There is a world of difference between preaching with fire in your bones and working up a sermon because you must preach on Sunday. Having been a pastor at the same church for over thirty years, I’ve preached through many of the books of the Bible. After you’ve been somewhere for an extended time, there is a subtle danger of just looking for something to say. There’s a world of difference between a sermon in your head and a message in your heart.
Whether I am visiting a passage or a book of Scripture for the first time or revisiting it years later, I can’t look at a text and assume I know everything I need to know. However, we must beware of the danger of finding something “new.” We must be sure that if it’s new to us, it’s still true. As leaders, we are lifelong learners. We must examine ourselves to make certain we’ve grown in our understanding of Scripture over time. Old notes can grow cold or stale over time. If we aren’t careful, we will just disseminate information and lack inspiration.
Our audience has changed and is constantly changing. Some of us are older, some are new believers, some come with limited biblical understanding, some have been hurt in the church, and all come with different backgrounds and stories and needs. In addition, the average church member only attends about once or twice a month. We cannot assume that everyone knows or understands what we’re communicating in a message or series. This requires a sensitivity to the Spirit in the moment of preaching.
Therefore, it is imperative that we lean on the Holy Spirit as we prepare and preach. It has been said that when C. H. Spurgeon walked to the pulpit, those close by could hear him saying under his breath, “I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit.” It’s something I’ve sought to do as I approach the sacred desk. All of us have preached a message in our flesh, and we know the futility of it for both us and our people.
When I stand to preach, I am standing in a “preaching zone.” When we built our Worship Center over twenty years ago, I marked off a six-foot area on the floor before the carpet was put in place. In that area, I wrote Scriptures and quotes regarding preaching. Right behind the pulpit are these words, “Let him who stands here and preach not Jesus, be accursed.” Others have placed a small sign on their pulpits that say, “We would see Jesus.” I believe it’s important that we remember the eternal transactions that are happening when we are preaching. If there was no fire in our bones as we were studying, it’s doubtful we’ll have fire in the pulpit.
A message downloaded from a preacher in a booming metropolitan area may not work in a declining rural community. The Scriptures are the same, but the context in which they are shared vary, and the applications and illustrations are different. We must know our congregation. While it’s okay to reference material from preachers and authors you respect, it’s not okay to cut and paste without making the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart acceptable in the sight of God.
In preaching, I seek to work several weeks in advance. Those messages are often revised, tweaked, and edited even up to the last hour before a worship service. As the Word takes root in my head and heart, God continues to teach me through the Scriptures. While I study, I’m quietly asking the Lord what the word is for the people. Is it a prophetic word? It is an exhortation? Is it a call to repentance? It is to rebuke, correct, or train?
My calling is to be a servant, surrendered to the Spirit. As a steward of the Word, I must deliver it faithfully. It’s not about my opinion – it’s about God’s revelation. Preaching is out of the overflow. It’s a balance of Spirit and truth. God works the Word into us, then He works it through us and out of us. If we are sensitive to the Spirit, we will remember we are feeding sheep, not giraffes. The temptation for any expositor is to go so deep that the average person in the pew feels lost in the text, not inspired by it. The Word of God is a love letter from heaven. It is a lamp and a light.
Pablo Casals once said to a cello student, “You are playing the notes, but not the music.” I believe this applies to preaching as well. The Pharisees knew all the “notes.” They knew the letter of the law, but not the Spirit of the law. My mentor Vance Havner wrote, “Many a sermon is correct in its facts, but utterly without fire. The notes but not the music! It is the plight of the church where there is plenty of theology but no doxology.” You cannot separate the preacher’s own life lived in the Word from his preaching in the pulpit. The former affects the latter – whether to the glory of God and the edification of the saints, or to the detriment of the kingdom and the marring of gospel hope. May we “kindle afresh the gift of God…for God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (2 Tim 1:6–7).
Michael Catt is the Senior Pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia.