Studying for my sermon is one of my favorite ministry tasks. That doesn’t mean it’s easy or there aren’t times I wish I was doing something else. But I do genuinely enjoy it. One of the chief reasons is it affords me to study God’s Word in-depth for a concentrated season with tools like commentaries, lexicons, and other hermeneutical aids. In fact, I frequently find myself blown away by some new insight or truth about the biblical text that I hadn’t seen before. In those moments I get so incredibly pumped!
…and this is where my sermon on Sunday hangs in the balance.
Why Yancey? I thought our sermons each weekend are the fruit of our study each week and if there are times we feel especially impassioned or moved by certain insights into the Scriptures then that will make our messages all the better?
Not necessarily. Indeed I’ll go so far as to say: what blows you away in the study may bore them to death in the sanctuary.
How many preachers go on some tangent they swear will leave people in as much awe as they were in only to see glassed-over eyes and (gasp) even head or two drooping in slumber by the time they finish? The best you can hope for at this point is that you didn’t build everything else in your message to revolve around your “amazing” insight (and by amazing I mean it amazingly tunes people out from your message). If you did, I’m sorry. By the way, welcome to preaching.
While sermon study for many a preacher is a time of joyous work there is also a seduction within it. The temptation is to use on Sunday anything which deeply grabs us about the text we’re preaching. But this is where we should ask a question: Could it be that your congregants aren’t nearly as excited as you are over discovering certain things in your study? Now before you go on a “Hey, the gospel might not just light some people’s candle but I’m still going to preach it!”-rant, you know which things I’m referring to – the ones which aren’t germane to the sermon’s central thrust but are so theologically or exegetically “juicy” to you that you just can’t bear to part with them come Sunday.
Please understand this will hamstring your messages more than you think. If we constantly find ourselves in this pattern a rebuke may even be in order because when preaching becomes more about you than those to whom you preach, it’s a homiletical form of selfishness. It’s more about our felt need to say it than the congregants’ real need not to hear it. However, from my perspective, this struggle isn’t usually rooted in selfishness but in our inability to discern what’s “cool to us” from what’s “helpful for others.”
If we might examine more closely our feelings during sermon study, what we interpret as “moving” or “inspiring” might simply be better framed as being “geeked out” because we’ve stumbled over something which produces in us a pathos of which only a few of the most theologically or biblically erudite would share. That’s why the question to ask is not “Is it compelling to me?” but “Will this be compelling to them?” If what you are studying only causes you to lean in without your congregants doing so as well, it’s not worth using on Sunday. Put it in the non-compelling category or what I call the ‘Do Not Use‘ pile. Frankly, my “Do Not Use” pile and my “What’s Incredibly Interesting to Yancey” pile often are the same thing.
Does that mean I preach things that aren’t interesting to me? Not at all! I just try to make sure it will also be interesting to those listening as well.
But why would God move me so deeply if he didn’t want me to use it Sunday? Could it be that God wants to use those moments to impact the character of the preacher and not the content of his preaching? In other words, is it possible that what deeply moved you in study this week God will use to impact HOW you say something but not necessary WHAT you need to say. Hopefully the WHAT of your sermon has unity, cohesion, and laser-like focus on a big idea. Whatever exegetical or theological insights that don’t move the ball down the field on that big idea, no matter how cool you think they are, need to stay with you and not passed on to those who will listen to you.
That’s how you harness the beauty of study and flee its temptation.