When I was in seminary I had a professor tell me that I should spend 20–30 hours a week working on the sermon. When I first heard this my mind was caught between the shock of the time constraints of “good preaching” and the gravity of the need for preparing such preaching. I would need to hone my skills in biblical languages, be conversant with all the major commentaries, work on rhetoric for the best turn of phrase, and provide challenging application that changed the world for Christ. All these important elements of the sermon would reasonably take time for preparation. A good preacher would need to study and prepare for the sermon since it was the most important time of the week for him and the church.
For the idealistic seminarian I was, this all sounded good, but upon reflection many years since, I wonder if that advice was really the best. I have come to see that for many in pastoral ministry there just is not that much time in the week to give to one sermon, let alone others they may have to prepare (along with funerals, weddings, etc.). For others, they followed the advice of the professor and led out believing that expository or text-driven preaching the way to do pastoral ministry, at the exclusion of other pastoral duties. And they suffered. No, I am not advocating that we should stop giving our best to our sermons or truncate our preparation. I think what is missing for our churches is understanding the role that preaching has for the church. Preaching is not all there is to Sunday morning, or even more so, to the life of the church. Preaching is an element of the church, and the preacher needs to best understand the place of preaching in the life of the church. So in what follows let me make a few claims about how to consider preaching in relation to the church.
Preaching is not merely teaching
First, preaching is not merely teaching. Clearly there is a connection to teaching with preaching and there is a good bit of teaching in a sermon. However, the task of preaching is not merely one to teach people something. Yes, our congregants need to know the Bible better, or some doctrine or some ethics. However, the task of preaching is intended to do more than inform. A church is not a seminary and the pulpit is not a lectern. We must understand the difference for the sake of the church. The local church that we are preaching to is made up of individuals that need life transformation by the preaching of the Word. Teaching is but one element; we need conviction and exhortation as well. But this means that we must also consider those under our care when we preach, which leads me to the second point
Preaching has in mind the members of the flock
A preacher cannot merely write a sermon that could be preached to anyone anywhere. The task of preaching is to exposit a text, yes, but to do so to a certain set of people at a certain location. The audience matters. This is where good pastoral care takes precedence over a good preaching habit. For we can study all we want for a sermon that does not meet the particular needs of the congregation. Perhaps a sermon is over the heads of the flock or one is offering milk to a community that is desirous of meat. Having an understanding of the spiritual basis of the congregation is more important than ensuring that one’s exegesis is in order. For if you have expressed the most eloquent, erudite elocution that has ever been endured, but it is unintelligible to the audience, then it is nothing but a failure. Preaching must have in mind the spiritual condition of those who will hear it; for when it is then crafted for those at that particular place then they can receive it as hearers who can apply it.
Preaching is a part of the church’s liturgy
Lastly, let me say that preaching is not the only element of the church’s worship. There is a sense in many that the worship service is all about preaching. Any element in the service is in preparation for the sermon and the denouement from the preaching event. This is off because it is not that the sermon is the purpose of the service, rather it is meeting with God that is the purpose of the service. The liturgy is not in service to the sermon. The liturgy is in service to facilitating worship to God. The point may be subtle but think of it this way. If any connection of the service is made only to support the sermon then the sermon is the focus and even telos of the service. This must not be so. The end of a worship service is the service of worship to our God. Preaching plays a part in this. Many evangelical and free churches struggle with this point more so than those of our brethren in liturgical traditions. Perhaps we could spend more time learning from them?
In conclusion, I am not suggesting that we stop preaching or radically change how we preach. We need to continue to study the best we can in the moments that we have. However, as we prepare for our sermons we must consider the church in which we are preaching for it is to the persons in that congregation that are being prepared for the particular sermon. They deserve our attention so that as we join then we all can participate together in the worship of God, of which the sermon is an event. We must consider the church when we preach.
W. Madison Grace II is Associate Professor of Baptist Heritage and the Director of the Oxford Study Program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.