Chapter 3

Deep Preaching

Trust in the power, presence, and guidance of the Holy Spirit in your sermon prep and preaching.

For years, I had a misguided Trinitarian approach to preaching: God the Father, Son, and Self-Reliance.

I had given a lot of lip service to the Holy Spirit by acknowledging his presence, but I hadn't experienced his power or showed evidence of partnering with him in my daily life. This realization triggered repentance and required a great deal of unlearning and reorientation of my heart and mind in order to come to trust the Holy Spirit in my preaching. It was painful, but necessary—and I'm still in process. Preaching in the power of the Spirit is certainly not an equation or a step-by-step formula where we look to insert the Holy Spirit into the preaching process. The Spirit is central—and, by his grace, I have a role to play in it.

But what does it mean to preach in the power of the Spirit—practically? And how might preachers enter into a process that involves an ever-deepening trust in the presence, power, and guidance of the Spirit that leads to deeper preaching?

Do I truly believe that the Spirit is 'my' teacher, illuminator, guide, reminderer, advocate—the Spirit of Truth—and is graciously available to 'me', even in my preparation and delivery?

We know (and have probably preached on) John 14 where the Spirit is described as teacher, illuminator, reminderer, the Spirit of Truth, and our Advocate. But to preach in the power of the Spirit we must ask a very simple, yet direct question of ourselves: Do I truly believe that the Spirit is my teacher, illuminator, guide, reminderer, advocate—the Spirit of Truth—and is graciously available to me, even in my preparation and delivery?

When we step into the pulpit each week this direct question must precede us, before we even open our mouths. We must personally learn to rely on the Spirit in our own lives first; then we must invite the Spirit into the pulpit with us.

There are two metaphors that have gripped my mind and heart regarding the role of the Spirit in my preaching.

The preaching process often feels like a couple dancing together on the dance floor—closeness, movement, celebration and, when done properly, beauty. As pastors we are not leading the dance—we follow the lead, our dance partner, the Holy Spirit. Different roles, different steps, different places, and yet we do it in concert with one another.

The preacher's role is to learn the ropes and the gear, working hard to hoist the sails, read the current patterns of the wind, and angle the boat properly in order to catch the wind in the sails. The Spirit's role is the blow when, where, and how strongly the Spirit desires. The preacher's job is neither to direct the wind nor grow impatient when the wind doesn't blow when, where, and how we desire. I do my part, but the Spirit provides the only thing that leads to real movement.

With these images in our mind, we must still ask: Yes, but how do we enter into the process of partnership with the Spirit in our preaching? Here are seven approaches to Spirit-partnering preaching.

Reorganize your prayer closet

Charles Spurgeon's prayer life was just as powerful as his preaching life. It was said that he never preached a sermon unless there was a small group of people interceding on his behalf at the same time in another room. Prayer—his own and others—was the fuel in the vehicle of his preaching. Should we then wonder why God worked so powerfully through his sermons?

Recruiting a team of intercessors to pray in the basement during my sermon each week hasn't been what I've felt called to do (although some Sunday mornings I've been tempted to try it), but there are times I arrive early on Sunday morning to walk around and pray while the room is empty. I walk down the aisles and across the rows, touching the chairs, stopping and praying for whomever will be sitting in these seats later that morning. I often pray one of a few different prayers: that hearers of my preaching would clearly and faithfully receive what the Spirit has for them this morning. Other times I pray, "Do something significant today, God!" And still other times, I pray, "Spirit, surprise us—even me—this morning" (often a difficult prayer to pray for a planner like myself).

But more than just praying for the hearers of the message, I also pray for the messenger. The message has to get inside of me first before I can expect it to get inside of others. How can I expect people to be inspired, challenged, moved, formed, and changed by my peaching if it does not inspire, challenge, form, and move me initially?

During the last stanza of the last song before I am to stand up and preach, I pray the same prayer I've prayed the past dozen years. I quietly recite 1 Samuel 10:6 - "And the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you with power. And you will prophecy [preach] with them and you will be changed into a different person," followed by:

Change me into a different person in the next few minutes.
I will be faithful to get the message from my mouth to people's ears, but you do the most important part of getting it from people's ears to people's hearts.

This is my final preparation before beginning with my dance partner; an important step in hoisting my sails and asking for the wind to blow.

Preach hungry

One of the most practical ways we can give the Spirit further and deeper access to our preaching is to participate in fasting. Dallas Willard, in his book The Great Omission, shared the story of a pastor who made it a regular practice to fast before and during the times he preached. He told Dallas, "I have a deeper sense of dependency and of the immense power of the spoken word." The director of the tape ministry of the church approached him one Sunday after a service and said that over the past several months orders for sermon tapes had doubled. "I can't explain it," the director said, "but whatever it is, keep it up!"

There is power in our weakness. There is more power and more depth to our preaching when what is required of us is a literal dependence upon the Spirit that goes beyond our morning cups of coffee and a good night's sleep. Think, too, how meaningful it would be to break a fast at the Table while we receive the communion elements with the congregation. We've hungered for God and now we receive his Body—a great reminder for every preacher.

Try fasting some time Saturday and into Sunday morning—without mentioning it in your sermon or to others—for the next few months and see if there is a deeper meaning and power in partnering with the Spirit during your preaching.

Listen on three levels while preaching

By the end of a Sunday service, I often feel simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted. A mentor once told me that to feel both at the same time is often confirmation one is using their spiritual gifts. One of the reasons I am exhausted is that preaching demands my complete focus, attention, and energy to listen on three different levels, all while I am opening my mouth to proclaim the Good News about a loving God to a hurting world.

  • Level One: I am listening to the text (the notes that resulted from my preparation throughout the week, and from my final preparations Sunday morning). Have I adequately prepared to share this passage? Have I thought through my own audience who will be hearing this message? Have I thought through the elements of delivery—volume, pace, tone, presence—as I proclaim the truth?
  • Level Two: I am "listening" to my hearers (people's body language, eye contact, and facial expressions, seeing how they are processing the truth.) Do they seem confused, moved, encouraged, convicted? How can I meet them where they are?
  • Level Three: I am also listening to the Spirit to make sure I'm on track. Is there a mid-course correction that needs to occur in my sermon? Is there a prompting from the Spirit to add an illustration that just came to me or to cut out a point for the sake of clarity?

All three elements of listening are crucial to the process; they all are intertwined in the ship's rigging, all playing a part in the moves of the dance.

Prepare: not too little (and not too much)

I cringe when I hear pastors who frequently neglect sufficient time for their sermon preparation. They often claim it was because of a "crazy ministry week," but often it seems it is because of their laziness in prioritizing their week. They admit that they go into Sunday morning depending upon the Spirit for what to say when they stand up and preach. (Translation: I'm winging it and praying all goes well.)

To be clear, the Spirit certainly prompts us at times to preach on topics without much preparation. But when we make a regular habit of this in our preaching life it needs to be addressed. The laziness of the past week's schedule and the lack of preparation can often lead to sloppy sermons, inattentive and unmoved hearers, and stagnant lives. I challenge pastors with this approach that we should trust the Holy Spirit when we preach—and we should also trust the Spirit when we prepare. We can depend upon the Holy Spirit for illumination, guidance, revelation, passion, wisdom, discernment, creativity, clarity, and structure on a Tuesday morning in our study just as much as on a Sunday morning from the pulpit.

Preparing too little isn't helpful, but I also caution pastors to avoid the other end of the spectrum and not prepare "too much." When we over-prepare we can—often without realizing it—come to rely too heavily on our education, commentaries, and our experience (the misguided Trinitarian approach of Father, Son, and Self-Reliance). We should go into the pulpit with confidence, but also weakness, having emptied ourselves in order for the Spirit to work in us. We are partners in the dance, but may we never forget: this is not our dance to lead.

Anticipate the interruptions

If we are listening to the Spirit on all three levels, as mentioned earlier we should come to expect interruptions. The Holy Spirit is constant and yet also unpredictable—which means that a real-time course correction could be a real possibility at times. Yes, the childcare workers are expecting you to wrap it up soon and the parking lot will be slammed if you don't end on time, but we serve a God who is not predictable, who works in ways that requires tweaks, changes, and sometimes overhauls on the spot.

Some of my best illustrations have been split-second additions, right in the middle of a point I was trying to make. I had not thought of that illustration until that very moment. There have been times I used a story that touched people to the core, but I hadn't thought about that particular story for years. Why then, in that moment? I am not sure, but I'm grateful to have responded faithfully to that prompting. People have told me—sometimes months later—that a particular illustration or story changed the way they view God. I simply tell them that I didn't prepare to say it—that the Spirit dropped it into my mind at that very moment. In admitting this to people, it frees me from the temptation to take credit that isn't mine to take.

These "interruptions" could mean adding something to the sermon, but it could also mean cutting things out, too—things that we thought were important in our preparation during the week, but as we are in the pulpit the Spirit prompts us to say, "That's not for now. Save it for another time." We won't always get it right all the time, but you can grow into it—and the way we grow into it is to dance with our dance partner and learn the dance together.

Ask the two significant questions

On occasion, at the end of my teaching, I will simply pause and ask the church two questions: What did you hear from Jesus? And, what are you going to do with what you just heard?

Sometimes this is a non-traditional dialogical approach where we invite people to stand up and share. Other times I might put these questions up on the screen and leave a few moments for quiet reflection. Challenging hearers to not just take in the sermon, but also to give space for them to process what they've heard helps our church steward the gift that the Spirit had given to us personally and corporately. It's one of the primary ways pastors can teach people to pay attention to God and grow to respond appropriately. Questions and interaction—when done appropriately—are deeply formative tools that help cultivate a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit's role in peaching, both for the preacher and the hearers.

Actively release

Honest confession: the greatest requirement of my faith to the preaching process is not before or during, but after it's all over. I sense I am not alone. As preachers we have studied, prayed, refined, and mulled over parts of our sermon dozens of times in the past week. But now that the service is over, it can be easy to let thoughts creep in our minds and hearts such as, "Maybe I should have said that …" or "My conclusion could have been sharper if I had …" or "That illustration could have been clearer …"

Oftentimes, after a sermon someone will come up to process the sermon with me. These times are encouraging, as it is real-time feedback into the minds and hearts of my people. But on occasion, someone will share a wise thought, a wonderfully fitting illustration or an additional passage of Scripture or biblical story that came to their mind that highlighted fittingly what I just preached. I will joke with them, "That's really good insight. Why couldn't you have told me about that yesterday? It could have enhanced the teaching greatly!" We laugh together. But the truth is I was only slightly kidding. While they did not intend to do this, sometimes I walk away kicking myself as to how I didn't see that connection or think of that parallel passage or think of an insightful analogy like what was just shared in that conversation.

Yet, I must remember, I did all that I could. What has been preached, has been preached. No more tweaking, changing, rearranging. I trust the Spirit to do what the Spirit wants to do with the role that I played. Certainly, I can grow and hone my preparation and delivery as a preacher, but I must remember that the Spirit is the lead dance partner. He can take my crooked stick sermon and make them straight stick truth in the hearts of listeners. Releasing this is the hardest part of the process for me, the area of my life that requires the most amount of trust and faith. Oh, it can be excruciatingly difficult—and yet, it deepens my faith, not on the doing, but in the fact that I can no longer do anything. I must trust.

Return to say thanks

Our partner has danced with us in our sermon preparation during the week and also in our delivery on Sunday. Sometimes after church, when I get in the car or I'm about to leave the building, I'll look back at the room and whisper a quick prayer, Thank you, Holy Spirit, for allowing me to participate with you. I hope I've been faithful with my part and allowed you to do yours. I hope I was a faithful dance partner.

May we never forget to return to say thanks to the Spirit for inviting us to join the process, for being gracious enough to invite us to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in our particular local context. The preparation and delivery may have left us exhausted and drained, but the process throughout the week has been a gift, if we can come to see it as such. May we return to the Giver to express our gratitude for the gift of deep preaching.