Bob and Barry are two preachers you admire. You want to seek their wisdom on preaching, so you individually invite them out to coffee. You promise to pick up the tab as long as they’ll be open to your questions. They agree. You meet for coffee with both men excited to fire off your questions, only to leave confused because they offer seemingly opposite advice.
Bob tells you to use a manuscript for every sermon. “Write yourself clear,” he says. He tells you to never enter the pulpit unprepared because God’s people deserve better. He reminds you that writing is the pathway to clarity, and every preacher must be clear. He tells you about the Greek word for labor in 1 Timothy 5:17, and how much of the labor comes from writing. Write a full manuscript, read it aloud at least 5 times, and then bring it with you into the pulpit.
Barry tells you to never use a manuscript. The people who hear you preach want your eye-contact; it’s a sign of affection. By looking at your manuscript while you preach you’ll be doing a disservice to the people of God. Barry also tells you that sermon delivery is just as important as sermon content, and a manuscript will only hurt your delivery. “Study yourself full,” Barry says. Fill your mind with as much content on the text and when you preach, just let it all out. He assures you that you’ll be fine.
Bob tells you that he loves biblical commentaries. He says that scholars dedicate their lives to studying the Bible, and we should take advantage of the fruit of their work. He also sees sermon prep as a time for his own personal spiritual growth, so he doesn’t mind using 8-10 commentaries for his sermon, even if he won’t use 1/4th of the content he reads. He tells you about a website that you can find the best commentaries and why you should be building your theological library right now.
Bob affirms the usefulness of commentaries. But when he attended a Bible study as a kid, the group leader told him to “start with the Bible, not with the commentaries.” The Bible study leader encouraged him to do his own exegetical work and not to be lazy. That’s stuck with him ever since. Now when he does sermon prep, he doesn’t consult the commentaries until Friday, and still feels guilty when he does so.
“Application is overrated,” Bob says, enthusiastically. He tells you he’s tired of all these “worldly” preachers who claim to do expository preaching but spend so little time in the actual text. He reminds you that it is the Spirit’s job to apply the passage to the heart of your hearers, not yours. Why would you try to do the Holy Spirit’s job? You’re not stronger than him, are you?
Barry has a different outlook. He says that if you don’t provide a sermon application, you haven’t preached. That “old-school” way of mostly exposition in a sermon would have worked 50 years ago, but not today. Exposition without application is merely a public Bible study. People need to know, “Now what?” after your sermon. It’s your job to tell them. You love them, don’t you?
Bob tells you to exclusively do expository preaching if you want to preach the whole counsel of God. “Topical” preaching is for those who care more about what they have to say than what God’s Word actually says. Preach through books of the Bible, verse-by-verse. That’s it. There’s no other option if you want to be a faithful Bible preacher.
Barry likewise loves expository preaching and tells you about how he just finished a two-year sermon series in the Gospel of Matthew. Instead of picking another book of the Bible to preach from, he’s going to do a quick sermon series on prayer. Just four weeks, he says. He feels like his congregation needs to grow in prayer, and it’s his job to lead them. He tells you that he doesn’t mind doing a topical sermon series every once in a while, and that true expository preaching is not merely about preaching through books of the Bible, but about ensuring that the main idea of your text is the main idea of your sermon; you can preach expositonally by doing a topical sermon series.
Bob says contextualization is overrated and encourages you to focus on the text only; Barry says contextualization is extremely important and encourages you to know both the text and your culture. Bob starts his sermon prep on Monday morning since it’s the most important work of his ministry; Barry waits until Wednesday before starting sermon prep because he wants to “live in the text.” Bob warns you not to “leapfrog” to Jesus as Jesus is not literally the main point of every text; Barry says you must preach the gospel in every sermon, and Jesus is the entire point of the Bible. Bob says he finds sermon illustrations to be silly; Barry says a good sermon illustration can change someone’s life.
And on and on they go, giving you opposite answers to the same questions.
You thank both men for their time and quietly exit to your car. You wondered if you made a mistake by setting up these appointments; you wonder if God is even calling you to preach.
What do you do?
On Taking Preaching Advice
The answer to the question “What do you do?” is this: Do what works for you. Take the preaching advice that’s useful, and ignore what’s not.
I bring this up because this is something I’ve gone through. As one who preaches regularly and often reads about the craft of preaching, I often leave confused when two men I admire give me the opposite advice. I’ve learned over the years that when you get varying perspectives on preaching, the remedy is not to discern who’s right and who’s wrong but to figure out what works best for your specific ministry context.
Reading good books on preaching is crucial. Listening to sermons is helpful. And best of all, asking a wise sage for his advice is gold. Learn from others. But remember: you’re not them. What works for them may not work for you. You are free to accept what you like and ignore what you don’t.
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