Some Advice for Preachers

Let me begin this little chat by telling about a common practice among many preachers. Of course preachers are supposed to preach. Therefore they must have topics or subjects about which to preach, and, with many preachers, this is the hardest thing they do. The week may be spent on Internet mostly, or, with other preachers, the time may be spent on the golf course, or the river, or at the health club every morning building a splendid physique, or studying catalogs, or becoming experts on various and sundry subjects. About Thursday, the preacher begins to have fleeting thoughts that he has nothing to preach on Sunday. So he rummages in the nearly empty spiritual attic and snags the idea that it would be great to preach on Isaiah. He connects with the world of cyberspace and says, "Hey, I am wanting to preach a sermon on Isaiah Sunday. Anybody have a good outline on Isaiah I could use?"

Now there are several problems here. One is that if one is really qualified to preach on Isaiah, he is not going to have to cast about for somebody else's outline. Second, if he does not really know Isaiah, he is not going to be able to tell whether the outline is good or not. Third, if he does not really know Isaiah, and the outline is any good, he will not be able to do justice to the subject!

I know that anyone can be caught shorthanded due to emergencies that arise in anyone's life from time to time. I know that many men support themselves and preach. They do not begin to have the time to do the studying they would like to do. To an extent, I can understand that, even though some of the better Bible students I know are men with incredible discipline who find time to earn their living with a 40+ hour work week and still prepare splendid lessons. But what I cannot understand or excuse is how a preacher supported to give his full time to the preaching of the gospel can fail to study the word to such an extent that he has to cruise about looking for someone else's outline to use Sunday.

I do not object to seeking other people's outlines and/or notes. We can all learn from one another that way. But I object to choosing a subject, which I have not studied enough to preach on, and which I will be unable to preach on unless I get somebody else's notes.

The one activity that preachers are utterly failing to do is to study the word, to study the text of the Bible. A preacher's study of the Bible is his feeding. We need to study the word because it is truth and it is life, not so that I can find a sermon to preach on. However, when one feeds regularly on the word of God, when he studies to understand the message, he is preparing a very fertile, productive seed bed from which will come the very best sermons.

Not only is the practice of which I speak a lazy way of preaching, it is fundamentally flawed and is calculated to lead men into grave mistakes. Let me illustrate. When one has thoroughly studied a passage and decides to preach a lesson from the passage, he is at one with the writer. He knows what the writer was saying, and the writer was inspired, so the preacher does not even entertain the thought of preaching anything other that what the inspired writer meant. Therefore he does not preach on topics such as, "Some good things about the prodigal son." When one chooses to teach a lesson contrary to the flow of a passage, he finds himself swimming against the current. He is using the passage for a purpose exactly opposite to that of the writer. Though one might occasionally succeed in doing this without teaching error, the approach is flawed, and will eventually lead one to teach error. It is deplorable to practice teaching what a passage does not say!

Another fallacy in such habits as I have described is that the result of shallow, or no, studying is that we fail to see the sublime message of the writer and substitute a lesson which is not taught in the passage, or one which is so shallow that it totally fails to express the true message of the passage at all. When we study a passage or a book, our first purpose should be to see what the inspired writer is saying, rather than saying, "Now what points can I get out of this to preach?" The former approach will see to it that we truly understand what God is saying to us; the latter approach will almost inevitably lead to error.

We might decide to preach a lesson on the book of Nehemiah for example. So we surf along snagging a cute point here and there. We might note that there was a "valley gate" (Neh. 3:13) and make the point that they made gates in the valleys as well as on the hill tops, and eventually, with enough imagination, we could come up with some sort of spiritual lesson from that. Of course such a lesson will have nothing to do with Nehemiah. You see, such an approach is designed to ignore the point of the book. Now since we are simply surfing Nehemiah, we are not about to study the book enough really to know the details. Therefore we make a really big mistake. When the walls are finished, there are ceremonies, and a celebration, etc., and we read a list of people in chapter 7, and we think: Here are all the people that were gathered together to celebrate the building of the walls. In our failure to truly study the book of Nehemiah, we have failed to catch the information in 7:5 that what Nehemiah does in chapter 7 is to gather the names of the people who came back from Babylon in 536, NEARLY A HUNDRED YEARS EARLIER. In other words, the people listed in chapter 7 were not those who celebrated the walls being built. They were those who returned from captivity with Zerubbabel.

So, the basic point of this little essay is: study your Bible diligently and regularly. Let your topics grow out of such studies. Also let your topics arise from the needs of the people to whom you preach. Do not preach a lesson on a passage or book until you have thoroughly studied it. When you do preach your lesson, preach what the passage or book says instead of what it does not say.