Time was that church historians also taught church polity and what is sometimes called pastoral theology. This was, I suppose, because we used to recognize that the study of the history of the practice of the church gives a certain insight into how ministry should be conducted.
I mention this to apologize (i.e., defend) for the propriety of the historian-pastor (or pastor-historian) to give advice to young preachers. By “young” I mean seminary students or those just out of seminary. This is a talk I’ve given informally to many students individually and it seems like a good idea to write it down—before I forget it.
A SERMON IS NOT A TERM PAPER
Seminary students spend proportionally more time writing term papers than sermons. As a result, sermons can become term papers especially if one is writing a sermon manuscript (see below). It is difficult to shift audiences and modes of communication. The audience for a term paper is professors and perhaps other students. Academic writing can be dense and full of technical code in order to save time and space. Good preaching is neither of those.
There are similarities between a sermon and a term paper, however. Like a term paper, a sermon involves learning new stuff. Like a term paper, a sermon has a central, organizing thesis. Like a term paper, a sermon is making a case for something. Students (and recent grads) should transfer those skills to the sermon but they need to take an additional step or two.
You need to recognize that writing a term paper, as it were, is the first step of writing a sermon. The research behind this “term paper,” however, might result in multiple sermons (see below). Further, the audience for a sermon is much more diverse than the audience for a term paper. A congregation is composed of 8-year olds and 80-year olds and the preacher has to announce God’s good news to all of them, at the same time, in the same sermon. Thus, a sermon is a much more complex act of communication than a term paper. Where a term paper might use code to save time, a sermon must explain almost everything.
A sermon is a divinely authorized announcement of God’s truth. It is a proclamation of the great history of redemption as much as it is the transmission of data. A term paper doesn’t necessarily have to distinguish law and gospel but if your sermon doesn’t, then your it is a failure. A sermon must capture the attention, inform, illustrate, persuade, and exhort. The preacher has a much bigger job before him. If a term paper fails to meet its goals it might result in a poor grade or a re-write. If a sermon fails to do its job (to announce the bad news and the good news) there is much more at stake.
Good research is necessary—any preacher who isn’t doing good research into God’s Word isn’t fulfilling his vocation— but it is only half of the work of creating a sermon. The next step is to figure out how to communicate effectively what you’ve learned, what’s appropriate to the sermon and to the pulpit, what’s beneficial for the congregation, what’s edifying. After all, the sermon isn’t about you. It’s about Christ and it’s about the congregation in Christ. In a good sermon the minister, like a good umpire, disappears. If he’s doing his job, the congregation will leave talking about the text, about God in Christ for them and not how clever or entertaining the minister is.
PREACH ONE SERMON AT A TIME
It is not unusual for young preachers in term-paper mode to write complex sermons, that is sermons that are not one sermon with (for example) three points but three sermons in one. The temptation of the young preacher is to try to tell everyone everything he learned all at once. Again, that temptation is partly due to the circumstances of the sermon. Student preachers doing pulpit supply aren’t going to be back week after week for years. This helps to create a certain unspoken pressure to say it all now because the young preacher might not ever get another chance. Still, it’s a good habit (i.e., disposition and practice) to force one’s self to preach just one sermon at a time. One way to achieve this goal is to recognize the limits inherent to the preaching event.
The Westminster Assembly adopted the “Directory For The Publick Worship of God” in 1644. The Directory has a section on preaching that deserves more attention than it receives. They were aware of the temptation to try to do more in one sermon than should be attempted:
And, as he needeth not always to prosecute every doctrine which lies in his text, so is he wisely to make choice of such uses, as, by his residence and conversing with his flock, he findeth most needful and seasonable; and, amongst these, such as may most draw their souls to Christ, the fountain of light, holiness, and comfort.
Notice that the divines (most all of whom were active, preaching ministers) limited what the preacher should attempt in a single sermon. Not every doctrine taught by Scripture should be explained. The medium (a sermon) imposes limits. The minister must “make choices” and focus on what is of most use to his congregation at the time. The preacher will ordinarily have other opportunities to preach the same text and to point out other features or implications. The preacher shouldn’t try to do everything in every sermon. The goal of the sermon is to “draw their souls to Christ….”
LIVE WITH IT
Long sermons have been a problem in the Reformed tradition since the beginning. Historically, for the most part, Reformed congregations have been models of patience. That is no excuse, however, to try their patience. There are some realities that you simply cannot change or challenge. Before the age of modern communication, before the age of constant stimulation and entertainment, people were accustomed to listening to long discourses. In most cases that age has passed. In most cases, in North America, 30 minutes is probably the limit for a sermon. It’s probably true that congregations can learn to endure and perhaps even appreciate longer sermons but that’s a subject for another post. Most of the time, young preacher, you have thirty minutes to get in, get it, and get out.
If you’ve done your work, you know what the heartbeat of the text is and you’ve built your sermon around that. You have a thesis that has emerged from the text and your points have emerged from the text as a way of elaborating on that central point. Introduce the text, the central thesis around which the one sermon (not three) is organized, illustrate it appropriately and get on with it.
Most sermons, most of the time, have three points. In 30 minutes you have about 3 minutes to introduce a sermon, three minutes of transitions from introduction to body, within the body, and to the conclusion. You have about 3 minutes for your conclusion. That leaves you with 21 minutes for the body of the sermon or about 7 minutes a point. If what you have to say cannot be said in 7 minutes, you’re trying to do too much.
I started by distinguishing between a term paper and a sermon. That distinction has practical implications. It means you should leave your manuscript in the study. A minister must communicate clearly and the Holy Spirit uses ordinary means. The Westminster Divines recognized that reality.
The illustrations, of what kind soever, ought to be full of light, and such as may convey the truth into the hearer’s heart with spiritual delight.
A sermon manuscript is a good discipline but its use in the pulpit usually hinders communication. Write your manuscript, read your manuscript, learn it but leave it in the study. Make an outline and take the outline with you into the pulpit. A manuscript is fine but it is preparation for, not a culmination of, a sermon.
- Research (including prayer)
If your sermon is so complex that you can’t remember what needs to be said (introduction, thesis, points, illustrations, conclusion), if the outline isn’t a sufficient cue to your memory, then you’re preaching a term paper not a sermon.
Well, young preacher, there it is. Follow the text. Preach the text. Be bold but be wise. Trust the Spirit to do his work. Pray. Don’t fret too much but don’t be lazy. Preach Christ.