Preaching Practices

John LathropBlog

Preaching is an important activity, God uses it to get His word to people, both sinners and saints. In the Bible Noah is called “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5 NIV). The apostles’ Peter and Paul preached and we have multiple examples of them doing so (Acts 2:14-39; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 13:16-47;17:22-31). However, preaching was by no means limited to the apostles. In Acts 7 we see that Stephen preached (Acts 7:2-53) and in Acts 8 we read that Philip preached in Samaria (Acts 8:4-6). Many others also preached.

Preaching is not just talking, it has a specific content. The people I mentioned above spoke God’s message, His word. Paul instructed his coworker Timothy to do the same. He told him to “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2 NIV). In another place he told him that this was to be a regular part of his ministry (1 Tim. 4:13). Preaching was a regular practice in the first-century church and it should be now. Preaching is to be part of the ongoing legacy of the church. The reason for this is that people still need to be instructed in the word of God.

I have been preaching for about 37 years. Like any preacher I have my favorite themes, there are certain texts and topics that I like to preach. That being said I realize that I cannot afford to preach only what I like. The apostle Paul’s example provides us with a pattern that we should all seek to follow, that pattern is to present “the word of God in it fullness” (Col. 1:25 NIV). If you are a guest speaker you probably don’t have much of an opportunity to do that, you can only seek to adequately cover the text you are preaching at the time. If you are the pastor of a church you have more of an opportunity to impart to your hearers “the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27 NIV) because you preach week after week (sometimes multiple times per week).

Every minister has their own preaching style which has probably developed based on what they have seen, how they have been instructed, who they are as a person, and what they are comfortable with. We are all unique individuals and the Lord can use each of us with our differences, strengths, and weaknesses. Below I will share my preaching practices. What I gravitate toward you may not like, or it may not work for you. That is fine, each of us has to do what is effective.

A number of years ago I had a younger minister ask me if I had ever done any “Saturday night specials.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. He explained. What he was asking was whether I ever found myself working on my sermon on the Saturday night before the Sunday I was to preach it. I confess I have had a few of those. However, I told him that I tried not to let that happen. I like to have my sermons prepared well before Saturday. Maybe some people work well under pressure but I don’t. I think the quality of my preaching tends to decline when I prepare my sermon at the last minute. I prefer to have time to adequately ponder and prepare the text. I realize this cannot always be done but as much as possible I think it should be done.

I am not pastoring now so I do not preach as frequently as I used to. Much of what I have written below is based on my preaching experience while I was involved in pastoral ministry. Though I must admit that my methods remain the same to this day. At the outset let me say that though I typically preach in certain ways that does not mean I have not preached in other ways. For example, though I don’t normally preach topically I have done so on occasion. By that I mean that I took a text, focused on a keyword in it and then referenced other biblical texts to draw out the meaning or significance of that word. One example of this would be preaching on the word “Sabbath.” A preacher could start with the commandment to keep the Sabbath in Exodus 20:8-11 and then draw from other texts, in both the Old and New Testaments that mention the Sabbath in order to highlight some of the meaning or significance of it.

Generally, I like to either preach through a biblical book or do a series. On Sunday mornings I preached through the Gospel of Matthew, the Book of Acts, Philippians, and Ruth. I also preached a number of series. Once, inspired by the title of Dr. Michael Brown’s book Whatever Happened to the Power of God? I preached a series of sermons on that theme. For that series I focused on Judges 6:13, Psalm 74:9, and Habakkuk 3:2. Each text I chose made reference to the absence of the power of God. There were times I preached one topic one week and a completely different one the next. I don’t think this is for the most part the best thing to do. However, if you are a guest speaker you probably cannot preach through a biblical book (except perhaps Philemon, 2 John or 3 John) or do a series, you only get to preach one sermon.

Another practice I follow is giving the historical background of the text I am preaching on. I generally do this at the beginning of the sermon. I start by talking about things like who wrote the text, to whom, and what the circumstances were at the time. This is history, but it is important history. I do this before trying to draw out a modern-day application of the text. Some of the reading I have done has indicated that this is a very important step in Bible study. Notable in this respect is Fee & Stuart’s book How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth. I can definitely see the value of this practice.

I remember many years ago, when I was a relatively new believer, hearing our pastor’s wife speaking to her husband. She was telling him that she could identify the points in his sermon. She began to list them. I think each point began with the same letter. I later learned that this is one of the things preachers are taught to do in order to help them organize their sermons. At the time I never realized that preachers did this! It was news to me; of course this was before the days of PowerPoint, in some churches today we can now read the sermon points on the screen. I confess I regularly use alliteration for the points of my sermons. I find that this practice, which creates an outline, is helpful in organizing the thoughts and flow of the sermon. However, there have been times when I just could not find words with the same letter that would lend themselves to the points I wanted to make in the sermon. When that happened I just went with the flow of thought without having the convenient structure of alliteration.

When I was involved in pastoral ministry periodically we would have a guest speaker at the church. On one occasion the guest speaker was a man I went to Bible school with years earlier. He had served for some time on the mission field. Before he got up to speak he asked me if he could move the microphone or take it out of its stand. I told him he could do whatever he wanted. He told me he was a guest. Having been a guest speaker in a number of churches he knew the importance of asking permission for some things before he did them.

Years later I found myself doing something similar. Since I am no longer pastoring I preach when I am invited to do so. This being the case I preach in different denominations. In fact, though I am an ordained Pentecostal I do more preaching in non-Pentecostal churches. In one of the churches I have preached frequently, their usual practice is to have the text that is going to be preached read (by the minister or someone else), then a song is sung, and after that, the minister preaches. I complied with this practice a number of times. However, to me, it seems more natural to read the text and then proceed immediately into preaching from it. Because I have a relationship with this church I asked if I could read the text and then preach rather than have a song between the reading and the preaching. I was allowed to make this change.

As you can see I am pretty much “old school.” But I have found that it works for me. I really want to give a good word when I speak (I think most ministers do). We have to find what works for us. This will in large measure be a product of our experience, training, personality, and preference. The important thing is that we “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2 NIV) and to do so with the anointing of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:4; 1 Thess. 1:5; 1 Pet. 1:12).

About the Author

John P. Lathrop is a graduate of Zion Bible Institute and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister with the International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies. He has written articles and book reviews for a number of publications including the Pneuma Review, the Africanus Journal of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Christian Trends Magazine, in India, and Berita Mujizat and Jurnal Jaffray, both in Indonesia. He is also the author of four books.