I never remember a time when I did not devote considerable effort to achieving good grades in school. In fact, until a few years ago, I always thought good grades were the primary goal of education.
So you can imagine how surprised I was to hear a seminary professor make this statement to the class before an exam: “For some of you, it will be a sin if you do not receive an A in this class. Your talents, giftings, and circumstances will be wasted if you do not do your best and earn an A. For others of you, it will be a sin if you do receive an A, as you will have chosen to sacrifice important things (like family) for a good GPA.”
For those of us who see good grades as something “good” in and of themselves, the professor’s point serves as a helpful corrective.
But I wonder if his point might also apply to preaching. Some of us measure good preaching by the time we spent in preparation. But what if preparing sermons that would receive an “A” in preaching class sometimes cost us in terms of long-term effectiveness in our local congregations?
I believe Scripture views preaching as the central purpose of those who shepherd God’s church. But “primary” does not mean “only.” Pastors have a variety of biblical responsibilities. Neglect of other pastoral duties can lead to a lackluster pulpit presence—no matter how well the pastor may understand the text he is preaching.
Many well-known pastors emphasize the many hours they spend every week in sermon preparation. Perhaps this practice is possible for pastors of larger churches who have considerable help in fulfilling other pastoral duties.
But I am concerned about the pressure this emphasis puts upon pastors of smaller churches. What happens to the small-church pastor devoted to faithful exposition who, out of a sincere desire to emulate a favorite preacher, takes this emphasis on biblical exegesis to an extreme? Can extensive sermon preparation ever shortchange a preacher and his church?
It depends on how we define “sermon prep.” If our idea of sermon preparation is a pastor locked up in his study with Greek books and Bible commentaries, then the answer is yes: this type of preparation may indeed keep pastors from fulfilling other important duties.
But true sermon preparation does not end when the pastor has successfully exegeted the text. True sermon preparation includes the efforts of faithful pastors to exegete their churches, too.
Church exegesis has been going on since the New Testament times. The Apostle Paul did not write a series of letters to “the Church” in general. He knew the problems in Corinth, Galatia, and Thessalonica. So based upon the written revelation of God in the Old Testament Scriptures and the revelation of Jesus Christ, the Living Word, Paul wrote particular letters to particular churches. Why should our messages be any different?
Sermon preparation does not end with good exegesis of the Bible; it always includes good exegesis of the local congregation. The preacher who can parse Greek verbs must also be able to discern the imperatives and indicatives his own people are living by.
Great preachers not only know how to preach a particular text; they know how to preach a particular text to a particular people.
And that brings us to the practical side of sermon preparation. In order to faithfully exegete our church, we must know our people. The church is not a preaching station where individual Christians show up once a week to hear great oratory. The church is a community of believers who live together under the lordship of Christ. The preacher’s role in this community is to know the Scriptures and his people well enough to discern (through the power of the Holy Spirit) how best to exhort them faithfully and biblically.
If our enthusiasm for “good preaching” keeps us constantly isolated from our congregation in sermon preparation, we might be shortchanging God’s people. If we are to preach effectively, we must spend time with our people, understanding how best to use the Word to train them, rebuke them, correct them, and comfort them.
Biblical exegesis and church exegesis go hand in hand.
Whenever we study the text, the faces of our people who need a word from God should be leaping from the pages.
Whenever we are in situations that necessitate pastoral counseling and comfort, the Word of God should be flowing from our hearts to our lips.
God, give us pastors who love the Word and love their people…
who know the Word and know their people…
who live in the Word and live among their people.