Most ministers, particularly those who have studied to be pastors, took at least one course in seminary on preaching. That class time covered using the Bible, sermon structure, and delivery. A few hours of these classes also discussed how to plan preaching, but, by necessity, the majority of class time focused on the sermon. Grades in those classes reflected how well students wrote and delivered a message. Class time and grades left many with the assumption that preaching is primarily about the sermon. Individual sermons, however, are simply the starting place for ministers who deliver a message each week. There is more to preaching than crafting a sermon.
Preaching is Also a Relationship
A member of a nearby church once said to me, “Our preacher is better than when she came to us.” After passing the ten-year mark at a church, a pastor friend once said to me, “I’m glad I’ve been here long enough that I don’t have to explain myself anymore.” Both comments are about relationships. Most pastors find it easier to preach to their own congregation and congregations listen better to their own pastor as people know him or her better. Hopefully, we all improve over time. Yet, I believe that, when members comment on how a pastor has developed, a significant part of that development comes from a relationship that grows.
While time is one essential ingredient for stronger relationships, another is effort. We must learn names as early as possible in a new ministry. We must visit people where they work, live, play, and shop. We need to read the local paper and know what is happening in the community. I heard of a pastor who positioned himself in the organ pipe chamber each Sunday before worship. He noted who entered and prayed for each one until it was time for worship to begin. Invisible to the congregation, he was learning who they were and prayed for what they needed. He worked to grow the relationship.
Understanding preaching as relationship also affects our delivery. How do you feel when a friend won’t make eye contact when they speak to you? Maybe the congregation feels the same way when we look down instead of looking at them. Look up at those in the room when you preach. Constantly looking at the carefully crafted manuscript tells the people it is more important than they are. Make eye contact with the people you love.
Preaching is Also a Ministry
For years, I struggled with the need to preach the perfect sermon. It always seemed that during the week after a particular message, I discovered an illustration or insight that would have made the sermon better. I saved notes on these new discoveries in a file folder I assigned that particular sermon. If I ever preached it again, I could add it to the message. Maybe with this addition, the sermon would be complete. My focus was on each, single sermon.
As important as each sermon is, any single message is only a small part of our overall preaching ministry. Realizing this fact can be liberating. It is okay that we will never preach the perfect sermon on grace or the Prodigal Son. More study can make any sermon better. But no amount of study for this week’s message can uncover every scrap of material needed to make it the last word on the subject. Surely, we all hope that we know more about scripture and theology in the future than we do today. Hopefully we grow more, learn more and have additional sermons yet to preach on any given passage. This week’s sermon is not the crown of our preaching ministry. No single sermon is.
The material found too late for last Sunday’s message, however, can be fodder for the next time we preach on the same passage. We don’t have to say everything about grace, or judgement, or discipleship this week. But, perhaps over time we can say enough about any of these subjects to get the message across.
Our deepest hope is that the body of work from all our sermons lead the congregation to deeper faith. Preaching is about the cumulative impact of years of sermons, not any single message. It’s a ministry, not just a sermon.
CHC Preaching Coaches
A preaching coach can help you discover the places you would like to grow in your ministry. The Center for Healthy Churches offers Preaching Coaches who tailor their work to help you in the areas most important to you. Whether you want to write better, deliver more effectively, plan more comprehensively, or uncover ways to identity with your members, a coach can help you reach your goals.
If you want to explore the possibilities of using a CHC Preaching Coach, email our coordinator Dr. Chuck Bugg to talk about areas of your preaching ministry that you want to explore and grow.