I preached Philippians 1.
After standing in the pulpit for a few awkward moments, I said, “Hi.”
“Hi.” The congregation responded.
It was a Sunday night service on a holiday weekend. My pastor was on vacation. The smaller crowd was the core. They knew what they were getting. I was twenty-three years old. Only now can I admit I preached that first sermon not having read the entire Bible yet.
Rookie preachers tend to go very short or very long. I was the former. I think I finished the sermon in under 20 minutes. My worship pastor would love for me to do that now.
“That was excellent. Thank you for sharing.” A sweet, elderly woman shook my hand.
“Son, you might have a future, possibly.” One of the deacons waved as he walked by me.
“Well, at least you didn’t mess anything up.” The Sunday school director smiled.
After everyone left, I asked my girlfriend, “How did I really do?”
“Why did you wag your finger at everyone the entire time? It was weird.”
“I did?! I had no idea.”
We married three years later. I no longer awkwardly point when I preach.
I do not remember how or why Paul Chitwood asked me to preach. Perhaps he saw something in me. More likely, no one else was available to fill the pulpit. Regardless, I knew that Sunday I had to preach — every week. Something in me (the Holy Spirit) prompted me to take every opportunity. I served bi-vocationally for three years, ultimately landing at a small rural church with six people.
Twenty years have passed since that first sermon. As I look back, several reflections come to mind.
The death of the traditional Sunday evening service has killed the opportunity for young, potential preachers to practice. I get why most churches no longer have a Sunday evening service, nor am I advocating for their return. But there are unintended consequences to any significant change in a church. The reality is Sunday evening was great practice for up-and-coming young preachers. These opportunities are now largely gone.
Younger pastors should master exegetical preaching before attempting topical sermons. I enjoy preaching topical sermons. Certain topics like addiction, religious liberty, and angelology are challenging to preach with only verse-by-verse sermons. The reality is topical sermons are far more difficult to write than exegetical sermons, if done well. (Topical sermons are easy to write if done poorly). I recommend young preachers spend a few years going through books of the Bible before attempting topical sermons.
Preaching is more a craft than science. For my first couple of years preaching, I wrote sermons as if I was dissecting a bug in biology class. I was careful, precise, and thorough. These sermons communicated the intended meaning of the text with all the details of a technical commentary, but they lacked inspiration. True craftsmen create works of art that inspire, and mastering a craft — sermon writing included — requires years of practice.
Your theology will change over the years. I often tell my church that I do not expect everyone to agree with everything I say every week. That’s what a cult leader expects of followers. In fact, I disagree with my younger self in many areas of Scripture! My eschatology and soteriology have changed. I am more open to the sign gifts now than in the past. I moved away from strong views of close or closed communion. If you preach faithfully, you will likely evolve in your views of Scripture as you learn more about God’s Word.
Preaching is better when done to edify and not to educate. The sanctuary is not a classroom, and the parishioners are not your students. Should you learn something each week in church? Of course! But delivering and receiving a sermon is a different exercise than pedagogy. Pastors should edify the saints. While education is a part of edification, sermons should aim to inspire people to action guided by the Holy Spirit.
The New Living Translation is ideal for preaching and encouraging the church to read God’s Word. I have preached from a variety of translations. The NLT is perfect for reading aloud. The translation is the best balance of formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence. Most importantly, the NLT is a translation everyone of all ages can read together.
You cannot grow a church with good preaching anymore. I remember a few old-timers telling me, “Get good at preaching, and your church will grow.” This advice was accurate 30 years ago but no longer works. The days of large swaths of people coming to church to hear a good preacher are long gone. Sermons are critically important, but they alone do not grow churches.
“Just preach the Word” is not valid. I’ve heard this saying countless times. Frankly, it’s some of the most harmful advice anyone can give a young pastor. Shepherding a congregation requires far more than preaching. Preaching is only a fraction of what is required of a pastor.
Almost everyone listening wants you to do well. For the most part, your congregation is cheering for you as you preach. The curmudgeons may be vocal, but they are rare. Most people who sit and listen every week enjoy hearing you preach and want you to succeed.
It’s hard to believe I started preaching 20 years ago. In those 20 years, I have preached weekly except for about 30 Sundays. Rarely does a Sunday pass when I’m not in the pulpit.
I hope God gives me another 20 years of opportunities.
Originally published at Church Answers.
Sam Rainer is president of Church Answers and pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church in Florida.