Preaching is person to person, so surely it should be personalized? But if we are not careful our preaching can feel impersonal and distant. We can learn how to prepare a sermon, then treat the process like a machine for generating messages – put in a text at one end, turn the handle, and out pops a three point outline ready for Sunday.
True biblical preaching is not primarily about outlines. It is about heart-to-heart communication. Ultimately it is God’s heart to our listeners’ hearts, but our heart is in the circuit too. So how can we make sure our preaching feels personal when you stand to deliver this Sunday?
1. Make sure your study of the biblical text touches your heart. Newcomers to preaching may think sermons are texts and ideas squeezed into outlines, but actually we need to be studying the text to understand it. When we study it, we have to make sure our hearts are engaged and not just our heads. This passage was put there by God to impact readers spiritually – how is it impacting me? I need to be talking to God about that and not just looking for a sermon that will preach. In fact, here are a few quick sub-points relating to this phase of preparation:
A. Ask God to help you understand what the text was intended to communicate to the original recipients – what was the spiritual impact supposed to be back then?
B. Ask God to help you understand what the text was intended to communicate to readers like you – it is part of a bigger whole that all points receptive hearts toward Him.
C. Ask God to convict you of sin, to motivate you for service, to make your heart beat with His and to stir you to worship as you spend time in the text.
2. Pray for God to give you His heart for the hearers as you prepare the message. Before you start to shape your study into a sermon, come before God in prayer and really intercede for your hearers. Whether it will be your home congregation or a group you have never preached to before, God knows and loves them better than you do. Ask Him to give you His heart for them. Don’t just pray for the message to “go well,” but pray for them as real people, in real situations, facing real difficulties. Pray for those who are not His yet, and those that are. Pray for His heart for them, and for their hearts to be ready to hear from Him.
3. Prepare a message that will give your best, vulnerably. Actually this is two points. First, preach your own message. Don’t steal someone else’s sermon and preach it. That is a shortcut that wastes time in the long run. When you steal sermons you don’t get the benefit of the study, and they don’t get the benefit of hearing from you … instead they hear a poor version of someone else’s message. If you choose to use a point or a quote, that is fine, just say that “someone put it this way…” and use it, but make sure you are preaching when you preach. By faith you can trust God that your moderate ability will be better suited to these listeners than someone else’s impressive message.
Second, prepare to preach with vulnerability. Let the you shine through. There is no benefit to hiding behind your exegesis and presentation. People need to know that you also struggle, that this moves you, that you are a real human. Obviously you should think through what you will be saying. It isn’t helpful to vent your anger or share a struggle that is too raw. It also isn’t helpful to overstate your struggle or to share something that will distract or undermine your credibility. But there is plenty of real you to share as you preach. Plan to preach your own stuff, and plan so that it is really you that is preaching.
4. Grow in your ability to deliver sermons naturally. We no longer live in an age of voice projection and concert hall oratory. We live in a time when people value authentic, genuine, relational communication. Some are taught to preach dispassionately, thereby avoiding emotionalism and manipulation with the opposite poison of disconnection (and a different form of intellectual manipulation at times). Don’t be arms length from your material, preach from the heart and through your genuine personality. If you are quiet, that is fine. If you are out-going and enthusiastic, that can work too. What matters is not the personality you portray, but that it is your personality as you preach. As I often say when teaching preaching, it takes work to be natural in such an unnatural setting. Do the work so that people can hear from you.
There is more that could be added, but that is four ways to try to inject the personal into your preaching. What would you add?