This seems like a safe support group, so I’ll just say it: “My name is Kevin, and sometimes I have preacher envy.”
When I hear great preaching, part of me appreciates the clarity and beauty of the Gospel; another part of me thinks, “I wish I could preach like that.”
I remember listening to lectures on preaching by Tim Keller, and even as I learned from him, I felt “Keller envy.” Over the years, I’ve wished for the exegetical depth of Darrell Johnson, the passion of Francis Chan, or the comic timing of John Ortberg.
And as an Anglican, with a robust theology of “the communion of the saints,” I can torture myself with comparisons to the greatest preachers of all time: John Henry Newman, John Chrysostom, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, anyone?
Meanwhile, in my saner moments, I know God has called me so he must want to use me as I am. Preaching is “truth through personality,” as Anglican preacher Phillips Brooks put it, so accepting and expressing my personality is my only option.
But how do I learn from outstanding preachers and still be myself?
That question is one I’ve wrestled with over the years, and I’ve come up with some principles that have helped me.
1. Don’t apply what you notice first.
This is counterintuitive. What I first notice in a great preacher is their strongest gift, their charisma. But I probably won’t ever have that particular gift as strongly. So I want to focus not on their charisma but on their craftsmanship. Instead of asking, What is their amazing gift? I want to look at their craftsmanship: How do they achieve a good effect?
For instance, I admire one great preacher for his passion. Let’s call him Rev. Intensity. When he steps into the pulpit, he takes no prisoners. But I don’t have his temperament. I’m intense, but not to that level, so I can’t apply that to me.
But here’s what I can apply: Rev. Intensity’s craftsmanship. In the first five minutes of the sermon, I realized, he convinces me why I absolutely must listen to this sermon. At the beginning of any message, he spends more time than I do setting up the importance of the topic.
Learning from that, I changed my introduction recently when I preached on forgiveness. Rather than launching into the subject and assuming people knew how important it is, I said,
“Forgiveness is one of the most important topics in the Christian life.
If you do not learn how to forgive, you will become a bitter person. You will become swallowed by anger. You will become self-absorbed. You will damage your relationship with God.
But if you learn how to forgive and you courageously make the choice to forgive, you will become a more gracious person. You will become a person of life and joy. You will become the kind of person other people long to be around, and you will become the kind of person God can use.
Would you like to learn how to forgive this morning?”
I could see people leaning in.
I may never be as intense as Rev. Intensity, but I can learn from his craftsmanship how to give my sermons greater urgency.
2. Don’t think “all or nothing,” think “how much?”
Rather than wholesale borrow (or reject) something this great preacher does, I ask myself, “How much could I adopt this and it will still fit me and my people? Let me give examples in three areas:
One of my all-time favorite sermons is by E. K. Bailey on the prophet Hosea. In it, E. K. imagines Hosea questioning the Lord, and he goes into a burst of rhetorical fireworks:
“What glory will you get when the prophet marries the prostitute?
What glory will you get when piety is allied with promiscuity?
What glory will you get when there is a coupling between the wretchedness and righteousness?
What glory will you get when the devilish is allied with the divine?
What glory will you get when there is an inner core between the secular and the sacred?
What glory will you get when there is a confluence between the terrestrial and the celestial?”
His alliteration and repetition moved me. But if I preached like that, my people would wonder, “Is he trying to show off?” because that’s not my usual style.
But rather than learn nothing from E. K., I ask, “How much oratory could I adopt and it would fit me and my people?” So when I preached on the Parable of the Persistent Widow, I decided to use the alliteration, “the power of persistence,” throughout. And I used this repetition: “She won’t give up. She won’t back up. She won’t shut up.” That felt comfortable; if I tried to push it beyond that, it wouldn’t work.
I used to think any preacher could use any type of illustration. I have since realized that, no, some categories of illustrations I can use freely and others only sparingly.
For example, I like a southern preacher who has a warm, folksy approach, and he often uses country stories that involve young boys, dogs, and grandmas. When he does it, the stories have a mythic quality, and I love it. When I try to use those stories, they sound cheesy. Maybe because I live up north, or grew up in a suburb, I can use only a few “Johnny on the farm” stories. What I can use a lot of: illustrations from business or current events.
I was listening to a great preacher’s sermon on repentance, and he said, “You say to me, ‘But, pastor, I’ve repented over and over, and I haven’t changed. How come?’ And the answer is, “Because you haven’t really repented. If you had truly repented, you’d be different.” He just said it.
I admired his bold, prophetic challenge. If I tried that fully, though, people might think, “Is Kevin angry today?” because I have more mercy in my tone. I can and should learn to be bolder, but in line with my tone, which includes mercy and encouragement.
3. Put it on the checklist
In The Checklist Manifesto, brilliant surgeon Atul Gawande makes the compelling case that the best way to ensure quality is something simple, old-fashioned, and overlooked: the checklist. If he uses one for surgery, I can use one for sermons.
The bottom line: I will never incorporate a great preacher’s craftsmanship into my sermons unless I make that specific craft part of my sermon-preparation checklist. Otherwise, I’ll watch a great sermon, be inspired, but soon forget about it.
For example, I’ve now added to my sermon checklist, Am I telling people in the first five minutes of this message why it’s important that they listen to this? That lesson from great preachers now travels with me.
You might put a Post-It note on your laptop or put something in the front of your Bible that says, “Am I doing this?” A checklist makes greatness doable.
(Stay tuned, we will share more about making your own sermon-preparation checklist in the future!)
Never satisfied, always secure
As I listen to a great preacher, the spirit I hope to have is, “Never satisfied, always secure.” I hope that when I’m nearing age 70 and still preaching (Lord willing), I’m still improving. I’m still adding to my checklist and trying to become more effective. But I hope I’m doing that from a position of security. What makes me secure?
Not my own assessment of a sermon. I sometimes beat myself up after a message that doesn’t go well. My security has to be in something stronger, higher, more lasting. For me, that is obedience. If I don’t preach the Gospel, woe unto me, as Paul said. I have to preach, so I will.
Want to learn more about preaching from Kevin Miller?
Portions of this article originally appeared at Preaching Today.