Every week, pastors all over the world are asked to do something that is almost impossible: preach a message to a group of people that includes...
a. Teenagers to seniors
b. Men and women
c. Mature disciples and not-yet-believers
d. The faithful and the skeptical
e. Regular attenders and first-time guests
f. Singles, married, divorced and “it’s complicated”
g. Those who need comfort and those who need a swift kick in the…
Ask pastors what their toughest regular assignment is, and speaking a message that ministers to everyone is at or near the top of the list.
This is something pastors are expected to do—and do well—that no one else is ever asked to do. Not just once, but 45-52 weeks a year. Sometimes two or three times a week. All while keeping it fresh and new every time.
And while you’re at it, could you be:
a. Non-offensive, but challenging
b. Intellectually rigorous, but emotionally stirring
c. Scripturally based, but culturally relevant
d. Spiritual, but practical
e. Timeless, but current
f. Humorous, but reverent
g. Casual, but life-transforming
h. and keep it under 25 minutes, please?
I’ve been preaching a new message every week for over 30 years myself, with mixed results. It’s still tough, but I’ve become steadily better at it. Mostly by trial-and-error. While I don’t claim to have mastered the art, I have discovered four simple principles that serve me well.
1. Start and Stay With Scripture
This is the key. Start with prayerful time in God’s Word.
Then don’t just use a verse or two as a jumping off point to say what you want it to say. Study it and stick with it through the entire message.
Sure, we need to use personal stories, current events and common experiences in our communication. But too many preachers are basing their sermon not on a passage from God’s Word, but on the title of the latest movie, a news headline or the latest “a funny thing happened to me …” story.
The truth of God’s Word always speaks to everyone.
2. Learn Something New
One of the best ways I’ve found to use Scripture well is to study the passage until I discover something I never saw before. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I preached without having learned something new in the process.
Second, if I’ve learned something from the passage, the message I speak from it is likely to be deep enough for other mature believers. I love hearing, “Thanks, pastor! I never saw it in that way before!” from long-time members. To which I respond, “Me either!”
Third, this is one of the best ways I know to keep my preaching, teaching and pastoring fresh while speaking to the same congregation week after week, year after year, decade after decade (over 20 years for me at this church, now—wow). I don’t have to worry that I’m repeating myself if it’s something I just discovered.
It’s tempting, with all the other pressures that pastoring brings, to skimp on this. Sometimes it would be a lot easier to blow the dust off an old sermon everyone has likely forgotten, or teach a standard lesson on things I already know. But that’s where staleness starts to set in. Not just for the ministry, but in the life of the minister.
No, the entire message doesn’t have to start from scratch every time. But, even when preaching from a familiar passage or using someone else’s outline (with credit, please!), we should study it a little deeper so we can add something we never saw before.
There are few things more invigorating to a church than hearing from a minister who keeps learning and sharing new depths in God’s Word.
3. Use the Simplest Language Possible
After study and prayer, I go through my notes and replace all the multisyllabic theological terms (like exegesis and eisegesis) with everyday terminology. Then I teach it in the simplest language possible, using current, practical illustrations and real-world application. The same words I would use in a casual conversation at the coffee shop.
It’s not my job to teach people theological terminology. I’ll leave that to the seminary professors. It’s my calling as a pastor to help people understand biblical concepts in such a way that they can take them home and live them out.
I also cut out the churchy language, similar to how I used “newbies” in the title of this article, instead of “seekers,” “the unchurched,” or “spiritual infants.” If I don’t use church clichés, newcomers don’t have to decode it, and church members are more likely to feel comfortable sharing their faith with their friends because they don’t have to remember churchy terms, either.
Sometimes it’s hard to explain deep concepts in simple language. But I’ve learned that if I can’t explain it in simple terms, I probably don’t understand it as well as I think I do. So I study more until I can say it simply. That’s often the new point I learn for that message myself (see #2, above). How to explain a deep truth in simple language.
Speaking deep truths in simple language isn’t easy to do. But it can be done. And when we do, something very special can happen.
4. Leave the Results In God’s Hands
On my own, using the rhetorical skills I’ve honed over 30 years of practice, I can make an entire room laugh, cry or learn together. What I can’t do is speak in such a way that everyone gets something different from the same message.
Only God’s Word can do that. So I do what I can do and leave the rest in God’s hands.
I can’t reach the rebellious teen, the sorrowing widower, the struggling single parent, the alcoholic dad and the skeptical spiritual seeker at the same time. But the Holy Spirit working through God’s Word can.
When I start and end with God’s Word and prayer, the Holy Spirit steps in and does something I could never do. He speaks to each person so specifically that they leave knowing “that message was just for me.”