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Preaching Articles

No one enjoys second-guessing himself, what Warren Wiersbe calls "doing an autopsy on oneself."

It's possible to work ourselves into the psych ward or even an early grave by analyzing every single thing we do and questioning the motive behind every word.

No one is advocating that.

And yet, there is much to be said for looking back at what we did and learning from our mistakes and failures and omissions.

That's what this is all about.

It's best done in solitary. (The worst thing we preachers do is ask our wives, "How did I do?" Poor woman. She's in a no-win situation. Leave her out of it.)

A recording of our preaching helps. (But we have to promise to stay awake during the playback.)

That said, I'll get to the point of this article.

What I hate most about my preaching is the tendency to intrude too much into the sermon.

I hate realizing that in a sermon I was trying to co-star with Jesus when the Holy Spirit called me to be a member of the supporting cast.

I did it yesterday.

At a funeral of a dear friend who was a longtime deacon in a former pastorate, I filled the message time with too much of me.

Now, I adore his family and, if I'm any judge, the feeling is mutual. So, feeling at home and among friends, I shared their grief at our loved one's death and rejoiced in their confidence that he is with the Lord.

Instead of delivering a formal message that had been well thought out in advance, I shared memories of my friend and insights from Scripture that say so much about death and eternal life.

Nothing of this was wrong or out of place. If there is one thing I believe strongly, it's in the integrity of the Lord Jesus Christ and His assurances for life eternal.

But the sermon was just "too much Joe."

I can hear my voice now. "Let me share this verse with you that means so much to me. Honestly, I've never heard another preacher use it." Then, trying to be cutesy, I said, "Psalm 17:15 is my own discovery. In the future, when you read it, think of it as 'Joe's verse.'"

Where did that come from? Groan.

I talked about my dad and his death and how our family copes with missing him.

That was unnecessary. It wasn't offensive to them, but in retrospect seems to have been out of place.

I made a couple of half-hearted attempts at humor. Now, no one is against healthy laughter in a funeral service and I hope that when one is held in my honor, there will be plenty of it. But the preacher doesn't need to try to force the humor. Let it come naturally.

My prayer today has been that the fifty or sixty in the congregation did not notice the ever-present reference to I, me, and mine. And, if they did, that they did not mind, or have forgotten it altogether.

It might even be that I'm the only person at that funeral who was bothered by that aspect of the message. I certainly hope so.

No preacher wants to be a distraction. We all want our messages to point people to the Savior and strengthen their faith in the promises of God.

Paul must have had this in mind when he said, "We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake" (II Corinthians 4:5).

A hundred years ago, pastors would work to cleanse their sermons of all personal references. Old sermon books have the writers saying, "Pardon this personal reference" or "If I may be permitted a personal reference."

I used to read such lines and grimace. I would think, "If the preachers only knew—this is the part of the sermon people will listen to most and remember the longest. Don't apologize. Give us the personal reference, just do it well."

Phillips Brooks described preaching as "truth through personality." The preacher does not deliver God's truth in a vacuum; life in this world does not take place in a germ-free laboratory, and that's a good thing. God uses the preacher and his experiences and his personality, flawed though they are, to communicate His message.

This works well so long as the preacher doesn't intrude too far into the message in order to draw attention to himself. We are messengers; we are not the message. When we finish, what the recipients think of us messenger-boys has nothing to do with anything.

In writing for this blog, I do what every other blogger does: go back over what we've typed in order to tighten up the lines, shorten run-on sentences, strike out redundancies, and check spelling. One other thing I've found myself doing is taking out about half of the first-person-singular references. Sometimes that means changing "I" to "we" as in the first sentence in this paragraph. And at times, other ways of phrasing a sentence (other than "I think" or "this is how I see it") will occur.

But preaching is not writing. We don't get the chance to edit it as we go. We cannot do what the judge does in a courtroom when he orders the jury to "disregard the testimony of the witness." The congregation hears us and cannot un-hear what comes from our mouths.

This is live theater, so to speak. Real time.

As I see it—there it is again; it's so hard to stop this!—there are several steps to overcoming this tendency to intrude into the message too prominently.

One: prepare better. Giving advance thought to the form of the message reduces the tendency to "wing it." It's in the "winging"—the ad-libbing—that I tend to cross the line.

Two: pray about this very thing. "Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips" (Psalm 141:3). This recognizes that the Holy Spirit is as concerned (or more!) that the message should be free of too much self.

Three: constantly work on it. Control of the tongue and curbing the self are not gifts of the Spirit so much as they are works of righteousness.

The question lingers in the back of my mind as to why this subject deserves receiving the full blogging treatment today. The answer is twofold: getting this down in print will help me be more aware in the future, and someone who reads it may find it helpful to him or her.

When the credits roll at the end of this production, if I've done well, all attention will be directed toward the Lord Jesus. No one will sit through the dull credits just to see who this bit player was. If this bit player has done his work well, it will not matter.



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.

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Brighton Chireka

commented on Feb 15, 2012

Joe, thank you for the piece as it came at the right time. On Sunday I was at a funeral where the preacher took over and it was about her. Some family members walked out during the same at it was too much. I will forward this piece to the preacher so that she can learn from it as well.

Eloy Gonzalez

commented on Feb 15, 2012

Good advice, Joe! Thank you for articulating this advice in such a clear way and offering advice to help overcome the tendency to "make is about me" rather than about Jesus.

Lawrence Rae

commented on Feb 15, 2012

Joe, thanks for your personal confession. I think the Lord is good at helping us focus on the changes we need to make in our preaching. I wonder if the venue and congregation makes a difference concerning the personal presentation. So often today people want personal story and authenticity and not abstract formalism. Do we have to estimate each situation to decide how much we will be present in our presentation? If I read Paul's interaction he seems to be quite involved with the word he is giving to those he communicates with. If God convicts us of intrusion then we must edit ourselves out. But God might just ask you to include yourself more than you do to help you connect with your congregation. Unless they attend for a formal lecture. Whatever our sermon style, you are absolutely right about the centrality of Christ.

Robert Sickler

commented on Feb 15, 2012

Well, my feet hurt! That was an excellent point and one I will have no problem remembering. Thanks

Dean Johnson

commented on Feb 15, 2012

I (and others, I think) don't get much out of an article when the writer says "Don't do this!" But when the author confesses and describes how THEY actually did the offending behavior, and what it looks like...then THAT is helpful. Thank you for an honest and helpful article.

Lilian Low

commented on Feb 15, 2012

Joe, really appreciate the advice, - my one line summary to help me remember what you said - Don't mess up the message with just "me" : )

Randy Miller

commented on Feb 16, 2012

Love the authenticity Joe... very refreshing. Thanks for the blessing of your insight.

Harold A. Wheeler

commented on Feb 20, 2012

Joe: I've been ordained for 4 years (Anglican) and sermon preparation has been my biggest challenge. (I love the way it drives me into the Scriptures and commentaries, and reading other sermons on-line for helpful thoughts . I used to be a broadcaster and I frequently taped myself on-air and discovered that I not only talked TOO MUCH but also had "I" trouble. I also heard Larry King say that he never refers to himself or his own opinions during interviews. I kept that mind after I was ordained asnd I DO record ever sermon for self-critique. As you will understand, some of them have been treal "bombs" but I'm getting better. Now if I could only limit ALL my sermons to no more than 15 minutes, I'll be very pleased with myself. God bless for your obvious desire to give your very best to him and his people.

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