I have had the opportunity to hear much preaching over the last few years, some very good, some mediocre, most very bad. What is the problem with preaching? There is no one problem, of course; there are a number of problems to which I have been addressing myself in our Friday preaching blogs. But if there is one thing that stands out most, perhaps it is the problem I mention today.
What I am about to say may not strike you as being as specific as other things I have written, yet I believe it is at the bottom of a number of other difficulties. My point is that good preaching demands hard work. From listening to sermons and from talking to hundreds of preachers about preaching, I am convinced that the basic reason for poor preaching is the failure to spend adequate time and energy in preparation. Many preachers—perhaps most—simply don’t work long enough on their sermons.
You may question my charge, and (of course) you may be one of the notable exceptions to what, regrettably, has become the rule. Good! But if so, remember, you are an exception. For the rest of you, note well, I did not say that preachers don’t work hard; for the most part I believe that Bible-believing preachers work very hard—probably too hard! And, indeed, therein may lie the clue to the problem: many work so hard at everything else that, as a result, they neglect their preparation for the ministry of the Word.
Not enough time is spent either in doing the historical-grammatical-telic exegesis of the preaching portion or in thinking through the format, form, and style in which the message ought to be presented to the particular congregation to which it will be delivered. Inadequate study of the biblical text means that the purpose of the preaching portion will not be clear to the preacher himself. When that is true, there is no way in which he can make it clear to his hearer.
But even when adequate time has been given for the preacher to discover the telos (i.e., the Holy Spirit’s purpose) in the preaching portion, there is still the matter of allotting the time necessary to produce the best outline, to work out the most appropriate language, to develop the right sort of illustrations, and to think through concrete recommendations for implementation. And, care must be taken to adapt all of this work to the peculiar knowledge, circumstances, background, etc., of the particular body of people to whom the message will be delivered. That too takes time and study to arrive at a good congregational analysis.
From what I see and hear, very little time is devoted to such work. Yet, without work on form, the best exegesis falls flat on the floor.
“But,” you protest, “I have so little time. I’d like to do more of what you say, but I simply don’t see any place in my schedule for it.”
Granted, you may not have room in your schedule for it, but that just proves my point—you are working hard too hard, at the wrong things. You must make room. Preaching is a high priority item; others must go. Let me ask you some pointed questions. An honest answer to these will help you to re-evaluate your priorities. But before you answer, remember how much the apostles had to do and how they handled this very problem:
So the Twelve called a general meeting of the disciples and said, “It isn’t right for us to stop preaching God’s Word to serve tables. Now then, brothers, look for seven of your men who have a good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, that we may appoint them to this work, while we continue to devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.” (Acts 6:2–4, The Christian Counselor’s N.T.)
1. Do you pray earnestly for the members of your congregation?
2. Do you waste time on the telephone, talking about matters that others could handle?
3. How much TV do you watch each week?
4. How much time do you spend in committee meetings?
5. What are you doing that someone else in the congregation could do instead of you?
I could ask any number of other questions like these, but I don’t think it is necessary to do so. We can all find the time to do whatever God wants us to do—if we only search for it.
One reason why pastors lose so much time is because they have not disciplined themselves to say “no.” The way to say “no” with freedom is to have a carefully planned schedule that does not permit you to say “yes” to events that you ought to avoid. Nothing frees one up so much as a well-planned schedule. Such a schedule is planned in terms of priorities.
In Acts 6:2, the apostles allotted time in terms of priorities when they set the ministry of the Word (preaching and counseling) above waiting on tables. That was not snobbery; it was dedication to divine duty. Today, as in their time, whether he knows it or not, whenever a pastor says, “I don’t have the time,” he is really saying, “I am misusing my time waiting on tables.” Discover which tables you currently are serving, delegate them to your deacons, and start giving that time to prayer and the ministry of the Word—especially to preaching!
This article of a continuation of our weekly series on Preaching published every Friday.