A wise old man in my former church was famous locally for saying, "I don't understand all I know about that." When you think about it, that makes perfect sense. All of us know about many things that we don't fully understand. Consequently, we can sympathize with Agur when he confessed, "There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden" (Prov. 30:18-19).
Like that wise man, we all know about eagles, snakes, ships and courting couples — but there are things about them we do not completely understand, and what we do not understand we fail to appreciate as much as we might otherwise.
If Agur had lived in our day, I wonder if his list of four imponderables would have remained the same. What in our age might he have found fascinating but beyond comprehension? If he were anything like the majority of us, he may have mentioned the way of a man with a computer and Internet connection.
The Web is a fascinating thing, and it grows by the hour! Back when I was beginning my doctoral studies in the late '90s, I performed a search for "Haddon Robinson." (Remember when you had to include the quotation marks?) That query generated 48 hits. When I Googled that same name a moment ago without quotation marks, it produced 1.63 million results in two-tenths of a second. I don't understand that! The sheer volume of information available online is staggering to me.
YouTube reports that 48 hours of video are uploaded there every minute, resulting in approximately eight years of content uploaded daily. Those videos range from inane to profound, from humorous to tragic. A preacher does not need to understand everything about YouTube or the Internet to profit from its use.
No matter how much you feel like a foreigner when surfing the Web, there are preaching treasures to be discovered there. As a preacher and teacher of homiletics, I suggest using the sermons found on YouTube to help a preacher in the following ways.
1. Feed Your Faith
Paul touted the value of preaching for faith when he declared, "faith comes by hearing" (Rom. 10:17). The spoken word impacts us in ways the written word does not. If communication experts are correct, words spoken before our own eyes are more impactful. They claim that 86 percent of communication is nonverbal.
We all need to see and hear the Word preached by others. If not, Paul could have saved himself a lot of trouble by remaining in Tarsus and relying solely on a correspondence ministry to nurture his converts abroad. Instead, he insisted on visiting and revisiting them repeatedly. Paul sensed they needed to see his face and hear his voice.
A surgeon doesn't keep himself healthy by operating on his own body. Why should we think a preacher can do so using only the scalpel of his own sermons? This is not to say we preachers don't benefit from our own preaching. We certainly should! However, we are all blind to many of our personal shortcomings and needs. We don't know what we don't know. God can use the preaching of others through YouTube to minister to our souls.
2. Pick Up New Ideas
By listening to others preach, we can pick up exegetical insights, personal illustrations and ways of applying a text that may never have occurred to us personally. No two preachers' bookshelves house the same books. No two preachers' lives experience the same events in the same ways. No two congregations need to hear the same text applied in exactly the same way.
If we depend solely on our own books, experiences and perceptions of what people need, our preaching will become stale and predictable very quickly.
3. Find a Guest Speaker
How often have you been moved by another preacher's words only to find them powerless when you attempted to relay them to your own congregation? There was something more to what the preacher said than the words alone. It was something in the way they were said. There was a power, a depth of conviction, a rare flash of raw sincerity that could not be captured. If that sermon was recorded, why not play it for your people? You need not abdicate your pulpit for the whole sermon necessarily. Edit the clip to what you found to be the most poignant.
Pastors used to have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to bring in guest speakers. Some speakers they never could afford; others they felt too ashamed to ask to visit their small congregations. YouTube costs nothing, and the preachers there never will gossip about anything in your church.
4. Hear the Author
It's one thing to read what a writer says about how to construct a sermon. It's another to hear him preach. Some homileticians write far better than they preach, and some preach far better than they write.
I think all of us who attempt to write about preaching naturally use our best sermons as examples of the concepts we're describing. We also try to provide the purest examples of those concepts. The problem is that none of us are at our best every Sunday and rarely are our sermons purely topical, textual or expository. In any given message, we may violate as many of our homiletical principles as we keep. Nevertheless, regular patterns emerge, and principles manifest in practice.
When we come across a book on the theory or methods of preaching, we ought to look for video examples of the author in practice. The more examples, the better we can gauge how well his or her theory and methods actually work and whether we want to follow suit.
5. Study Good (and Bad) Examples
Closely related to the last point, yet distinct, is the way YouTube yields good examples for preachers to dissect. Many excellent preachers never take the time to write down their methods. They may be embarrassed by trying to explain what they do so naturally without thought. Like the oral prophets Elijah and Elisha, they remain worthy of study despite their inability to commit their procedures to the printed page.
Yankees great Yogi Berra reportedly said, "You can observe a lot by watching." The late Adrian Rogers would have agreed. When I once asked him to identify the five books that most influenced how he preached, he could think of only one book that he had read on the subject. It was a title by Andrew Blackwood that was required reading while he was in college. "Most of what I know about preaching," Rogers told me, "I learned from observation and experience."
The Internet is full of good and bad examples of preaching. When I find one that is particularly good, I ask why. "What did that preacher do that made his sermon, its introduction, his illustrations, applications, conclusion or whatever so effective? How is that different from what I normally do?"
When I find one that's remarkably bad, I want to know why. "Why didn't this sermon, introduction, etc. work? What could have been done differently to salvage the message?" An observant preacher can see as much watching the bad as he can watching the good.
6. Listen to Others in Your Own League
If I can be painfully honest for a moment, I struggle with a sense of inferiority as a preacher. It's intimidating for me to listen to men such as Haddon Robinson, Tim Keller, Adrian Rogers and others. I just don't feel as if I'm in the same league. While I know what Paul says about the dangers of comparing ourselves with one another (2 Cor. 10:12), I can't seem to help it. I doubt that I'm alone.
When we hear men such as Robinson and the rest, we tend to think they preach that way all the time or that everyone preaches as they do—at least everyone we admire. We forget they produce their fair share of clunkers, too. We ignore the likelihood that they've preached that particularly wonderful sermon in dozens of churches and conferences before. We overlook the possibility that they may employ research assistants or other support personnel that allow them time the rest of us don't have to concentrate on developing and polishing their sermons.
Many of the sermons on YouTube are posted by preachers similar to most of us—preachers who may be unknown outside their own congregations, communities or denominations, but who still give the Lord their best Sunday after Sunday. Listening to them, we may come to realize we're not nearly as bad or as good as we previously thought. That can be either as encouraging or as humbling for us as the Lord wants it to be.
7. Learn from Another Culture
Because I teach in a nondenominational, multi-cultural college, I try to read as widely as possible in the field of homiletics. The majority of my current students are black. I am white. Most of the books about preaching that I know anything about are written by men (and a few women) who resemble me. During the past few years, I have grown increasingly aware of my need to read from homileticians of color. Doing so has given me new insights. Their suggestions, when I've acted upon them, have stretched me and made me into a more well-rounded preacher. I realize I still have much to learn.
Listening to the late E.K. Bailey, along with current preachers such as Frank Thomas and Ralph Douglas West, has helped me develop a joy and creativity in preaching that I previously lacked. How much more might I or any preacher learn from our brothers and sisters of other cultures who are waiting for us online?
He who has ears and an Internet connection, let him hear!