“Missionaries need to be ready to preach, pray, or die at a moment’s notice.” Or so I’ve heard all my life. Though this is often said jokingly, there is a ring of truth to it. In this new blog series, I am focusing on how to prepare a sermon. Missionaries often have opportunity to preach both in their home country and in their host country. Yet, many missionaries do not have formal training in preaching. In this post and four additional posts, I will share my perspective on preparing expository sermons gleaned from teaching homiletics (the art of preaching) at Alaska Bible College for 35 years. In this introductory post, I will define expository preaching, and focus on the preacher’s relationship with the Word and the audience. I will also list the topics for the next four posts.
Expository preaching is grounded in our belief that the Bible is the Word of God. That is, what the Bible says, God says. Therefore, preaching gains authority by faithfully communicating the text of Scripture. God has revealed himself in words we can understand so we can know him. Indeed, Paul writes that the Scriptures make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 3:15). Furthermore, the Bible produces competency for our Christian life (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Expository preaching, then, seeks to faithfully communicate the biblical message. The content of Scripture controls the content of the sermon. Haddon Robinson provides a formal definition:
Expository Preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to his hearers..Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 1980, p. 20.
The length of the Bible passage may be short or long. Above all, the sermon must be faithful to the passage in its context.
The Preacher and the Word
Preparing to preach is more than just a careful study of a biblical passage. In other words, it is not simply an academic activity. It is that, but it is so much more.2For a good resource of Bible study see Daniel M. Doriani, Getting the Message: A Plan for Interpreting and Applying the Bible, P&R Publishing, 1996. As Robinson’s definition notes, the Holy Spirit applies the truth of Scripture first to the preacher.
The Puritan, John Owen, emphasized the need for the preacher to experience the power of the Bible in his own life. Additionally, Owen argues that tasting the truth of Scripture enables us to commend it to others. He writes,
“If the Word do[es] not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us.”John Owen, The Nature of a Gospel Church, Works of John Owen, vol.16, p.76.
So, it is vital that the preacher himself is affected by the message he delivers to others. As John Bunyan wrote,
“I preached what I felt, what I smartingly did feel.”Quoted in Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: the Puritans as They Really Were, 1986, p. 107.
For this reason, personal Bible study fuels good preaching. If we only study the Bible in preparation for preaching and teaching, we will dry up. Not only that, but our preaching will lack vitality. We need to study God’s Word to cultivate our own relationship with Christ.3See the posts on this blog about the importance of self-feeding. As a result, we will develop a rich reservoir for sermon texts to share with others. We will never run out of biblical material to preach. Applying the Bible to our own lives equips us to share with others. In short, personal delight in God’s Word will add life to our preaching.
The Preacher and the Audience
Preparing to preach requires that we study our audience as well as the Bible. That is, we need to understand our hearers for our communication to be effective. I heard someone say that shooting over the heads of our audience does not prove we have superior ammunition; it just proves we are a bad shot. This will have implications throughout the process of sermon preparation. John Stott comments on this in Between Two Worlds:
Biblical and theological studies do not by themselves make for good preaching. They are indispensable. But unless they are supplemented by contemporary studies, they can keep us disastrously isolated on one side of the cultural chasm.John Stott, Between Two Worlds, Eerdmans, 1982, p.190.
In a later book, Stott referred to this practice as “double listening.”4John Stott in The Contemporary Christian: Applying God’s Word to Today’s World, IVP, 1992 (UK subtitle: An Urgent Plea for Double Listening). The purpose of double listening is to make the biblical message understood in the contemporary context.5See also a blog post reviewing Tim Chester’s book, Stott on the Christian Life for more about Stott’s thoughts on preaching. Listening to Scripture takes priority in forming the content of the message. Yet, listening to the cultural context will form how the message is developed, illustrated, and applied. Indeed, we soon realize that we cannot simply translate a sermon we preached in our home culture into the language of our host culture. Different cultural contexts require unique development, illustrations, and applications.
Future Posts on Preparing to Preach
In future posts, I will describe the steps in preparing to preach an expository sermon that communicates the “big idea” of our biblical text with cultural sensitivity. The “big idea” is the central, dominant thought derived from the biblical text that holds the sermon together. It is the one point you are making. Presently, I am planning four additional posts:
- Stating the big idea
- Developing the big idea
- Illustrating and applying the big idea
- Introducing and concluding the big idea