Preparing to Preach
There are two senses in which every man who desires to preach the gospel of Christ in a public capacity should prepare for this noble vocation. First there is the advanced preparation; then there is the immediate readiness.
The old Calvinistic idea that a man is “called” to preach by a supernatural force and receives a sacred “illumination” for the process, is entirely foreign to the teaching of Scripture. Those who claim illumination are some of the most un-illuminated souls on the planet.
Paul cannot be appealed to as an example of such because he was an apostle of Christ who was chosen and endowed in a unique way (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:8; Galatians 2:11-17). Those who claim that they are “led by the Holy Spirit” in their preaching refute that proposition every time they open their mouths. Further, they reflect upon the Spirit himself!
Occasionally I am asked by young men about how they should prepare themselves to preach. There was a time when I would have recommended a Christian college. I no longer am overly enthusiastic about that in most cases, and for two reasons.
First, unless there are sizable scholarships or grants available, the tuitions are so astronomical that the young student will spend many years paying off the debt—unless his family has the wealth to pay his way. Otherwise he will cripple his family with a financial obligation that is far in excess of the value of the education he receives.
It is an unfortunate situation that young preachers sometimes are told that they cannot be successful as proclaimers of God’s truth unless they have bachelors, masters, or even doctorate degrees. This educational “ladder,” of course, is designed in some cases to lead to the larger churches and higher salaries. Is there any room left these days for dedication, self-discipline, and sacrifice? No responsible person disdains a good education, but in many cases the “formal” program is significantly oversold.
Second, it now is the grim reality that while there are some good men teaching college Bible courses, a number of Christian universities are infested with one or more teachers who are doctrinally jaded. When schools solicit men directly out of sectarian seminaries who are steeped with false ideas and harbor them simply because of their degree status or their popularity with students, it is time for reassessing the ministerial programs.
It also is prudent to take a fresh look at those who are crafting such enterprises. Some school administrators, who dream of an illustrious legacy in terms of buildings and financial endowments, may be surprised to learn that history will attribute to them an alteration in direction that led to an institution afflicted with doctrinal apostasy.
A significant number of the accredited institutions have moved light years away from the convictions of the godly men who founded them and sacrificed so much for their success. Almost none (if any) of those giants of faith would be allowed to teach today in the very schools they established.
There are training schools that are doing a reasonably good job of providing a basic Bible education, and some are better than others. They have helped many young men get a good start as students of the Scriptures, and many of those who have matriculated through these institutions are doing important works in the kingdom of Christ.
By the way, it makes for a fascinating study to pursue a consideration of the enigmatic “school of the prophets” or “sons of the prophets” mentioned in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Amos. A recommended source for consideration is Hobart Freeman’s book, An Introduction to the Prophets (1968, 28-34).
In some cases, a young preacher would do well to study as an apprentice under a qualified gospel preacher. Learning how to study, how to access the best tools, developing speaking skills, learning how to work with people of a variety of backgrounds and problems, and learning to exercise self-discipline could prove of greater value than spending thousands of dollars and being tutored under a number of misdirected, superficial, and/or seriously tainted professors.
Second, there is immediate preparation. Unfortunately, there remains the notion with some that one does not need to do much immediate preaching preparation; rather, he just should get up and “let ’er rip.” Preach from the “overflow”! Unfortunately, many do not have enough in the tank to flow over! Any studious man of God should be able to present an edifying message, even when called on fairly quickly. A rich depository of information is able to accommodate that. But this should not be the rule.
William Barclay once commented about the preacher who begins his lesson by saying that he wants to share some thoughts that came to him en route to the services. He suggested that audience would be entirely justified in leaving at that point!
I knew a well-meaning gentleman some years back who prided himself that he could sit on the front row during the song service and construct his sermon on the back of an envelope. His sermons were about 80% bluster and maybe 20% Bible.
A young brother once claimed that he just arose on Sunday morning, collected a few thoughts, and let them “percolate.” I heard the conscientious gentleman speak several times and felt his “percolator” needed adjustment. There is no substitute for study, study, and more study.
Thorough preparation involves several crucial elements: research (a gathering of the appropriate data); meditation (carefully considering the needs of one’s self to the lessons, and then to his audience); organization (arrangement into a logically developed, intelligently argued format); and, presentation (a delivery that neither distracts from the basic message nor unduly attracts attention to himself).
It is not uncommon to hear an after-sermon quip to this effect: “He was great! But I can’t remember a thing he said—except for that hilarious joke.”
There is so much of the Bible to learn that the preacher can study all of his life and never master it. But blessed indeed is the man of God from whom people want to learn—because he genuinely is a prepared “man of the Book.”
A century ago there was a complimentary saying concerning well-studied preachers: “His sermons smell of kerosene,” which signified that he had spent long nights by the light of the coal oil lamp in preparation. If one may be excused for a certain level of crudeness, it might be said of some sermons today: they just “smell.”
- Freeman, Hobart. 1968. An Introduction to the Prophets. Chicago, IL: Moody.