Tips for Lay Preachers
Preaching is a daunting task, especially for those of us who fill the pulpit when the regular preaching pastor is away. My aim in this article is to help lay elders, youth leaders, pulpit suppliers, seminarians, and anyone else who preaches occasionally understand how to play your role effectively. Perhaps you’ve recently been asked to preach at another congregation or maybe you’ve begun to preach more frequently at your own church. Many lay preachers feel unprepared for the task—I know I have. What should you do? Where do you start? Here are few tips I have found helpful for lay preachers.
Be sure to begin and end every preaching opportunity with prayer. Pray about whether you should take the opportunity or not. Pray about what text you should preach. Pray about your preparation and delivery. As Francis Grimke says, pray not to preach a good sermon, but a helpful sermon.
Praying for your preaching may seem obvious, but we often fail to carry out this discipline as we ought. Pray like you need God’s help in your preaching, because you do. Pray for God to use His word to bring about clarity, conviction, correction, comfort, counsel, change, and conversions.
Accept the Right Preaching Opportunities
Say yes: If the opportunity works with your schedule, and this is your home church or a church that preaches the Gospel, take it. Who knows when you’ll get the next opportunity.
Say no: If you cannot in good faith affirm that this is a gospel preaching church, and it isn’t a church that seeks to do so, say no. Trust that God will provide in His own timing. Also, if you’re already busy, don’t try to be a hero. Passing up on preaching may give someone else a needed opportunity to develop as a preacher.
Pick a Text to Preach
It doesn’t matter what you preach on: I’ve spent many weeks worrying far too much about what passage of Scripture to preach from. Much of this worry stems from pride. We lay preachers don’t get many preaching reps, and we certainly don’t want to do a bad job when one comes our way. After all, if we do, we fear we may not get another opportunity!
But remember, all Scripture is inspired and profitable for God’s people (2 Tim 3:16). All of Scripture points to the gospel and to the Lord Jesus Christ. So in that sense, it doesn’t matter what text you choose to preach. Preach Christ and Him crucified. Exalt Him and get out of the way. Make it your aim to serve the congregation, not to impress.
It matters what you preach on: Ask the pastor what passage he’d like you to preach on. If he doesn’t provide any suggestions, inquire what he thinks would be good for the congregation to hear. Do your best to get to know the congregation so that you make appropriate applications. Try to preach something different from what the church has been studying. If they’re in one of the Gospels, choose a Psalm or something from one of the Epistles. Also, force yourself to preach from different genres of Scripture and from texts that vary in length.
Once you settle on a text, discuss it with the pastor and ask for his input. If you’re preaching at a church more than once, stay in the same book of the Bible. At my church, I’ve recently preached a series of sermons on Nehemiah (8, 9, 10-13). Staying in one book cuts down on preparation time and allows for some continuity for the congregation.
For any senior pastors reading this article, make the lives of your lay preachers easier by providing guidance. Don’t hesitate to tell us what text to preach!
Preach something old: It may be appropriate to preach something that you’ve already preached before. This will help you work on your sermon delivery, your tone, volume, application, editing, time management, and eye contact with the congregation. Use your preparation time to hone those skills.
Preach something new: It may also be appropriate to preach something new. As a lay preacher, you not only need preaching reps, but preparation reps too. You need to go through the sanctifying work of studying to preach. God wants His word to work in you, not just through you.
Learn to use your time well. Work at your sermon bit by bit until you find a rhythm. For me, sermon preparation usually looks like slow and steady work over a week or two. Find whatever works for you. And if you’re married, find out what works best for your wife, so that your preaching opportunities are not a burden to your family.
Be yourself: You are not the primary preaching pastor of your church, and everyone else knows that. So be yourself. Keep working on finding your voice. Avoid sounding like your favorite preacher. Using a full manuscript has helped me find my voice and get more comfortable in the pulpit—I’d highly recommend it. I also try to avoid hearing other sermons during the week that I preach in order to sound more like myself.
Also, as I heard H. B. Charles say, don’t leave a mess for the pastor to clean up after you leave. Don’t be controversial or edgy; be Christ-like. Be a gracious guest. And since you’re a guest, use pastoral sense and lean heavily towards encouraging the congregation. So preach clearly, magnify Christ, and encourage the congregation.
Be like the pastor: Plan to do what the pastor normally does, and what the congregation is accustomed to doing. If the pastor normally preaches for 45 minutes, preach 45 minutes or less. If the pastor normally has people stand for the reading of Scripture, have them stand. Use the Bible translation the pastor normally uses. This isn’t the time for you to try something out or impose something you think the church should be doing already. Be like the pastor.
Finish Well After You Preach
Ask for Feedback: Your gracious church family will likely tell you that you did a good job. Hopefully, you did! But you need specific feedback. Ask someone what they found encouraging, or even what they will reflect on. This can help you see if you were clear in your delivery. It’s also a chance to marvel at how the Lord uses His word in the lives of His people. Ask the pastor for some specific and direct feedback. It may even be good to tell the pastor that you want this kind of feedback before you preach.
If possible, listen to your sermon afterwards (even if you can’t stand the sound of your voice). Listen not only to find areas that need improvement, but also for evidences of God’s grace in your preaching. Both should be evident in every sermon.
Pray: Ask the Lord to bring fruit from your sermon. Pray for the church, the pastors, and God’s work in that area. Pray for God to humble you, whether you think you preached a good sermon or a bad one. Lastly, ask the Lord to help you to be a doer of the word, and not just a preacher of the word.