What I’ve Learned from 33 Years of Preaching God’s Word
Editor’s note: This is a companion piece to “What I’ve Learned After One Year of Preaching God’s Word.”
It is difficult for me to get my mind around it, but I have now been preaching weekly, or trying to preach weekly, for 33 years. The first six years were mostly to Native Americans in Lame Deer, Montana. The next decade was spent in a rural setting in Christian County, Kentucky. These final 17 plus years have been just outside the university town of Bowling Green, Kentucky.
It all began when I was 22 years old when I had just graduated from college. My training was almost entirely informal. I had so much to learn, and I still do. Yet the Lord has taught me much through these years.
1. People really are listening.
I started my ministry with what now seems like a low view of preaching. Maybe it was the jokes I heard about long sermons being too long? Whatever it was, I imagined that real ministry would be done in one-on-one conversations, in situations where the gospel would be demonstrated through loving someone rather than preaching.
Somewhere along the way, however, I began to realize that the people really were listening.
Recently, an eleven-year-old boy shared with me how the Lord brought him to new life in Christ. It was last June, and I was stammering through the glories of the gospel as displayed in marriage from Ephesians 5. Out there in the pew was this ten-year-old boy wrestling with God. He was saying to himself, “I’m really not that sinful. My sin doesn’t deserve death on a cross.” But the Spirit kept pressing on him, answering, “Yes, you are. You know you are.” Somewhere in the midst of the preaching the Lord brought him to the place of surrender and trust.
If a ten-year-old boy can be converted while his pastor preaches on marriage, then the Word of God must arrest the attention of anyone.
2. God is faithful.
I am a very ordinary man and a very ordinary preacher. As a consequence, I need a lot of help. I need help preparing. I need help delivering. And I need help avoiding despair after a bad sermon and when pride causes me to think it might have been a good one. Yet the Lord has been so very kind to me and is remarkably faithful to help.
For about twenty years, I have been preaching through books of the Bible mostly from start to finish. Sometimes on Monday mornings I am face to face with a text, and I wonder what in the world I am going to say. It’s scary, and Sundays are relentless! And yet the Lord always gives me something to nourish his people. He does this over and over again. In some seasons this has been so real to me that I feel like the widow woman with the jug of oil in 1 Kings 17. It never runs out! He is faithful to help me.
That said, I’m confident it’s less about helping me and more about helping his people. Regardless, I am thankful. He helps me in delivery as well. Sometimes I feel like I’m carrying a great weight up a mountain when I’m preaching, but at other times I feel like I am the weight being carried. I rarely feel this when I preach elsewhere. But frequently, when I’m preaching to the people to whom God has called me, I experience his remarkable strength.
3. I need to preach.
Preaching is good for my soul. I need to dig into a text weekly. I need to hammer away at it until it yields something. Before I can ever preach to them, I need God to bring the text to bear on my own heart. I will be a hypocrite if I preach the text without it first cutting to my heart.
Years ago, I was preaching through the gospel of John. The Lord had been dealing with me about some sin in my life, but I wasn’t responding to him the way I knew I should. I found myself facing “Nathanael in whom there is no deceit” (John 1:47). The Lord brought me to a deeper level of repentance and confession.
My process for preparation helps with this. I spend time early in the week trying to figure out what the Lord is saying from the passage. I want to get a sense of that into my head and heart as quickly as possible. This involves reading, re-reading, meditating, word studies, and checking commentaries to make sure I’m not way off-base
From this point on I am basically consumed with the sermon for the rest of the week. The sermon is simmering, never far from my thoughts, and it follows me everywhere—to hospital visits, staff and elders meetings, counseling sessions, quiet times, and prayer sessions. This approach weaves my preparation into my ministry with people. I preach best to people I know and to people who know me. I sleep with the sermon and wake up with it. During this phase I am thinking through what needs to be said and how the text needs to be applied. Late in the week I put the structure down in an outline form and think through an introduction and closing.
This approach to sermon preparation has the text so much on my mind that it shapes my heart. The Scriptures are primarily about the Lord, so these texts sink into my heart. Often, he is calling attention to some part of my life that simply must change in light of this text. I shudder to think where I would be spiritually if I didn’t have this blessed weekly discipline.
4. The Scriptures are inexhaustible.
I have heard about preachers who couldn’t stay in one congregation for very long because they only had so many sermons and then would run out. They couldn’t re-preach old sermons, so they would move on to some other church.
Early on in my ministry, I too spent too much time worrying over what to preach. Then I began to preach through books of the Bible.
Now, at nearly the thirty-three year mark of ministry, I am running out of life much more quickly than I am running out of Bible.
While preaching a text, I’m often struck by the thought that this may be the last or only time I preach this text to these precious people. That is a weighty thought. There is no way I will get it all preached before I die or the Lord returns. The riches of Christ truly are unsearchable (Eph. 3:8).
If you’re early in your ministry, stay at it. Paul told Timothy very near the end of his life to “preach the Word.” He warned of a time when people would not be willing to endure sound teaching. We live in such a time, and it is especially crucial that we be faithful to solid biblical exposition. As the Lord graces you to do this faithfully week in and week out, you will see how crucial it is for your own soul and how crucial it is for his people. Thankfully, he has provided everything we need for this monumental task.