How Seminarians Can Learn to Preach to Normal People, Part 2
By Tim Raymond
In my first article in this 3-part miniseries, I briefly warned those with formal theological training of the dangers of preaching to normal people as if they were seminarians. It is possible to so breathe academic air that we come to the point where we can’t imagine any true Christian not being thoroughly enamored by the Lapsarian controversy. Moreover, I gave my first two suggestions for how we can bridge the gap between the academy and the man in the pew. Namely, we should attempt to preach and teach as often as possible while in seminary (so as to keep our brains on the ground) and learn to consult both exegetical and pastoral commentaries when constructing sermons and Bible studies. In this entry, I’d like to provide our readers two more suggestions. I reiterate that while I am no expert in this area, the Lord in His mercy has taught me something about preaching rigorous exegesis to those without formal education.
3. Study your preaching text until you feel the pastoral burden of the passage on your own soul. One of the greatest temptations those of us who regularly preach face is to create sermons merely to get a paycheck. I confess to my shame that on many occasions I have fallen into this pit. Sunday is quickly coming, it’s already Thursday afternoon, you’re tired from last night’s too-long deacons’ meeting, and you haven’t yet begun your exegesis. So you hastily run through a passage, skim over your best commentary, jot down a couple of interesting ideas, throw in that funny story about your kids, insert that catchy introduction you heard at a conference last year, close with a moving exhortation to share the gospel with your neighbors, and you’re good to go. While this temptation is admittedly strong and succumbing to it is rather easy, in the long-run it is positively satanic. It may be initially imperceptible, but when you study the Bible as a professional sermon-producer and not as a Christian seeking to commune with God, your entire outlook and posture toward the Bible changes. You begin querying the text only to find tidbits you think your hearers might find interesting. You might just regurgitate the data you recall from your New Testament introduction classes and not mine for new gold. You might ignore or avoid difficult doctrines or verses because they don’t make for good messages. You may begin to justify an improbable reading of a passage simply because it makes for a stimulating sermon. You may begin tacking on applications at the end of the sermon that have little or nothing to do with the text (e.g., “let’s all pray more”) since you really don’t understand how this passage applies to the normal Christian life. We preachers must fight this temptation tooth-and-nail. To paraphrase John MacArthur from an old 9Marks audio interview, “Never study a passage to prepare a sermon; always study a passage to get to know the God who inspired the passage.” The Lord did not give us His Word so that we would turn it into cutesy 45-minute infomercials; He gave it to us to save sinners from hell and to prepare the sheep for heaven (e.g., 2 Corinthians 4:1-6). And if that isn’t beginning with the preacher, it will never translate into life-transforming sermons.
What this means is that you will need to steep your soul in your passage long enough until you feel its pastoral burden. You need to ask yourself not just, “What kind of aorist is here in verse 3?”, but “Why did God include this passage in the Bible? What does this passage teach me about the Lord and how I should commune with Him? If I truly believed this passage, how would I live differently in 2011? How should this passage affect the way I love my wife, raise my kids, treat my neighbor, etc.?” To do this effectively, you should really start your exegesis as early in the week as possible (though I admit, I don’t always follow this advice, including, unfortunately, this week). This will allow the passage to sit on your subconscious and you’ll start to realize, perhaps as you mow the lawn or stand in the shower, how this passage should transform your life. Pray through your passage and truly meditate upon it. Pray through it again. Chew on your passage in this contemplative way until you feel in your soul how you, as a Christian living coram Deo, should respond to God. Perhaps more than anything else, this practice will free you to preach with power, life-transforming application, and heart-penetrating conviction. And from the limited biographies I’ve read, it seems to me that history’s truly great Gospel preachers (e.g., Calvin, Bunyan, Whitefield, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, etc.) studied the Bible primarily to commune with God and secondarily to produce sermons. If I could recommend a resource that’s very much related to this point, listen to the sobering message by Donald Whitney entitled The Almost Inevitable Ruin of Every Minister…and How to Avoid it . It will give you much to ponder.
4. Devote a good bit of sermon preparation time to brainstorming applications. At the risk of sounding like an anti-intellectual heretic, I want to say something to those of us heady types who are more comfortable with books than people: consider decreasing the time you spend on exegesis and increasing the time you devote to imagining how your passage applies to your flock. Again, please don’t misunderstand me. Rigorous exegesis is absolutely essential for quality preaching and that can’t be done during the commercial breaks in Wheel of Fortune. I devote at least a third of my overall sermon preparation time to pure exegesis. But we pastors are not mere exegetes; we have been sovereignly summoned to lovingly pastor the church of God under our care, primarily through our preaching. Therefore, some time must be intentionally dedicated to thinking through how this passage applies to my particular congregation. In a fantastic series of lectures on the primacy of expository preaching, D.A. Carson claims that John Stott, whom so many look to as a model of expository preaching, devoted around 50% of his sermon preparation time to application. That may be excessive, but then again, maybe it’s not. We should consider thoughtfully imaging how this passage speaks to the specific needs of my congregation as part of our sermon preparation. So maybe during the week before your sermon, discuss how your exegesis applies with selected individuals in your congregation. Ask Grandma Gertrude and Louie the truck driver and young mother Wendy and university student Gavin how this passage might apply to their specific struggles and temptations. Perhaps flip through your church directory and contemplate how this or that member might incarnate your exegesis. A tool I have used for years with great benefit is the Application Grid produced by 9Marks Ministries and modeled by Mark Dever, which I commend for your consideration. There’s no one way to do it, but nonetheless, some part of your sermon preparation time must be devoted to thinking through how your exegesis speaks to the people in your pews. Otherwise, you might as well just read a commentary to your congregation. A resource that I have found particularly strong in this area is Jay Adam’s little gem Preaching with Purpose. It’ll give you some great insights for preaching with application.
Lord willing, next time I’ll conclude this miniseries with my final two suggestions for how we seminarians can learn to preach to normal people.
Tim Raymond has been the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana since April 2006. He received his MDiv from the Baptist Bible Seminary of Pennsylvania in 2004 and has pursued further education through the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. Tim grew up outside Syracuse, NY and previously served at Berean Baptist Church, Nicholson, PA (member and teacher during college and seminary) and Calvary Baptist Church, Sandusky, Ohio (seminary internship location). Tim met his wife Bethany at college, and they were married in May 2001. Tim enjoys reading, camping, wrestling with his three sons, and attempting to sleep.