Preaching Articles

I was 21, a college senior, engaged, and had been called into the ministry. But so far, no opportunities to preach had opened up. After all, I was attending a Methodist college and planning to be a Baptist pastor. Not exactly standard preparation.

Then Rock Creek Baptist Church outside Double Springs, Alabama, called. Well, actually, Pastor Everett Wilson called. My brother Ron was his Sunday School superintendent and no doubt had put a bug in his ear.

After Margaret and I spent the night at my folks’ farmhouse, on Sunday morning we drove to Rock Creek, arriving in time for Sunday School. (Hey, no one had told me the preacher did not have to attend Sunday School!)

We sat in with the young people, which was our custom at West End Church in Birmingham, and it seemed the thing to do. What I did not count on, however, was my presence intimidating the teacher. So she took the easy way out.

She asked me to teach.

Now, I was eager to do anything that even remotely seemed like ministry, and here was an opportunity. I seized it.

Not a good idea.

This being the week before Christmas, I had been working 12-hour shifts at the National Shirt Shop, a men’s clothing store in downtown Birmingham. Each morning that week, I would ride the bus downtown, work from early to late, then ride the bus back to the apartment. By the time I got home, I was worn to a frazzle and had no energy or brainpower left for studying for a sermon or even thinking about it.

Finally, I made the decision that for the sermon I would read the Luke 2 text and make comments upon it. That sounded easy. Anyone could do this, right?

And I probably could have, except for one thing. I should never have taught that Sunday School class. I said everything there I’d planned to say in the sermon.

When preaching time came, I was drained. I had nothing more to say. The sermon lasted all of five minutes. I was miserable trying to come up with appropriate insights on the Christmas story—ones I’d not already talked to death in that classroom—and could not muster a one.

After church, some nice man came up and thanked me “for that little talk.” I was humiliated.

To this day, when someone approaches me after a sermon to thank me “for that talk,” it feels like a put-down, whether it was meant that way or not.

The Lord doesn’t mind letting His young preacher fall on his face.  In fact, that may even be part of the plan.

At Columbus Air Force Base, a flight instructor told me when each new class of students arrived straight from the academy, the first order of business was to take each one aloft and scare the pants off them. The instructor would put that T-37 through all kinds of rolls and spins, stalls and loops, until the student lost his breakfast. When they landed, the young cadet had to clean up his mess.

There was method to this. “We want to put the fear of God in them.  We want them to know what this plane can do and to motivate them to work hard at getting it right.”

The humiliation that Christmas Sunday left an indelible print on my soul. I came away thinking:

  • I don’t ever want to enter the pulpit unprepared again.
  • I do not want to do anything before preaching that will leave me tired or empty; the most important thing I will do this Lord’s day is to preach God’s Word.
  • If I’m having trouble coming up with a sermon, there are people in every direction who would be glad to help.

Let me expound on that point. For the college years, I’d been living off campus and studying for classes alone. Anyone can tell you that is a terrible way to learn a foreign language like French, but I tried it (and brought home average grades as a result). So, when I began preparing sermons, the thought of asking someone for help never occurred to me.

That’s one reason I keep urging young pastors to find mentors and pick their brains. Don’t try this alone! God has put a wealth of resources around you, but they wait to be asked. That’s also the reason I respond so readily when young pastors ask for my help. I want to do for them what I wish someone had done for me.

How many Christmas sermons have I preached in the last half-century? At least 150. But I will let you in on something: I still approach the task with a sense of awe and inadequacy. I pray, “Lord,this is Your story, Your gospel. I am unable to do this without your presence and leadership. Please help me.”

I’m determined never to enter a pulpit of any church, large or small, with my system on cruise control or automatic pilot. I must never assume the Lord will give me a sermon when I stand to preach just because I’ve been doing this for over 50 years.

Declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ at any time is the greatest privilege ever. Doing it at Christmastime is as good as it gets.

Lord, help me to do it right.

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

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John W Carlton

commented on Dec 23, 2014

I remember my father-in-law asking me to preach while I was home on leave from Alaska. I thought that I was thoroughly prepared. After 5 minutes I was completely used up and didn't know where else to go but to turn it over to him. He came to the rescue. Preparation is the key. Good notes and an outline are essential for me. God has blessed my feeble attempts at presenting His Word for over 40 years. Thanks for sharing your "bombs" as well as your victories.

Keith B

commented on Dec 23, 2014

Good words.

Troy Heald

commented on Dec 23, 2014

Thank you Joe for the reminder to use those around me. I have a great mentor and friend(who I still call my pastor - even after I have been pastoring my own church now for 2 years.) Great to bounce ideas off him and get his response, redirection, confirmation, etc. Also gaining insight from your columns and others like you. This year, I thought I needed to "dress up" the Christmas story because so many people have heard it so many times. I remembered though that the story of God's plan for our salvation coming to earth is timeless and doesn't need to be 'dressed up' (nor should it be.) Sure, we can look at it from different perspectives but it is still God's plan for our salvation put into action. We should rejoice with the angels and sing "glory to God in the highest...." Thanks again and Merry Christmas to you...

Richard Scotland

commented on Dec 24, 2014

I think the problem is that it is seen as "cool" to preach with out any notes/outline. I was working with a trainee pastor and that is what he wants to do, preach with nothing at all. It seems super-spiritual to him. I told him that I always have my sermon fully written out. I can pass/email it to people in the congregation who are hard of hearing, but that I do not read it verbatim. Most times I can preach without referencing it too closely but there are times when I have been glad it is there. I do not see it as being clever to preach with no notes/outline at all and I would never recommend anyone try it (yes preach with out looking at the notes!). I have too often see preachers getting distracted by something and it can almost kill the sermon or else they climb aboard their favourite message and deliver it yet again.

Alexander Shaw

commented on Dec 26, 2014

This is good! We so need this to be said and taught - openly and honestly. In Scotland, when we have to sing the 23rd Psalm at a Wedding or a Funeral I have sought to sing it as if it is the first time I have ever sung these words - or the last time I will ever sing them! Be fresh - and be sincere - and be prepared.

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