Jimmy Jackson almost made it to baseball's big leagues. He sure had a good run with the Minnesota Twins' AAA farm team. Pitching coaches routinely clocked his fastball in the mid nineties. Yep, you could always count on Jimmy's fastball.
Of course that was Jimmy's downfall too: he only threw fastballs. No curveballs, sliders, or change-ups—just blistering fastballs in roughly the same place: belt-high and smack down the middle. So after awhile every batter knew what was coming. There's a good chance he could have made the Twins' starting lineup—if he could have had at least one more pitch. But for the rest of his short career, Jimmy just kept slinging that trademark fastball.
If you're a real Twins fan, you probably know that Jimmy never existed. I made up his story to offer an important insight about preaching: just as pro baseball players get stuck in pitching ruts, pastors can get stuck in preaching ruts. One-pitch pastors usually have one good pitch, but as in Jimmy's case, that might also be their weakness. After awhile the sermonic predictability gets old. But even worse, one-pitch preachers sometimes fail to preach what the Apostle Paul called "the whole counsel of God." As a result, in some ways their hearers remain spiritually stuck and stagnant.
I should know because I often struggle with my own one-pitch preacher rut. Honestly, it's a good single pitch that I'll call pastoral preaching. During my sermon preparation I'm almost always acutely aware that I'm preaching to broken people who need the tender care of the Great Shepherd. (And I'm also acutely aware of my own need for grace.) I suppose the guiding verse for my sermon preparation could be Matthew 12:20: "He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory" (NRS). In my preaching, I don't like "breaking" people. I assume that they are pretty broken-up by the time they walk into church. I want to apply the balm of the gospel to that brokenness. So Sunday after Sunday, I wind up and hurl my grace-pitch—fast, straight, right over the plate.
Of course there are other preaching ruts. The prophetic preaching path can also become a rut. We need bracing, in-your-face sermons from prophetic preachers, but after a string of Amos-like messages about all those "fat cows of Bashan," listeners start craving a spoonful of tenderness. Or there are one-pitch doctrinal preachers. These sermons drip with rich theological insights, but the application may be lacking. Some preachers use the one pitch of practical, how-to sermons—four steps to a better marriage, five ways to excel at work, or six principles for handling your finances. Some pastors get into illustration ruts. Some preachers always—and I mean always—pepper, their sermons with illustrations about their kids. On any given Sunday, you'd learn more about their kids than the Scriptures.
Preferring one preaching style isn't always a bad thing. God has wired every preacher with a unique combination of spiritual gifts and pastoral burdens. That's why our favorite preaching pitch feels authentic. It's our sweet spot, and everybody loves sweet spots. But it's even more than that. We keep using our favorite approach to preaching because it works. For instance, over and over again I've watched God change lives as people encounter his grace and mercy.
On the other hand, in order to preach the whole counsel of God and help people grow as fully formed disciples of Jesus, at some point preachers need to step out of their preaching sweet spot. People need to see Jesus both as the tender shepherd and the roaring lion. Great doctrine by itself won't transform hearts. Practical principles—even biblical principles—could produce very busy but theologically-ignorant church members.
So how do we preach outside of our sweet spot? More specifically, during our sermon preparation, how do we get ready to use a change-up when all we've ever thrown is a fastball?
Assess your own preaching style
Begin assessing your style by honestly reviewing your sermon history and your preaching tendencies. What is your favorite (or perhaps your only) approach to preaching? Do you tend to be primarily doctrinal, confrontational, an explainer, pastoral, how-to, inductive in structure, deductive in structure? Do you always use an opening story followed by three parallel points? Do you always preach from the New Testament epistles or some other biblical genre? Do you always develop your main points using original language word studies? Is there any way that your sermons become utterly predictable? How would you describe your repertoire—or lack thereof—of sermons?
In order to help people grow, at some point preachers need to step out of their preaching sweet spot.
The best and quickest (but also the scariest) way to assess your preaching style is to get feedback from your listeners. Sometimes people will talk to you face-to-face. When they do, don't get defensive and quickly try to dismiss their negative comments. Even your crankiest preaching-critics may have valuable advice about your sermon tendencies. I once had a friendly but frustrated parishioner tell me, "I used to like all of your illustrations, but now I can count on your illustrating a sermon point with one of three sources: a story from your home town, a sports analogy, or a quote from C. S. Lewis and his friends." I went back through my sermons, and he was right. My illustrations were a blur of Minnesota, football, and the Inklings.
Even your frustrated critics may have a point. If someone keeps telling me, "Your sermons aren't deep enough (or practical enough, or challenging enough, or biblical enough)," that may be about my critic's issues; but then again, if I hear the same complaint enough, it could be a clue that I'm resorting to one-pitch preaching. What are critics really asking for?
If people don't give you direct and honest feedback, just ask them about how they experience your preaching. For example, about midway through my nine-year pastorate on Long Island, I started asking a few key people (and not just my biggest fans) the following questions: How would you describe my preaching in one or two sentences? If you could summarize the main theme in my sermons, what would you say? What do you want more of in my preaching?
Long Island people are typical New Yorkers: they'll tell you what they think. So they told me to stop being so nice and just let them have it. They really meant it. Actually, in some ways they were exasperated by my one-pitch preaching rut. One guy told me, "Hey, look, you're not in Minnesota anymore. Whatever you have to say, whatever God lays on your heart, don't beat around the bush; just say it. We're dying for you to get in our face and challenge us more."
It takes a lot of humility to assess your preaching style. After all, we've usually spent hours crafting our messages. By the time we get done preaching, our messages feel like they're wrapped up with our self-worth. But as we find our true identity in Christ (not our preaching about Christ), we can slowly release our defensive attitudes and face our limited approach to preaching.
Ask different questions of the text
Most of us approach our sermon text with a largely subconscious set of questions. For instance, based on my temperament and spiritual gifts, during my sermon preparation I tend to focus on questions like these: How does this passage offer God's comfort to wounded people? Where's the grace and encouragement in this passage? How can I bring the healing touch of Christ to sin-sick people? Obviously, those are great questions, but they shouldn't be the only questions I ask during sermon prep.
A preaching friend of mine who tends toward prophetic preaching once told me something that I needed to hear: "As preachers if we cease to confront people in our sermons, we abandon them to a lack of growth." I don't like to think that my preaching abandons people to a lack of growth, but my friend has a good point.
If I'm going to help people grow on a consistent basis, at some point during my sermon preparation I need to expand the standard questions I ask. For me that means asking questions like these: Where does this text confront our sinful tendencies? How is God calling his people to repent? Based on this passage, what idols do we need to confess and renounce? How is God stretching us to love and serve others, especially the poor and marginalized? Where does this passage call people to grow? Am I allowing the Spirit to lead me in this sermon, or am I just reverting to my preaching default because it's safe and easy? (For articles on the questions that various preachers ask during sermon preparation, see the PreachingToday.com theme "Sermon Prep" and the articles by various preachers on "How I Prepare a Sermon.") I suggest that you become a collector of questions. You can't and shouldn't use them all, but questions can lead you to thinking in ways you typically would not.
Most of those questions cut against the grain of my default sermon prep process, but if I don't intentionally expand my sermon prep questions, I will fall into a preaching rut.
Be willing to stretch your preaching comfort zone
Every once in a while I suggest you intentionally preach a sermon that breaks from your comfortable pattern. As a historical example, at one point the English reformer John Wesley was preaching formal, traditional sermons within the church walls of established Church of England buildings. Meanwhile, Wesley's friend George Whitefield was watching God work in miraculous ways through his outdoor preaching services. The thought of preaching in the open fields repulsed Wesley. He thought it was highly improper. But in his journal dated March 15, 1739, Wesley noted the day when God added a curve ball to his preaching repertoire. "At four in the afternoon," Wesley wrote, "I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people." From that point on, Wesley's journal records that he routinely saw mass conversions through his "vile" approach to preaching in the field.
I have a friend who needed to be "more vile" in his approach to preaching. For the most part, he prefers to preach theologically rich, three-point sermons that offer pastoral encouragement. That's his sweet spot as a preacher. But recently his senior pastor asked him to preach a sermon as part of a series on raising children in today's culture. Since my friend has adult children already, they asked him to preach on the topic of launching your teenagers into adulthood. He definitely struggled with the idea of preaching a five-step, how-to sermon on a practical issue. In some ways it felt like a colossal sell-out.
But as he prepared for the sermon, he started to reconsider his assumptions by asking a few key questions: Does God's Word really have nothing to say about how to launch children into adulthood? Can't we search the Scriptures and find principles—solid, biblical principles—that relate to this pressing need in our culture? My friend went on to preach his five-step, how-to sermon, and many people found it enormously helpful. He probably won't preach that way every week, but he grew as a preacher by changing his approach to preaching for that one Sunday.
Learn from other preachers
This is perhaps the best argument for reading or listening to the sermons of other preachers, especially preachers who don't preach just like you. There are some fine and famous preachers that sure don't preach like me; in other words, they sound as cranky as Jeremiah, and I'd rather hear an encouraging message from Barnabas. But the body of Christ needs preachers who don't preach like me. And I need preachers who don't preach like me. How else will I learn to stretch my approach to preaching? By reading or listening to their sermons, essentially I'm saying, "Show me how to throw that curve ball. Show me how to be more prophetic (or practical, or pastoral, or doctrinal, or gospel-centered) in my messages."
For instance, a friend of mine told me that he's been reading sermons by a preacher who had once been a lawyer. My friend has a gift for mercy, and it usually shines through in his sermons. But my friend has been learning another angle on preaching by reading these sermons. The preacher applies his rigorous, logical mind to his sermons. He utilizes a relentless lawyer-like approach to arrive at his "closing argument": will you accept Jesus or not? My friend knows he can't be like the lawyer-preacher, but he can sure learn from him. Sometimes he needs to bring a case and draw people to a certain conclusion based on the evidence of the text.
Author and preacher D. A. Carson was heard to quote approvingly this anonymous bit of wisdom for preachers about listening to others' sermons: "If you listen only to one preacher, you become a clone. You listen to two, and you become confused. You listen to fifty, and you are on the edge of being freed up to become wise and your own person."
Becoming a multi-pitch preacher doesn't happen overnight. And for many preachers it doesn't occur early in their preaching ministry. Most preachers have to grow into and then identify and enjoy the one approach to preaching that becomes their signature pitch. So although growing as a preacher involves some hard work and painful insight, in the end it's worth it. God's Word gets proclaimed with a richer power, and your people will experience new avenues for spiritual growth.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.