I am a young preacher. I learn far more than I teach every time I stand to proclaim the gospel on a Sunday morning. With each sermon I preach, I learn more about God, the gospel, preaching preparation and delivery, and just how much I need the grace of God and the patience of the people who sit under my preaching. God bless anyone who sit under the preaching of raw preachers like me! We are often passionate, eager, excited, naive, and inexperienced.
There are already things I’ve said in sermons I would never say again, and there are things I’ve said I would definitely say differently. I resonate with Tim Keller when he says the first 200 sermons a preacher preaches will be terrible. The good news for every young preacher like me is that the edification and sanctification of those under our preaching is not ultimately dependent on our preaching abilities, but on the Word that we are preaching.
Any preacher, young or old, who faithfully preaches the Word as it was revealed is a competent preacher. Sermon preparation, writing, and delivery skills will develop over time (at least I hope). But when a preacher preaches the Word, it will not return void.
One of the things I am learning as I hone my preaching skills is that preaching can be simple without being childish. Preaching can be both deep and clear. Preaching should be both deep and clear. But striking this balance is difficult, particularly for younger preachers.
One great and short work on preaching that I just read last night is J.C. Ryle’s Simplicity in Preaching. As someone who admittedly struggles at times to preach deep truths in clear ways, Ryle’s work was refreshing and illuminating. Preaching simply should never come at the cost of preaching the whole counsel of God. We should never offer our people bread crumbs when the feast of God’s Word is before them. However, we should bring our people to that feast in the simplest of ways. The gospel is deep, but is not unattainable. We can preach simply without being simple in our preaching.
Ryle is very helpful in striking this balance. He offers five ways to attain simplicity in preaching. Below, I’ve listed Ryle’s five points while adding comment below each point.
1. If you want to attain simplicity in preaching, take care that you have a clear view of the subject upon which you are going to preach.
In other words, could you or your people summarize your sermon in a sentence? Would your people have an adequate answer if they’re asked at lunch what the sermon was about? It may be helpful to even provide your people with a sentence that summarizes the main point of text you are preaching, which should be the main point of your sermon.
2. Try to use in all your sermons, as far as you can, simple words.
I think this definitely depends on context. You know your people. Preach where they are, but don’t forsake the responsibility to teach. So, if they are more theologically educated, you may not need to define every theological phrase you say. But even if your people aren’t as educated, don’t see in this a cop-out to explain theological words or concepts. Ryle intends here that preachers not throw out theological jargon without clearly explaining what these foreign words mean. In other words, it may be best to leave your Greek New Testament at home!
3. Take care to aim at a simple style of composition.
In terms of delivery, Ryle believes tactful pauses in your preaching helps your people absorb what you are teaching. Don’t assume your people are fully tracking with you. They don’t have your manuscript or your notes. Some of them may be encountering a passage or idea for the first time. Be sensitive to this and make use of tactful pauses “to allow the minds of your hearers to take a breath.”
4. Use a direct style.
Be personal. You aren’t giving a lecture. And you aren’t speaking to strangers. General truths in bullet point format may be helpful for a blog post or article, but in a sermon they can feel distant. Again, you know your people. Apply the text specifically to your ministry context, and to the lives of those physically sitting right in front of you. Ryle writes, “The more you get into the habit of talking plainly to people, in the first person singular, the simpler will your sermon be, and the more easily understood.”
5. Use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations.
Another weakness of mine. Some preachers don’t have a problem with this. In fact, their sermons amount to jokes and stories with some gospel thrown in. However, this should give no pause to a gospel-centered expositor to leverage helpful illustrations to better communicate truth. Ryle says of illustrations, “You must regard illustrations as windows through which light is let in upon your subject.” Good illustrations can help capture the hearts of your people, and frankly may just wake some of them up!
Preaching simply or clearly boils down to remembering one crucial element: you are not speaking to an empty room. Ryle concludes, “If he is a real man of God, and knows how to deliver a sermon, he will never preach to bare walls and empty benches.” Preach to the hearts and minds of the flesh and blood people in the pews. Sermon preparation and deliver is a labor of love. It is a labor to proclaim the riches of God’s glory as he has revealed himself in his Word to the people he has entrusted to us. Be more concerned about helping your people look more like Jesus than hitting a grand slam with your sermon. As Ryle puts it,
Whatever we preach…we ought to aim not merely at letting off fireworks, but at preaching that which will do lasting good to souls…Let us aim so to preach, that what we say may really come home to men’s minds and consciences and hearts, and make them think and consider.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (Westbow Press, 2016). He is a M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.