In Chapter 16 Exegesis 101 I focus on how to critically engage the biblical text on its terms. In Chapter 17 Preaching as a Spiritual Discipline, I suggest some practical ways for preachers to explore a biblical text devotionally throughout the homiletic process. The preacher must simply avoid a divorce between the devotional and exegetical reading of Scripture. The more that the biblical text for the sermon penetrates the life of the preacher the more chance it has of penetrating the lives of the people to whom one preaches.
I used to think that what made a sermon biblical was the amount of Scripture I used in the sermon. Today I am convinced that what makes a sermon biblical is its ability to say and do what God, through the biblical text, seems to be saying and doing. “Biblical,” then, has nothing to do with the amount of Scripture but instead the approach to Scripture. Being a mile wide and in inch deep is okay for a topical bible study but a sermon, in most cases, should find one main theme and drill down deep or the people to whom we preach might come away dazed and confused. If the preacher is going to strike deep into the hearts of listeners, the sermon must drill down deep into a biblical passage to identify a primary focus that is faithful to the text and to the congregational context.
The sermon is less like the brownie recipe and more like the bread recipe. Once the preacher has all of the elements that will be included in the sermon, careful and prayerful thought should guide how those elements are ordered within the sermon structure. Avoid slopping the parts together thoughtlessly, as I had a habit of doing for the first few years of my ministry. Consider the best time to add each ingredient to the sermonic recipe.
All preachers have a few pet peeves that, if unchecked, keep surfacing in our sermons and utterly exasperate listeners. I know of one preacher who included in every sermon, no matter the text or topic, his diatribe about the evils of psychology. Some preachers avoid the diatribe but are guilty of careless repetition. Strategic repetition can be a powerful tool for sermonic clarity, as we consider in Chapter 19. But when the sermon goes an extra 15 minutes because the preacher simply, and not so creatively, repeats the same thing that he/she already said three times, it drives listeners toward the border of frustration.
The pitfall of ranting can be remedied. First, develop a preaching plan that incorporates a well-balanced diet of Scripture and topics (See Chapter 32). Second, try writing out a sermon manuscript word for word. This exercise can alleviate the tendency in preachers to rant and rave. Finally, don’t feel guilty for preaching a sermon that is 45 instead of 60 minutes or 30 instead of 45 minutes. Less is more when it comes to preaching today. Reduce your sermon length by cutting out the soap box rants and unnecessary repetition. God will, I promise, still love you even if you reduce the length of your sermons. And, your congregation will love you even more for developing tighter, more precise sermons that do not waste their time with rants and redundancy.
2. Explain and discuss these five pitfalls with your church staff, board, and/or a few trusted lay people. Ask them to honestly respond to your following questions: Which of the five pitfalls do you think I tend to avoid? Which of the five pitfalls must I learn to avoid? The level of honesty and transparency needed for this exercise is obviously high. Pick people who love you and the church enough to tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth concerning the strengths and areas for improvement in your preaching.