How do I become a better preacher? There is more to it than eye contact, hand motions, and freedom from manuscript. There is more to it than staring at yourself in the mirror as you rehearse. The following are the twenty things I would tell the man who wants to improve his preaching:
1. Sit under great preaching
I firmly believe that preaching is more caught than taught. Over the years, I have learned so much about how to preach simply by sitting under great preaching. I often have young men ask me how to become a great preacher. I always encourage them with this: before even going to seminary, find someone who knows how to preach, and sit on the front row and glean as much as you can. You can’t just listen to him on a podcast or watch him on YouTube. You need to be in the building. You need to see it and feel it. Feel the pregnant pauses, the emotion of the congregation, the weight of the worship. We learn how to preach by sitting on the front row under powerful preaching.
2. Take Notes from Great Preaching
I used to listen to preaching on cassette tapes. I would hit the play button, listen to ten seconds, and then stop it. I would then write down everything the preacher just said. Then I would hit the play button for another ten seconds. Stop it. Then I would write that down. This would take hours. But through this tedious process, I began to grasp structure, transitional statements, subpoints, illustrations, applications, conclusions—all simply by transcribing great sermons. I saw what an introduction looked like on paper. I saw how carefully transitions are worded. I saw the precisely crafted draws and demands of application.
As soon as I heard great preaching, I knew what it was that I wanted to do. I just didn’t know how to do it. I needed for great preaching somehow to become practical. By taking notes, I learned what great preaching looked like on paper. I learned the movement, flow, and cadence of a sermon. I knew what great preaching looked and felt like before ever stepping foot in a preaching class, simply by taking notes.
3. Listen to Great Preaching
By this, I do mean just listening to preaching. When you listen to preaching over and over, it gets into your bones. Tune your ear to the sound of great preaching.
4. Read Great Preaching
There is much to be learned even from reading great preaching. Like taking notes, this is another way to see preaching. Read Spurgeon. Soak your mind in him. You can feel his passion. You can see the evangelistic pull and appeal of his words. You can almost hear the tone of his voice. Read Whitefield. Let him set you on fire as he did me.
5. Learn from Many Great Preachers
My encouragement to you is not to listen to just one preacher. Do not become mesmerized with one personality. It will set a low ceiling over your preaching. You will settle into imbalances and imitation. Have multiple voices coming into your preaching. Everybody has weaknesses, blind spots. Surround yourself with a multitude of voices as you learn to find your own. They will complement and round off your edges.
6. Preach Yourself
You can’t learn to ride a bike in a classroom. You have to go outside and do it. The same is true of preaching. You have to go out and preach. Seek out preaching opportunities, even if it is just to a small group. Learn to preach by preaching.
7. Preach Often
Many men never surpass mediocrity in their preaching for the simple reason that they just don’t preach enough. George Whitefield said, “The more I preach, the better I preach.” Just as the more you play golf, the better you play golf; and the more you play piano, the better you play piano—it’s just a reality: the more you preach, the better you preach. That’s just the way it is. So preach often.
8. Preach in Different Settings
There is a certain predictability about preaching in a certain place. You need to continue to expand your horizons and enlarge your gift. Preach in as many different settings as you can, with different site-lines, podiums, faces, and responses—each one pulling something unique out of you. This doesn’t mean you have to go around the country to preach, just find different venues in your own city. Each one will draw something unique from you.
Study expository preaching and the New Testament—including a focus on homiletics and sermon delivery this summer under Drs. Steven J. Lawson, H.B. Charles, Derek Thomas, and John MacArthur in the Doctor of Ministry Program. Seats still available.
9. Preach Narrative
Our tendency as preachers is to tunnel deep into the epistles. And they are wonderful. But you must expand to other genres of Scripture. Learn to preach narratives. By preaching narratives, a didactive preacher becomes a dynamic preacher. There is a certain energy in a story—a passion that naturally flows from an inspired plot with rising action and conflict and character development. Learn to handle these portions of Scripture. Let them make you into a more dynamic preacher.
10. Preach the Psalms
I did not fully develop as a preacher until I preached through the entirety of the psalter. That immersion into the songs of Israel ushered me into a different dimension of preaching. If you preach the psalms, they will change you. Your vocabulary will deepen. You will discover a new passion in your preaching. Metaphors and analogies will begin to pour forth from you. You will discover figures of speech in your arsenal. Your preaching will no longer have the tone of a correspondent, but a poet. You will gain a natural command of the language. You will preach to broken hearts—to people on the mountaintops and in the valleys of life. You will better understand emotions. But most of all, your preaching will be immensely God-centered.
11. Improve Your Vocabulary
Preaching is simply putting words into the air. If you have better words from which to draw, you will automatically have more going for you. In the first day of my doctoral program under Dr. Sproul, he made everyone in the class learn three hundred English vocabulary words. We were quizzed the next day. If you are a preacher, your life work is words. Read books to expand your vocabulary. Do whatever it takes to add more words to your arsenal—buy books, flashcards, and thesauruses. Use them. Never repeat yourself in preaching. Find the best word, the right word. Learn to opt for a carefully selected word over a story. If you are a preacher, words are your trade. Master them.
12. Improve Your Grammar
When I graduated from seminary, my grammar was awful. English teachers in our church would pull me aside after sermons and correct my grammar. Initially, it bothered me. But I am so thankful those English teachers loved me enough to challenge my grammar. It opened doors. It cleared roadblocks. Those English teachers were God’s way of refining me to gain a hearing with people that I otherwise would not have. Yes, grammar really does matter. We have flies in the ointment when we have bad grammar. Tell your wife, I want you to correct me every time you hear me use incorrect grammar. Stop me. Have her make a list of grammatical mistakes in your preaching. There is no other way to extract bad grammar from you than for someone to love you enough to tell you. Thank her when she corrects you. It is God’s way of refining you.
13. Read Great Literature
If you are going to have a command of the sentence—its cadence, length, lead-in, phraseology, emphasis, word choice—there is no better method than to read great literature. I would urge you to do that. Spend time enjoying how masters of the English language communicate. It will begin to seep into you.
14. Learn to Write and Edit
To learn to preach, you must learn to write a sermon. And to write a sermon, you must learn to write. It may be nothing more than an article in the worship bulletin. Just write. It doesn’t matter who (or if anyone) is reading it. Learn to get your thoughts onto paper. Go through the excruciating practice of editing your own writing. Force yourself to dig into your own sentences, by doing this you will begin to learn to speak. Writing breeds accuracy, and accuracy is the heartbeat of expository preaching.
15. Invite Feedback when Preaching
Every preacher is subject to discouragement when our preaching is criticized by others. But find one or two people who love you and are committed to you, and ask them to give you honest feedback on your preaching. Ask them to show you your blind spots.
16. Read Books on Preaching
Read Martin Lloyd-Jones’s book Preaching and Preachers. This book is a must read. Read MacArthur’s Preaching: How to Preach Biblically. Read J.W. Alexander’s Thoughts on Preaching. Read R.L. Dabney, Evangelical Eloquence. Read Between Two Worlds by John Stott. Read Spurgeon’s Lectures to my Students.
17. Read Biographies of Great Preachers
I am still trying to recover from reading the two-volume biography of George Whitefield by Arnold Dallimore. This is the only book I have ever read three times. It just makes me want to preach. You need to read books that make you want to preach. Read the autobiography of Charles Spurgeon. That book will do something to your soul. It makes me cry. It makes me want to get up early. It makes me want to study—to pray; to preach; to live a godly life. Read the biography of Martin Lloyd Jones by Iain Murray. This book will be a tipping point in your life. Read books that make you want to do something. Specifically, read books that make you want to preach.
18. Read Church History
Before seminary, I didn’t even know what church history was. I learned of the Reformation and the Great Awakening and the Modern Missions Movement and the Great Victorian Preachers, and these men became etched into me. There was a fellowship that I had with them. I was in their company. I was one of them. Church history taught me that conflict and controversy mark every movement forward. Studying church history forces you to grow up as a man. It matures you.
19. Read of the Martyrs
In one of his resolutions, Jonathan Edwards resolves to remember the martyrs. We must do the same. Read about Tyndale. Read about Cranmer. Read about these men and women being strapped to the stake.
In the front of my Bible, I carry a picture of John Rogers. He was burned at the stake in 1555. He was the first martyr burned by bloody Mary. His crime—helping finish Tyndale’s work of translating the Bible into the English language, repudiating the mass, and preaching the purity of grace. When you read church history, you begin to identify with the martyrs. I’ve never had a bad day, not compared to the martyrs. Any criticism I’ve ever had, any firing I’ve endured, any rejection I’ve suffered—is nothing. When you spend hours considering the lives of the martyrs, it has an effect on you when you step into the pulpit. It is hard to be a goofball in the pulpit when you’ve been drinking from this well.
20. Be More Zealous for God
Don’t let whatever stage of life you are in quench your fire. Let the words of Jesus sink in: “I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first” (Rev. 2:4–5). Remember when you were on fire for God. Remember when you were zealous and passionate. Remember when you were actively witnessing. When you used to cry. When you used to rejoice when you sang. And return to those days. Be more zealous for God. Ask God, by His Spirit, to ignite you—to set you on fire: “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32, italics mine). Ask God to do that in your heart. That is a prayer God will answer.
A Rising Tide
If you were able to incorporate even some of these into your life, the tide would come in, and your preaching would be raised. If you could incorporate a good number of these into your life, your preaching would be lifted even higher. Be on fire for God. And if you are, no one will have to talk to you about gestures, eye contact, or techniques. In some ways, techniques are for men who don’t know how to preach. Get on fire for God, and you will find a way to get it across. I fell in love with my wife, and no one had to teach me about hand motions or eye contact when I told her I loved her. Fall in love with Christ, and you will learn to communicate.