you see where you can grow and improve. This kind of feedback is invaluable for those wanting to faithfully preach the Word. Seek good feedback.
You can have the right convictions about preaching and still not be preaching the Word. At times, even the best of preachers struggle with execution. The good news is that we can all improve. We can all work hard with the help of the Holy Spirit to be better expositors. Through God’s grace we can faithfully obey the command to preach the Word.
(1) Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000), p. 26.
(2) Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), p. 94.
(3) John Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2017), p. 227.
William Marshall is a pastor at Grace Bible Fellowship in Sikeston, MO. Follow him @bro_wmarshall