If you want to continue using the old site, you still can here.
  • Favorites
  • Print
  • Rate Me

preaching article Why *Preaching Out of the Overflow* May Not Work

Why *Preaching Out of the Overflow* May Not Work

based on 3 ratings
Apr 25, 2013
Scripture: none
(Suggest Scripture)

“My cup runneth over.” (Psalm 23:5)

A child rushes into the kitchen to tell his mother something going on in his life. He’s so excited he’s about to explode. His words gush out in torrents; the story appears in no particular order, and mom gets a tale she will remember forever, but which the child could not reproduce in the same way for love or money.

Something similar happens when a pastor “preaches out of the overflow,” as we say.

He is so full of his subject, has so many great insights and stories and convictions and burdens to relate, and excitedly pours them out all over the congregation. No one is bored, no one goes to sleep, but some have a little trouble following his train of thought.

Granted, such a sermon is a vast improvement over the kind of dead monologue some ministers inflict on their dozing flocks, as though the sheep weren’t getting enough rest at home and needed a sedative. Given a choice, most of us would take the “explosion of joy” any day of the week.

Such preaching can be a delight to the hearers and a joy to the preacher. But there are several problems with “preaching from the overflow.”

1. From the congregation’s standpoint, it’s often hard to follow the pastor’s train of thought.

2. There are problems from the preacher’s standpoint also.

Each message being unique, it can never be repeated in just that way. (I can hear someone insisting that this is fine, that each preaching of a message should be one-of-a-kind. And I agree. However, if the sermon is a real winner, he would at least like to remember how he did it last time; otherwise he has to go back to the drawing board and begin anew with each presentation.)

Preaching from the overflow pretty well sums up my style for the first few years of pastoral ministry: “Fill your mind and heart, find a starting place and unload on the audience until you are empty or they are full, whichever comes first.”

Woe to the preacher who is called upon (or “feels led”) to deliver the same sermon at some point in the future. He has his notes and his strong convictions, but has to return to the drawing board and, as we say, reinvent the wheel. (To interrupt myself here, perhaps this is an issue only for those of us not pastoring a church but “on the road,” preaching in a different church each Sunday.)

Case in point.

The Lord has given me a sermon on Luke 6:27–35 which I love to preach. “Love is something you do” is such a critical message I find myself looking for occasions to present it.

Recently, I began preparing to preach this sermon in a church in Southwest Louisiana. A week or two in advance, I knew the Lord wanted that message for that congregation. Only later did it occur to me that Valentine’s Day was the following Thursday. (It doesn’t hurt if some think I was doing this to stay with the calendar. But the calendar had nothing to do with it.)

However, as much as I love the message and believe it to be an essential part of the teaching of our Lord, I’m unhappy with the way I present it.

In my mind, this sermon exists mostly as a jumble of insights and convictions, stories and testimonies. And that’s not good.

The dozen times I’ve preached this message in the past few years, in the absence of a clear outline (recipe, road plan, skeleton, route, blueprint, framework — thank you, Mr. Roget!), I have indeed opened the valves and let the overflow spill out over the audience.

Now, I’m not denigrating the practice entirely (see above; it’s better than boring people).

The problem is the sermon was a mess and I can never remember exactly how I did it the last time.

In order to do the message justice and to remember it the next time, I need a definitive outline, an order for this message that “works” and works every time. Begin here, move on to there, emphasize this, tell that story and end up over here.

That was the burden of my heart all that week: find the ideal outline for this sermon.

“What overflow?”

I was ordained in late 1962 by West End Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama. Specific memories of the ordination council are murky, but I recall vividly something the editor of our state Baptist weekly said in front of the other half-dozen ministers in the room.

Dr. Leon Macon looked at me and said, “My advice, young man, is to study hard until you are in your 40s. After that, preach out of the overflow.”

Now, it would be impossible to reproduce Dr. Macon’s exact words. His advice sounds so questionable I can understand anyone doubting that he said it. But that’s how I heard him.

On one occasion, perhaps 15 years later, I told that story to a mentor, Pastor James Richardson of Mississippi. When he heard Dr. Macon’s words, “After that, preach out of the overflow,” James scoffed, “What overflow?”

Good question. What indeed?

I’m now nearly a quarter of a century past my 40s (and Dr. Richardson — precious friend — has been in Heaven a full decade). The one thing I know without question is that reaching one’s 40s is no time to shut down the learning and growing and studying mechanism. In fact, there never comes such a time. No one ever knows it all.

What overflow, indeed?

What I did in that sermon from Luke 6.

As I prayed over the message that Saturday night and into Sunday morning, the Lord gave me a simple outline — I always need it to be simple and logical; otherwise I’m hopelessly at sea — which seems to have worked well. I preached it, felt right about it, the people listened intently and responded appropriately (as far as a visiting preacher can gauge) and the pastor said it was effective.

So I may have found (read: “been given”) the definitive outline for that message.

Now, if I can just locate it. Which Bible did I use last Sunday? And where can I put the outline so as to find it next time?

The one thing readers do NOT need is an illustration of the fuzzy way my mind works. You have it in front of you. There is no outline to this little article. I have worked on it nearly a week (I started last Saturday before preaching that sermon the next day and today is Thursday) and deleted several paragraphs and insertions during the daily visits to the draft in an attempt to tighten it up and make it easier to follow. I posted it on the website and keep going back to edit it.

(There’s a lot to be said for being right-brained. You can be a cartoonist, a story-teller, a fun-lover and a conversationalist. But on the negative side, you tend to be disorganized, undisciplined, messy and scatter-brained. Woe to your wife if she is left-brained. Which she is.)



Dr. Joe McKeever is a preacher, cartoonist and the retired Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Currently he loves to serve as a speaker/pulpit fill for revivals, prayer conferences, deacon trainings, leadership banquets and other church events. Visit him and enjoy his insights on nearly 50 years of ministry at JoeMcKeever.com.

Talk about it...

Alan Griffith avatar
Alan Griffith
0 days ago
I have found that the best overflow comes from my outline.
Elwood Long avatar
Elwood Long
0 days ago
I understand the "overflow". It is more effective, from my vantage point, for smaller group settings such as a mid-week activity. However, after 54 years of preaching/teaching I prayfully study more intensely than ever. I serve as senior pastor of a church.
John E Miller avatar
John E Miller
0 days ago
We had a guest preacher on Lord's Day this week, a retired farmer in his mid seventies. In the morning he preached on the first coming of The Lord Jesus to deal with sin and in the evening His second coming, a much neglected subject. He had no notes and his heart was overflowing with the blessing and joy of his Gospel message. Needless to say he left a profound impression on the congregation which was reflected in the prayer meeting last night.
Jimmie Don Willingham avatar
Jimmie Don Willingham
0 days ago
I never thought about any such thing except in terms of the overflow of the most recent and detailed studies. A Black Professor at Lincoln Univ., Dr. Lorenzo J. Greene, suggested that one was hardly ready to write unless he had read everything available on the subject. While it is not possible, humanly speaking, to cover everything on a subject these days, it is still necessary to have done research in depth and in detail to the point of mastery, especially in preaching.
Warren Lamb avatar
Warren Lamb
0 days ago
Good start on the matter. I often find that, having studied myself full and written out what I have on my heart to preach, God usually commandeers my message and guides it to, through, and around what I considered important. Old timers that mentored me taught me that THIS was the overflow.
Amelia Gaillard avatar
Amelia Gaillard
0 days ago
I don't see preaching from "the overflow" is nearly so much about biblical information overflow but preaching from the overflow of a life filled with HIs presence. Our study of the scriptures should never be to make us "smarter" but to be "nearer" to know Him better, not to know more about Him. Of course, unorganized thoughts come out as unorganized preaching which many a poor congregation must endure under their pastor's guise of "anointed overflow". Pastor Griffith has an excellent point. Thanks all.
George  Ewald avatar
George Ewald
0 days ago
I believe the overflow is the overflow of the Spirit. He helps me sort out and hear what stories, examples, etc to share and I find when I minister in that way my message may be some what different each time but the scriptures are the same and yet the stories are God driven for the group that is there. The apostle Paul did the same thing. In every epistle he spoke using analogies and examples the people of that city or region could understand. Jesus said the Spirit will lead us into all truth. Not just the truth in His word but the individual truth from His word for a specific person or group. The truth will set you free. Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. This is why it is important to take so much info in so He, the Spirit has lots to draw on. John 14:26 But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative--that is, the Holy Spirit--he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you.
Gerald Graham avatar
Gerald Graham
0 days ago
I'm not sure what "out of the overflow" means but I have always prayed diligently about the messages I preach asking the Lord to guide my study, speaking, and illustrations. Even up to the moment I am giving it. At times he has given me insightful illustrations or even changed a whole message right before I have preached it. It's been at those times God has reminded me it isn't my message (because I thought it went poorly) that people have responded the most.
George  Ewald avatar
George Ewald
0 days ago
I believe the overflow is the overflow of the Spirit. He helps me sort out and hear what stories, examples, etc to share and I find when I minister in that way my message may be some what different each time but the scriptures are the same and yet the stories are God driven for the group that is there. The apostle Paul did the same thing. In every epistle he spoke using analogies and examples the people of that city or region could understand. Jesus said the Spirit will lead us into all truth. Not just the truth in His word but the individual truth from His word for a specific person or group. The truth will set you free. Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. This is why it is important to take so much info in so He, the Spirit has lots to draw on. John 14:26 But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative--that is, the Holy Spirit--he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you.
Dean Johnson avatar
Dean Johnson
0 days ago
Another option would be to do a grammatical-historical study of the passage, and preach what it says.
Charles Ingwe avatar
Charles Ingwe
0 days ago
I think what brother Mckeever was being told about studying hard until 40 then preach from the overflow was about the fact that when you much into word and prayer, many sermons become part of you so easily as you prepare such that your excellence coming out of maturity is easily noted not only by your audience but yourself as well. One other important aspect we need not forget is the fact that we are different people with different abilities as regards absorption and communicating of a particular matter is concerned. What might take someone 1 hour to study and present effectively from paper may take someone 30 minutes to effectively present from the heart. Time lived in a particular field and commitment do create maturity. This brings out the fact of being ready in season and out of season.
John E Miller avatar
John E Miller
0 days ago
George Ewald can you show me a scripture that speaks of the Holy Spirit as our Advocate?
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
@John, you may have missed it, but the Scripture George provided was John 14:26.
John E Miller avatar
John E Miller
0 days ago
1 John 2:1 tells us who is our Advocate with the Father. The Holy Spirit is not given that title anywhere in scripture as far as I am aware. His title is the Comforter or Helper. Literally translated it means the "one who is called alongside". Christ and Christ alone is our Advocate with the Father. He is called Jesus Christ the Righteous in the passage signifying His supreme qualification to be our Advocate. The passage goes on to say that He is the propitiation for our sins but also for those of the whole world. Christ was the one who turned away God's wrath. The Holy Spirit's service is never described in these terms.
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
@John, of course I agree with you about Jesus' role as our Advocate, and of the distinction of his role from that of the Holy Spirit. And based on George's comment, it doesn't appear that it was his intent to argue otherwise. To be fair to him, it wasn't George's term. The Greek word that is usually translated as "Comforter" or "Helper," this particular translation that George quoted simply happened to translate that word as "Advocate." I wouldn't read too much into it if I were you.
John E Miller avatar
John E Miller
0 days ago
Thankfully Bill, you are not me. In preaching and teaching my desire is to rightly represent the teaching of God's word. What you would or wouldn't do is not my guide. My guide is the inerrant accuracy of God's word. If I misrepresent its teaching or meaning it would be a grave dereliction of my duty to be faithful to that. Your last sentence could be taken as an expression of a condescending attitude to those who seek to honour the accuracy of scripture and its teaching. Why not let George explain or defend his post? If I may respectfully offer an observation it is that you continually presume to understand the intent of others. Unless someone says precisely what his or her intention is, if you do not address your question to him or her you do not know what it is. I addressed a simple question to George not to you.
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
@John, I'm very sorry, I did not mean to offend you. Please accept my sincere apology. I misunderstood some of your comments to me on a thread a while back as an attack on me personally, and when you clarified that you did not intend them as such, I took you at your word and apologized for the misunderstanding. Please grant me the same courtesy of taking my word for it when I say that nothing that I wrote was meant as condescending or as a personal attack on you. I don't know what it is about me that seems to rub you the wrong way, but believe me, I'm not your enemy. We have one enemy alone, and that is Satan, the accuser of the brethren. Despite our different personalities, our different ways of expressing ourselves, even our different conclusions on a variety of issues which are not essential to salvation, you and I are brothers, because we are both united by our faith in Jesus as Lord; and when you and I meet each other in God's kingdom, you will discover I'm actually quite a pleasant fellow, as I am extremely confident that you are as well. In the meantime, again I apologize for the misunderstanding. I don't "presume to understand the intent of others." But I do know how to read, and reading by nature is the act of understanding what another person intends to communicate. And absent the quote from John 16, nothing that George wrote had anything at all to do with the Holy Spirit as an advocate, certainly not in the way in which you explained it and in which I agreed with you. So I'm quite confident about what was NOT his intention. That's what I meant by not reading too much into it. It was not meant to be condescending. It was simply an attempt to be fair to George, lest some misunderstand him to be advancing some sort unbiblical teaching. I don't know why coming to the defense of a person who is apparently not present to defend himself would be considered as something so terrible, but oh well. I hope I have explained my comment, and I hope it has been clear that I did not mean to be condescending to you. That was the furthest thing from my mind. I hold you in very high esteem. I propose a truce between us. We're brothers in Christ. We shouldn't get so defensive so quickly when talking with each other. I apologize for my part in the misunderstandings we've had in the past. Why don't we put those behind us and start over. I will do my very best in the future to speak to you with the utmost grace, and I hope you are willing to do likewise with me. What do you say?
John E Miller avatar
John E Miller
0 days ago
Bill you keep apologising for offending. I was not offended by anything that you have posted. I cannot keep repeating this. What George Ewald posted on April 26 was contrary to the teching of scripture. I as not even "offended" by this. Many have been poorly taught and mislead in the understanding of scripture. He described the Holy Spirit as our Advocate, capital letters, an incorrect title. If he had described the Holy Spirit as our Saviour would you have defended him? We must be careful not to misrepresent the meaning of God's inerrant word.
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
@John, you keep using language that indicates that you are upset with what I wrote, and then when I offer you a sincere apology, you claim you were "not offended." Read what you wrote again: "Thankfully Bill, you are not me...What you would or wouldn't do is not my guide...Your last sentence could be taken as an expression of a condescending attitude to those who seek to honour the accuracy of scripture and its teaching...you continually presume to understand the intent of others...I addressed a simple question to George not to you." Seriously, brother. I wasn't born yesterday. This is language used by someone who, if not offended, at the very least is not happy with what I wrote. And that's OK. It's OK to express emotion. It's OK if you didn't like what I wrote. Believe me, I have students everyday who get in my face--often literally!--because they don't like something I did. And if they're right, and I'm wrong, I apologize. It's not the end of the world! I don't know. Maybe it's a cultural thing. I know a few Brits, but I don't have much experience dealing with people from Scotland. So, if you say you were not offended, I will take you at your word. But seriously, even if you weren't offended, I don't understand why it's so hard for you simply to accept a sincere apology. Why is it so hard to say something like, "No apology is necessary, but I appreciate the thought. I agree with you that we are brothers. Let's move on..."?
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
@John, now that we have that out of the way, let's go back to George's post. You asked me, "If he had described the Holy Spirit as our Saviour would you have defended him?" The answer, of course, is no. But I don't believe that is how he described the Holy Spirit. He was quoting John 14:26. Many translations use the English word "Comforter" to translate the Greek word "paraclatos," but a few translations use the word "Advocate." But it is clear from John 14:26, as well as from the rest of George's post, that the word "advocate" is not being used in a salvific sense, but simply in the sense that Holy Spirit teaches us and reminds us of what Christ said. Personally, I don't think the word "advocate" is the best word to translate "paraclatos" (although I don't think it's completely far-fetched); but then again, I don't think the words "comforter" or "helper" are that much better choices for "paraclatos" either! That's the nature of translation, sometimes there is no perfect word that can be used, and one simply has to do their best with the English words at their disposal. I know that you are rightly concerned about accuracy and precision and not misrepresenting God's word, and that is good. I am deeply concerned about that as well, and as an English teacher I admire the intention. However, also as an English teacher, I know that there is always going to be a level of fluidity involved when we are dealing with language. Words do not generally have one precise meaning alone. The vast majority of words have a range of meanings (and sometimes even contradictory meanings), and what one means by a certain word is ultimately determined by the immediate context. So let me ask you this question: Other than the word "Advocate"--with a capital A--what do you see in George's post that suggests that he believes that the Holy Spirit is our Savior, or that he holds a role that only Christ holds? I look forward to your response. Believe me, I am not above admitting that I'm wrong, as I have gone to great lengths to demonstrate. And if you are seeing something there that actually is there, and that I'm simply missing, I would be more than happy to reevaluate my understanding of George's post.
John E Miller avatar
John E Miller
0 days ago
Bill I'll make one more contribution to this discussion and I'm done. Brother McKeever's topic has sadly been hijacked and I feel uncomfortable about that. Let me say that if you feel you need to apologise in a belief that you have offended me I graciously accept although no offence was caused. I am able to take part in much more robust discussions than this without being personally offended. You may be comfortable with the description of the Holy Spirit as our Advocate. I am not. Every title given to all three Divine Persons in the Trinity has great and specific significance regarding the way that the Eternal God has revealed Himself to us. Please review what I wrote. I did not say or infer that our Brother George had described the Holy Spirit as our Saviour. I was posing a hypothetical question in the hope that you would grasp my concern that we should be accurate in describing the awseome way that God has revealed Himself to His creature. I apologise if that was not clear. I have never come across any translation of the Bible that suggests that the title of Advocate can be applied to the Holy Spirit of God. I cannot argue about that but all I can say is such a translation is clearly a misrepresentation of the truth. When The Lord Jesus intimated that the Father would send His Spirit to be with us the purpose was clearly set out. Being our Advocate was not that purpose. I cannot add to those thoughts and am happy to leave you with the last word. Every blessing!

So, what did you think?


Thank you.