5 pieces of advice for sermon prep

Five pieces of advice for sermon prep from Alistair Begg

  1. Think yourself empty. Survey a passage of Scripture in the proper spirit of unlearnedness. Avoid the proud assumption that you initially know what everything means.
  2. Read yourself full. Read widely and regularly.
  3. Write yourself clear. Aside from the essential empowering of the Spirit, freedom of delivery in the pulpit depends on careful organization in the study.
  4. Pray yourself hot. Without personal prayer and communion with God during the preparation stages, the pulpit will be cold.
  5. Be yourself, but don’t preach yourself. There is nothing quite so ridiculous as the affected tone and adopted posture of the preacher who wishes he were someone else. Also – a good teacher clears the way, declares the way, and then gets out of the way

H.T. Crossway Blog

Style is content: preparing style

This is the second part to my thinking about the idea that style is content. Here’s part one.

It’s strange to talk about preparing style. Style seems to flow naturally out of a personality, and to prepare it would be to kill the personality that should carry the message. Spontaneity cannot exist if you prepare style, right?

I agree that there is a bad kind of style preparation that results in a formalistic or fake-ish presentation that doesn’t connect with the audience. Nonetheless, style is massively important, and it should be considered. Does good teaching only lend itself to those who are predisposed with the right personality? Is every stuttering, bashful, slow-thinking person unequivocally doomed to be a bad teacher? Maybe. But I think it might be good to think this one through.

This post will be aimed more at preachers than teachers, and specifically those who preach and teach the Bible, though it is applicable for both.

In my last post I quoted well known teacher D.A. Carson, and I think he hit it on the head. He said that excitement teaches. The kind of style that exudes excitement will catch. In other words, the teacher really has to believe that what he’s saying is important.

Now I just said something big. I said that teaching style is directly connected to belief. I’m saying that a teacher must really, truly, deeply believe what he’s teaching in order to be effective. We usually call this conviction: “Spurgeon preached with conviction“– what we’re saying is that Spurgeon really believed what he was saying; he actually believed his message was of great importance. And his belief wasn’t mere mental assent–it was a deeply rooted heart belief; it wasn’t vague and ethereal philosophic truth– it was concrete reality, and he made sure they knew it.

So when I talk about belief, from now on I’m not only talking of acknowledgement of academic facts. I’m not talking about agreeing with the data. I’m talking about belief so real that it affects how you feel about it. It’s one thing to teach accurately the truth of heaven. It’s quite another to feel accurately the truth of heaven. It’s one thing to teach about sanctification; it’s and another thing to long for holiness. Perfect belief not only gets the theology right, it gets the attitude right. It feels it right.

That being said, it also must be noted that all of us stand now with imperfect belief. Even if it’s true that our theology earns an A+, our heart response to that theology doesn’t. The corruption of sin has undone us; we no longer can see the glory of God and give it the appreciation it deserves. The story of redemption doesn’t capture us like it should. The sway of sin still obscures our heavenly vision. We are all, in a sense, like the man in Mark 9: “Lord I believe; help my unbelief!” We believe, but we don’t believe as we ought. And since at the heart of teaching is conviction; since excitement is key to relaying information– since real, authentic belief resides in the heart of a masterful teacher– the aim of every preacher is to believe what he’s saying.

In other words, there is a kind of teaching that is perfectly accurate and perfectly boring. It’s possible to teach truth in such a way that convinces people it’s not true. We actually experience it all the time in everyday conversation, except we call it sarcasm. When a person speaks sarcastically, they usually giving an exaggerated statement that is obviously not true. We can usually tell by voice inflection, facial expression, and the conversational context. There are voice inflections, facial expressions (or lack thereof), and preaching contexts that negate what the preacher is saying. If a preacher speaks of the glories of God, and redemption from hell, and eternal bliss in heaven through Christ– in monotone, with no facial expression– I’ll have a hard time really believing him– one wonders if he even believes it. This is why it’s said that “it’s the life that preaches.”

Now, back to style preparation. The main style we’re looking for is the style of confidence and conviction– a style communicates the veracity and urgency of the message; a style that bleeds excitement. A style that makes the hearer long for the Godward affections emanating from the teacher. A style that teaches the hearer that this truth is not simply propositional truth– but it’s life. These are not facts to memorize, they are realities to experience.

How should we prepare this? It’s a spiritual conditioning, not a simple five-step process. It involves lingering over truths for extended periods of time. It takes much prayer– begging God for illumination, for proper affections, and for clarity of mind in presentation. It’s working to understand not only the theological outline, but also for heart application. It’s the result of daily seeking God, confessing sins, remembering Christ’s work. The pursuit of God will make a man a preacher. God will so capture you that you will be like Jeremiah, with a fire in his bones, needing to speak of God.

“When you set yourself on fire, people love to come and see you burn.” —John Wesley

So, in conclusion, the best way to prepare style is by not preparing for style, but rather working, striving, and longing to see God’s majesty. Man doesn’t learn to preach by observing man. Man learns to preach by observing God. The preacher whose face shines like that of Moses, having seen the King of Glory, will have style. And that style will say: “I have seen glory– come, and see what I’ve found.”

Teachers, style is content

A few days ago I watched an episode of a DVD series I recently bought called, “Building Great Sentences.” When you buy one of these series, they send you a contract that makes your entry into nerd-dom official. Anyway, the teacher kept reiterating a concept that I had thought about for a while but had never articulated. The concept was this: style is content.

What the guy was saying was that the way you write something actually says something. In other words, there is much more to what is being communicated than the words that make up the sentence. The style is not only the way you form the words; the style is a message in itself. This style sends a message that either substantiates or undermines the message. Style is like an unwritten sentence. It speaks. It is content.

This is true in writing. But the principle carries over into teaching as well. The way you speak sends a message. In fact, whenever a preacher enters the pulpit and begins his discourse, two messages are going out. The first (and most obvious) message is the meaning of the words that are being said. The second message is in the way those words are being said. For example, I preach a perfect, theologically sound sermon about the glories of Christ with a dry, dull style, and the content of the style will undermine the content of the words.  If I preach about something that is important, it better sound important. That’s why I hate when preachers make jokes about big deals like divine judgment, imminent wrath, and eternal hell. The levity of a joke undermines the weightiness of the topic. The style must serve to propound the meaning of the message.

Style is important, but it’s not as important as the didactics of a sermon. The didactic meaning of the message holds the highest priority– it doesn’t matter how one teaches heresy; heresy is heresy. A good rule is this: the sermon must make sense if it were transcribed. In other words, the preacher must not be so dependent on the style that he gives up content. Content is king. Style is a servant to content; indeed, it is content, only of lesser priority.

Style is content because it says something important. To the listener, who is asking himself whether it’s worth it for him to hear this, style says: “this is exciting; you’ll miss out if you don’t hear this.” A while ago I read part of a manuscript of one of D.A. Carson’s sermons where he said:

If I have learned anything in 35 or 40 years of teaching, it is that students don’t learn everything I teach them. What they learn is what I am excited about, the kinds of things I emphasize again and again and again and again. That had better be the gospel.

What he is saying is that excitement teaches. Excitement wordlessly substantiates the message. It declares the urgency and importance and glory and truth of something. It appeals to the affections. Like Jonathan Edwards taught, if you’re talking about something horrible, you should want your people to feel the horror. And it takes words and style to make that happen.

Style expresses, perhaps, the inexpressible.


I might do another post on this topic, which will address how to prepare style. We might feel that style is simply a byproduct of our personality, which it is. But I want to ask: does that necessarily mean that we can’t/shouldn’t prepare style? Should we prepare the best didactic content and let the chips of style fall where they may? Or should we prepare style? If so, how much stylistic preparation is too much? When does too much become void of personality and spontaneity?

I might address these questions in another post.

Actually, here’s the deal. If *one* person comments on this post, I’ll follow it up with another post.

The LORD raised them up

“Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them.” (Judges 2:16)

The sovereign hand of God raises up men and women to rescue his people from the enemy’s grip. It’s God. He does it. So, we should pray that God would mercifully do the same for us, raising up men and women who are zealous for God and his life-giving Word.

But we should not only pray for them, we should be them.

Thee seems to be out of thy senses

Benjamin Franklin writing George Whitefield’s preaching:

I did not approve of the design, but, as George was then destitute of materials and workmen, and it was proposed to send them from Philadelphia at a great expense, I thought it would have been better to have built the house here, and brought the children to it. This I advis’d; but he was resolute in his first project, rejected my counsel, and I therefore refus’d to contribute.

I happened soon after to attend one of his sermons, in the course of which I perceived he intended to finish with a collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me, I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles of gold. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me asham’d of that, and determin’d me to give the silver; and he finish’d so admirably, that I empty’d my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, goal and all.  At this sermon there was also one of our club, who, being of my sentiments respecting the building in Georgia, and suspecting a collection might be intended, had, by precaution, emptied his pockets before he came from home. Toward the conclusion of the discourse, however, he felt a strong desire to give, and apply’d to a neighbor, who stood near him, to borrow some money for the purpose. The application was unfortunately [made] to perhaps the only man in the company who had the firmness not to be affected by the preacher. His answer was, “At any other time, Friend Hopkinson, I would lend to thee freely; but not now, for thee seems to be out of thy right senses.”

Half beasts and half devils

In 1739 arrived among us from Ireland the Reverend Mr. Whitefield, who had made himself remarkable there as an itinerant preacher. He was at first permitted to preach in some of our churches; but the clergy, taking a dislike to him, soon refus’d him their pulpits, and he was oblig’d to preach in the fields. The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous, and it was a matter of speculation to me, who was one of the number, to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers, and how much they admir’d and respected him, notwithstanding his common abuse of them, by assuring them that they were naturally half beasts and half devils.  It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem’d as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.

An excerpt from Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

Spurgeon on humor in the pulpit

From Eccentric Preachers:

Humor can be consecrated, and should be. We grant that it is a power difficult to manage; but when it is under proper control, it more than repays for all the labor spent upon it. Children do sad damage with gunpowder; but what a force it is when a wise man directs its energy. Mr. Taylor made men laugh that they might weep. He touched one natural chord, that he might be able to touch another; whereas, some preachers are so unnatural themselves, that the human nature of their hearers refuses to subject itself to their operations. O ye who are evermore decorously dull, before ye judge a man whose loving ministry conducted thousands to the skies, think how immeasurably above you all he soared, and remember that with all his violations of your wretched regulations, he was one whom the Lord delighted to honor. Farthing candles rail at the sun for his spots, while they cannot be sure that those spots are not excessive light; and may be quite sure of another thing, that, spots or no spots, ten thousand such glimmers as theirs are not worthy to be compared with the stray beams of the great orb of day.

Do You Have a Theology of Suffering?

I’m preaching at my church this Sunday.We are going through a series titled after David Jeremiah’s book, “Living with Confidence in a Chaotic World” and I have been assigned the sectioned called, “Stay Confident.” My approach will be to show why we should be confident in trials and how we should be joyful amidst suffering and pain. I’ll be using James 1:1-8.

Reading these two paragraphs might help give you a little context.

A while back Tim Keller wrote an article title, “5 Big Issues Facing the Western Church.” Here is his fifth big issue:

The end of prosperity?

With the economic meltdown, the question is, will housing values, endowments, profits, salaries, and investments go back to growing at the same rates as they have for the last twenty-five years, or will growth be relatively flat for many years to come? If so, how does the Western church, which has become habituated to giving out of fast-increasing assets, adjust in the way it carries out ministry? For example, American ministry is now highly professionalized—church staffs are far larger than they were two generations ago, when a church of 1,000 was only expected to have, perhaps, two pastors and a couple of other part-time staff. Today such a church would have probably eight to ten full-time staff members.

Also, how should the stewardship message adjust? If discretionary assets are one-half of what they were, more risky, sacrificial giving will be necessary to do even less ministry than we have been doing.

On top of this, if we experience even one significant act of nuclear or bio-terrorism in the U.S. or Europe, we may have to throw out all the basic assumptions about social and economic progress we have been working off for the last 65 years. In the first half of the 20th century, we had two World Wars and a Depression. Is the church ready for that? How could it be? What does that mean?

Later on he provided a follow-up article providing some proposed answers to the problems. His answer for problem number five has stayed with me– and has shaped to a degree how I preach. We must prepare our people to suffer.

We must develop a far better theology of suffering.

Members of churches in the West are caught absolutely flat-footed by suffering and difficulty. This is a major problem, especially if we are facing greater ‘liminality’—social marginalization—and maybe more economic and social instability. There are a great number of books on ‘why does God allow evil?’ but they mainly are aimed at getting God off the hook with impatient Western people who believe God’s job is to give them a safe life. The church in the West must mount a great new project—of producing a people who are prepared to endure in the face of suffering and persecution.

Here, too, is one of the ways we in the West can connect to the new, growing world Christianity. We tend to think about ‘what we can do for them.’ But here’s how we let them do something for us. Many or most of the church in the rest of the world is used to suffering and persecution. They have a kind of faith that does not wilt, but rather grows stronger under threat. We need to become students of theirs in this area.

Spurgeon on Reading

This is an excerpt from Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s message titled Paul, his Cloak and his Books, preached in 1863. He is talking about the part at the end of 2 Timothy where Paul asks Timothy to “bring the books, and above all the parchments.”

We do not know what the books were about, and we can only form some guess as to what the parchments were. Paul had a few books which were left, perhaps wrapped up in the cloak, and Timothy was to be careful to bring them. Even an apostle must read.

Some of our very ultra Calvinistic brethren think that a minister who reads books and studies his sermon must be a very deplorable specimen of a preacher. A man who comes up into the pulpit, professes to take his text on the spot, and talks any quantity of nonsense, is the idol of many. If he will speak without premeditation, or pretend to do so, and never produce what they call a dish of dead men’s brains—oh! that is the preacher.

How rebuked are they by the apostle! He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had heard things which it was unlawful for a men to utter, yet he wants books! He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books!The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher, “Give thyself unto reading.”

The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible.

We are quite persuaded that the very best way for you to be spending your leisure, is to be either reading or praying. You may get much instruction from books which afterwards you may use as a true weapon in your Lord and Master’s service. Paul cries, “Bring the books”—join in the cry.