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Preaching: Getting Started

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. James 3:1 NIV
Local elders and other lay leaders often have to preach a sermon or even preach quite often in some congregations. This series of five units on preaching brings together the experience of pastors who have taught lay leaders to preach and seeks to provide a simple and complete presentation that is written with the amateur in mind. It draws from the best of the preaching art; the many great preachers who have written the basics of preaching. These presentations are meant for the week­end warrior, but will also prove helpful to the preaching professional.
A Lesson on Fear

(Presenter, Use your own illustration here)
For weeks, my spine sent out tremors. Why did I ever think I could do this? I knew God didn't make mistakes but a deep suspicion began to set in that this could be his first. Of course I didn't believe that but I couldn't see past the clouds either—dark clouds of fear that hung thick over my thoughts whenever that preaching appointment came to mind. It would be my first, if I lived through it.
I had fought God's call, not because I didn't want to serve but because I didn't think I could. Perhaps you have felt that tug at your own heart. If you have ever longed for revival and wished you could spark it in those around you, it might be God's Spirit urging you to take a risk, to preach. But, risk is scary.
I can still hear my shaky voice sounding in the tight quar­ters of my college dorm room: "God, I can't preach and I'm too young." I had been feeling his call for weeks. I contin­ued, "But, if you are really telling me to do this, you'll have to show me." I then told God, in no uncertain terms, that I was tired of wrestling with the issue and wished to settle it once and for all. I said, "I'm going to open my Bible now. Please help me open to the right text."
What followed was a moment like nothing I had experi­enced. Yes, I asked God to say just what He meant, and I wished He would, but I didn't expect it. I opened directly to Jeremiah 1 and my eyes fell on verses 4-7:
"The word of the Lord came to me, saying, 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.' 'Ah, Sov­ereign Lord,' I said, I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.' But the Lord said to me, 'Do not say, "I am only a child." You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you."(NIV)
A chill ran through me, and then a shot of exhilaration, as my brain grappled with what just happened. God had spoken ... to me.
When the rush wore off and I found myself registered for my first preaching class two months later, God's mandate was little solace. It meant I was stuck. It also meant I would have to stand in front of real people and preach for the first time in my life. Yes, God had told me to do it but there was one problem; that meant I would have to do it.
You have to know where I was coming from. I was the type of person who got the jitters in social settings where more than two people could hear me talk. I said little in public and felt painfully shy around those I didn't know. If you put me in front of a microphone, I felt my chest tighten, the blood pumped to my face, my vision went blurry, and dizziness set in. Not the best credentials for preaching.
So, there I was—less than twenty-four hours 'til the moment of truth. But, I had been pre­paring. I had studied the power of speech, of all topics, in James 3:7-72. Through the guid­ance of my good professor, I learned to apply the basic skills needed to build a sermon from the text. It was flawed, sure, but I had something worth saying. I just wasn't sure I'd have the guts to say it.
Keenly sensing the approach of "zero hour," I mustered up enough courage to speak with my professor. It was hard enough just to spit out a few words to him. "Uh, Dr. Morris, I've never preached in my life and I'm scheduled to preach in class tomorrow."
He must have understood my unspoken message: "Help!" Dr. Derek Morris is one of the great masters of teaching and he knew just what I needed. He was encouraging. "You have written a powerful sermon. Just preach it!"
"Just preach it!" Well, that made sense. I did have something to say. What was I so nervous about? I'd like to say I preached the perfect sermon that day and wowed the class with my skills and brilliance but it was just a beginner's sermon.
Nonetheless, it was a turning point for me. I learned a lesson that shaped the way I think of preaching in the years since: Good preparation makes a world of difference. When you know you have a solid message to preach, you can beat the nerves.
Three Elements in Every Sermon
Books on preaching have multiplied in recent years as more people realize that the an­cient art of preaching can still change lives. For the beginner, this mountain of material is staggering. But, there is good news. The many books and classes offered have a simple core that runs through it all. Preaching theories are as scattered as the stars but they all owe a debt to the core. If you master the core and lean heavily on God's Spirit, you can master the art of preaching.
Before you get lost in the details, cement in your brain three core elements. They are structural ingredients found in every effective sermon. We will explain and expand these elements but, for now, just catch the concept of each.
1. A Life Question
Preaching is the act of helping God's Word speak to the life of the listener. The preacher's job is showing how a given part of Scripture speaks to real life. The first ele­ment of every sermon, then, is a guiding life question. This is a question your listener is already asking. Whether you pose the question outright or imply it, every good sermon has a guiding question.
Questions might be raised by events or they may be universal question marks that hang in every mind. One example of a guiding question arises from tragedy: "Where is God when bad things happen?" The clarity and relevance of the question you ask the listener will inspire their level of attention.
2. A Biblical Answer
The second element of every sermon, then, must be a biblical answer. Do you see how this begins to fulfill the purpose of preaching (helping God's Word speak to the life of the listener)?
You have begun with a life question. Put another way, you have begun in the listener's world. Now, as you explain the biblical answer, you show how God's Word relates to them. You introduce their world to the biblical world.
To the question, "Where is God when bad things happen?" the answer might be, "God is there to comfort the hurting." Your task here is not done until you have answered the life question with biblical truth.
3. Life Application
The third element of every sermon, then, is life application. If you miss this step, the listener may go home impressed with truth but it won't change their life. Especially in today's world, where people take little time for quiet reflection, you must tell them how the answer can change their life.
Tell them what to do. With the question, "Where is God when bad things happen?" and the answer "God is there to comfort the hurting," the application might be, "When disas­ter brings pain, pray for God's comfort." Your sermon doesn't succeed or fail in the pulpit but later, when your listener faces that life question in her own world.
These three elements are the sermon in a nutshell. If your sermon has nothing but these three elements, people will listen. And, when these elements are clear in your own mind your confidence will soar with the knowledge that you have something to say. In time, you won't be a jittering mouse begging for hearers but rather a steady lion that com­mands attention.
The Spirit of God
And, yet, that's not quite all. However diligent God wants you to be in preparation, never forget that only God can change hearts and only God can give you just the right message. Isaiah understood preaching when he said,
"The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim free­dom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners" (Isaiah 61:1 NIV).
God's Spirit will empower you to give the world's ques­tions godly answers. Always keep that in mind as you work through the details of any sermon.
Preach God's Word, Not Yours
The first step in any sermon is to choose a Bible text as the foundation and key focus. A sermon is a proclamation of God's Word. That is serious business. When you stand in the pulpit and deliver a sermon, you are speaking for God. Accepting the invitation to preach is vaguely like stepping up to deliver a speech for the President of the United States. "I'm sorry; the President couldn't be here, so I will share his thoughts with you."
You wouldn't think of passing off your own thoughts as his. When you stand to preach, you are saying, "I'm sorry, God couldn't preach directly, so I will share His thoughts with you."
Scared yet? Good. It's a sobering task. But don't run. The answer is not avoidance. God calls you to preach. Paul told Timothy, "Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage— with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Timothy 4:2 NIV).
The call is simple: "preach the Word," not your own opin­ions. When I ask someone to preach, I often hear, "I don't have anything to say." They don't realize that it's best to start that way. The ideas you should convey are written for you in the Scripture.
Let God Set the Agenda
Your task is to study until you understand it and then tell the people how it can change their lives. "For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword." (Hebrews 4:12, KJV) Can you say the same for your own thoughts? Me neither.
How can you make sure the thoughts you share are truly God's? I recently watched the U.S. president deliver his State of the Union address. A few weeks later, I saw it playing on a friend's computer, so I leaned in to watch the familiar speech. But, it wasn't familiar.
It looked the same and the words that matched his lips sounded like his voice but the message was changed. The remixed speech used the president's words, phrases, and even whole paragraphs but it wasn't his message. It was a comic spoof.
Far too many sermons bear this stamp, and usually not by intention. It's easy to string verses together to make your point. But, please don't forget that a sermon should never make your point. You are speaking for Someone else.
Learn God's Message in Context
Before you presume to speak for God, you must know what He means to say. If you go to the text with a mes­sage in mind, you are in grave danger of passing off your own ideas as God's. If your message is preconceived, it is you who sets the agenda—not God. Approach the text with an open mind.
Resolve that you will never preach until, through careful Bible study, you have learned something new. Be taught by God, and then teach others. This statement hints at a phi­losophy of approach but, first, a couple of questions....
If you plan to include, say, eight verses in your sermon, which is better—eight verses that you place together or eight verses that God placed together? And, if you are digging to know the meaning of a text, will the verses around it or verses from somewhere else best explain it? Before you answer, remember the president's speech.
Choose the Anchor Text
Because of the human tendency to inject our own ideas into the message, the safest way to prepare a sermon is to let God's word chart the course. That's why the first phase of sermon development is to choose an anchor text.
By selecting a passage of sufficient length, you can allow God's word to set the direc­tion of your sermon. Your sermon structure, the marks in your line of reasoning and even some creative aspects can emerge from the text itself. This makes your job easier but it also makes your sermon more biblical. For reference purposes, I call this process the text-led sermon.
There are three focus questions to help you set the parameters of your anchor text. They help answer the larger question, "How much should I cover?" The twin errors, of course, are choosing too small a text to be sure what it means or too large a text to cover clearly.
In the case of a parable or simple story, the start and end are obvious. But, it is not always so easy to lift a passage from Paul's extended arguments or the col­lected sayings of Jesus. The three focus questions help clear your thinking about parameters.
1. A Simple Point
The first and most essential focus question is, "Can I draw a single, simple point from these verses?" The answer has room for preference. For example, you may choose to draw that simple point from the broad life story of Joseph or you might choose to draw on a different lesson from just one phase of his story—his resistance to Potiphar's wife or his preparation for famine, perhaps.
Both options are valid. The fundamental issue is whether you can bring the simple point to the surface of the text in a thirty minute sermon. Your judgment improves with prac­tice but your natural instincts will probably bring you close.
2. A Representative Portion
The second focus question appeals for integrity: "Do the isolated verses correctly represent the biblical author's thoughts?" Perhaps this is what Paul had in mind when he charged his young protégé, Timothy, "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15 NKJV). This Greek word for "dividing" means "to cut a straight line." It's a picture of meticulous care. No sloppy work.
An example that shows the need for care is Romans 8:31. There we find the rousing words, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" These words have emerged to rouse courage in a soldier's heart or comfort a woman struggling with her boss. Although they warm the heart, these applications have nothing to do with the text.
The idea might seem true and good but that doesn't make it textual. In fact, the verses that precede these inspiring words show that Paul speaks of God's incredible fight to save us from sin. No sloppy work, please. The truth is more inspiring anyway.
3. A Complete Picture
The third focus question asks, "Is any part of the puzzle missing?" This requires that you understand the broad­er argument that your text is part of. To cite a simple case, in 1 John 2:13, three groups are mentioned — fa­thers, young men, and little children. Each one repre­sents an aspect of John's message.
It wouldn't be fair to John's message if you preached on only two of these groups and skipped the other. It might be fair to explore just one group and leave the rest for later but, as soon as you pretend to explain his larger argument, which is com­prised of three parts, you must include all the pieces.
Another example of the same principle is the parable of the wheat and weeds. Jesus tells the parable early in Matthew 24 but leaves the explanation for later in the chapter. It wouldn't do to preach a sermon on the parable and never study Jesus' own explanation of it.
You could draw creative deductions from its symbols that would impress your audience but they might not be the truth. Make sure no piece of the puzzle is miss­ing, so the picture is as crisp as possible. Remember the president's speech?
Applying the Focus Questions
This questioning process reminds me of a childhood sleuthing game kids play at Christ­mas time. When mom's back was turned, the kids inspect the colorful shapes beneath the tree.
First, they check for size. This usually crosses out a couple of items from their request lists. Then there are weight and the shake-test, which narrow the options further. And, of course, a quick check for paper-tears or loose seams that might give a peek. Soon, they have a fair guess what is in them. It's like this with defining the parameters of your anchor text. Each question brings you closer to that perfect balance between too much and too little.
Let's take a practice text and apply the focus questions. This passage will also serve as a test case for the other phases of sermon development, which will appear later. Using the same text throughout allows you to follow an anchor text through the whole process from text to sermon. Let's start with—James 3:1-12.
By citing the verses, you know that I have already settled on the parameters of the text. But, let's step through the process that led to that decision. When we finish here and you understand the process fully, choose a text of your own and apply the focus questions to it.
Be sure to choose a text you want to spend some serious time with, so you can use it as your own test case for each principle you learn throughout this unit. If you are careful to follow each step as you learn it, you will have written your own sermon by the end of the seminar.
Start by reading the broader section of Scripture that contains your text of interest. By general skills of observation, you will begin to notice the major divisions of thought, like when the subject changes and what is being said about each subject.
Imagine that you are reading the third chapter of James in your morning devotions and you are so impressed with something it said that you have decided to study it more, so you can preach on it. Find a Bible and read it now, to get familiar with the text. Be sure to read a chapter or two on either side of it, to establish good practice. Focus on the broad flow of the text, without getting lost in the details.
Done? Good. Your initial observation will quickly tell you that the subject of the tongue begins in James 3:1 and ends in verse 12. Before this, in chapter two, he writes of the relationship between faith and works. And, later in chapter three, he writes about wisdom from above.
Although it will help to explore the relationship between James' thoughts on the tongue and the subjects surrounding it, that can be left for the next phase of sermon preparation. You know enough from initial observation to set tentative parameters: James 3:1-12. Now you are ready to apply the focus questions and test these tentative parameters.
1. A Simple Point
First, "Can I draw a single, simple point from these verses?" To answer this, it helps to reread the selected verses. On second reading, you will start to notice the separate points marshaled in an explanation of the larger subject. As the question suggests, you must decide if you can address all that the author says about the subject or just one of his sub-points. In this case, everything he says supports the simple idea that words are powerful. That's preachable.

2. A Representative Portion
Second, ask, "Do the isolated verses correctly represent the biblical author's thoughts?" Since we have not chosen one of the sub-points, this question is easier to answer "yes" to. By contrast, if we chose to speak only from verse two, about perfection through speech, we might be in danger of building a whole theology of perfection from something James only meant to illustrate his larger point— that words are powerful. But, since we have taken the entire discourse on speech as our anchor text, we have taken the safe route.
3. A Complete Picture
Third, ask the clean-up question: "Is any part of the puzzle missing?" This, too, is easier to answer when we've chosen to address the entire discourse. If we chose only verse six, that the tongue is set on fire by hell, we might be compelled to conclude that good Chris­tians don't speak.
I suppose the idea might inspire someone but it's awfully hard to preach a sermon on that without sounding hypocritical. Besides, it's not the biblical message. James does leave us with a little hint of hope at the end. Similarly, if we chose to preach from the rousing words on the power of speech in verses three to five, we might highlight the potential of words without sounding the proper warnings.
So today we have learned that preparation reduces fear, we've looked at the three elements every sermon needs, we've discovered that the message belongs to God, not us, and we've applied focus questions to the Anchor text. We're on our way to becoming great preachers.

This article first appeared in the iFollow discipleship resource. Reprinted with permission from the North American Division