Many church planters wrestle with the role of the sermon in our modern, secular context. Do sermons really produce significant spiritual change? Are they worth the effort (20-plus hours a week) many experts tell us they require? Did Jesus really have in mind a room filled with people passively listening to one person talk while the majority of people never do what the sermon says? Are we better off with interactive discussions or simply getting people to live in the scriptures for themselves? Or is God’s word still living and active? Does he still use people to share his truth in ways that move the human heart?
In my experience, the role of preaching is rarely about a single sermon or moment. Rather, preaching is about the slow process of formation and renewal that comes from hearing the word of God preached in a communal setting week by week, as people are formed back into a story of grace and redemption as they walk out the way of Jesus together.
I am sometimes asked about the process I go through in putting a sermon together. How do I think through a message in light of the skeptical, yet longing people who live in New York and wrestle with following Jesus in this context? I don’t have a formula or blueprint for each talk, but here are some observations on how I prepare a message:
BEGIN WITH WHY
We live in a time of visual and auditory pollution. There are so many trivial messages creating noise and vying for our attention and imagination. We have to fight to help people see the central importance of the scriptures. We have been entrusted with the very words of God that contain a message of life, grace, hope, salvation, freedom and truth. So I first try to discern how the Spirit is speaking to our people, in our community, in this season. I try to get them to see why we cannot live on bread alone and then discern the specific thing the Spirit wants to say to our people. I do this by:
- seeking God in prayer for his heart and guidance (passages, themes, doctrines, emphasis, etcetera);
- listening to the tension, cries, longings, frustrations and issues of our community;
- listening to the community in which we serve to see what needs, questions, and challenges they are facing;
- and listening to the promptings and groaning of the Spirit for the people I will be speaking to that week.
CHOOSE THE PASSAGE
What to teach is as important to me as why it should be taught. Should this be an Old or New Testament passage? Should this be rooted in a Gospel or an Epistle? Should this be exegetical or topical? Most of us tend to fall into a section or genre of scripture that we are most comfortable teaching, but I try to sense which passage best articulates what I sense the Spirit saying.
Right now there seems to be a trend of teaching through one book of the Bible after another. I understand the draw to do this, giving people the big picture and not just teaching based on current whims. This method also helps us go beyond the shallow teaching from late modern evangelicalism. But it can become a form of laziness. Just teaching the next verse without seeking God for the specific season and realities of our context can lead to general Bible truth that doesn't match what the Spirit is doing in a particular place or community. I can't see Paul expositing I Corinthians to the Thessalonians simply because it was God's word. (This is just a general observation and I do not intend to offend.)
MEDITATE THROUGH THE PASSAGE
Once I have chosen the passage, rather than jumping straight into the commentaries, I love to read and meditate through the passage prayerfully. I do this repeatedly to see what may stand out to me, where the Spirit is highlighting things, and to get the spirit behind the text. It is a form of Lectio Divina and through this meditation I begin to press into the message. From here the sense of wonder and gratitude begins to flow in my heart, transforming the rest of the process into worship, more than mere academic research.
When I feel my heart has been touched by the word of God personally, I then lean into the work of study and exegesis. I normally read the heavier language and technically-oriented commentaries first and then end with those more devotional in tone. I try to read approximately 20 commentaries, depending on the length of the passage, and I use Logos software for most of this. I love the Word Biblical Commentaries and the NIV Application Commentaries. I have no particular loyalty to reading through a Reformed or Arminian lens, but I look for a broad perspective on the passage.
Many young church planters listen to other preachers as part of their “commentary work.” I almost never do this. It is a great temptation when you are younger, but you can fall into the trap of never finding your own voice. You end up becoming an echo of famous preachers, and with social media working like it does, your people know. It’s sad to me that almost every young church planter I hear sounds remarkably similar to Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll or Matt Chandler. I never want to hear “Jesus is the true and better” from a ‘twentysomething’ pastor again. We are better off wrestling with God and crying out for wisdom than leaning on podcasts because we haven’t taken the proper time to prepare.
OUTLINE THE MESSAGE
When it comes to outlining the passage, I try to keep it clear. I used to try to do a TED talk, with a contrarian point and lots of clever movements, but I think I was trying to impress people and keep them entertained. I now try and have a few clear, memorable points that will enable people to get a handle on what the passage says. I do, however, work hard on the language of each of my points and sub-points. I try to make each heading the equivalent of an insightful tweet that can remind people of the overarching idea that lasts beyond the details of the talk. My outline typically looks like the following:
- Intro the idea (why this matters and what I am trying to say)
- First point
- Second point
- Third or fourth point
- Massive appeal to be a counterculture community living this out in the way of Jesus in New York in the power of the Holy Spirit
REMEMBER THE PEOPLE IN MY HEAD
When it comes to my preaching there are a few people I enjoy. I hope to take the best of what they bring to the table and personalize it for myself. This is not about using their content, but their approach and emphasis. I am inspired by the:
- contrarian passion of Erwin McManus (he makes me want to take up my cross)
- heart insights of Tim Keller (he challenges my motives)
- creativity and obscurity of Rob Bell (he inspires me to love the wonder of the scriptures)
- cultural deconstruction of Mark Sayers (he shows me how to be a disciple here and now)
PUT IT TOGETHER
Once I have my outline, the insights from the Spirit and the commentaries, I add flesh by referencing other sources such as one or more of the following:
- a Church father to remind us we are a part of a long tradition
- a secular philosopher to show we have to wrestle with our context and the truth of scripture is robust even in the light of the most intense scrutiny
- classic literature to allow the transcendent, timeless, resonating words of yore to draw us into more noble thought than our trite modern culture
- a personal story to model obedience and credibility
- images to respect that in a visual society, we often remember what we see more than what we hear (I often feature things from theatlantic.com/infocus)
When it comes to slides, I prefer a minimalist excellence rather than cool, edgy, or relevant graphics and fonts.
ENCOURAGE RELIANCE ON JESUS AND THE HOLY SPIRIT
Rising in reaction against the "exemplarist" model of preaching in the 1940s, Christ-centered preaching is very popular today. It was and often still is a needed correction against human moralism, but I think it can be over-emphasized. Ending every point with “Jesus is the true and better,” or “he has done it for you,” can lead to intellectualism, pietism, or passivity. The alternative is not try harder; the alternative is here is how we live this out in the power of the Holy Spirit together.
The central call of New Testament faith, is to walk, and keep instep with the Spirit. We don’t try to obey Jesus in our own power, but we are given power with which we can obey him. We don’t just need, “It is finished.” We also need, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit.” Therefore, I try to point to both the substitutionary work of Christ on our behalf, as well as receiving, walking and enjoying a life of power and obedience in the Spirit. I think this is a big distinctive between me as a charismatic preacher and that of a reformed “gospel centered” preacher, although you cannot make a firm, clearcut distinction because of the nuance in both.
GIVE A PERSONAL CALL
I try to address people as individuals when I preach, pressing into them a sense of holy opportunity and obligation to respond to God’s word. I want to lovingly help them see where God wants them to respond in tangible obedience. I try to include practical steps for the coming week people can obey. I find it's important to make it challenging enough where it requires a response of faith, but not so overwhelming that people think it's impossible or won't work “in real life.”
ADDRESS THE-NON-BELIEVER IN OUR MIDST
The New Testament assumes there will be non-believers in worship. I do too. I speak to them directly and both honor and challenge them. I often say things like, “If you are not a believer here today, or someone has dragged you here, I want you to consider this.” Other times I say, “I have not always been a Christian, and I can imagine at this point you may be thinking something like this.” I cannot count the number of times after one of our worship gatherings that non-Christians have come up to me saying they responded to that little nugget in the sermon.
MAKE A CALL TO COMMUNITY
I believe that in a fragmented, hyper individualistic society like ours, the church can be a powerful apologetic and preview of what God would make of the world if his lordship and will were followed by a particular people in a particular place. But due to the intense forces of individualism, I believe sermons today require a special emphasis on “how are we going to do this together.” I make this the last point of every talk so they leave with a sense of “sentness” from the gathering.
SATURATE WITH PRAYER
When it comes to prayer and preaching there can often be a great disconnect. I often feel the pressure to think the talk is done, and since it's God's word, not mine, I can leave it at that. But rarely does general truth produce a powerful response. In our skeptical world, intellectualism, apologetics, and Bible talks on their own are no match for the strongholds and cynicism with which most people live. We need the power of God, an anointing, to see his word break through. In 1 Corinthians 2 Paul writes,
“And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.”
There is a great temptation to have our people have their faith rest on our ability to explain the scriptures, rather than a demonstration of the Spirit's power from the scriptures. We need to seek God and the power of the Spirit whenever we preach. I try to ask God to use his word all throughout the week, and include this in my devotional life.
I normally take a chunk of time wandering around the neighborhood where I am going to preach, asking God to open the hearts of the people, that Jesus would be lifted up, and that people would be drawn to him. I pray for the leaders of our church community there, the people of the congregation, and the non-Christians who may be attending. I ask for power, insight, sensitivity, and that God’s word will go forth with authority, conviction, encouragement, and power. And I ask that God would give me a love for people so they sense the wonder of new covenant grace rather than old covenant law.
PREPARE THROUGHOUT THE WEEK
I think each sermon is unique. I don’t have a set time I devote to each talk. Some sermons seem to come with a real sense of clarity and form while others seem like wringing water out of a stone. But I do have a general rhythm for sermon prep that includes the following:
- Sunday night - reading over the passage I will be preaching the following week. (Some people may be too tired for that but I love it.)
- Tuesdays - I give from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. for the commentary reading and outline. I am normally reading all sorts of things and have a file of quotes and stories I have complied for years that I put in towards the end of the day.
- Saturday night - I normally put in another hour going over finishing touches and refining, though for the most part, I am about 95-percent done with what I will teach by Tuesday afternoon.
This can shift around week to week based on season, responsibilities and other things, but it's my general framework for prep.
CONSIDER MY DELIVERY
There are lots of different theories on preaching delivery. My simple rule, is to be yourself. I am an outgoing, fast talking, excitable, joy-filled person. That for the most part is the emotional tone of my preaching. I tried to be like a few other guys when I first started preaching, but it was exhausting. I do however, try to teach the spirit of the text. If it’s a rebuke, I try and lovingly reflect that. If it’s an encouragement or comfort, I try and press into it. This has helped me sound less like a “one note” speaker than I could have otherwise.
I also try to appeal to people’s hearts, not just their heads. The feedback I am looking for is not “I agreed with that" or even “I really liked that” but “that really resonated with me.” It is important for the external word to confirm the inner work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life.
PREACH FOR LASTING RESULTS
I come out of a Pentecostal tradition and every sermon ended with an alter call and response time. When I first started preaching, this put an incredible pressure on me to “see people come forward.” I think God definitely meets people in this environment, but it can lend towards environments where people can be emotionally manipulated. We must never confuse crowd dynamics with the work of the Spirit. For a while I overreacted and went through a season of no response, which honestly I think hindered the work of the Spirit. I am somewhere in between now. I invite people forward to respond as God leads them at the end of the gathering where we have trained people to pray and counsel them. But it's at the end and more discreet, rather than walking the aisle.
I am constantly having to remind myself there are different kinds of soil, and no church or pastor ever preaches only to the good soil. That’s the whole point of sowing lots of seed. This saves me from being frustrated when people don’t live out the message. I rarely feel the pressure to hit home runs. As our Trinity Grace Chelsea pastor, AJ Sherrill, says, “Just go for a single every week.”
I rarely have people say a single message changed their heart, but I do hear they have been really impacted by a series, or a past year in the community. My call is to prepare, be faithful, love and obey, and the fruit really is up to God. It’s his fruit, used through the gifts he has given, for his glory anyway. It's an honor and joy to play a small part in forming his people into the image of Jesus, and a serious responsibility we will have to give an account for in our final days. May God grant you the grace to serve him well when you preach to your people every week.
Jon Tyson is a Director of City Collective and the Lead Pastor of Trinity Grace Church in New York City. In 2014, Jon and his wife Christy planted a new parish in midtown Manhattan. For more information, visit Trinity Grace Church Midtown. Listen below for a sample of Jon's teaching.