The Essential Secret of Preaching

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Guest Contributor

In John Stott’s classic work Between Two Worlds, he writes:

In a world which seems either unwilling or unable to listen, how can we be persuaded to go on preaching, and learn to do so effectively? The essential secret is not mastering certain techniques but being mastered by certain convictions. In other words, theology is more important than methodology. (92)

This quote captures what I’m trying to do as a pastor and preaching professor, equipping younger ministers of the word.

Ordering the Passion

Many assume that preaching profs are either highly focused on technique and style, or that they aren’t capable of teaching a “real discipline” in the academy. Homiletics is often mocked. You might hear things like this: “You can’t teach a guy to preach.” “I never learned anything from my preaching professor.” “You can’t listen to him about hermeneutics, theology, or pastoral leadership; he’s just a preaching professor.” When a preacher does/says something that’s rhetorically unusual in our chapel, you might hear, “Now, Dr. Merida may not like this, but this is what I’m about to do….”

But I’m not preoccupied with technique and methodology. I don’t have a formulaic approach to preaching; I have a theological approach to preaching. I actually enjoy teaching preaching because so many fields converge there — hermeneutics, systematic theology, biblical theology, missiology, evangelism, pastoral theology, etc. My least favorite part of homiletics is technique, oratory, and rhetoric.

It’s this theologically-driven passion that’s led me to espouse expository preaching, which is word-driven, word-saturated preaching. Expository preaching is a theologically-driven approach, not a pragmatic-driven approach.

A Matter of Convictions

Each semester in my preaching classes, my goal is not to teach technique; it’s to build, accent, and intensify certain theological and spiritual convictions. This isn’t new. The discipline of homiletics is classically studied under the field of practical theology. My aim is to put forward particular convictions that will shape a student for the long haul. Their theology will determine their biography; my goal is to highlight certain theological convictions that will shape the rest of their ministry.

When I read other heroes like Lloyd-Jones, Piper, Spurgeon, and others, it’s not technique that they talk about. It’s theology. Why is this? It’s because one’s theological convictions impacts everything else. That is what will keep a person preaching when no one seems to be listening, and when the preacher himself wants to quit and get a job as a bullpen catcher.

What are some of these convictions? Well, there are many. I want students to develop an insatiable thirst for Holy Scripture. I want them to go to the pulpit because they love the Bible; not go to the Bible because they love the pulpit. I want them to embrace the Christ-centered nature of Scripture, and for them to show Jesus as the hero of the Bible — and the hero of every sermon they preach. I want them to believe that God saves people as the gospel is preached. I want them to believe in the power of the Spirit and the necessity of dependent prayer in preaching. I want them to remember that if they don’t maintain personal holiness, then they won’t have a ministry — regardless of their giftedness and cleverness. I want them to long for people to say after every sermon, not “what a great sermon,” but “what a great Savior.”

The Key to Effective Preaching

“The key to effective preaching is not mastering certain techniques, but being mastered by certain convictions.”

Obviously, technique is not unimportant. We should work to communicate clearly. Our sermons should have an understandable flow, and a dominant idea. We should work to communicate in such a way that our preaching is intelligible to outsiders, as they join the Sunday assembly. We should exegete our community and make timely and heart-focused application. We should learn to craft good outlines, and to prepare for the listener instead of the reader. We should receive feedback humbly, and seek to improve our delivery skills. Preaching is both science and art, and we need good art — so we should care about how we say things.

But the key to effective preaching is not mastering certain techniques; it’s being mastered by certain convictions.

That’s why I’ll keep the emphasis here, and not on elements like alliteration, the number of points one has, hand motions, clothing, or platform furniture. No one was ever saved by such things, and no one ever remained faithful to the task by focusing on them either.

Let’s preach Christ until we see Christ. Then we won’t need to preach anymore. On that day, we won’t regret having been faithful to the main thing.

(@tonymerida) is the founding pastor of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He also serves as the associate professor of preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Kimberly, with whom he has five adopted children.