The summer after my junior year of college I took up The Life and Dairy of David Brainerd. The book was fascinating and challenging for many reasons, but one thing baffled me. In his diary, he would record several preaching engagements a day. I could not comprehend how he did it. Was he preaching the same sermon over and over again? Was he at home each night crafting these sermons beforehand? How?
As I’ve entered the ministry myself, I’ve come to realize preaching is not one-size-fits-all. Depending on the setting, the audience, and my schedule, I’ve come to rely on three different forms of preaching/teaching. Whether you are a seminarian, a current pastor, or just a curious church member, let me lift the lid and show you the three most trusty tools in my box.
1. Formal Sermons
As a young man, this is what I conceived all preaching to be. During the week, I sit down in my study with a chosen text. I read it (in the original languages if you are able) and pray through it. I break it into digestible pieces, look at connections elsewhere in Scripture, and ponder application. I consult resources as needed. I then write an outline and finish by composing a long form manuscript to get all of my ideas in clear focus. And on Sunday, I preach.
This is the first tool: the formal sermon. Week after week, I dedicate my time and attention to a specific portion of God’s Word to feed Jesus’s flock on Sunday morning. If you are a church member, the Sunday morning sermon is probably what you think of when we say “preaching”. A faithful pastor is going to give himself day by day to meditating on portions of Scripture in order to encourage, exhort, and rebuke the people of God when they gather as the whole body of Christ.
2. Impromptu Sermons
Last month, I was lamenting to one of our members that the front yard of the church was overrun with dandelions, and I couldn’t figure out how to remove them. The next day, she showed up with a tool whose job was specifically to pluck up dandelions by the root. Impromptu sermons are like that dandelion picker–I had no idea what I was missing.
As a pastor reads God’s Word in his personal devotions or studies for a more formal sermon, certain passages and verses are going to stick in his memory. I hold on to these for various shorter impromptu opportunities like a high school FCA meeting or an American Legion baseball devotional. These much shorter sermons break a verse or passage into two–at max three–basic points. I’ll think up one illustration and one simple application. Often, I’m mulling these over in the ten minute drive to the event.
These unscripted sermons become more and more comfortable as a pastor grows in his ability to rightly divide the word of truth. What I mean is, everything can’t be impromptu. This tool gets sharper as the pastor works faithfully with his first tool–the formal sermon.
3. Bible Studies
This is the most handy tool in the chest. I’m being honest when I say my bible studies require zero prep. At any given time, I can have three or four weekly bible studies going at once–ain’t nobody got time for that! So I make it easy on myself. Non-believers–and sadly many believers–have never read through a book of the Bible from start to finish. So that’s what we do.
A soccer coach wants a Bible study for her players? Great. I’m going to show up, hand out Bibles, open to 1 Thessalonians, and read it out loud together a few lines at a time. I ask open-ended questions. We chase rabbits. Believers and non-believers alike feel comfortable engaging with God’s Word because I haven’t come with a prepared lesson. We are simply reading together.
And this takes a load off of me prep-wise. I literally show up, open the Bible, and begin. If there is one thing everyone needs more of, it’s Bible reading. So many Christians are afraid of their Bibles. And what better thing to expose non-believers to than the simple Word?
As I use this third tool, participants gain confidence to read the Bible for themselves. I teach them to ask the right questions and see that the answers are right there in the text. What is more, I’m de-mythologizing Scripture interpretation. It really does just take intentional, Spirit-led reading. I want the lightbulb to go off in their heads: “Hey, if this is all it takes, I could lead one of these.”
Pastors, hone these three tools and you will be well-equipped for every situation. May “God open a door to you for the word, that you may declare the mystery of Christ…” (Col. 4:3). And may the “gospel come…not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5).
(photo by Steve)