Ordinary Ministry: Sermon Delivery
As we’ve been working through this series on “Ordinary Ministry,” David and Kyle have pulled the curtain back to let us in on their processes for researching and writing sermons. If you haven’t read their posts, I encourage you to check them out and learn from their wisdom and experience. I know I picked up some helpful tips and reminders.
As I handle the task of bringing this series to its end, I want to begin by acknowledging that I am no Chrysostom, Calvin, or Chandler; my best sermons couldn’t stand up against those delivered by Peter, Paul, or Piper. I’m aware of my distracting mannerisms in the pulpit and the verbal fillers in my preaching, (the things for which my seminary preaching professor would have docked points). And yet, by some strange process, my hand motions are overlooked, and my bumbling words are received and welcomed by the men and women I pastor. They latch onto things that I don’t remember saying and often understand a point I was trying to make better than I did. In other words, somehow, God uses my simple preaching for his purposes!
Know Your God
When it comes to delivering a sermon, then, the first thing I’d encourage a preacher to do is to know your God. If he has called you to preach, then he has called you to proclaim Christ crucified, the power and wisdom of God. This calling begins with a recognition of your weakness and foolishness (1 Cor 1:26–31). Our preaching doesn’t make an impact because we’ve mastered rhetorical devices and witty one-liners. You could be our generation’s “Golden-Mouth,” but your preaching will be unable to effect life transformation without the Spirit’s work. So, when you enter the pulpit and stand on the platform by yourself, you aren’t standing alone. Know that God intends to use your words to call the dead to life and to make his people more like Jesus.
Know Your Text
The second thing I would encourage preachers to do is know your text. My preparation and writing process looks different than David and Kyle’s, but we all agree: if you’re going to be faithful in sermon delivery, you’ve got to spend adequate time wrestling with your text. I spend the majority of my study time digging into the structure of the passage so that I understand the author’s major point, as well as his supporting arguments. This wrestling ensures that I preach God’s word to his people, and not my cleverly devised sermon. My best theological ruminations are incapable of giving life, so I want to know my text well enough that I can confidently communicate God’s word to his church. More practically, I’m less reliant on my outline or manuscript when I know the text well enough to quote it from memory.
Know Your People
Third, preacher, you need to know your people. God has called you to preach his word to a particular group of people. When we stand behind the pulpit, we should remind ourselves, “God has called me to preach to these people and no one else.” In an age of podcasts and social media platforms, we’re all too aware that our sermons are available to a worldwide audience. But we’re not called to pastor the world. Eugene Peterson is right: All ministry is local, specific, and personal. Each congregation has its own backstory, temptations, and personality, and our vocabulary, sermon length, Sunday morning attire, and illustrations should reflect the uniqueness of the congregation to whom we’re preaching.
I learned this lesson the hard way. Back in seminary, I was asked to preach one Sunday at a church in North Georgia. Being short on time, I decided to reuse a sermon I had preached at our church in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. All was going well until I began suggesting to a church of farmers, factory workers, and retirees that the text demonstrated God’s ability to utterly transform the way they interacted with colleagues around the office watercooler and managed disagreeable employees. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I recognized the error. The application might have been faithful to the thrust of the text, but it wasn’t useful for the people to whom I was preaching. Don’t make the same mistake. Know your people.
But probably the most important thing you’re going to need to know as a preacher is yourself. There is nothing more uncomfortable than watching an insecure preacher in the pulpit. You know the type—men who use a “preaching voice” and exaggerated mannerisms in the pulpit to appear more commanding or confident than they really are. They’ve seen preachers use similar tactics to great effect, and so they adopt another’s technique, hoping for the same results. Instead, like David in Saul’s armor, everyone can tell how ill-fitting it is. The booming voice of Adrian Rogers or the active pulpit presence of John Piper “worked” because it was true to who they were. So, preacher, you need to know yourself and the unique ways God has gifted you. You need to hear John Newton’s advice to a younger minister: “The Spirit of God distributes variously, both in gifts and dispensations; and I would no more be tied to act strictly by others’ rules, than to walk in shoes of the same size. My shoes must fit my own feet.” So by all means, learn from other preachers. Get advice on using a manuscript or outline, note how gifted preachers conclude their sermons, and find a soundguy who can make your voice sound less "nasaly." But at the end of the day, be yourself.
The phrase that goes through my mind when I stand behind the podium is, “What you see is what you get.” My pastoral personality shouldn’t change as I walk up the stairs to the pulpit. I’m the same man on the platform as I am in the hallway before service or at the coffee shop on Wednesday morning. I’m not the most accomplished evangelist, the most charismatic leader, or the greatest preacher, but by the grace of God, I am what I am. Far from rendering our preaching ineffective, the honest self-assessment commended in Scripture will lead us to acknowledge our weakness before the Lord and seek his grace for our task (Rom 12:3–8). So, brother preacher, know yourself and trust that God has perfectly gifted you for the ministry to which he’s called you. From the outside looking in, you may be just another ordinary preacher, but you are proclaiming the good news on behalf of an extraordinary God.