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HOW TO PREPARE BIBLICAL SERMONS

Preaching is an art; like all art it is improved with study and practice. Preaching is also a science in that techniques can be learned from others about what persuades and moves people most effectively.  It is not unspiritual to learn the techniques of sermon preparation and delivery.  With just a few practical instructions you, as they have, can increase your skill as a Bible preacher.  This chapter will help you avoid pitfalls and increase effectiveness in your public presentations of God’s Word.  Let’s try to understand what the preacher of good sermons must do to prepare himself and his sermons.

This chapter is the most technical in this book; for some, it will seem too technical.  Nevertheless, you may be able to pick out a few helpful ideas.  For others, it may seem too simple.  Bible Interpretation (Hermeneutics) and Preaching (Homiletics), fields of study in themselves, are included in the curriculums of most Bible Colleges and Seminaries.  If you have taken such courses, this chapter may seem too elementary.  I suggest you begin reading it and, if it seems unnecessary or uninteresting to you, then just skim it to find what is helpful or skip to the next chapter.

WHY PREPARE?

One reason Christians are weak is the lack of well-prepared, powerfully delivered sermons that inform and motivate them.  People who listen to preachers want to hear from God.  People are not resistant to spiritual truth; they will listen, learn, and change when preachers work diligently at their craft.  Good sermons can be crafted carefully, improved over time, and preached again and again.

I had been in the ministry for three or four years before I began to preach expository sermons.  When I began to preach expository sermons in series to my congregation in rural Canada, I grew and our people heard better sermons.  The sermons had more meat and research in them.  As a result we all grew.

Be grateful for the power and the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon your ministry and preaching, but it is an error to trust Him to do what you yourself are supposed to do in preparation.  Just as you enjoy hearing something new, informative, and helpful so do those in your congregation.

Think about the time it takes for a crowd of one hundred persons to gather to hear your sermon.  If they each spent an hour coming to church, another hour listening to your sermon, and a third hour getting home from church, that means they each spend three hours in order to hear your sermon.  That is a total of three hundred hours!  You owe it to them and to your calling to spend some hours studying, preparing, organizing your material and praying so that their time is not wasted.  If we learn to schedule our priorities, we will use our time correctly—we will deliver well prepared sermons.

Though we must learn how to study the Bible and use diligence to prepare good sermons, prayer is still the most important part of sermon preparation.  Sermon preparation begins with prayer.  The Holy Spirit’s involvement in sermon preparation is as vital as his involvement in sermon delivery.  In part one of this book you read about the importance of prayer in understanding and teaching or preaching God’s Word.  Keep those thoughts about prayer in mind as you read this chapter and examine sermons in the next chapters.  The two parts of this book are closely interrelated.  When we pray we gain insights from the Bible and are enabled to persuasively share those insights publicly. 

Just as changes can be made in prayer patterns, as demonstrated in part one, so we can change the way we preach, too, if we want to.  If you choose to implement some of these ideas in your preaching, you don’t have to abandon all the good things you have already learned about preaching to do that.  Keep the good things you have learned and add these to them.

SERMONS EXPLAIN AND APPLY THE LESSONS OF THE BIBLE

It is the work of the preacher to explain the meaning of the Bible.  He is to help his hearers understand God’s will, encourage them in their Christian walk, and motivate them to obey and serve God. 

The Bible has unity among all its parts and interprets itself.  The Bible interprets the Bible.  This is, perhaps, the most important rule in understanding it correctly.  Unclear passages are made understandable by clearer passages.  To avoid imbalance, each passage must be interpreted in the light of all other passages. Your doctrinal qualification as a preacher includes a belief in the inspiration of the Bible, that the Bible is revelation from God, and that the Holy Spirit will illumine it.  The Bible can be accurately interpreted and has authority in the lives of Christians. Without these beliefs you will lack the motivation to do the work necessary to produce a Bible sermon.

Commentaries are study books written by Bible scholars explaining the meaning of scriptures.   They contain much wisdom.  Use them if available.  But, we should never be so dependent on commentaries that we cannot develop a sermon from just the Bible without the commentaries.  In many parts of the world commentaries are unavailable.  In those places the Holy Spirit has proven himself again and again to be a most able Teacher and Helper during sermon preparation.

There are three basic types of sermons:  topical, textual, and expository.  (1) Topical sermons are built around a subject.  (2) Textual sermons are built around a short text with only the theme and main points of the sermon found in the text.  Other verses or illustrations can be added from other Scriptures to support the theme and main points.  (3) Expository sermons, on the other hand, focus more strictly on just one text and that text is usually longer; the theme, main points, and also sub-points are all taken from the text.  Each of these three types of sermon has its strengths, but the expository sermon is the strongest.  This is because it is most closely drawn from the Bible itself.  An expository sermon exposes what is in the text.  The most authoritative type of sermon, the expository sermon, unfortunately, is also the most neglected.  The more expository in nature our preaching is—the more we speak authoritatively from the Bible itself rather than using long personal stories and quotations of other non-biblical sources—the more authoritative our preaching.  Each sermon exposes what God has said on the subject; the preacher becomes a neutral instrument through whom God speaks.  In both the topical and textual sermons the preacher is more in control of what is preached and, consequently, he has less authority.  Whichever type you preach, however, application to the daily lives of your hearers with some personal illustrations is not only appropriate; it is necessary.  Otherwise, the sermon becomes merely theoretical platitudes or dry explanations.

The teachings in the Bible are sufficiently clear that anyone called to ministry can find, develop, and preach them.  The truth is there, hidden in the text; you just have to study and work to find it.  The Holy Spirit is our Teacher, and he will help the preacher understand the Bible.  But the Holy Spirit does not give us ready-made helpful sermons; the preacher has that responsibility.  Some of the richer messages in the Bible are hidden.  We must pray, explore, search, or even excavate like a miner in order to find these valuable gems.  It requires effort.

THE CASE FOR EXPOSITORY SERMONS

During our years in China, I traveled by bus and subway an hour each way every Thursday evening in order to hear a seasoned expositor teach his way through book after book of the New Testament.  Whatever subject came up in the text he dealt with.  We had lots of variety as a result.  That is one of my good memories of my five years in Beijing—hearing those rich biblical sermons.  The resilient and strong faith of the Chinese Christians that carried them through the Cultural Revolution and other anti-Christian persecutions between 1952 and 1976 was certainly not based on sermons of mere pleasant subjects.

Since returning to the United States from China, however, I have had difficulty finding exposition of the Word of God in sermons.  Some preachers use the Bible only as a starting point for saying whatever they want to say.  It is one thing to use the Bible as a sourcebook to furnish the contents of the message and quite another to employ it as a mere text to develop human impressions and opinions.  Bible exposition is the preacher’s main business.

Expository sermons are good for both preachers and their listeners.  The preparation of expository sermons is itself an edifying experience of interaction with the living Word for the preacher.  People who hear expository sermons—the whole counsel of God, teaching and preaching that includes all God has to say on the broad number of subjects in the Bible—grow and mature more fully than those who hear sermons limited to popular themes easier to preach.  Preaching expository sermons in series exposes all the themes in the texts rather than just selected texts or subjects.  One policy that will force us out of our unconscious ruts is, therefore, to preach regular expository sermons.  When we jump from place to place throughout the Bible finding “good” texts, we usually land on our favorite subjects—and continue unconsciously in a rut.  Expository sermons in series can help those who preach regularly give a balanced presentation of all God has to say on all the subjects He included in His Word.

Preaching the Bible by exposition produces powerful believers.  Christians need to be fed the meat of the Word to bring them to full growth and maturity in Christ.  Preaching expository sermons enables the preacher to systematically expound the whole message of the Scriptures.  Then the believer knows his position in Christ and God’s plan and purpose for the ages.  Expository preaching in series is an excellent way to systematically present the Word of God.  When the preacher relates the text or passage to the larger context of Scripture or to the over-all divine plan and purpose for the ages, or seeks to solve difficulties or reconcile apparent discrepancies, people grow in Bible knowledge.  We insult our hearers when we do not wrestle through the tougher issues.  We insult them when we keep giving them simple sermons.

An expository sermon avoids extremes because the expositor is more aware that the Bible interprets the Bible.  The expository preacher will relate the text to lives of hearers in a way consistent with the whole Bible.  The preacher who will honor the Word of God by believing it has unity and coherence in unfolding the divine plan and purpose from eternity past to eternity future, and by diligently studying it with this attitude of reverent faith, will be more and more amazed at its wonders.  He will find himself possessed of an ever-increasing store of thrilling truth that will furnish the basis of more sermons than he could preach in a lifetime.  The well is deep and the supply of refreshment unfailing.

Expository preaching does not avoid the difficult subjects.  The Bible sets forth in unmistakable terms both the reality of sin and the absolute need of deliverance from it.  Biblical preaching, therefore, does not dodge this vital point, but meets it fully.  If we systematically preach expository sermons in series through books of the Bible, our hearers will know that the subjects we preach are not selected to chastise certain listeners. The subjects are the ones that naturally come up.  Whatever is in the text for that day is preached.  On the other hand, if a specific subject needs to be addressed to deal with a situation in the group, expository sermons address those issues most authoritatively.

Expository preaching produces spiritually growing people.  They fortify people with the truth and power of God to withstand temptation and the strain of modern life.  Expository preaching promotes respect for the Bible.

Expository sermons allow God to be in charge of the agenda.  Bible truth is superior to human wisdom.  No matter how scientifically enlightened or culturally progressive men may become, there will always be a need for the Word of God.  In expository sermons you choose the text and from then on the subjects are “chosen” by the Author.  God is in charge of the contents and the preacher is the servant to the text.

A final advantage of expository sermons is the power of recall in subsequent years.  Months or even years later when you re-read the text from which you heard an exposition, you will be able to recall the sermon.  Merely re-reading the text is enough mnemonic stimulation to recall the lessons learned.

DIFFERENT KINDS OF LANGUAGE

From the first moment one human being addressed another by the use of language, the essential laws of interpretation became a practical matter.  The meaning is the important thing.  In the case of today’s preacher, we want to discover what the text meant to the original hearers and apply that meaning to present hearers.  To do so, five possible problem issues should be addressed:

1. Sarcasm

Sarcasm is often used in Scripture, so in reading sarcasm, our voice inflection should be consistent with the point being made by the writer.  Paul uses sarcasm in II Cor.12:13 when he says, “How were you inferior to the other churches, except that I was never a burden to you?  Forgive me this wrong!”  Paul was not saying he was wrong to have not been a financial burden to the Corinthians, but rather he used sarcasm to emphasize that he did the right thing not to be a burden to them.

Job also uses sarcasm.   In Job 12:2 & 3 Job says, “Doubtless you are the people, and wisdom will die with you!  But I have a mind as well as you; I am not inferior to you.  Who does not know all these things?”  Job is not asking who doesn’t know what Zophar had been saying, but rather was using sarcasm to point out that what Zophar had said was common knowledge.  He pointed out that Zophar had too high an opinion of his own wisdom as though wisdom would vanish when Zophar dies!  Meanings are more important than the sentences used to convey them.  Sometime a sentence may say the opposite of what the writer means for the sake of emphasis.  It gets the reader’s attention.  In such cases, don’t just take the literal meaning; find the meaning the writer intended.

2. Contradictions

Scripture interprets Scripture, so everything we teach must be consistent with whatever else the Bible has to say on the same subject.  When two passages appear to say something contrary to each other, rejoice.  There is something interesting to be learned. There is a nuance or a condition that makes a certain thing true in one case, but not in another.  We must find the biblical description of what is true in each case and what the whole picture is.  This principle rests squarely on our belief in the unity of scripture.  Joshua 24:19 says, “He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins,” yet I John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”  What did Joshua mean?  What did John mean?  Under what conditions does God not forgive?  Under what circumstances does He forgive?  When combined the passages show a rich meaning:  God does not forgive us if our “repentance” is insincere or we are just trying to use God for our own enrichment as some did in Joshua’s day.  Yet when our repentance is sincere there is a wealth of forgiveness, mercy, love, and acceptance available as John emphasized.  When the two different emphases are synthesized, you grasp a greater understanding of a rich truth.

3. Silence

Strange as it may seem, silence sometimes speaks.  The silence of revelation must be taken into account.  We want to teach all that the Bible teaches, but we must recognize that there are subjects purposely left incomplete and other subjects omitted altogether.  For example, the Bible teaches that God chooses man saying “. . . he chose us in Him before the creation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4 ) and, simultaneously, that man has a free will with responsibility for his choices saying, “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). The Bible teaches both.  The Bible does not explain how these seemingly opposite truths are reconciled.  If the Bible does not resolve this—perhaps we too should not try.  We just accept both truths and trust that God alone has the full answer.  When the Bible is silent on a subject we should be too.

4. Figures of speech

Figurative language in the Bible is usually easy to detect.  By using practical reason you can understand whether to interpret literally or figuratively.  The basic rule is to interpret everything literally unless clearly it is figurative.  Jesus said, “. . . if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Mt.5:30).  Does God want us to literally cut off our hand just because our hand may be used to sin?  That same hand may also be used for deeds of kindness.  To cut off the hand probably means we should get rid of whatever is causing us to sin.  When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense.  Take every word at its primary, usual, literal meaning, unless it is clearly a rhetorical figure or unless the immediate context, studied carefully in the light of related passages and fundamental truths, clearly points otherwise.  We search for the literal meaning before we begin to look for a possible figurative meaning.  The Bible teaches us to throw away sin, not useful parts of our body.

5. Parables

Parable are short stories Jesus told with a specific lesson in mind for each story.  They are not allegories in which each part has a meaning of its own.  When preaching from the parables we should seek to find the one main point of the story; don’t look for others.  When we try to find too many lessons in a simple parable, we may miss the emphasis Jesus intended.  For example, the story of the young virgins does not teach that half of the population of the earth will be saved, half will be lost or that only women will be saved since there were no men among the virgins waiting for the bridegroom.  Reading other parts of the Bible enables us to avoid such erroneous interpretations.  The parable of the virgins teaches we should all be careful to be ready for the unknown time of Jesus’ return. 

There are perhaps three exceptions in which case Jesus taught a longer more complex story with several different lessons in the same parable.  One is the story of the Good Samaritan.  The main point of the story is that anyone in need is our neighbor for whom we should care.  Yet this parable also has several other lessons which are also important.  Sometimes there are even several possible alternative interpretations each of which has a value as well.  For example, Jesus Himself may be the Good Samaritan who came to help lost humanity who was left wounded, stripped, abandoned, and half dead.  The devil is the thief.  The church is the innkeeper who is to care for those whom Jesus saves.  The Good Samaritan (Jesus) said he would come again and pay back anything the innkeeper (the church) spent in bringing full restoration to the wounded sufferer.  The church will be rewarded some day.  Jesus is the ambulance, and we are the nurses.  We must never reject any patients the ambulance brings to us.  These are all possible lessons from the one parable.

Another exception is the story of the younger lost son, the loving father, and the jealous older brother which has at least three applications.  A separate lesson can be drawn from each of those characters.  Also, the story of the sower seems to have several lessons.  There could be a separate lesson for each of the four different kinds of persons illustrated by the four different kinds of soil as well as a lesson for us sowers.  Nevertheless, most parables have one major lesson and to try to squeeze too many lessons out of one parable can lead to confusion.

GENERAL PREPARATION OF THE PREACHER

Both general preparation of the preacher and specific preparation of each sermon are important.  First, notice what every preacher ought to do.

1. Read the Bible.

If you read your Bible through once each year regularly, and write in your margin or keep a notebook in which you can write your observations, over the years you will build up your own resources for sermon preparation.  With discipline, over the years you will be able to find other places in the Bible which will help illustrate, explain, or even contrast with the text you are presently working on.  Gather these ideas in notebooks in which you record your thoughts as you read.  Later you can organize them so as to produce a persuasive sermon.  We should read more than just the Bible, but definitely we should read the Word as a life-long, enjoyable habit. Nothing is as important to the effective preacher as prayer and Bible reading/studying.

2.Think professionally.

Here are a few practical life-style suggestions that will eventually make specific sermon preparation easier.  (1) Set aside certain regular periods of time in your weekly schedule for sermon preparation.  A schedule for sermon preparation will look different for each person.  (2) Planning sermons in advance is preferred.  This is another advantage of preparing sermons in series.  Begin early in the week to prepare sermons for the next weekend. (3) Carry a notebook for recording ideas as you think about the text you are working on.  (4) An expository sermon requires more time to prepare than a topical or textual sermon, but, ultimately, time is saved because a well-prepared expository sermon can be preached many times to different audiences.  And the hearers hear a better sermon. (5)  Prepare even when you aren’t scheduled to preach.  You are a preacher by profession as well as by calling and preparing good sermons is part of your job.  (6) Pursue God tenaciously in prayer.  Keep close to the heart of God.  Bible preaching is not a practice for cold, uncommitted preachers.

SPECIFIC PREPARATION OF EACH SERMON

If you are doing the above, you will be more ready to prepare a specific sermon.  Here are nine steps in the preparation of a sermon.

1. Select an appropriate text.  Prayerfully select a legitimate text.  The text should also be of appropriate length.  A text for an expository sermon should be between three and twenty verses.  A textual sermon may be based on from two to six verses and a topical sermon could be based on just one sentence within a verse.  For expository sermons, too long a text makes the sermon either too long or there is not enough time for the explanation of each truth.  Too short a text means you have found only several subjects and are adding too much content from other sources

Do not select a text with lengthy quotations of uninspired speakers such as Job’s friends or other unbelieving speakers who are quoted.  The twenty-third Psalm has six verses.  That is a good sample text with conceptual progression from present provision to future safety.  John 10:1-10 or 1-18 are good texts revealing Jesus as the Good Shepherd. 

An expository sermon seeks not to introduce any other subjects than those suggested by the text itself.  It seeks to “expose” what is in the text.  We may define words, examine similar or contrasting passages, or examine the historical background or setting of the text, but all efforts are intended to help hearers get the message God has for today’s hearers.  To do this, examine what the original writer wrote in the text itself.  Since an expository sermon exposes what is in the text, the selection of the right text is an important first step.

2. Gather material.Read and re-read the text writing down everything you can think of that is there in the text.  This may take several hours over several days.  As you meditate on the passage and pray, the Holy Spirit will show you more things.  Research and study.  Read what you can about what others have said about the text.  Research in commentaries can be helpful if you have access to them.  Even if you don’t have commentaries, you can study the text and pray that God will teach you from it and other parts of the Bible addressing the same subjects.  Look up other passages that use the same words so that the words, how they are used, and what they mean can be appreciated.  Add all your discoveries to the growing amount of material that will eventually make up the contents of your sermon.

During this phase do not be concerned with organization or delivery; you are concerned with gathering as much quality material as you can.  Later, when you begin to organize the material, you will then have good material to work with. You can put your thoughts on cards or small pieces of paper, one idea per sheet, or write many thoughts on a larger sheet of paper to be cut up and rearranged later.  In either case, gathering all the material you think might be useful is your task at this stage.  After sufficient material is gathered then you may advance to the next step.

3. Organize the material in an outline.  First, find the main theme of the whole passage.  Write down several possible themes that would include all the themes addressed.  Next, find two to four supporting main points usually of one to five verses each.  Organize the notes so that each of the main points is supported by the materials found in the verses—these will be your sub-points.  Take the small pieces of paper with a thought on each one and arrange them so they flow naturally from one idea to the next as you would a puzzle.  If you wrote them all down on one larger sheet of paper, now is the time to cut it up with scissors or number the thoughts so you can arrange the ideas in the order that best flows with the text. Eliminate irrelevant material.

Why organization is important:  (1) Organization facilitates the preacher’s delivery.  (2) An organized sermon is more pleasing to the hearer, (3) is easier to remember, (4) can more easily be understood, and (5) increases the effectiveness of the sermon.  To sound like the thoughts all belong together, a sermon should have (1) unity, (2) coherence, (3) progression, (4) symmetry, and a (5) climax.  Without organization, these are difficult to achieve.

4. Write the outline using the notes you have rearranged.  At this phase you see the gathered materials organized into sensible and logical order.  Sometimes we are tempted to begin with this, but only after doing the preceding steps are we ready for the fourth step.  If we have done the other steps correctly, this stage is easier. This is the most satisfying phase of sermon preparation. 

5. Prepare the introduction and conclusion.It is best to do this after the other preparations because only at the end of those preparations do you know best how to introduce and conclude it.

6. Invent a name or title. The title should be interesting, possibly something which will arouse curiosity or even a little funny, but it should not be trite.  Don’t let your sermons lose their value by giving them a silly title.

7. Continue to read and re-read the text and outline.  As you re-read the text, you may see something you missed earlier.  You don’t have to address every small detail, but a Bible preacher wants to expose what is there.  Don’t skip over materials that might have something in it God intends for your hearers.  Remember the Bible is inspired by God and there must be a reason why those instructions and information are there.  The advantage of an early start in sermon preparation is that it gives time for thinking, reorganizing, praying over, and dwelling on the sermon.  By the time we present the material we have it deep in our Spirit.

8. Pray for your sermon delivery, reception, and understanding for the hearers.There is a tendency to be out of balance in one of two ways:  Some preachers are too academic.  They are well-prepared with good contents, but are dry in their presentations.  Others are too dependent on the anointing of the Holy Spirit.  They use a loud voice and, with a lot of energy, declare boldly God is present to bless, but their lack of preparation causes the sermon to be weak, shallow, and non-persuasive. 

Prepare as though the success of the whole sermon depends on you.  Do your best.  There is no excuse for delivering an unprepared sermon. Prepare, and you will be ready anytime.  Some preachers are unwilling to do this work resulting in unprepared, weak, and sometimes boring sermons.  After preparation, however, pray as though the whole success of the sermon depends completely on God.  Pray your best.  If we will do this we will be enabled to present persuasive, edifying, rich contents in a living and stimulating manner consistent with our own personalities.

Following these eight steps will help us avoid a sermon of rich contents, dryly presented or a sermon of only shallow contents, emphasized energetically.

PRAYING IN PUBLIC

Before we conclude this chapter let’s consider the matter of public prayer which, of course, occurs often in the same setting as the preaching and teaching of God’s Word we have been talking about.  First, take the matter of inclusive language.  Have you ever noticed that the prayers in Scripture, including “The Lord’s Prayer,” use “we,” “our”, and “us,” not “I,” “my,” and “me”?  There is a good reason for this.  The pray-er is identifying with those for whom he is praying and such praying also allows others who are listening to feel included and pray along with the one leading in prayer.  This is much more productive and conducive to unified praying than for the person “leading” in prayer to be using first person pronouns.  Using “I,” “my,” and “me,” though not intentionally so, may nevertheless send the message to the rest of the group that we consider them to be spectators, not participants.  Yet we desperately want the rest of the group to be praying with us, not just passively listening while we pray.  By simply using “we,” “our,” and “us,” instead of “I,” “my,” and “me,” we can increase the influence of our prayers.  How do you feel when you hear these words, “Lord we need you, we know you can help us.  We lift our burdens to you,” compared to, “ Lord, I need you, I know you can help me. I lift my burdens to you”?  The authority to use the name of Jesus in prayer has been given to all of us.  Let’s let the words we use reflect this belief.

Secondly, in the language of your prayer, address God and leave the devil out.  We address God and ask Him to take care of our enemy and His.  In public prayer we can talk to God about the devil, but to talk to God and then the devil gives more credence to the devil than he merits.  When casting a devil out of someone we may soberly address the devils in Jesus’ name, but that is another issue.  In public prayer to be switching from talking to God then to the devil introduces confusion to those who are trying to agree in prayer with the person leading in prayer.  To ridicule the devil in prayer is even worse; Scripture makes it abundantly clear that we are not to slander celestial beings (II Pet. 2:10 – 12 and Jude 8 & 9).  Prayer is addressed to the Father in the name of Jesus, and God dispatches the Holy Spirit to do His bidding.  God will take care of the rest.

Thirdly, in some sections of the world, Christians need to be encouraged to pray themselves and not rely so much on the “professional,” or “the holy person.”  Our praying to God in Jesus’ name for someone is better than for the other party to be seeking help from a false god, or the priest of a false god, but teaching them the access they themselves have directly to the throne of God in Jesus’ name is better yet.  The universal priesthood of believers was a major rediscovery for the Christian church in the seventeenth century.  Jesus is the only needed Mediator (I Tim 2:5).  God has no grandchildren; we are each His very own son or daughter.  Pray in public and lead people into the glorious presence of our wonderful heavenly Father, but also teach people of their own privileges and responsibility in personal praying.

Fourthly, whether we are preaching or praying, the focus of our attention should be on God’s adequacy, not our inadequacy.  We need discernment in order to understand this fine point, but if we can get this right, our listeners will feel uplifted by what we preach and pray.  If we do this wrong, our preaching and praying will subtly serve to weaken our listeners because we have focused too much on the needs (our or theirs) and not enough on God’s adequacy to meet needs.  We sometimes use personal illustrations and, while it is good to be transparent, nevertheless the illustration serves more to gain sympathy for us than point people’s faith to the Savior.  Feeding and encouraging our listeners out of the abundance of our overflowing hearts as preachers is very good.  To be “feeding off of” them when we need their emotional encouragement is a different matter and has negative results, though the speaker may be temporarily lifted by the sympathy of his listeners.  To be sure, preachers need encouragement too, but preaching is not the time for that.  The contents of our sermons should focus on ministry to others, not on attracting attention to our own needs.  There is a need for careful discernment here, but sometimes in our “openness” and “transparence” we attract undue attention to ourselves.  If the listeners leave with the feeling of “our poor pastor suffers so many difficulties and is really going through a lot” rather than “I am so glad Jesus is our great burden Bearer,” then we have failed to lift people’s focus of attention from ourselves to Him.  If we spend the proper amount of time in prayer privately we are spiritually full and ready to nourish others.

We spiritual leaders want to learn how to cast down evil imaginations—negative thoughts that weigh us down—and lift up heavenly visions that increase our faith.  Positive, God-centered, confident public prayer, spoken with the touch of the Holy Spirit that accompanies the person who has been in the presence of God, serves that purpose.