Advice To Young Preachers

Time was that church historians also taught church polity and what is sometimes called pastoral theology. This was, I suppose, because we used to recognize that the study of the history of the practice of the church gives a certain insight into how ministry should be conducted.

I mention this to apologize (i.e., defend) for the propriety of historian-pastor (or pastor-historian) to give advice to young preachers. By “young” I mean seminary students or those just out of seminary. This is a talk I’ve given informally to many students individually and it seems like a good idea to write it down—before I forget it.

I. A Sermon Is Not A Term Paper

sermon outlineSeminary students spend proportionally more time writing term papers than sermons. As a result, sermons can become term papers especially if one is writing a sermon manuscript (see below). It is difficult to shift audiences and modes of communication. The audience for a term paper is professors and perhaps other students. Academic writing can be dense and full of technical code in order to save time and space. Good preaching is neither of those.

There are similarities between a sermon and a term paper, however. Like a term paper, a sermon involves learning new stuff. Like a term paper, a sermon has a central, organizing thesis. Like a term paper, a sermon is making a case for something. Students (and recent grads) should transfer those skills to the sermon but they need to take an additional step or two.

You need to recognize that writing a term paper, as it were, is the first step of writing a sermon. The research behind this “term paper,” however, might result in multiple sermons (see below). Further, the audience for a sermon is much more diverse than the audience for a term paper. A congregation is composed of 8-year olds and 80-year olds and the preacher has to announce God’s good news to all of them, at the same time, in the same sermon. Thus, a sermon is a much more complex act of communication than a term paper. Where a term paper might use code to save time, a sermon must explain almost everything.

A sermon is a divinely authorized announcement of God’s truth. It is a proclamation of the great history of redemption as much as it is the transmission of data. A term paper doesn’t necessarily have to distinguish law and gospel but if your sermon doesn’t, then your it is a failure. A sermon must capture the attention, inform, illustrate, persuade, and exhort. The preacher has a much bigger job before him. If a term paper fails to meet its goals it might result in a poor grade or a re-write. If a sermon fails to do its job (to announce the bad news and the good news) there is much more at stake.

Good research is necessary—any preacher who isn’t doing good research into God’s Word isn’t fulfilling his vocation— but it is only half of the work of creating a sermon. The next step is to figure out how to communicate effectively what you’ve learned, what’s appropriate to the sermon and to the pulpit, what’s beneficial for the congregation, what’s edifying. After all, the sermon isn’t about you. It’s about Christ and it’s about the congregation in Christ. In a good sermon the minister, like a good umpire, disappears. If he’s doing his job, the congregation will leave talking about the text, about God in Christ for them and not how clever or entertaining the minister is.

II. Preach One Sermon At A Time

Westminster Assembly 2It is not unusual for young preachers in term-paper mode to write complex sermons, that is sermons that are not one sermon with (for example) three points but three sermons in one. The temptation of the young preacher is to try to tell everyone everything he learned all at once. Again, that temptation is partly due to the circumstances of the sermon. Student preachers doing pulpit supply aren’t going to be back week after week for years. This helps to create a certain unspoken pressure to say it all now because the young preacher might not ever get another chance. Still, it’s a good habit (i.e., disposition and practice) to force one’s self to preach just one sermon at a time. One way to achieve this goal is to recognize the limits inherent to the preaching event.

The Westminster Assembly adopted the “Directory For The Publick Worship of God” in 1644. The Directory has a section on preaching that deserves more attention than it receives. They were aware of the temptation to try to do more in one sermon than should be attempted:

And, as he needeth not always to prosecute every doctrine which lies in his text, so is he wisely to make choice of such uses, as, by his residence and conversing with his flock, he findeth most needful and seasonable; and, amongst these, such as may most draw their souls to Christ, the fountain of light, holiness, and comfort.

Notice that the divines (most all of whom were active, preaching ministers) limited what the preacher should attempt in a single sermon. Not every doctrine taught by Scripture should be explained. The medium (a sermon) imposes limits. The minister must “make choices” and focus on what is of most use to his congregation at the time. The preacher will ordinarily have other opportunities to preach the same text and to point out other features or implications. The preacher shouldn’t try to do everything in every sermon. The goal of the sermon is to “draw their souls to Christ….”

III. Live With It

clockLong sermons have been a problem in the Reformed tradition since the beginning. Historically, for the most part, Reformed congregations have been models of patience. That is no excuse, however, to try their patience. There are some realities that you simply cannot change or challenge. Before the age of modern communication, before the age of constant stimulation and entertainment, people were accustomed to listening to long discourses. In most cases that age has passed. In most cases, in North America, 30 minutes is probably the limit for a sermon. It’s probably true that congregations can learn to endure and perhaps even appreciate longer sermons but that’s ta subject for another post. Most of the time, young preacher, you have thirty minutes to get in, get it, and get out.

If you’ve done your work, you know what the heartbeat of the text is and you’ve built your sermon around that. You have a thesis that has emerged from the text and your points have emerged from the text as a way of elaborating on that central point. Introduce the text, the central thesis around which the one sermon (not three) is organized, illustrate it appropriately and get on with it.

Most sermons, most of the time, have three points. In 30 minutes you have about 3 minutes to introduce a sermon, three minutes of transitions from introduction to body, within the body, and to the conclusion. You have about 3 minutes for your conclusion. That leaves you with 21 minutes for the body of the sermon or about 7 minutes a point. If you you have to say cannot be said in 7 minutes, you’re trying to do too much.

I started by distinguishing between a term paper and a sermon. That distinction has practical implications. It means you should leave your manuscript in the study. A minister must communicate and Holy Spirit uses ordinary means. The Westminster Divines recognized that reality.

The illustrations, of what kind soever, ought to be full of light, and such as may convey the truth into the hearer’s heart with spiritual delight.

A sermon manuscript is a good discipline but its use in the pulpit usually hinders communication. Write your manuscript, read your manuscript, learn it but leave it in the study. Make an outline and take the outline with you into the pulpit. A manuscript is fine but it is preparation for not a culmination of a sermon.

  1. Research (including prayer)
  2. Manuscript
  3. Outline

If your sermon is so complex that you can’t remember what needs to be said (introduction thesis, points, illustrations, conclusion), if the outline isn’t a sufficient cue to your memory, then you’re preaching a term paper not a sermon.

Well, young preacher, there it is. Follow the text. Preach the text. Be bold but be wise. Trust the Spirit to do his work. Pray. Don’t fret too much but don’t be lazy. Preach Christ.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. This may be a reason why the Puritan movement died, not surviving into the 18th century – the sermons were just too long and complicated. A new generation arose during the last quarter of the 17th century that was not willing to sit still (on hard benches) and listen to a 2-hour sermon with 65 main points and 314 sub-points (I exaggerate, but not by much). J. I. Packer has written that John Owen, in his writings (many of which originated as sermons), carried his entire scheme and outline in his head and expected his readers to do the same when they heard/read his sermons/works. This, as I said, doubtless became a problem for later generations.

    So, I think it can be said that, in part, the Puritan movement died because it collapsed under its own weight – those long, weighty sermons.

    • The Directory actually warned against overly complex outlines/sermons.

      I don’t know that complexity killed it—or even that it’s dead exactly or even that “Puritanism” even existed. I think that “puritanism” was just British Reformed theology. The very same theology, piety, and practice existed all across Europe. It still exists but has adapted to changing culture.

  2. Excellent. Thanks Scott. Will be forwarding this link to my preaching students at Western Seminary (Portland, OR).

  3. This may invite some irritation, but as a hearer of sermons I wonder if encouraging the pew to take notes conveys the idea that a sermon is indeed a term paper/lecture. It’s a common practice, and not one that is inherently wrong, but if the organ of faith is the ear and not the hand then it would seem that encouraging more listening than writing would be in order.

    Many complain about the loss of attention span in the modern age and seem to want to push back with longer sermons, but I wonder about addressing the fading art of listening.

    • Zrim,

      I understand your concern. I have seen settings where the sermon becomes a lecture, right down to outlines on the overhead projector. I guess that indicates how long ago it was.

      I do think people should listen and if taking notes gets in the way of listening to the proclamation of the Word, then the notes should go.

    • On note-taking: I’m a note-taker; it helps me to listen and follow the lines of logic. I don’t often refer to my notes afterward, however. So they serve more as a listening aid. In my “broad evangelical” setting, one can’t deny that when someone who knows Scripture is preaching a text, it’s very much a learning opportunity! A hungry learner can hardly help but take notes even if the proper intent of a sermon is not purely academic.

      There are times where I can’t keep up with the sermon and simply have to stop and listen. One example: Joel Beeke preached a sermon at a conference earlier this year on Jesus as the second Adam, and I was gripped. There was no way that I could put down on paper everything that came out, both for reasons of the pace and the depth; in that scenario my writing was indeed in the way of my hearing and I simply had to stop and listen. That’s a rarity. I’ve stopped taking notes far more frequently because of the poor overall quality and content of the sermon, or, because I’m simply not following very well for any number of reasons whether they be tiredness, lethargy, or lack of familiarity with a text.

  4. Zrim: I understand your point. It’s much like taking notes in class. At the moment you begin writing/typing notes, you are likely missing something else the professor is saying. That isn’t always true, but it is sometimes.

    I think the same about the sermon. I’ve previously encouraged people to go to the church website and listen to the sermon again. When doing so, take notes at that point.

    Some people take notes because it helps them pay attention. Others do it (and of course there are more reasons) because that’s all they know. They take the classroom mentality into the worship auditorium and have failed to distinguish between the classroom and Lord’s Day worship. Could that be because many sermons are lectures?

    I used to have a twisted idea when I preached. (I used the word, “twisted,” in a tongue-and-cheek manner). I used to think, “My job is to get you to stop taking notes.” I thought, “If I can do that, you’re engaged and consumed enough in God’s Word that you don’t want to take notes.”

    Like I said, that was my “twisted” way of doing things.

    As a preacher, I find that if I am engaging people from the pulpit by looking them in the whites of their eyes when I’m preaching, they won’t stop to take notes. They are engaged and desirous to hear what the Word of God says. I notice more people taking notes when the minister is tied to his manuscript. Since he is disconnected, it’s easy to disconnect, as a layperson, and begin to take notes.

  5. Great post, Scott. I give a hearty ‘amen’ to all three points, both as a preacher for the past ten years and a mentor to numerous seminary students.

    Wrt to the comments about note taking, etc, I would only weigh in to remind everyone that different people learn differently. A pastor should never demand that congregants take notes, but neither should he try to persuade people from not doing so. Some people find note-taking helpful. Some parents of special-needs children find it almost essential for their children. We all need to be cautious of a legalism that looks down on others who don’t use the ear the same way we do.

  6. Mike, I think you’re right. But speaking of legalism, it does seem like note taking is the Reformed version of displayed piety. The Jews of old had their phylacteries to show love of law and the evangelicals tote their Bibles to show sentiment for Word. The Reformed tend to esteem the intellect (because everybody has something), thus legions of note takers.

    • Mike, of course, but displayed piety in general doesn’t seem to fare well in the NT. I can’t think of a place where Jesus warns against prayer closets or encourages more faith on the sleeve.

  7. For myself, I keep a pen (fountain… 😉 ready along with notebook to jot down something that’s a new wrinkle and something I want to revisit.

  8. I would agree that many (perhaps most) preachers should use only an outline. Some, however, can tend to get rather long-winded if they don’t have not only their points, but also how thy intend to state them within a reasonable time-frame before them in the pulpit. There is without question a form of manuscript delivery that is just terrible. But, if the preacher can master the art of writing it like he’d say it, and not become chained to the manuscript, I actually think for some preachers the manuscript can be a help rather than a hindrance. We can do a disservice to pulpit ministry when we suggest there is only one way to go about it. The key is to utilize the abilities God has given and know yourself, so that you will be able, when the time comes, to get out of the way and show forth Christ to his people as he is presented in his word.

  9. I’m not sure I would agree on your length of sermon point. I have seen two types of longer sermons (40-50 mins), ones that drone on because the preacher has so poorly prepared that he struggles to gather in his sermon and finish clearly and the other, I shall call the Sinclair-type, that models outstanding commitment to exegesis, preached with great zeal for God’s glory, and simply will not let the text go until it is sufficiently wrung of its truth on the matter. I have found the latter to be a heaven-sent blessing in an age of quick messaging and would prefer our sermons bend toward the substance and demands of God’s revealed Word and away from the instant Twittering culture. How otherwise will the diminishing attention of a culture-infected church ever be extended, but by the demands of God’s Word.

    • Can a biblical text be exhausted of meaning? Might not “sufficiently wrung” be an evaluation, made for a specific time and place, the criteria of which are subject to the preacher’s choices? If one wants to preach shorter, bite off less text and/or less of the inexhaustible potential?

    • No preacher is going to improve my attention span by overtaxing it once a week for an hour. He will simply squander an opportunity to help me follow Christ more closely. I have listened to 35 minute sermons that have come back to me every day for the rest of the week and changed my thinking & behavior, and many 1:15 sermons that were deleted mentally even as they were spoken. They sometimes contained valuable nuggets, but those were obliterated in memory and impact by piles of extra words that should have been left on the cutting room floor.

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