One downside of the surge in podcast growth over the past few years is the decline in the number of people listening to sermons. Even preachers don’t listen to preaching much anymore. But preachers should listen to other preachers because some things are caught, not taught. Learning how to grow as a preacher by listening to competent preaching is an effective strategy to get better. But whatever you do, don’t become a clone.
In his book, Between Two Worlds, John Stott writes:
“How, then, shall we prepare? This is a very subjective matter. There is no one way to prepare sermons. Every preacher has to work out his own method, which suits his temperament and situation; it is a mistake to copy others uncritically.”
Stott’s words are relevant both for sermon preparation and the actual act of preaching. We should have our preaching heroes and learn from them, but we should not entirely emulate their methods. Here are a few reasons why.
1. That preacher likely has a different personality than you.
How unbelievably off-putting it would be if you started yelling in the pulpit (even though you’re known for being shy and reserved) just because preacher so-and-so yells on occasion when he preaches.
Some people like personality tests, others don’t. Whether you’re looking for your number or four letters, we can all discern that each person has a distinct personality, which is a combination of genetics and personal experiences. And if preaching is truth coming through personality (as D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was keen on saying), then if you preach like someone you’re not, it’s actually not the truth, because you’re pretending to be someone you aren’t.
Our preaching should match our personality, not someone else’s. You lose your genuineness when you’re not being yourself in the pulpit.
2. That preacher likely has a different ministry context than you.
If you listen to a preacher who ministers in an urban context, you will likely hear about work, success, career, singleness, and ambition woven throughout many applications. If you minister in an elderly context, and you start talking a lot about work and success, nobody’s going to care because they’re just glad to be retired.
Different ministry contexts (e.g. megachurch in New York, rural church in Iowa, suburban church out on the west coast, etc.) will demand different ways of faithfully applying the message to God’s people. The Word of God never changes, but the choice of words and sermon structure from the preacher will vary depending on ministry context. If you preach about things that your favorite preacher does, but your congregants don’t care about those things, then you’ll come across as irrelevant. Preachers have to consider their own ministry context, not someone else’s.
3. That preacher likely has been preaching longer than you.
I’m a huge fan of homiletical tools. In fact, dense, academic, how-to books on preaching are some of my favorite books to read. It’s true that rules are meant to be broken, but you cannot break the rules unless you have first mastered them. The reason why you have to first master homiletical rules before you are allowed to break them is that if you don’t, you won’t precisely know why you’re breaking the rule even if you think otherwise.
Famous preacher such-and-such breaks the homiletical rules from time to time because he has preached thousands of sermons, and through trial and error and personal experience, he has learned a better route that younger preaches cannot possibly know yet. In addition, well-known preachers have earned the right to break the rules because of a track record of ministry faithfulness. They have earned the right to deviate from mechanical, regimented, structured preaching to go off on tangents when preaching. But the right to do that must first be earned.
4. That preacher likely has a relationship with his congregation that you know nothing about.
Another pastor shared this tip with me. Other than side comments the preacher says in his sermons, we cannot possibly know the ins and outs of the church unless we are members there. There is a lot that happens at churches throughout the week that affects what happens on Sundays, often unknown to those of us who eavesdrop through YouTube.
5. Your listeners genuinely want to hear you preach.
Most of your hearers genuinely love you and want to hear from you. If I did a poll in my church asking them if they knew the names of the preaching lineup of the next big conference, most of my people would not recognize a single name on the list.
But they know who I am.
And when I preach, they want me, not some counterfeit version of me.
Learn from other preachers. Allow them to edify your soul as you seek to edify others. But don’t become a carbon copy. You are free to develop your own preaching voice.
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