Preaching is the art of provoking hearts and minds toward Jesus and his kingdom. I believe it’s an art because I’m convinced it’s similar to painting or composing music. You can take a class on painting and learn the basic mechanics of brush strokes, but that’s way different than being a Claude Monet. You can also learn how to play piano notes and even chord progressions, but that’s a far cry from being Ludwig van Beethoven.
I think the lines blur a bit between preaching and teaching, as the sermonic structure of communication tends to vary between those in church leadership who participate in congregational speaking. Most of my favorite preachers tend to transition, quite smoothly I might add, between what I’d consider preaching and what seems to fall into the teaching category.
Biblical Foundations for Preaching
One simply needs to read the Old Testament to encounter some of the great preaching of the Bible. The Prophets of old often proclaimed to the people of Israel (and the nations) the truths of God in startling fashion. Jesus himself was a great communicator and genius at using stories (parables) to provoke the hearts and minds of his listeners. Throughout the Book of Acts, the Apostles and other disciples (e.g., Stephen and Phillip) were preachers (for great survey’s of the biblical foundations for preaching, I highly recommend Inspired Preaching: A Survey of Preaching Found in the New Testament and Preaching: A Biblical Theology).
As far as what we read and observe in Scripture, preaching appears to be extremely important within the life of the Church for at least two reasons:
- Preaching is a means by which people hear the gospel, the story of God, the teachings and works of Christ, and the invitation to come to King Jesus and his kingdom.
- Preaching is a powerful way to encourage and challenge (not the only way).
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said:
“What is the chief end of preaching? I like to think it is this: It is to give men and women a sense of God and His presence.”
So preaching is a means by which God speaks through women and men about Jesus and the stories of God to both win them and to encourage them. Preaching can be used by God to communicate his presence and his power and point people to Jesus.
Five Goals of Preaching
When I am studying, collecting ideas, mind-mapping thoughts, and prayerfully working on the sermons I preach, I have a number of goals that are in the back of my mind. I’ve found that they help keep me centered on Jesus as well as serve to keep me from becoming a “hobby horse” preacher who only talks about the end times in every sermon (I digress). These goals also help ensure that I’m able to provoke as many of the hearts and minds as I can. When you are preaching to larger groups of people, you can’t assume that everyone is going to be engaged in the same way… yet if you aren’t intentional at attempting to communicate in a way that can engage everyone, you certainly won’t. At any rate, here are my goals:
(1) Glorify Jesus. It might seem obvious, but I hope that after every one of my sermons, Jesus was glorified. I desire my ideas and illustrations and applications would be built on Scripture and in line with the Great Tradition of orthodoxy. As people are to worship in all that they do (Rom. 12:1-2), on most Sunday mornings an aspect of worship that I participate in is preaching. I want Jesus to be lifted up through my words!
(2) Point people to Jesus. Related to glorifying Jesus, I want all of my sermons to clearly point people to Jesus and his kingdom. “Christian” preaching should be for Jesus, about Jesus, and done with Jesus’s presence through his Spirit. I hope that every single person who hears my sermons hears me say, “Yes… life has many complex problems and challenges but I am telling you that Jesus has all of the solutions and ways forward that you need” in some way, shape, and form.
(3) Empower, equip (through education), encourage, exhort, challenge, and provoke. What I love most about the Holy Spirit’s work through preaching is that God is doing so many things in the congregation simultaneously! Several weeks ago on a Sunday afternoon, a number of people sent me texts to let me know what God had been doing during the morning’s message. One person said they received a ton of hope about a situation they were facing and felt like they could trust God. Another said they hadn’t ever really thought about their role in the kingdom like that, so they were challenged to “partner with God.” Yet another felt like they could start praying for people and be more present in people’s lives.
The simple fact of the matter is that I think it’s important that we recognize how God can do a variety of “things” in the sermon space and that we can design our sermons to accomplish a variety of “things” in what we say.
(4) Stir people’s emotions, especially affections. I remember growing up and hearing that all the crazy charismatic Christians only cared about emotions and that it wasn’t right to base things on feelings and that feelings can’t be trusted, etc., etc. As a self-described “charismatic,” let me just say this: that teaching is heresy (and I don’t use that word lightly). It’s far more gnostic in origin and essentially denies how God created us! While it’s true that we need to be discerning about emotions, they are not the enemy. What preacher doesn’t want people to fall more in love with Jesus through their preaching? And shouldn’t the affections for people also be stirred? Shouldn’t our feelings of repentance and our desires for holiness spring out of hearing of the beauty and majesty of God? Yes.
The idea that emotions and feelings and affections is “bad” is both anti-biblical, it’s specifically anti-God. So… ummmm… don’t fall for it.
(5) Be proportional. Most folks talking about preaching tend to emphasize proportionality in regard to the percentage of the sermon dedicated to exposition, illustration, and application. This is extremely important.
All sermons need, I think, to have Scripture. This doesn’t mean you have to repeat the verses over and over again and call it “expository preaching” that is “verse by verse” (because it is not). But it does mean that sermons should include what has been foundational and authoritative for God’s people for thousands of years (yes, I’m going beyond the history of Christianity there because the people of Israel loved the Old Testament).
Sermons also need to have a proportional amount of illustrations and applications. People need to be able to hear stories about how Scripture can be related to their lives and how they can apply what they are hearing, especially in a world that has an increasingly uninformed understanding of the Bible.
Yet this is not the only type of proportionality one should have. I think we should attempt for our sermons to proportionally press into the following:
- Encourage people toward mission, especially God’s mission. Sermons should get people to engage in making Jesus known.
- Encourage people toward spiritual formation, such as prayer, reading Scripture, fasting, soul care, etc.
- Encourage people toward serving, in both the local church and in the community.
- Encourage people toward community. Relationships matter and discipleship happens in community.
Sermons can’t do everything and it’s absolutely critical that preachers do their best to have one “big idea” (or as Andy Stanley calls it in Communicating for a Change, a “sticky statement”). This is especially true for new preachers who have a tendency to try and put every biblical-theological idea they have ever had into their sermon.
No. Stop. Just have one basic idea and preach a shorter sermon than all of your favorite preachers do. Just trust me.
- What would you add?
- What goals do you think preachers should have?
- How do you define “preaching”?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.