The first sermon I ever preached was in a little country church close to my childhood home. I think I made three points: 1) Read your Bible. 2) Pray. 3) Tell people about Jesus. After twenty minutes, I had said everything I knew, so I concluded with a prayer and sat down.
Looking back, I realize what a poor job I did. Where did I go wrong? For starters, I just said basic truths but I didn’t really teach Scripture. I made obvious statements, told a few illustrations, and read several different verses to (supposedly) prove my points. Additionally, I was a poor communicator. I spoke in a monotone voice, and most of the time I either looked down at my notes or up at the lights.
But here’s one thing that, by God’s grace, I got right that morning: I tried. I realized I had a responsibility to speak up for God, so I gave it my best. To use a golf analogy, I hit many more hooks and slices than straight shots. In fact, I almost always wandered off into the trees, leaving the people wondering “Where is he going?” Thankfully, I don’t think I hurt anybody with an errant shot. In fact, the “gallery” was quite patient with me, even offering encouraging words as they left. Every teacher of the Bible has to start somewhere, and I’m thankful the pastor of that church gave me the opportunity.
You might be an aspiring preacher who is terribly nervous about the thought of teaching the Bible to a group of people. Perhaps you are a Bible student in a college or seminary preparing to be a pastor, but your opportunity has not yet come. You might be a middle-aged man who has recently sensed that the Lord is prompting you to preach. Whatever your situation, I want to encourage you to give it a try, but perhaps you would benefit from a few tips to make your first experience (and subsequent experiences) go better than mine:
1. Take advantage of less formal teaching opportunities.
I hope you are in a church where learning happens beyond the formal sermon. Perhaps your church has Sunday school or small groups. If so, I’m sure there is an opportunity for dialogue about the Bible in those more casual settings. There’s your chance! I don’t mean that you should all of a sudden stand up in front of everybody and break forth into a forty-minute monologue about the verse or passage at hand. Instead, seek to edify your brothers and sisters by sharing your insights. You may even find out in advance what will be studied, and come prepared to share something that you learned. Speak with zeal, but humbly, seeking to help people. Showing off how much you know is never right (1 Corinthians 8:1).
Where else might you find “less formal teaching opportunities”? The majority of churches are frequently in need of people to fill in and teach the children. This is not an insignificant event—it is vitally important—and kids are often very gracious and patient with teachers. You might find similar grace in a nursing home, prison, and surely in your home during family worship.
Here’s the point: If you desire to teach Scripture, don’t wait around for the pastor’s vacation. He might ask somebody else! Eventually, your opportunity might come, and by teaching in the smaller settings, you will prepare yourself for the bigger venues.
2. Meditate on your text far longer than on commentaries.
Some men are so unsure of their Bible interpretation skills that they too quickly go and look at what others have said about the verse or passage they are to teach. Perhaps they say to themselves, after only a few minutes of gut-wrenching meditation, “Well, I guess I better go see what John MacArthur says. I mean, who am I to say what this passage means?” Who are you? You are a Spirit-indwelt believer who is capable, with some patience and a careful reading of the passage, to understand the Bible without having to be overly dependent upon the gurus of the day.
I only speak from experience, but an easy way to be a dull communicator is to spend too much time reading what others have said about the Bible instead of studying Scripture itself. I agree with J.W. Alexander’s assessment:
- If an hour is to be spent, either in reading and collating more of the text, or in reading human comments, surely the former is the way which gives more light. What is acquired in this way also makes a peculiar impression, and is more truly one’s own. It also carries with it a savour of divine authority.
This doesn’t rule out the use of commentaries, but it is a reminder that we have God on our side ready to help us understand what He has spoken.
Prayerfully wrestle with the text. Read it over and over and over. Try to determine the author’s burden, and how he supports what he is saying. And yes, glean insights from others, but your listeners will benefit from your teaching far more if you have personally mined the text for its treasures.
3. Teach one thing, not a bunch of things.
My first sermon was about three things, and I’m guessing most people remembered almost nothing. Wouldn’t it be better to drive home the main point of the passage? The key is to make the heart of your message the point of the text under consideration. Have an outline, but be sure the sub-points and illustrations support the main idea.
Also, beware of preaching the point of the passage without reference to the work of Christ. As you call people to obey, remind them that they must look away from themselves to Christ for the motivation and strength to do what God says (Titus 2:11-14).
Rambling off “proof texts” is usually not helpful. I say “usually” because occasionally you will want to help the people see a theme as it works itself through the Bible, but even then, have the verses ready to quote without expecting the people to turn to several different places in their Bibles. Perhaps you might say something like, “I want to read a few verses to support this idea. You don’t need to turn to these verses.”
A thirty-five minute sermon that makes a single point and drives home two or three principles of application would be far better than a fifty-minute sermon which says too much, lacks coherence and a point, and bores the people for the last fifteen minutes.
4. Amplify your comments with colorful words and helpful illustrations.
Consider the difference between these two statements:
Jesus did not spend his first night on earth in a clean place.
Jesus did not spend his first night on earth in a sanitary hospital with nurses checking on Him every thirty minutes.
Both say the same thing, but the second sentence is more colorful and potentially memorable. Jesus was the master of teaching this way, frequently using objects and people around Him to illuminate the truth. He spoke of birds when He addressed the necessity of not worrying but seeking first the kingdom of God. He used the imagery of shepherds and sheep to illustrate His relationship to His followers. He compared sheep and goats when speaking of the final judgment. Jesus was not a boring teacher! We should seek to adopt His methods.
What about using quotes in sermons? I’ve looked back over some of my old sermon notes and realized that I occasionally had two or three sizeable quotes within a single sermon. I’m ashamed to say that I have occasionally added a quote not because I thought it really helped the people understand the passage, but because that section in my outline needed to be longer. I’m embarrassed just thinking about it. Beware of pointlessly using quotes to fill in time. Take special care not to use too many quotations (especially longer readings). Your sermon might go too long, and you will certainly put a few people to sleep!
5. Practice out loud what you will say, as you will say it.
There are at least two benefits to this: First, verbalizing your thoughts is a helpful way to work out and even test what you are thinking. Sometimes what seems solid on paper doesn’t communicate as well audibly. Like the Apostle Paul, we should want to communicate the message clearly (Colossians 4:4).
Second, practicing how to say things can make you a better communicator. Some might argue, “I don’t think the Apostle Paul ever went off into a private place and worked on his voice inflection!” Probably not, though we cannot really know for sure. However, there is no sin in working on your physical presentation. You can trust in the power of the gospel and at the same time work on preaching it well.
Somebody once walked in on me preaching through a passage of Scripture in my office, and I was embarrassed! Looking back, I shouldn’t have been, because I was sincerely trying to get the message right in order to benefit the souls of the people I would address later that morning.
6. If you use notes, don’t constantly look at them.
There are different opinions among good men about the amount of notes (if any!) you should have in front of you when you teach, but most agree with this: Engaging the people with eye contact is vital to the communication process. Bryan Chapell writes, “The eyes can spit fire, pour out compassion, and preach Christ in you . . . . No one else talks to them without looking at them—unless to insult them.”
One of the reasons a preacher might look at his notes too much is because he doesn’t want to get the content wrong. That is admirable, and if we could only choose between hearing the truth versus sitting under a dynamic presentation, we should pick the solid content every time. However, with a little bit of preparation, and by renouncing the prideful desire to be seen as a flawless orator, we can give the listeners biblical content in a way that engages them.
7. Avoid imitating your favorite preacher’s style.
The Internet is jam-packed with free downloadable messages from the most recognized preachers of our day. Perhaps you have your favorites, but beware: If you listen to one man often, when you preach you might find yourself not only seeking to imitate his carefulness with Scripture (which is good), but you may also find yourself attempting to sound like him (not good)!
The next time you are in a room full of people where numerous conversations are happening, notice how many different ways people communicate. Some individuals are very animated, while others are calm. God has created each of us as unique individuals with distinct personalities. The same is true in preaching. Each man should use the voice God has given him, and gestures should be natural, not forced and copied from your favorite preacher. The more you preach, the more comfortable you will become in your own skin. Your idiosyncrasies will shine through, and that’s not always a bad thing!
8. Care for the people you will teach before you teach them something.
I once attended a Sunday morning service at a church in Michigan. After hearing the sermon, I remember thinking, “That was okay.” As I was walking out, I met a few people and was struck by some of the comments about the sermon. Not only did the people say the message was helpful, but almost everybody mentioned how much their pastor loved them. He was not a charismatic expositor, but that didn’t matter. He was known for his extravagant love for the church, which caused the people to listen eagerly and gain far more out of the message than a first-time visitor would. I learned a valuable lesson: Average preachers become powerful instruments in God’s hands when they are known for their love.
Granted, your first sermon may be in front of people you have never met before, but we should all strive to be like that “average” preacher in Michigan. We should be able to say with the Apostle Paul, “Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
Are you known for your love? Do people think of you as a good listener? If you do get to serve your church through your preaching, make sure they remember how you have served them in other ways.
And I don’t mean right before you preach! That’s a given. I’m talking about being a man who is regularly conversing with the Lord about the passage before him, calling on the Lord for clarity about the text, asking the Lord to write it on his heart, and begging the Lord to grant insight about how to apply it to the people who will receive the teaching.
Jesus, the greatest preacher ever, was a man of prayer (Luke 5:16). We must not be anything less, or else we will be ineffective preachers. J.W. Alexander warns, “Let every preacher despair of delivering that discourse with true, natural, and effective warmth, which he has prepared with leisurely coldness.”
10. Try again.
I hope I’m a better preacher now than when I first preached years ago. I had better be! But I only improved because of taking advantage of subsequent opportunities. I’m so thankful that first congregation was mostly positive toward my efforts, even though I preached a pitiful sermon. Let’s be realistic: Most struggle to preach well at first, and the majority of us will never be invited to speak at a big conference because of our preaching prowess. But that’s okay, because God doesn’t require greatness, just faithfulness (2 Timothy 2:15; 4:1-5).
Keep trying. Work hard to get the content right and the aspects of good communication will probably develop. I say “probably” because there is the possibility that you will consistently struggle in the more formal situations. What then? It might be an indication that your teaching might go better in different settings (Bible studies, counseling, small groups, etc.). Don’t despair, though, because God might have designed you to have a significant impact upon people’s lives one person, or one small group, at a time.
A Final Plea
If you are an aspiring preacher, and the opportunity arrives to open up the Bible and tell people what it says and why it matters for their lives, go for it! If you are a pastor, let me encourage you to give other men in your church the opportunity to teach the Bible. Your willingness to subject the congregation to a beginner may give wings to a life of faithful ministry. Even men who have preached thousands of sermons were given their first opportunity. Pour on the encouragement and see what God does.