A Few Words to Student Preachers

As a teacher in a seminary but as one who does not teach preaching classes—I’m a historian—I see and hear student preachers but I don’t get to do much about it.
Then it dawned on me: Duh, what’s the point of having the HB if you can’t speak up there?

1. Determine from the text the one, central, unifying theme of your passage. Generally students do well at this, at least in theory. Without this your sermon will drift without an anchor in the text. R. B. Kuiper used to say, “Men every sermon must have three points: the text, the text, the text.” He also used to say, “Preach the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text, so help you God.” Good advice.

2. Preach only one sermon at a time. Perhaps the greatest single homiletical sin that seminary students commit in the pulpit is to attempt to preach multiple sermons at the same time. This is produced partly by the fact that students do not preach weekly in the same congregation. Traveling from congregation to congregation produces the desire to unload everything on everyone. One sermon, three points, thirty minutes.

3. Remember your congregation. Most people probably don’t hear more than 12-15 minutes cumulatively of what you say. In a 30 minute sermon you will likely spend three minutes on an introduction, three minutes on transitions, and three minutes in conclusion. So you have 21 minutes for your points. That’s 7 minutes a point, Your points should be clear and well organized and illustrated since people are probably hearing only part of each point as their minds drift to and fro. That said, choose your illustrations carefully. An ill-chosen illustration can do more damage than good. I’ve done this more times than I care to remember.

4. Keep your head up (and leave the manuscript at home). No one in the congregation, except your mother, cares to see the top of your head. If you bring a ms to the pulpit and begin reading it your head will drop. We will not see your eyes but only the top of your head. No one talks to other people while staring at one’s feet. This is a terrible communication strategy. People are trained by television news readers and presidents and pundits to have someone delivering important information by looking them straight in the eye. You have the most important information in the world to deliver! Why would you do it whilst looking down at a piece of paper? Who will listen to the top of your head. Get your head up young man! Look people in the eye. If what you have to say is so complicated that you can’t say paraphrase it clearly whilst looking people in the face, it’s too complicated for a sermon. Your desire to look down at your MS is a sign that your sermon is not yet ready for prime time. Every time you drop your head to look at your MS you lose a communication connection with people. Simplify your notes. Simplify your sermon. Keep your head up.

5. Smile. This is hard for me. I smile when I think of something funny or hear something funny or say it. Otherwise I don’t smile much. I’m not unhappy but I just don’t smile much. When you’re delivering good news, as I trust you will be, it’s helpful in our culture to smile when you’re doing it. When you’re delivering the absolution, smile! It’s good news. It tells God’s people in a non-verbal way that it’s really true, and it’s really good and good for them.

6. Relax. You’re not the Holy Spirit. The outcome belongs to Christ and his Spirit. You’ll be fine. You’re just the messenger. Your job is to deliver the bad news yes, and the good news. You’re job is not to fix everyone in the congregation or manage the outcome of the sermon. When you learn to leave that in God’s hands you’ll be much less burdened in the pulpit.

7. Learn the difference between law and gospel and how those two “words” relate in your passage. If you know this, and if you can state extemporaneously and clearly in one sentence how the two relate, what the good news is, in this passage, or what the bad news is in this passage, then you’re about ready. If you can’t do that, then you’re not ready to preach this sermon. If you can’t do it and you’re the preacher, how is the congregation going to know what you’re about?

8. Be careful in application. Applying the sermon to a congregation you know well and with whom you live and to whom you preach weekly is one thing. Flying in and preaching to a congregation you don’t know or don’t know well is another. This makes application in a visiting situation more difficult and potentially more artificial. You’re not their pastor, they’re not your sheep. They don’t know you well. You need to apply the text to the congregation carefully, thoughtfully, and winsomely. This is not a time or place for histrionics or yelling. Most of the time a firm, brief, gentle, admonition is sufficient.

That’s all for now. Next time: words for hearers of student sermons.

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  1. Scott,

    A very good summary, but I’m not sure on the homiletical utility and the hermeneutical validity of making a law/gospel antithesis your controlling framework. In Galatians – yes, but in Song of Songs – probably not.

  2. Good stuff, Scott. Helpful things to keep in mind for all of us who preach. What are the students at WSCal taught in homiletics courses in regard to manuscripts/note cards in the pulpit?

  3. Mike,

    Who said “controlling”? You did. I just said to make sure that the preacher knows whether he’s preaching the indicative or the imperative (to put it broadly).

    The Song of Solomon is neither indicative or imperative (or both)? Who’s over simplifying now? The L/G question is not a hammer, it’s just a question. It doesn’t predetermine the outcome. What’s wrong with the question? What is it so frightening? We also teach our students to pay attention to genre. We make them read the text in the original language. This isn’t a ham-fisted business here.

    Typically the preachers who refuse to ask that question reduce texts to the imperative voice because that’s our default mode. That’s what I did for years until I started paying attention to the Reformed tradition on this.

    FWIW, Beza and Perkins (what do they know?!) thought that these are pretty important questions and I think they faced the same biblical text we do:

    Theodore Beza (1534-1605). We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings…Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity (The Christian Faith, 1558)

    William Perkins 1558-1602). The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel. For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently. The law exposes the disease of sin, and as a side-effect, stimulates and stirs it up. But it provides no remedy for it. However the gospel not only teaches us what is to be done, it also has the power of the Holy Spirit joined to it….A statement of the law indicates the need for a perfect inherent righteousness, of eternal life given through the works of the law, of the sins which are contrary to the law and of the curse that is due them…. By contrast, a statement of the gospel speaks of Christ and his benefits, and of faith being fruitful in good works (The Art of Prophesying, 1592, repr. Banner of Truth Trust,1996, 54-55).

  4. Dr. Clark,

    All of those I’ve been taught so far in first-year homiletics already . . . but the thing for us young guys is–it’s easy to say, but harder to do.

    Thanks for the reminders/critiques.

    • Hi Stefan,

      I think the key is to lose yourself in the sermon and in the text without forgetting the people. The preacher must have in view Christ, the text, and Christ’s people. The preacher is just the messenger. Young preachers are self-conscious because they’re afraid of what might happen if they make a mistake. They think that making a mistake is the worst thing that can happen to a preacher. It isn’t. Not preaching Christ is the worst thing that can happen to a preacher. Most people are terrified of public speaking so they’re forgiving of venial sins and minor mistakes. They’re just glad they’re not up there.

      Start on the right foot. Start with a brief, clear, outline. You only need a few words to remind yourself of what you wanted to say. You’ve probably got three sermons there already so it’s not as if you don’t have enough to say to fill 30 minutes. Pick one and preach it well.

      We all struggle with something. I struggle with illustrations. I’ve never been able to imagine them ahead of time. They come as I preach. That’s a bad practice that has got me into trouble more than once. I talk too fast –though having children has helped. Teaching small children taught me to simplify sermons.

      I used to think that it I shouldn’t have to repeat myself. After all, there’s a whole bible to teach and only 30 minutes. Now I know that my job is to preach “this text” and leave the next text for next week. I know now that unless I repeat myself clearly and illustrate—without leading people away from the text—then most people will never hear me. How many commercials can your congregation repeat? A dozen? Why? Repetition. Brevity. Color. Energy.

      Of course, as I say, preaching relies utterly on the Spirit but he uses instruments, clay jars and people live in a time and place. They’re not disembodied heads (what a disturbing image) in the pews.

  5. I know at least two preachers who preach from basically full manuscript (admittedly, my Dad’s are practically illegible without special gnosis, and he has a habit of inserting additional material in-flight) and neither loses contact with the congregation. I guess it’s a case of going with what works best for the individual in terms of achieving the objectives.

    Smiling is so important, as is tone of voice. Nothing grates more than being told the Good News in a hectoring tone or as though with a heavy heart. And that’s coming from a buttoned-up Brit!

  6. Hi Philip,

    That’s why I stipulated “young” preachers. If they start out with the MS I fear that they’ll never look up. I’ve preached with a MS and without and even with no notes. When I went through my MS phase it was because I was afraid of making a mistake.

  7. Hello Folks –

    Just wanted to write (as a current WSC M.Div student) – we are encouraged by all of our PT profs not to use a manuscript . . . in our classes we are not allowed to use them. (Many graduates I speak with do take MS’s into the pulpit :-)).


  8. Thank you Dr Clark, this is very helpful. Also very similar to what Dr Chapell teaches us at CTS. How I wish it were as easy to do when standing before a jury of your peers!

  9. These are great points. If I may add…

    – Be yourself. Find your own voice. Don’t try to preach like someone else or emulate someone else’s style.

    – Goes w/nos. 1 & 2: let the passage “preach” to you first. This will help prevent drifting from the text, and help find the one key point that will help you focus to stay within a decent time frame.

    FWIW, perhaps the biggest breakthrough for me was when I ditched the detailed outline for a more summarized outline. I, too, was afraid of making a mistake.

  10. This is a very helpful post. I guess it is easy to lose the thread between “what I want to get out” (my notes) and “what I need to get in” (to the congregation). As my friend Stuart Olyott puts it “ministers are makers of saints not makers of sermons.”

  11. I have been reading through Scripture in its order and just finished reading 1 Timothy 4:6-16 which I think has excellent advice for student preachers. At my web site, my last post has comments on this Scripture if you want to check it out. But, for a comment for this blog, I will just include this Scripture.

    “6 In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following.

    7 But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness;

    8 for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.

    9 It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance.

    10 For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.

    11 Prescribe and teach these things.

    12 Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.

    13 Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching.

    14 Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery.

    15 Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all.

    16 Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” 1 Timothy 4:6-16.

  12. Dr. Clark,

    Your post and some of the comments focus on the “30 minute” sermon. What is your understanding, historically, about the length of sermons in the Reformational tradition? I’ve heard stories, probably true, that Calvin and the Reformers would preach for at least an hour. Our culture is often criticized (justifiably) for having a short attention span and demanding everything in soundbytes and snippets. Should the church try to “retrain” the flock to have a longer attention span or is it simply the case that there is no sense spending 60 minutes saying what could be said in 30 minutes? Churchill supposedly said that he gave a long speech because he hadn’t had time to prepare a short one.


  13. Smile. This is hard for me. I smile when I think of something funny or hear something funny or say it. Otherwise I don’t smile much. I’m not unhappy but I just don’t smile much.

    You know, I have this exact same gene. (Must be the same one that causes hair loss.) I’m always being told to smile more, even by people who passed me this gene and those to whom I have passed it. It’s weird to be told by fellow non-smilers to smile more.

  14. MB,

    This is something I should know but I don’t have facts at the ready. My impression is that that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century preachers went for an hour pretty regularly. There is an admonition somewhere (in the post-Acta of Dort or somewhere else?) to preachers not to abuse their congregations by preaching too long.

    Sermons have certainly become shorter in the modern period and now, in many places, they seem to be 15-20 minutes!


    True, it probably doesn’t help preachers to be told to smile, but if they’ve never thought how they appear to people they won’t change, even if that change is only to relax. I guess people can’t be made to smile – it’s a vicious circle. Preachers should smile but if they try they become self-conscious and if then they probably smile less! Maybe there is some other way to signal that the preacher is not unhappy with the congregation?

    Years ago a parishioner said to a friend, “Rev. Are you so unhappy with us?”

    “Why no, why do you ask”

    “Because you always seem dissatisfied with us.”

    The truth is that the pastor was dissatisfied with himself.

    Maybe “smiling Calvinist” is an oxymoron, but it seems like a worthy goal. Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re.

  15. RSC,

    Oh, no, I actually appreciate your prescription to smile; it is quite a worthy goal. Too many dour Dutch faces ’round here convey pinched toes instead of glad hearts. I might even also be inclined to suggest being more aware of voice decibels. Some don’t realize the fine line between (proper) passion and plain old yelling. And when you join pinched toes with yelling, well, it’s not good.

    Like Forrest Gump said of “shrimpin’,” preachin’ must be tough.

  16. I love that film.

    Finest evisceration of the boomer generation ever made.

    Who knew that they would find a way to wreck the financial system on their way to retirement.

    Daddy should have paddled those kids after the war instead of coddling them.

  17. That plus Forrest is a better Calvinist than many Calvinists I know. That dude’s got a serious grip on mystery and the ordinary.

    I’m not one for corporal punishment. But as an Xer coddled by a Boomer (but no less loved), good point.

  18. On the smiling advice: I am concerned that the ministers face should be projecting a consistent message to what is being proclaimed. When a person is speaking to another about condemnation and hell, it seems to me glib and to be coming off like one has an ace up their sleave to have a smile pasted on their face while doing this.

  19. D,


    When the minister is delivering good news, he should (if possible, if natural) smile. When delivering bad news, well, smiling isn’t very appropriate. In my experience, however, Reformed ministers have tended to be more dour and unhappy (especially in more conservative circles). A minister is a messenger, not an entertainer or a clown. I understand that there are places where the bad news is rarely delivered and where solemnity is unusual or non-existent.

  20. Dr. Clark,

    I appreciate the advice.

    I’d like to know more about manuscripts vs. outlines. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately. From a students’ perspective, we aren’t allowed to use a manuscript. That means manuscripts have a forbidden fruit appeal, and so arguments for using them are appealing a priori.

    We hear that using an outline is better for eye contact, and allows for more freedom. I’m not sure that I’m convinced that these things are virtues. Freedom sounds like a charismatic notion of spontaneity to me, which is anything but a virtue. Having what you say well thought out ahead of time sounds more virtuous to me. Taking the speech event seriously enough to carefully craft each and every word you say seems wise and quite obviously so.

    And why is eye contact so important? I mean, a well rehearsed manuscript can still give rise to a whole lot of eye contact in a sermon, but still, why is it so important? Doesn’t the preacher want to personally be eclipsed by the text anyway? Doesn’t faith come through hearing the Word of Christ, not seeing the eyes of the preacher?

    What is preaching? Is it education or something else? What’s the difference between preaching and teaching? Why do you say that if we want to use a manuscript our sermon isn’t simple enough?

    One of your colleagues recently said that the difference between a manuscript and an outline is the difference between talking TO someone, and reading something in their hearing. That resonates with me, and it seems very important and profound, but I can’t quite wrap my mind around it.

    If I write a manuscript well, i.e., it’s written for the ear, not the eye, if it’s well rehearsed and I can have a lot of eye contact, if it’s clear and can be understood – then what exactly remains wrong with using a manuscript? Isn’t such a sermon necessarily more articulate and polished, and therefore doesn’t it do greater justice to the Word of God? Isn’t it handling the preaching of the Word of God more carefully?

    I hereby request a new blog post devoted exclusively to this issue.

    Another issue worthy of at least one more post is that of application and its role/significance/importance in the sermon. There are some who think that the application ought to be more the FOCUS of the sermon (i.e., the fallen condition focus).

    Should the focus of the sermon be the answer to the question, “How does this text testify to Jesus Christ?” or should it be the answer to the question, “So what?” Is that a false dichotomy? Is knowing Christ a means to an end or an end in itself?

    And a related issue is what about assurance? Can we look at the gathered members of the visible church and tell them that they are in Christ, that their sins are forgiven, that they are going to heaven? Or should we rather speak to all of them as if they are all Pharisees in order to speak to the few covert Pharisees among them? Or perhaps we should address the different categories of listeners one by one? To the converted I say…to the unconverted I say…to the hypocrite I say… Doesn’t Paul speak to the visible church as if they are all elect? “Since you have been raised with Christ…” “Having been buried with him in baptism…” “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world…”

    Should we, when preaching the gospel, pull our punches in order to avoid giving false assurance to someone? Should we be afraid of boldly declaring the gospel in order to make sure people still feel convicted of their sins? Or perhaps we should preach the gospel boldly and let the law do the convicting? Should the possibility of someone in the congregation secretly having an affair or otherwise living in secret, unrepentant sin that no one else knows about affect how we preach the gospel? Why or why not?

    I for one greatly appreciate hearing a variety of opinions on preaching. I appreciate the non-PT profs speaking their minds on this stuff, and I am certain I’m not the only one.

  21. E,

    You raise a lot of questions that I cannot answer here in detail, at least not now. Perhaps another post.

    As to face to face contact, try this. Next time you talk to someone try doing it without looking at them. Look only at your feet and do that for 30 minutes. What will happen? The other person will decide that you do not like them or that you have a problem

    I’m quite opposed to new measures but the argument (as DGH suggested) that advocating face to face preaching is a “new measure” is bizarre.

    First of all, the very existence of MSS is the result of modern technology. Ancient public speakers did not have access to them. They were expected to have memorized their speech.

    Second, if preachers can put their faces down for 30 minutes then why can’t they preach in Latin or Greek or Hebrew? The Holy Spirit could use that form of communication couldn’t he? Sure he could.

    This is not a matter of principle but of prudence. Of course Paul instructs us to preach in the language of the people. Sure the Spirit uses badly delivered sermons (if he did few Reformed and Presbyterian folk would be regenerate).

    My colleague is correct. When we speak to one another in our culture we do so face to face. In some cultures that’s considered rude. According to the San Diego zoo it’s rude to look gorillas in the eye. Okay. I don’t do it. Who wants to irritate an 800 lb gorilla? Not I. Well, in our culture, it’s rude not to look people in the face.

    As to assurance, we speak to the congregation as those who profess Christ. When I pronounce the declaration of pardon I say, “To those who have confessed their sins and trusted in the imputed righteousness of Christ alone for righteousness….” and when I declare the judgment I say, “To those who have not trusted in Christ, you are still in your sins and the wrath of God abides on you…”

    We can speak to the Christ confessing congregation as Paul did, using the judgment of charity. We can call them “saints” and “beloved” and even those for whom God shed blood (Acts 2:28). So there is more than one way to speak to the same congregation without assuming universal regeneration or lack of the same. There’s middle way between presumption and cynicism.

  22. Dr. Clark,

    You seem very insistent that using a manuscript inherently involves not diminished eye contact, but no eye contact. I agree that no eye contact is bad. Common sense would seem to dictate that. But as I said, a well rehearsed manuscript can give rise to pretty good eye contact.

    But the issue of eye contact aside, it still seems to me that even a memorized speech can be like someone reading in your hearing rather than talking TO you. It seems to me that there is an inherent difference to a pre-written speech, no matter how well written for the ear, and a speech given with an outline that is more extemporaneous, simply because speaking is different than writing. If this is true, then it is a powerful argument against the use of manuscripts, and as such, this is what I’m trying to understand.

    In other words, one of the most important things, it seems to me, in preaching, is keeping the audience’s attention. Your sermon is next to worthless to someone who isn’t listening. If it is in fact true that there is a difference in a pre-written, pre-crafted speech and a more extemporaneous speech, and if that difference can be detected by the people in the audience, and if they detect that it is pre-written, they will tend to not want to pay attention, then no matter how polished or articulate a manuscript is, it’s better to use an outline, because you will tend to keep your audience’s attention better.

    I’m not saying that audience members can’t be fooled into thinking a manuscripted sermon hasn’t been manuscripted. I’ve fooled people myself. But what if the best written, best delivered manuscript still is perceived in some subtle way by the audience as something other than the man in the pulpit talking TO us? What if the audience detects this, perhaps without realizing it, and they just sort of zone out or tune out? Maybe it has nothing to do with how clear the sermon is, nothing to do with eye contact because there was no lack of it, and yet everything to do with the fact that the sermon itself was written ahead of time, and thus is detectable as something other than someone talking to me.

    If this is true, then manuscripts MUST be thrown out by ministers who are at all capable of preaching without them in the name of sermons that grab and keep peoples’ attention. The best sermon in the world does no good if no one is listening.

    If this is not true, then provided a manuscript is well rehearsed (which is sometimes a challenge for some students who tend to procrastinate and are still writing the thing Saturday night), and provided it is well written, meaning for the ear and not the eye, and provided it is clear and simple enough that the children in the audience can get something out of it – then there is nothing inherently wrong with manuscripts at all.

    While I have preferred, to this point, to use a manuscript when I can (outside of class), I am beginning to think that there is something inherently different to a manuscript vs. an outline that is more fundamental and far more important than eye contact and spontaneity. If I’m right, I’ll never preach from a manuscript again.

  23. E,

    I recall seeing/hearing an excellent student sermon, on justification. The only flaw in the sermon was a lack of eye contact because of the MS. The student knew his stuff and didn’t really seem to need the MS except for confidence.

    Remember, this post was aimed a YOUNG preachers. Are there mature preachers who’ve learned to us a MS without losing eye contact? Yes. By definition, YPs are not among them. It’s like breaking grammatical rules. When you are as accomplished as C. S. Lewis, you too can split infinitives. Until then: obey the rules.

    My experience at WSC, from 1984-87 and again since ’97 is that student preachers have plenty to say — too much usually. That’s not the problem. The difficulty is that they don’t give as much attention to the art of communication as they do to their Hebrew exegesis.

    There’s nothing wrong with a MS for preparation purposes, but in the pulpit, the point is to draw the congregation into the text and we do that via communication.

    We also communicate non-verbally that we’re not just dispensing information. We’re communicating to people, our people, God’s people whom God has entrusted temporarily to our care.

  24. I recently posted an short blurb on my own blog about my reluctance in the task of preaching as a student. I found your article insightful and encouraging. Thanks for your insight. It is certainly appreciated.

  25. Dr. Clark

    Thanks for the reply to my comment. Just fyi, the Lord used what you said–thanks for the encouragement . . . now to just stop my nervous lip-licking . . .

    Thanks for the whole post–very edifying . . .

  26. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for this summary reminder. After having done regular preaching for a very short period (I’m still a “young” preacher), I would attest that these are the essential points to get down first. I’m still working on all of them, so it was a great reminder to read them here. Thanks!

    Number 7 is so essential, yet it seems that many are confused on this point (and some seem to want more confusion). The important thing here, is that this is a much more useful sermon-prep guide than the idea of “preaching grace.” I’ve heard a lot of sermons preach “grace,” and yet it is actually “law” shrouded under a heavy veneer of niceness. And we don’t just preach gospel (though if we err in any direction, it ought to be this one), we preach law AND gospel. We need to apply ourselves to getting this distinction, and once we get it, keep working at getting it. If Satan can keep us unclear on law and gospel, he has won a huge battle.

    If I were going to add anything, it would be “preach Christ.” This is so helpful and instructive for number 7, and it is the defining character of a CHRISTIAN sermon. Talking about God and his goodness, mercy, and grace is not preaching a Christian sermon. I’ve heard lots of sermons that could have been Jewish…sometimes worse. For it to be a Christian sermon, it must preach Christ.

    Thanks again, and keep up the great posts!

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