All divinity students at Wake Forest are required to take Preaching 101. I preached my first sermon yesterday. It was a humbling experience.
I’ve been in front of federal judges and juries, given presentations on complicated legal topics in front of audiences ranging from tens to hundreds of very knowledgable lawyers, and taught law school and management classes at two universities.
I’ve taught Sunday School and Wednesday night classes to adults, high schoolers, and middle schoolers. I’ve listened to well over 1000 sermons in my lifetime.
Yet, preparing and giving a sermon was different and difficult.
Part of a song by my favorite folk singer, Todd Snider: “You know me; I can’t take no preaching. Not on Sunday, or any other day. But I feel like I ought to be praying to something. And I have no idea what to say.”
I have plenty to say. I can think of a zillion sermon topics. That is not the problem. (Though, closer to what Snider said, I struggle with things to say when praying; something to work on, I suppose.)
The main difference and difficulty, instead, is that a sermon ought to be a word from God.
“So, go ahead, give us a word from God.” No pressure. How do I do that, exactly?
Do it with modesty and caution, say our professor and assigned reading.
Also, pay careful attention to scripture. Read a lot. Research and think deeply. Consider your audience. Pray. Be purposeful. Spend lots of time on each sermon. Listen for the Holy Spirit. Be theologically accurate. …
A word from God is not some silent-CB-radio communication from God that is delivered to the preacher’s brain and that the preacher then shares with the congregation. If you receive one of those, great. Most use the phrase to refer instead to something more along the lines of a thoughtful and meaningful message determined from (or inspired by) scripture, and the preacher then shares that message.
The chief mistakes I made in my sermon preparation and delivery—that I know of so far!—were:
- The first half was mostly information delivery—explaining the historical background of the scripture addressed, beginning to tell the story from the scripture, and the like. This would have been fine for a university class, but people do not come to a sermon to hear a geography lesson. Providing such information is fine, but a sermon should deliver at least a stepping-stone theological point to the audience sooner.
- The first half also moved along too slowly. I belabored the point a couple of times, delaying the audience along its road to the interesting points.
- I de-personalized the message away from myself not long after I started speaking, but the points made in the sermon applied just as much to me as my audience. A better sermon is not directed “at” the audience, but includes the preacher as being with the audience in this journey.
- During the first half in particular, there weren’t enough “hooks” or “interim destinations” or however you express making deliberate sub-points along the way.
- Too slow of a start. Keep up a good pace from the beginning.
Thus begins the list of mistakes I make in sermon preparation and delivery!
It will grow.
(Picture: The picture at the top is a picture that I took last month of the chapel at the top of the hill at the traditional spot Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount.)
The lyrics are from Todd Snider’s “Greencastle Blues,” on the album The Excitement Plan (2009).