When I decided to go to seminary, there was one thing I knew: I had no desire to become a senior pastor at a church. This was more influenced by the fact that I know senior pastors have to deal with a plethora of annoying and often superfluous people problems (I’m a PK so I saw a lot of that), but it was also because I didn’t think preaching was my thing. I enjoy teaching: I’m okay in a classroom setting, but my real preference is in a chill atmosphere, eating a meal or ice cream and having discussions while everyone is sitting down. Preaching, however, seemed too much like formal public speaking to me. Most churches are set up such that the pastors are standing above everyone, in a pulpit, and with this large air of authority, and all that felt weird. I also tend to make dark sarcastic jokes whenever I teach, which I felt probably wouldn’t go over well with old people sitting in a congregation. Don’t get me wrong; I deeply respect pulpit preaching, knowing it to be both difficult and time-consuming (when done well, anyway), and I believe that strong, biblical preaching is a necessity in a healthy church. It is in fact this respect that made me think that it wasn’t for me because God has gifted other men to do it better. This is also why I try to refrain from ripping a pastor too much for mistakes in a sermon; it’s tough to do, especially if it must be done weekly, and it carries with it enormous responsibility to communicate the Word of God.
Thus, two of the classes I was not particularly looking forward to taking were my preaching courses. On the one hand, I did want to learn more about how to approach preaching in a biblically-centered manner, so I enjoyed that part of it, but I didn’t really want to, well, actually preach. However, when I preached my first real sermon in class last semester over Romans 12:3-8, I found that I enjoyed much of the process. I enjoyed going through the text, breaking it down, and studying it, although I still wasn’t particularly fascinated with delivering the sermon with cheesy illustrations and applications. Still, it was a good experience; the Holy Spirit taught me a lot, even though I still think that I am far better with the written word than public speaking. Maybe I should start a blogging sermons instead? Then my illustrations can consist of funny demotivational pictures and Youtube clips rather than corny stories.
Anyway, that was just for class: My first sermon at church on a Sunday morning came this past weekend. When our senior pastor scheduled me and a couple of other seminarians to preach this semester, I thought, “Well, this is probably a bad idea, but I have to do this for class.” In Advanced Preaching, we have a practicum component that requires at least two sermons preached outside of class, so it’s not like I had much choice. I shrugged my shoulders and just accepted, although I prayed to God that I wouldn’t say anything, uh, overly offensive when I preached.
The theme for our church right now is stewardship, and for the month of January, it was “Stewardship over your relationship with God;” basically, growing deeper in your relationship with God. This was the prompt I was given for my sermon, and it is obviously very broad. On the one hand, it was nice because I could almost preach on anything, but on the other hand, it didn’t exactly narrow down a whole lot of biblical texts for me. I briefly thought of doing an Old Testament narrative or a parable, because I have to preach both of those in class anyway (sermon recycling!), but since I am still far more adept at dissecting epistles or Gospel narratives, I decided to look at those instead. After combing through the New Testament, I settled on Ephesians 6:10-20, the passage over the armor of God. I broke one of the “rules” we were taught in preaching: Typically, for an epistle, our professors advised us not to tackle more than ten verses, and I was going to do eleven. There’s a lot of wisdom in that; it’s hard to go through that many verses with any appreciable depth in a short period of time, and it did expand my workload in terms of studying the passage.
Studying the passage was very interesting but difficult; it is a famous passage but one that has been debated frequently and one that is loaded with deep stuff, so much so that most pastors will preach it over the course of a few weeks. It was a challenge to not only break it down but to figure out how to communicate the big idea in nontechnical terms in roughly half an hour. I wrote a manuscript, which I emailed to my pastor for review, ran it over in my head, gave it a practice run to make sure I didn’t talk for an hour, and prayed that I would faithfully communicate God’s truth. Sunday morning came, I dressed up in a suit (reluctantly), and then I walked up there and preached to our English congregation.
So, what did I learn/experience? First, one great piece of advice from seminary is that the first person to preach the sermon to is yourself. I became more aware of the sin in my life and my own failings, and while that was not fun, it made me realize more that I had nothing to give without the Holy Spirit. There is something absurd about the idea of preaching; it’s a sinner trying to expound God’s holy Word to other sinners, but the absurdity disappears when the Holy Spirit comes into the picture.
The Spirit also gives calm. This became evident to me when I was actually up there preaching; I was more nervous about it before the actual sermon, but when I went up there with our English pastor and he prayed over me, I wasn’t nervous anymore. I just looked around and laughed to myself, “All of you poor suckers are stuck and have to listen to me for the next 30-40 minutes,” and then I started.
In addition, the Bible has power on it’s own. I believe our president, Dr. Patterson, once said that preaching is essentially about helping others read the Bible better. Sure, interesting illustrations and good grammar make things easier to listen to, but God’s truth should be front and center in a sermon and not the preacher’s personality, although I wholeheartedly believe that God uses the preacher’s personality and that the speaker should not try to be something that he is not. That gave me the ease of just being myself because I knew that as long as I didn’t say anything outrageous to distract everyone, I could just let the text speak for itself.
Also, it’s pretty difficult to make illustrations and applications that are relevant to a wide audience base. In the audience were young married couples, old married couples, youth kids, college students, single young adults, older singles, pastors, engineers, seminary students, etc. You can’t please everyone but you also want to communicate that the Bible speaks to everyone. Whenever I made a joke, some of the congregation laughed and others just stared blankly. So it goes. There was, of course, one joke that I made (in the title of the sermon) that was more of a private joke for myself. Yeah, I’m weird like that.
Oh, one funny thing: I was not told that there would be baby dedications until Thursday night, and I spent some time in my sermon talking about the activity of Satan. Yep, I’m sure it was fun to hear about the devil after praying over cute little kids.
In any case, I felt blessed by God to preach the sermon, but it was nice to be over with it so I can worry about other stuff, like school. The church as a whole was very encouraging towards me, and hopefully they learned some small thing from the sermon. Even if they were fascinated by my dumb stories or sarcasm, the sermon would be a failure if they didn’t take away some modicum of biblical truth.