It is important to understand the two essential parts of effective preaching and how each requires its own discipline of preparation.
First, there is the content part of preaching. Preaching is all about accurately exegeting and understanding the truths of the gospel as they unfold in a particular passage of Scripture. I cannot rush this aspect of my preparation. I cannot leave the discipline of content until I have understood the purpose of the passage. And if I cannot practically apply the truths of the passage to my life and to those to whom I will preach, then I haven't yet fully understood the passage. The exegetical process doesn't end with understanding, it ends with application.
It is necessary for me to live with a passage, to carry it around with me, and to marinate my soul with its nourishing and thirst-quenching waters. I simply can't do this in a couple hours. I need meditative time with the passage so the Spirit can work through it in me and through me to the people under my care. I'm about to make some of you angry, but I'm going to say it anyway. If you are developing original content late on a Saturday evening, you have no business preaching it on Sunday. It's unlikely that you will have understood the full range of the radical gospel glories of the passage, it's doubtful that they have confronted your heart, and it's unlikely that you have developed much readiness to communicate them winsomely and practically to your listeners.
At that late hour you will settle for a surface scan of the passage and call it a sermon. You will pirate the work of others even if you don't know you're doing it, and you will have little ability to portray the radical confrontation and encouragement of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because you have not taken the necessary time, you will preach depersonalized doctrinal bits and pieces disassociated from the gospel of grace. You will communicate ideas, but you will not powerfully preach a glorious Christ who is powerfully present in every passage you will ever be called to preach. You will default to offering people a system of redemption, but you will not help them to find their hope and help in a Redeemer. So your people will think they're growing in maturity because they are growing in theological understanding; but your preaching will not bring them to the end of themselves and to the cross of Jesus Christ. We must always, always remember that the theology of the Word of God is not an end in itself, but a means to an end – a radically grace-transformed life.
Craft of Communication
But there is a second essential aspect to preaching. Preaching is not just a craft of content; it is also a craft of communication. You must meditate, pray, labor, and wrestle with how to communicate the truths you now understand to the particular people in your care. I am persuaded that we have devalued the communication aspect of powerful, effective, life-changing, gospel preaching. I am not talking about trying to be a John Piper or Tim Keller. I'm talking about your commitment to do everything you can to winsomely and cogently explain and apply the glorious truths you have exegeted as you committed yourself to the necessary discipline of content. If the process hasn't begun until Saturday, you have no time whatsoever to develop the communication aspect of your sermon, to think of a helpful turn of phrase, an illuminating personal illustration, or a practical point of gospel application. You're just relieved that you got the content down, that you actually have something to say when it comes time to stand up and preach. But you won't say things well, you won't develop insight-giving word pictures, you won't have that tender moment of self-disclosing honesty, you won't make specific application to the culture your people live in, you won't show your people how that every truth revealed in the passage is a finger that points to Christ, and you won't leave people hungering for more. You have entered the pulpit with a bag of content, but it hasn't yet been formed into a sermon.
This is how I think of the relationship between these two aspects of preaching. I love to cook, so I am the one in our family who cooks the Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts. If you have purposed to feed your family a wonderful, memorable meal, it all starts with gathering fine ingredients. If you don't take the time to hunt for the best ingredients available, you will never have that meal of your dreams. Gathering the best ingredients is analogous to the content part of preaching. Good preaching is rooted in gathering fine gospel ingredients out of the passage before you.
But on Thanksgiving Day, I don't put ingredients on the table. Ingredients are the substance, but they are not a meal. They must be formed into attractive, tasty, nutritious, and consumable elements that together form a meal. A hunk of butter, mouthful of flour, followed by a spoon of cornmeal, is not very appetizing or digestible. But cornbread is a wonderful thing. The finest of turkeys, placed raw on a table, would be neither appealing nor edible. The forming of the fine ingredients collected into a beautiful meal is analogous to the communication aspect of preaching.
Many preachers are in the sad habit of putting ingredients on the table. They may be fine ingredients, but they have not been formed into a meal, so they are neither attractive nor consumable. If everyone I fed was a chef, I would be able to put ingredients on the table, and they could form it into a meal. And if everyone to whom you are preaching are pastors, you could put gospel ingredients on the table, and they could form them into a meal. But they are not. I am not discounting the Holy Spirit's power to capture, convict, and change people through his Word. We are always utterly dependent on him, and we are never called to do his work. But the Holy Spirit has commissioned us, and our job is to do everything we can to be sharp instruments in his redemptive hands.
I will tell you what this means for me. It means I can't in the same week have a fresh encounter and also preach the truths I am to communicate from a particular portion of Scripture. That does not give me enough content and communication time. Everywhere I was called on to preach weekly, I prepared content three or four weeks ahead of time. This allowed truths to marinate in my own heart and become more deeply and practically understood. On the week of the sermon, I preached it aloud to myself many times. In doing so both my understanding of the passage and the creative ways it would be communicated deepened and developed.
I'm not suggesting that this regimen of preparation is the right one for you, but we cannot be satisfied with poorly prepared exegetical meanderings, delivered by a pastor who doesn't see his own mediocrity because his heart needs to be recaptured by the awe of God's glory and grace. God's presence in our preaching and his grace that meets us in our weakness assures us that we can do better.
Pastor, are you suffering from an awe amnesia that allows you to set standards way lower than required if you take your ambassadorial calling seriously? Has this allowed you to be comfortable with mediocrity in ministry? If so, don't wallow in shame, don't hide in guilt. Run to your Redeemer. Bask in his glorious grace. Seek the forgiveness and empowerment that only he can give. And commit yourself, by his grace, to the disciplines of excellence that follow when he recues you from you and gives back your awe.