Colin Adams asks Ray Ortlund, author and pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, about his thoughts on preaching and how he prepares his sermons.
1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
Preaching is central in the life of a church, because Jesus himself speaks savingly through the preached Word. The Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 was bold enough to say, “When this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is preached and received by the faithful.” Romans 10:14 (ESV margin: “. . . believe him whom they have never heard”) validates that conviction.
Another verse that means a lot to me is 1 Corinthians 14:8, “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” I have never seen a church rise in spiritual power where the preaching was unclear, indistinct, overly cautious, timid. Every church I know of that is making a gospel impact has an unmistakably clear and winsomely courageous preaching ministry.
2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
How does one discover gifts in any area? It just appears, as experience allows and in the fullness of God’s time. My own preaching started with complete ineptitude, graduated over time to struggle, and by now has advanced to varying degrees of effectiveness and ineffectiveness. My progress seems directly related to growing theological discovery of God’s glory in the gospel, through dissatisfaction with myself as a preacher, through the joy of seeing God use me, and through the assurance that at any time God can rend the heavens and come down in revival power.
3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
Early in my ministry, I needed twenty-plus hours to prepare. By now, the disciplines are more streamlined. I average perhaps ten hours or so.
4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallize it?
I often fall in love with every detail in my text, so that I tend toward excess at that level in my preaching. But I try to ask, “What is the precise pastoral burden of this unique passage?” Every detail, however fascinating, is there in the text to help construct that one overall message. So, after I have written my sermon draft, I go back and interrogate every sentence, “Do you really need to be here?” If not, it disappears.
5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
The most important aspect, in my view, is believability — the believability of the message and of the preacher himself. The first is a matter of clarity (exposition), defense (apologetics) and force (power in application). I want so to persuade the people that they are left thinking, “Well, of course. How could it be otherwise? I receive this as truth, I love this as beauty, I want this to change me.” I try to avoid everything about myself that may distract from that outcome.
6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I use a full manuscript. But I try to be in sufficient control of the flow of thought and certain key phrases that it doesn’t get in my way. I want to enjoy the sermon and the people in the moment.
7. What are the greatest perils that preacher must avoid?
The greatest peril is forgetting what preaching is there for in the first place. It is not there as a platform for pet theories, inner-church politics, the culture wars, developing a personal following for myself or for proving how cool I can be. The preaching ministry is there for the display of Jesus Christ, according to the gospel. It is for him alone, as he wants to speak to the people, love them, help them, save them. Preaching is a sacred experience and must not be profaned by misplaced enthusiasms.
8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (eg. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)
I wish I had a good answer here. It is a constant struggle. The only chance I have for success is setting aside protected blocks of time when I am quiet and alone with God and my books. That usually means I get away from my office. There is a difference between an office and a study. Right now all I have is an office. So I have to get out of here to do serious study.
9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
My favorite is Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers, especially the final chapter, “Demonstration of the Spirit and of the Power.” I am stirred even now just to think about it. Oh, that I might preach just one apostolic, anointed sermon before I die!
10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
I want to do more in this way. I did teach at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for nine years. And now, indirectly, my participation in The Gospel Coalition serves to lift up the next generation of preachers. I also desire to be encouraging to other preachers in the Acts 29 Network. And I hope that in five or six years my successor at Immanuel Church will be here, established in ministry, so that he can grow in authority as I fade away.