Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content


Spiritually Formed Preachers

How to bring spiritual formation into your entire sermon process.
Spiritually Formed Preachers
Image: freedom007 / Getty Images

The first message I ever preached was most likely only memorable to me. I was a high school student, newly set ablaze in my faith, and ready to tell people about Jesus and how vital it was to live for him. Filled with passion, and more than a little rough around the edges, I unloaded lengthy biblical passages and ideas on living for God. More than 30 minutes later, a sleepy room stared back at me after my scattershot approach, and I feebly closed in prayer.

Looking back on that day, I remember that God works in and through us often in spite of ourselves. I’m not sure what I hoped to accomplish in that message, but I know I had many ways to grow.

As we grow in our calling to preach, we know it is God’s work in and through us that is central, but sometimes we may lose focus. We venture into thinking of preaching merely as a skill-based event within a worship service. Yes, skill is necessary in preaching and should be faithfully honed, and, yes, the sermon is an event within a service of worship that should be memorable and contribute to the whole. But preaching is so much more than just that.

Sometimes we think of the sermon only as a way to get people to do something, whether step forward in faith, join in with small groups, or give to a capital campaign. As important as all these things may be, preaching is more than that.

At our worst, preachers sometimes wander into the dark land of using preaching to build our ministry platform or contribute to our sagging ego. In these seasons, we desperately need to turn from ourselves and get back on track because preaching is definitely much more than such self-serving efforts.

There is a sort of language that, unfortunately, is not often explicitly associated with preaching but should be. That is the language of spiritual formation. These pandemic years have revealed the truth that we are always being formed in one way or another, both in our inner and outer lives. While we can always be formed unintentionally, spiritual formation describes the intentional process of formation by the Holy Spirit into the image of Jesus from the inside out.

It is the sort of undertaking the Apostle Paul describes to early believers in this way: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). In Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard, one of our most incisive thinkers in this arena, writes: “… spiritual formation for the Christian basically refers to the Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself.”[1]

Some may even argue that preaching is implicitly all about spiritual formation. However, I would humbly submit that while this is true, we do not think of it in those terms. I want us to see the entire endeavor of preaching through the lens of spiritual formation, exploring what that might mean for us as preachers and for our work of preaching.

Spiritual Formation of the Preacher

When I first began learning to preach, I quickly realized I could listen to various voices, all of whom were gifted in unique ways: Barbara Brown Taylor, John Stott, Gardner Taylor, Billy Graham, Brenda Salter-McNeil, Andy Stanley, Fred Craddock, Nancy Ortberg, and so many more. The personality, voice, background, and experience of each person shaped their preaching. The preaching, in some ways, flowed out of the person.

This is true when we reflect on the intersection of spiritual formation and preaching. In many ways, the place to start with our exploration of spiritual formation and preaching is the preacher themselves.

My first sermon in high school was one of those moments I look back at with a mixture of both gratitude (for the opportunity that urged me in a certain direction) and squeamishness (for all I inflicted on others in my immaturity). From today’s vantage point, I see there was a lot of work God needed to do in me if I was going to continue preaching.

The same is true today. This work of God in us is fundamental to our preaching ministry. Deep down, all of us know this is true as preachers, but sometimes we forget it as time progresses and we focus on the actions of preaching, like planning sermon series, faithfully exegeting a text, developing moving illustrations, and so much more.

However, if we want to grow in our preaching, we must also see the opportunity before us in growing as spiritually formed preachers, those who are increasingly becoming like Christ from the inside out. Jesus’ public ministry began with his baptism by John, accompanied by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the identity affirmation from the Father, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matt. 4:17).

Jesus’ first step toward ministry in word and deed was a life saturated with the divine presence. While none of us are Jesus, at least part of our preaching ministry is allowing the Holy Spirit to increasingly shape our lives to reflect Jesus’ life, a life saturated with the divine presence.

Thus, our time in preparation of the sermon, from the work in planning and with the text, to the writing of the sermon and illustrations and applications is an opportunity to not only complete a task but to continually open our lives to God in order to be formed in Christlikeness.

As we consider what we should preach about, whether using a lectionary or a sermon series framework, it is good for us to let that consideration become a conversation with God in prayer.

As we study a text, digging deep into original languages and grammar, as well as cultural background and critical commentary, we can open ourselves to God, letting him speak into our lives through our intellectual engagement.

As we ponder what the main idea of a sermon may be, we can let it become more than an “idea” but actually a spiritually powerful truth that God also wants to speak into us first.

As we use our craft in developing a sermon outline and flow, including illustrations and applications, we not only want to apply our message to others but also allow God to speak to us through it.

We have an opportunity to let the Lord shape us into Christlikeness through this entire process.

Not only is it through the preparation and crafting of the sermon that we open ourselves to God, but we also can, as Jesus did at his baptism, hear the voice of God the Father speaking identity into and love over us.

The preacher is often known as someone who speaks, but it is also vitally important that we be someone who hears. To some extent, our congregants’ voices—their questions, desires, fears, and hopes—should shape the contours of our sermons. But even more deeply than the voices of our congregants we need to hear the voice of God speaking into our lives.

Jesus, we are told, returned again and again to hear his Father’s voice, and it was from that primary hearing that his ministry of preaching and teaching proceeded: “I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken” (John 12:49). Fundamentally, through Jesus our Savior, we preachers hear the invitation of the Father that, like Jesus, we too are loved dearly by God.

This is a helpful remedy amidst the many forms of feedback we hear as preachers, some positive and some negative, some from kind voices and some from harsh voices. This feedback can easily form us into people pleasers, resentful cynics, prideful egoists, or any number of other options. But if we hear the voice of God speaking love to us in our most desperately vulnerable places we can be spiritually formed in the image of Jesus, as disciples and preachers.

Spiritual Formation in the Act of Preaching

When I sit down to a meal, there are different ways to evaluate whether it was a good meal. It could be the quality of the main course or the variety across different courses. It could be the atmosphere in which the meal takes place or the depth of conversation around the table. When we preach, there are different ways to evaluate the fruitfulness of our preaching. We can look at the clarity of our main point, the response of the congregation, the giving of an offering that Sunday, or the number of views we have of that message online.

Given our theme in this article, what might it mean to evaluate the fruitfulness of our preaching through the lens of spiritual formation?

When we step forward to proclaim the Word of God, viewing that act through the lens of spiritual formation may change our overall experience of it. Instead of simply aiming to make a point, move the congregation to action, or lead them into worship, we can zoom out to a broader perspective for considering our sermons.

We do well to always evaluate whether we have a crystal-clear main point to our sermons, whether we have a gripping opening and compelling conclusion, and whether all our illustrations are not merely interesting but move the points of our message forward. At the same time, however, I want to invite us to ponder whether the message will help people encounter Jesus, become more like Jesus, and walk with Jesus afterwards.

Instead of merely thinking about whether the points move the train of ideas or the flow of story along, let us prayerfully consider how the sermon will form the hearers into active participants with the Holy Spirit in their formation in Christlikeness, for their sake and for the sake of others.

Here are some questions worth considering in bringing spiritual formation into your sermon writing and delivery:

  • Does this sermon clearly present an opportunity to encounter Christ, both as the Savior and also as the way to true life (John 14:6)?
  • Will followers of Jesus grow in love for God and love for others through this message, in terms of content, tone, and application?
  • How will this sermon move beyond rhetorical effectiveness toward spiritual richness in producing freedom from sin and the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the hearers (Gal. 5:13-26)?
  • What spiritual practices or devotional resources might I integrate into my sermon or offer as follow-up activities in the coming week after my sermon (1 Thess. 5:16-18)?
  • How might life as the community in both formal small groups and informal relationships be strengthened for spiritual growth through my message and afterwards (Col. 3:16)?
  • Even as I deliver my sermon, how might I yield space for the Holy Spirit to interrupt my sermon plan in order to draw us into encounters with God that are transformative in the service (1 Cor. 14:26)?

For our congregation, some of the most spiritually formative times are during our Lenten journey. Our Sunday sermon series corresponds with a daily devotional written by staff and congregants from our church. We invite the entire congregation into this journey of Lent through corporate worship from Ash Wednesday through Holy Week, while also inviting individuals, families, and small groups to gather with God daily around themes and Scripture related to that series. As we have done this year after year, I am reminded of the reality that God is doing something in and through me as a preacher, but also God is doing something in and through our entire congregation beyond me. There is a greater work of God going on, and my preaching is just one part of that.

[1] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 22.

Matt Erickson serves as the Senior Pastor of Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Related articles

Sean Palmer

Preaching Is Alive and Well

3 reasons why we need to keep preaching.
Lenny Luchetti

Preaching Through a Camera to a Congregation

4 preaching practices that can keep us from losing our sermonic soul.
Scott M. Gibson

Bothered by Theology

Our theology impacts our convictions, sermon preparation, and preaching.