I know that preaching and teaching are central to a minister’s work. The better I do the former, the more I benefit those in my ministry. Lives have been, and hopefully will be, changed by God working through my teaching.
This drives me to want to be a better teacher. I read books and articles on it. I listen to interviews with good preachers to hear their advice. I seek out criticism for my lessons and speaking ability. All is done with the hope that I can improve with each lesson.
One mistake that I constantly fall into is thinking that becoming a great teacher means that I have to have great lessons. So I want each lesson to be a home run.
As strange as it may sound, I have come to believe that being a great preacher doesn’t necessarily mean one preaches great sermons. Great preachers have consistency of giving, over a long period, good lessons.
It is true that a great preacher will rarely give a bad lesson. He is too committed and equipped for that. A good preacher doesn’t cut corners in sermon preparation, and he continues to feed himself through reading and studying to have something to say to the congregation. So it is rare for a good preacher to preach a dud.
But this doesn’t mean that he always gives great lessons.
Let me give an example. I consider John Piper to be one of the greatest living preachers. (I’m not Reformed, so I’m saying this despite significant disagreements with his theological views.) I’ve spent a lot of time listening to him, and I’ve listened to some of his earliest sermons and some of his latest sermons. (I’ve listened to dozens, if not hundreds, of his sermons.) I don’t think that I would list any of his sermons in the top 10 sermons I’ve ever heard. Yet his preaching has influenced me in ways that many of the people who preached the sermons in my “Top Ten Sermons” list haven’t. Why? Because he has consistently preached helpful and Biblical sermons. He’s had a high level of consistency in delivering God’s Word with passion and thoughtfulness.
I was confirmed in this conviction when I read that Phil Ryken–former preacher and current President of Wheaton College–gave similar advice. According to Pastoralized.com, one of Ryken’s advice in preaching is “Put good wood on the ball”:
2. Put good wood on the ball. Another memorable Ryken phrase, which means never try to preach a great sermon, It’s more likely that your glory, not God’s, will be your focus if you swing for the fences. And you exponentially increase your odds of striking out. Preach for average, not homers. Just get on base.
It is easy for a preacher to get so focused on having a great sermon that he prevents himself from having a good lesson. He is like the basketball player who is always looking for the dunk and is missing the easy shots or tries so hard to get a three-pointer that he is never in position for an open two-point shot.
In practice, though, how does aiming to preach great sermons hurt a preacher? Let me give two reasons.
- When you are shooting for a “great” sermon rather than a “good” sermon, you are often tempted to try elaborate illustrations or heart-wrenching stories or confusing theological points. You miss the clear and obvious things from God that your people need to hear. You might have the great sermon every once and a while, but you have a lot of bad sermon in the meantime.
- You cannot deliver a sermon with power, conviction, and passion if you are worried that your sermon will only be good but not great. You have raised your standards so high that good sermons do not meet your standards. You are left with discouragement and a lack of confidence, and neither are helpful emotions when preaching or teaching.
The ministry of preaching and teaching is a long-term ministry. The effects are long-term, and if you have consistently helpful and Biblical sermons during that time, you will be a great preacher.
Otherwise, you’ll basically be a one-hit wonder.
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