A few months ago I shared a few lessons I’ve learned along the way—a few things I’ve learned about preaching since I rather unexpectedly found myself regularly standing in the pulpit. I learned that preaching can be discouraging, that preachers are fragile, that success in preaching is difficult to measure, and that preaching is a joy. Upon further reflection, I want to add a couple of items to my list.
Don’t Romanticize It
Another lesson I’ve learned is that the process of sermon preparation doesn’t live up to the romanticized version you might read about in books or in punchy little quotes. So much of sermon preparation is just plain hard work. I suppose it is possible that I have been going it all wrong, but I don’t think that’s the case.
I read several books about preaching before I ever preached a sermon. I read hundreds of great quotes about preaching and listened to sermons by some of the best preachers of our generation. I even attended several conferences for preachers and about preaching. Somewhere along the way I got the idea that preparing a sermon would be a blessed time of being carried along by the Holy Spirit as he gave me startling insights into His Word. I would spend hours in prayer, a few minutes reading commentaries, and just allow the Spirit to guide my pen.
But it turns out that most of sermon preparation is a tough slog of trying to understand difficult words, of desperately trying to find some kind of a structure in the text and then allowing that structure to inform the sermon. It is a battle of the mind and an all-out spiritual battle. There is prayer, to be sure. The Holy Spirit really does help in very tangible ways. And yet sermon preparation is a long and difficult battle full of metaphorical blood and very genuine sweat and tears. Reading books and listening to sermons didn’t prepare me at all to understand just how difficult it is to take a relatively straightforward passage, to understand it, to structure it, and to have something worthwhile to say about it.
Of course a lot of life is like this. There is what we imagine it will be like, or what we think it should be like, and then there is the reality. A young couple is eagerly expecting their new baby, and mom is imagining the joy of nursing a child, of snuggling that child as she feeds him. But then there’s the reality. Sure, nursing is sweet, but as so many moms can attest, it doesn’t always live up to its billing. There’s a lot more discomfort and pain than most young moms expect. Some women find they cannot do it at all, or that their child only wants a bottle. Infections set in. It doesn’t look a whole lot like the sweet pictures in the books. You could draw similar illustrations from just about every area of life.
Sermon preparation truly is a joy and a blessing, but that joy and blessing comes through hard work, not apart from it. God shapes the preacher through His Word—through the difficult work of studying and understanding and applying that Word. I don’t think we do ourselves any favors by romanticizing it.
A Mediocre Sermon Can Be a Good Sermon
Here is one more lesson to add to my list: Even a mediocre sermon can be very powerful. There are sermons that are well-crafted and drawn straight out of the text; they carry vivid illustrations and work toward powerful application. In every way we measure a sermon, these ones hit the mark. Then there are sermons that are just plain mediocre. They aren’t bad and they aren’t unbiblical—they’re just average. Yet both of these sermons can be used by the Lord to bless his people. I’ve wondered why this is—why some sermons that I know just aren’t that good, powerfully impact those who hear them. But it’s obvious why this is: because the source material is just so good. Even a mediocre sermon that is drawn from the Word of God is a sermon that has all the power of the Lord behind it.
Before I preached yesterday morning we sang “Speak, O Lord” and it was a challenge to me to ask if I was just mouthing the words or if I really believe them. Do I really believe that the Word of God can “shape and fashion us in Your likeness / that the light of Christ might be seen today / in our acts of love and our deeds of faith?” Do I really believe that God’s Word can generate within us “full obedience, holy reverence, true humility?” Do I actually believe that it can “test our thoughts and our attitudes / In the radiance of Your purity?” If God’s Word is all of that and if it can do all of that, there is just the slimmest difference between a mediocre sermon and the most brilliant, most objectively-correct sermon ever preached.