By Paul Sanchez
I love preaching. Out of all the things I do as a pastor, preaching is a special source of joy for me. Perhaps this is true for most pastors. Of course, the Scriptures reinforce the central role preaching for the pastoral office. In some of Paul’s final words recorded in Scripture, he tells Timothy, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2 ESV). However, even as I acknowledge the importance and pleasure of preaching, it absorbs so much of a man—his physical, mental, and spiritual strength. Preaching is exhausting. If we are not careful, our preaching can become stale, perhaps particularly after a long tenure in ministry. I suggest three things to keep our preaching fresh. These ideas did not originate with me. Instead, I have embraced wisdom handed down from several men who have modeled powerful and faithful pulpit ministry over the long haul.
We have all heard the importance of reading for personal growth. We have also heard leaders are readers. This is especially true for pastors. I argued in a previous piece for the value of studying church history. Ministers should read history for the sake of gaining wisdom of social and cultural dynamics where they serve, to foster greater empathy with their people, and to empower community engagement. Ministers should read philosophy to improve their thinking and communication. They should read works in biblical studies to keep up on advances in biblical backgrounds, biblical theology, and apologetic issues. They should read practical works on evangelism, discipleship, and missions, because we must not lose sight of our driving biblical mandate in the Great Commission. Beyond the traditional academic disciplines, pastors should read biography. Reading biographies can inspire us, warn us of pitfalls, and can be generally edifying. Biographies also offer substantive material for sermon illustrations, which we need week in and week out. Some even recommend reading fiction for the benefit of expanding vocabulary and strengthening our ability to paint a picture with words.
Reading widely can keep our preaching fresh—the wider the better. Currently, I have several books on my “must read” shelf: David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman, Jarvis Williams’s One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Paul, Con Campbell’s Advances in the Study of Greek, Curtis Freedman’s Contesting Catholicity, and an historical work for my local context, Making San Francisco American, by Barbara Berglund. I cannot wait to dig in.
Use the Biblical Languages
Although I should not be, I am regularly surprised to hear pastors say, “I haven’t used Greek in years,” or “I hated studying Hebrew. I knew I’d never use it.” Call me type A, but I would expect someone who spends two to three years learning a subject, especially one as challenging as an ancient language, would sense the weightiness of this stewardship. However, like doctoral students with German—yes, they do it too—many MDiv students are so relieved to survive Greek and Hebrew that they rarely use them again. This is disappointing. Having the ability to use the biblical languages in sermon preparation is an untold blessing. Imagine, we have the ability to read the New Testament in the language Paul used. We can read Hosea’s own words in Hebrew. If you spend five to six hours reading commentaries, but virtually no time working in the original languages, you are missing one of the richest opportunities for your preparation. The biblical languages project the text in 1080p, rather than on an old black and white tv. It can also enrich you spiritually. Forgive me if I sound “preachy”—this is a post about preaching after all—but some of the most powerful devotional experiences I have involve reading biblical Greek or Hebrew in sermon preparation. I am not referring to finding words in a lexicon. That avails very little. But through study, observing the syntax, hearing alliteration, and phrasing out a text, the Scriptures seem to come to life in a new way.
If you can, why would you not spend time doing this? If sufficient time has passed that your language skills are rusty, I suggest two resources as refreshers: Mark Futado’s Daily Dose of Hebrew and Robert Plummer’s Daily Dose of Greek. NOBTS also offers a stellar smart phone app for working on the basics. Do not think of the biblical languages as a burden. It is a stewardship and a gift. It takes effort, but it can transform your sermon preparation and the preaching event itself.
Review Your Messages
When I finish preaching on Sundays, I am spent. The last thing I want to do is listen to myself preach. However, reviewing your preaching can be one of the best tools for improving your preaching. Every week I listen to my message from the previous Sunday and I ask myself several questions: how did I do in my introduction? Was I clear enough? Did I bring the text into the broader context of Scripture? Did I preach Christ clearly? Did I misspeak at any point without realizing it? Did I transition smoothly to avoid distraction? Were my mannerisms, facial features, verbal fillers, or anything else distracting? If these sound like small issues, they are not. Some of them make the difference between a mediocre sermon and a powerful sermon. Others make the difference between fidelity and infidelity, or at least poor stewardship.
What a gift we have as pastors, to stand before God’s people each week to declare his Word, under the power of the Holy Spirit. Should we not be driven to give our all? If you do not already record your messages, a smart phone will suffice and free online resources, such as SermonAudio.com make it easy to store and access your messages.
I could mention several other tips, such as staying attuned to current events or listening to skilled preachers, but these three have served me well. My hope is that we would steward our calling well, find joy in our task, and witness God accomplish his work through our preaching. Amen.
Paul Sanchez is an alumnus of NOBTS (2012) and has studied American religious history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary since 2013, earning a ThM in 2014, and currently pursuing a PhD under Greg Wills. He is also the Lead Elder and Preaching Pastor of Emaus Church in San Jose, CA. You can follow him on twitter @paulsanchez408.