What is it Like to Preach (or What’s Behind the Homiletical Curtain)?

I’ve been a pastor for nearly 20 years, which means I’ve been preaching for nearly 20 years. That’s a lot of sermons! And you would think that after all of this preaching I would be an especially confident, homiletical professional, always able to prepare and deliver rhetorically impressive and spiritually moving sermons with ease! Alas, this is not necessarily the case. The reality, I’m afraid, is messier than that. So I want to share a little about what it is like to preach, especially what I sometimes find challenging. Hopefully something of what I share will give you an honest glimpse into the experience of at least one preacher. Obviously, this isn’t all I could say about my experience of preaching. But it’s what I’ll say for now.

The experience of preparing and preaching sermons is a distinct one. I know there are all kinds of public speakers or occasions on which someone might speak publicly, but I do think being a pastor who is responsible for preaching week after week to the same congregation is, if not unique, quite unlike other kinds of public speaking. I say this because, at least for me, I’m not doing so only with the goal of inspiring or motivating people. That might be a part of it, but since I am endeavoring to open the meaning of an authoritative text—namely the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments—there is a deeper, more profound, and humbling responsibility at play in the process. It is no small thing to teach publicly from the Bible, and while no two people in any given congregation will hear or respond (internally or otherwise) to the preached text in the same way, the goal of preaching is almost always the same: to direct people to draw near to the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in prayer, worship, and service.

Put more personally, I want people who hear me preach not only to hear the truth of Scripture but to experience the love of God in Christ, and to experience the healing and forgiving power of his presence in their everyday lives. And while no single sermon can ever hope to accomplish this adequately, one hopes that the gradual cumulative effect of many sermons will have a transformative impact on the way people understand and live out their faith. Less significant is being able to remember the specific points of many individual sermons (though there is nothing wrong with that or with taking notes during a sermon!) than of being drawn slowly over time into the biblical story where God is the central figure who graciously invites us to receive the good news of his creative and redemptive love. Preaching always, in one way or another or through this or that text, strives to this end. It can so do in innumerable ways, even if usually imperfectly and incompletely, but it must never do otherwise. A preacher is not a motivational speaker or someone who gives the occasional lecture or speech on a subject in which they have expertise.

My reason for getting into all of this is that as a preacher this is what forms the backdrop of all my sermon preparation and delivery. Whether it comes through as successfully as I’d like or as people need in any given moment is an entirely separate question. As much as anyone else, I am often aware of my weaknesses in preaching. I am aware of this while preparing sermons. I am most definitely aware of these weaknesses once I’ve finished preaching a particular sermon (As in, “Boy, that could have gone better” or “This really needed more work.”). Not only that, sometimes even in the midst of preaching I am aware of weak turns of phrase, a badly expressed point, or a vague thought that I should have omitted. Of course, this is not only somewhat subjective but also leaves out the fact that the Holy Spirit can take whatever imperfect words I have strung together (albeit with his guidance during the week) and speak to people’s hearts and minds by bringing encouragement and conviction. Every pastor has had the experience of greeting people at the door at the end of a service and having people express just how much a message spoke to them in an important way even when that pastor wasn’t personally happy with the sermon or feels like it didn’t go especially well.

For me, there’s a few aspects to the experience of preaching that can often leave me feeling if not frustrated, then at least somewhat unsatisfied. Because a sermon is limited. Usually I preach somewhere between 20—30 minutes. Sometimes I am preaching from a single text and sometimes, if it’s a more topical or thematic message, I’ll preach from a variety of texts. Either way, I am limited in what I can say in two ways. First, I am limited by how well I say what I do say. Are my thoughts clear? Is this an effective way of making this point? Am I being biblically faithful and theologically sound? Does anything I say mislead people unintentionally? How will this or that person hear these words? I am conscious of the fact that my ability to express what I am seeking to express is limited. As careful and intentional as I am with my words, not everything comes out well! Preachers have every reason to be grateful for patient congregants who occasionally experience a legitimate “Huh?” or put up with a half-baked message prepared the night before (also known as the “Saturday Night Special”!).

This brings me to the second way in which I am limited. There are things in any given sermon that I do not or cannot say. For instance, if I refer to the doctrine of the Trinity in a sermon, and the sermon is not about the Trinity, I run the risk of leaving people with questions (“Trinity? Three Persons in one God? How does that work? What difference does that make to my life?”). Or take how anytime I preach I am essentially assuming the authority and inspiration of the Bible. But if I have someone in the congregation who is not yet a believer or who has questions about the reliability of Scripture, then making this assumption runs the risk of leaving them behind. Because in most sermons I am not seeking to explain or defend, much less persuade others about, the authority and reliability of the biblical text.

But this limitation operates at a deeper level too. And perhaps this simply points to my own weaknesses or limitations as a preacher. There are times when I am aware I might be giving a misleading impression of what it means to be a Christian. That is, am I being too simplistic in the way I am expressing something? Do my words lack the kind of nuance and thoughtfulness that lets people know being a follower of Jesus is a messy, sometimes complicated business, with hills and valleys, doubts and assurances, joys and sorrows? Am I too concerned—consciously or otherwise—with providing answers when I should instead be inviting them into mystery? When I am providing what I think is a biblical answer to a question, does my doing so raise confidence or more difficult questions?

On top of this, I am also self-conscious that when I preach from the text of Scripture, I do so in a specific historical and cultural context. I preach to people who watch the news, browse the internet for information, and spend time on Facebook. 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth once said that pastors ought to prepare sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. There are social and political issues that are always pertinent to our everyday lives; and therefore our faith ought to inform how we think through these issues and live accordingly. Even if we only consider the last two years of the COVID pandemic, there are certainly more than enough divisive and highly-charged political and social issues to keep us occupied. Though there isn’t necessarily one single way Christians ought to think about each issue. And when it comes to preaching, I want to help people see how the Christian faith is relevant to our lives here and now. But I can imagine some hearing me preach and wondering how what I am saying connects with what’s going on in the world around them. After all, the most recent book of the Bible was written two millennia ago; and the Old Testament several millennia ago. That cultural and historical distance can also have the effect of provoking underlying questions about the credibility of Christianity and the relevance of what a pastor is preaching. Of course, I would say that while the Bible does not address all issues directly—for how could it?—it does orient us in a worldview: in a way of seeing God, ourselves, and the world. All this to say that as a pastor, I am not ignorant of these things, but bringing the world of the Scriptures together with the world in which we live is always a challenge.

Another aspect (limitation?) of preaching is this: it is, generally speaking, a one way street of communication. There is no back and forth. A sermon is not a conversation. Though sometimes when I ask questions while preaching, I actually do so to elicit responses. I want people to answer there and then. I like being able to engage the congregation when possible. In my experience, most people are simply not used to this and are not the sort of people who are prepared to engage in that way. In some ways, this is too bad. I can’t speak for other preachers, but it’s really hard—impossible?—to know not only what people make of what I say but what questions they might have about what I say. What would it be like, for example, if as a preacher I left time for questions partway through a sermon, and because of these questions never got to the end of my sermon notes? Would that make me an unfaithful preacher or is it possible that it could be a more spiritually edifying experience? Is it possible that if the Holy Spirit actually had his way a pastor might not always get through the sermon because people were engaging with the Scripture and were asking questions that led to conversation which helped more than the actual sermon would have?

Of course, I am also well aware that my experience of my own preaching is not at all like the experience of those who are hearing me preach. Which is why sharing some of what it’s like to preach is, I think, valuable. Pretty much every pastor and preacher I know desires to be faithful to God, Scripture, and their people when they step behind the pulpit. But we can struggle with being able to do so as well as we’d like. We’re aware of our shortcomings. Or least some of them. And we can go through seasons or times when sermon preparation is more tedious or challenging. Let me clue you in: every pastor has prepared a sermon at the last minute or gone to Google for ideas (ideas, not complete sermons; though, admittedly, some have done or do this). Honesty, there have been times when it’s like my brain just won’t work. It’s hard to focus. I’m tired. It’s been a rough or especially busy week. My thoughts are scattered. Certainly these days I’m probably not the only pastor whose sermon prep is affected by COVID fatigue. And so prayer, which always ought to be a core part of sermon preparation, is what I rely on when it’s all the more clear I can’t rely on myself. And undoubtedly that is always the core message of every preacher anyway: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding; in all your ways know him, and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5—6). As in life, so in preaching.

Having said all of this, I need to add: having the privilege to preach, to open up God’s word and share what I have seen there is an incredible joy and blessing. I have had those moments while preaching where I can feel the connection between the text of Scripture, what I am saying, and the congregation’s response. In ways I can’t quite explain, I have myself felt moved while preaching, like somehow God’s presence becomes all the more real to me and my sermon somehow becomes more than the sum of the words on the page. Indeed, sometimes the best experiences of preaching occur when you go altogether beyond your notes because in the moment the Holy Spirit is leading to say something you hadn’t prepared to say.

So there you go. Just a little glimpse into the experience of at least one pastor and preacher. I don’t know what you’ll make of it. Perhaps it means that the next time it’s Sunday morning and you’re in church for a worship service you will have a slightly different perspective on the one preaching. No doubt I’ve given you several ways to pray for your pastor (and other pastors too)! Indeed, pastors need your prayers. If I may say so, what they do each week is not easy. And that’s true whether they’re sharing a “Saturday Night Special” or are sharing a message that they’ved poured themselves into as God by his Spirit has poured it into them.

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