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.