Preaching week in and week out is the most wonderful job on the planet. In fact, it is not a job. It is something way more than that. In every sense of the word it is a calling; and a joyous one at that.
Even so, it is not easy. I am working right now on a pretty big project: preaching through the book of 1 Corinthians. It is a very practical letter, but it is still really hard to preach through verse-by-verse. I am about 15 sermons into it, which places me at 1 Corinthians 4. One of the pressures I acutely feel is how to not sound the same every week, especially when working several weeks through a long passage. If the big theme of the text is the same, then sometimes the sermons sound the same. The tone, the emphasis, and even the kind of illustrations can sound the same. That is dangerous because the preacher can lose his people and the urgency of the message if he doesn’t break up the monotony (and being monotonous with glorious things has to be a sin!). So the question is, how do we keep things fresh?
The answer for me is to keep the spring bubbling in my heart. If each new nook and cranny of truth is exciting and fresh to me, I couldn’t make it monotonous if I tried. So I have to read the text each week with fresh eyes and a longing heart, asking God to continue showing me the wonderful things from his Word. The spring of my preaching does not flow from me (which is a good thing, because if it did, it would make the Gobi look tropical). So I have to keep seeing the glorious things as they are, and not let my ministry of preaching (or other things) get in the way of personally seeing and feeling the message of God’s Word.
Besides reading the passage closely and carefully and even devotionally, here are five other things I do to keep the spring bubbling.
1. I have developed a habit of listening to other preachers’ sermons. We expect our people to listen to sermons to help them in their spiritual lives (usually our sermons). We should expect no less from ourselves. This is actually pretty important to me, because I dry up so quickly. As an added benefit, listening to others helps me gain a fresh perspective on ways to say stuff, and helps me get better at illustrating concepts, etc. I think it’s best to listen to several different preachers (if I listen to just one I will sound just like him after a while.) I listen to mostly reformed guys like Piper, Keller, DeYoung, Chandler, Carson and also Begg, McArthur and a few lesser known pastors with podcasts. I find the time by listening while I walk to my study each morning (20 minute walk, so the round trip is one full sermon), and while I run, mow, walk the dog, cook breakfast and as I do odd mindless jobs around the house.
2. I work at developing and maintaining strong reading habits. I try to keep a non-fiction (biography or theology) and a fiction book going all the time, and I work to finish the books I begin (unless they’re awful). I try to read at least one book a year on preaching, pastoral ministry, and missions. This helps me to stay fresh, and also helps me collect material for illustrating theo-concepts. And, of course, it helps me grow in many other ways. Spurgeon was right, the man who doesn’t read has no one to quote and will himself be quoted by none.
3. I try to get good feedback. This is the most difficult because people who 1) know what good preaching is and are 2) willing to give constructive feedback are rare. But it is important. I look for people who are willing to be lovingly brutal.
4. From time to time, I try to shake up my preaching schedule. I see the value in taking breaks from the big project and either hitting a topic (which I try to do expositionally ) or a “mini-series” on a different type of text (like a Minor Prophet, for example). I do this especially with special annual events (e.g., Advent, Thanksgiving, and even Labor Day). Currently, I go on 6 to 10-sermon stretches on 1 Corinthians, and then take a one to three-week detour. Your mileage may vary.
5. I get good help from my church. A church and a pastor develop together, so if the church wants me to improve in my preaching they have to put forth effort too. Mine does, and I love that. They benefit and so do I. They give me a generous book budget for my use, and fully fund at least one pastors’ conference a year. They also give me no grief about the amount of time I spend in my study; they want me to study. They want me to do other things too, like counseling, follow up, administration, vision forming, elder retreat planning, ministry oversight, community representation and visiting people in the hospital, etc., but they see (and hear) the value of my study time.
Those are ways that I have found helpful to keep the spring bubbling and, consequently, the sermons fresh. I hope sharing that helps someone out there.