By Chris Philbeck
My wife and I recently attended a pastors and wives retreat just outside of Phoenix. It was a great experience for both of us. While we’ve been married for almost 40 years, it’s always good to get away from the busyness of life to reconnect. The retreat also included some times when the pastors and wives split to focus on separate topics. One session for the pastors began with the question: What do you think is the most important thing in good preaching?
Hearing the various answers—such as connection, engagement, relevance, vulnerability, etc.—was interesting. At one point our retreat leader observed that a lot of preaching today seems to have become more therapeutic than prophetic—just one of the many realities brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. As the session continued, I wrote down several statements made about preaching, but I never felt like the question was answered in a definitive way.
What do you think is the most important thing in good preaching?
I don’t believe there’s only one right way to preach. The Bible includes examples of a variety of preaching styles—including topical, textual, and narrative preaching—and each one was effective. Jesus, who left crowds amazed by his teaching, spoke in a very plain and straightforward way. Sometimes he used props or stories, but he was always effective. We’re told in Acts 18:24 that Paul’s friend Apollos was an eloquent speaker. That word eloquent means “man of words” in the original language. I take that to mean he was gifted with words. Both Peter and Paul were powerful preachers. Some may gravitate toward an intellectual approach to preaching, while some others may prefer conversational preaching or passionate preaching, but the answer to our question is not found in mere style.
Good Preaching Is Biblical
The selected Scripture sets the agenda for the sermon. I attended a church service while on a trip a few years ago. When the preacher got up, he asked us to open our Bibles to a certain chapter of John. After he shared his introductory remarks, we read one verse in John with no explanation or application. He then spent the rest of his time sharing a story about a special needs boy who believed God lived under his bed. The story was engaging, but the sermon was not biblical. The one verse we read did not set the agenda for the sermon. It wasn’t the foundation for everything that was shared, and I left the service uncertain what the message was even about. I am somewhat hesitant to share that story because I’m not someone who is overly critical of preachers. Preachers get criticized enough without other preachers piling on. But I stand by my statement—the sermon wasn’t biblical.
Paul wrote, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).When it comes to the good work of preaching, why would we be anything other than biblical?
Good Preaching Is Engaging
Good preaching connects with the listener. That’s why delivery and illustration are so important. Having been a preacher for 40-plus years, I understand the difficulty and challenge of preaching. So, when I listen to someone preach, whether it’s in my own church or another church, I try to be attentive. But sometimes it’s a struggle because all the components of a good sermon can be present, but it can be ruined by a weak delivery. This is where I believe a conversational preaching approach, filled with relevant and relatable illustrations, can help. It’s also important for the preacher to let his personality come through the message, but in a measured way.
At the session on preaching mentioned earlier, our retreat leader shared a powerful truth: A preacher should be honest with all, transparent with some, and vulnerable with a few. Let your personality come through in your preaching by being honest. Be transparent when needed. Both will help your listeners relate to you in a personal way. But save vulnerability for a trusted few.
Good Preaching Is Compelling
Good preaching based solely on the Scriptures, and which connects with the listener in a personal way, will also be compelling. It will compel the listener toward a response, just like Peter’s message compelled his listeners to say, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).
I came across this quote from pastor Todd Stocker some time ago: “A speaker should approach his preparation not by what he wants to say, but by what he wants to learn.” I often think of that quote when I sit down to write a sermon. I’ve been preaching for a long time, but most days I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of all the Bible teaches about the transcendence of God, the depth of his love, and the magnificence of his grace. Because I deeply desire to learn more and more about God and his will for my life and for our lives, I place great value on studying the Bible for preparation. The more I learn, the more I want to share biblical truths in an engaging way that God can use to transform the listeners on some level. But it all begins with the truth of the Scriptures. That’s why the most important thing in good preaching is the Word of God.