What (Not) to Preach

How to Build and Cut a Sermon

I love starting in on sermon prep.

Oh, the possibilities! Any passage in the God-breathed Book holds glories waiting to be spotted and meditated on and shared. And all the prospects for application! How might this text speak to our generation, and our specific church, and individual hearts, at this particular time? And what concrete illustrations and examples might I bring in from elsewhere in the Bible, or from history, or my own life, that would illuminate the text and hold the hearers’ attention? Brainstorming sermon possibilities can be thrilling.

Then, alas, comes the hardest part: narrowing down all those insights, questions, stories, warnings, and encouragements to what actually fits in the few minutes I have this Sunday. Widening out the prospects of what might be is one thing; narrowing it down to what actually makes it in — and what’s out — is often the most difficult work.

How, then, might we navigate this frequent trial and decide what to preach this Sunday? After wrestling hard with our text — and grasping its meaning in its context, in Christian theology, and in our lives — how do we decide what gold to leave on the cutting-room floor?

And if we find we’ve prepared an overlong sermon, how might we go about shortening it?

Tragedy of Boring Preaching

First, I’ll share a conviction: boring sermons are a great tragedy. Either the hearers did not hear well-preached glories, or the preacher did not proclaim them well.

Of course, on any given Sunday, the spiritual condition of those hearing the message will be all over the map. Some hearts are tender, full of the Spirit, ready to hear with faith; others are dull, apathetic, distracted. As pastors and preachers, we can help our people with this over time, but what we have most control over is ourselves. Ask first, Does the tragedy begin with me? To what extent is the sermon boring because of the preacher, rather than the hearers?

The word of God is objectively and emphatically not boring. The problem is never with God, his glories, and the revelation of himself in this book and in his Son. The problem is with us: in our minds and hearts, in our words and expressions, with our ears and dullness. God, his word, his grace, his mercy, his Son, his cross, his resurrection, his Spirit, his church, his coming return — these are truly the most thrilling and important realities in the universe. Who God is, and what God does, is never boring. It’s only because of our sin and weakness that we yawn at such majesties.

So, as a preacher — unable to control my hearers, but able to control myself — I’m resolved to do my level best, as far as it depends on me, not to bore the church with the most fascinating, amazing, wonderful, marvelous truths in all the universe. That’s the conviction.

How, then, might such a conviction prove practically helpful to preachers in our preparation? When faced with the predicament of what not to preach, how might this conviction help me know which glories to leave on the cutting-room floor for now and what to include in the few precious minutes of my sermon this Sunday?

What Are You Excited to Preach?

I’ll give the summary counsel, then put it in a larger framework to guard against abuse and distortion. First, the counsel: among all the possibilities that are true to your text and true to the needs of your church, prioritize the three or four you’re most excited to preach. In other words, let your own (hopefully sanctified) enthusiasm help you decide what to preach now, and what to leave for another time.

“As preachers we want to affect our hearers with the glory of God and the wonders of his grace.”

Now, your own excitement (however sanctified) to say something from a pulpit could prove dangerous without some qualifications. Critical to being able to trust your own enthusiasm like this are some real checks of holiness: the presence and influence of the ungrieved, indwelling Spirit; growing conformity over time to patterns of God’s word, rather than the world; a heart of pastoral love and concern for the church to care best for the people’s souls, to build them up, rather than entertain them and make much of the preacher.

To adequately check ourselves, then, we might bring in a triperspectival approach based on (1) the biblical text itself (the normative perspective), (2) the context and congregation (situational), and then (3) the heart and enthusiasm of the preacher himself (existential).

Norm: God’s Word

First and foremost, Christian preachers are stewards. We are not apostles, but we say with them,

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. (1 Corinthians 4:1–2)

And if the apostles are servants and stewards, then how much more we lowly, local-church officers charged to preach the apostolic word?

As pastors, with “the aim of our charge” being love for our people (1 Timothy 1:5), our burden in the sermon will take its cues from the burden of our text. And our own hearts will pulse to “not shrink from declaring,” but expose our people, over time, to “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). We cannot let our personal preferences and weekly whims undermine our stewardship and undercut their diet. Our thoughts and desires are not the norm of our preaching; the word of God is.

To be clear, brother preachers, don’t presume your enthusiasm for God’s word. Check it. Ask yourself, Does the Book still excite me? Can I still sing along with King David, “More to be desired are [God’s words] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10)? Do I savor the responsibility of laboring over these God-breathed words, discerning their meaning, and connecting them with real needs in my church?

Context: Church’s Need

Also vital to faithful and effective preaching is humbling ourselves to speak into the particular people and church and moment to which God has assigned us. We intentionally preach not only to “humans” (and all within internet earshot), but to our specific flock, the local church that is our lot, the little patch of earth where we’ve been assigned as undershepherds.

According to 1 Peter 5:1–2, good pastors are doubly among our people. And so, as both sheep and overseers, we are aware of and sensitive to the specific needs and temptations, right now, in this congregation. With a heart of love for this people, this Sunday, we ask, What would be most helpful to emphasize and visit from and through this text? How might the sermon serve as a bridge between the text God has given us this week and the needs of this flock this Sunday, this year, in this generation?

And so we might check ourselves, Does my heart still rise to meet the needs in this church? Am I keeping watch over this flock “with joy and not with groaning” (Hebrews 13:17)? Am I still eager to see these brothers and sisters home to glory (1 Peter 5:2)?

Joy: Preacher’s Heart

With those qualifications in place, then, I’d like to encourage some preachers to consider taking more of their cues from the desires of their healthy, guarded, holy hearts. Given that your soul has been steeping in this text, and given that you deeply love your people and are sensitive to your specific context, ask yourself sometime deep into your brainstorming, with all these wonderful possibilities before you, What am I most excited to preach?

One reason for this self-check is that it’s hard to inspire others with what doesn’t inspire you. In general (without pushing this to extremes), the people will get more from you preaching what you are most excited to preach from this text. And besides, if the preacher has a good heart, and knows his text and congregation well, his heart will rise to meet their needs with faithfulness to the text. The burden of the text and the needs of the people will draw out the preacher’s heart and influence what he’s most excited to preach on this particular occasion.

Preach with Holy Affection

For most of us, the white-hot zeal of spiritual enthusiasm in our hearts rarely translates into white-hot zeal in communication. What we feel at an eight (out of ten), we might communicate at a five or six, and our hearers will experience in a range of intensity in their own hearts. Some get it at a five or six. A few blessed souls, already pulsing with the Spirit, might get the eight with us, despite the dampening of our communicative abilities. They might even glow with a nine. Others experience it at a two or three. Others still, apathetic or distracted, are totally unaffected.

But as preachers we want to affect our hearers with the glory of God and the wonders of his grace. We want to first be affected ourselves by the biblical text, and then, through the miracle of preaching, model how the Christian soul is rightly affected by our text. We want to help our hearers to be appropriately affected by the truth of our text, however much their personalities and momentary circumstances color and veil their responses.

And so we preachers will do well to say with Jonathan Edwards,

I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as I possibly can, provided they are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.

How might we do this? By lifting up and pressing home the glories in our text that have raised our own affections highest.