WHAT YOU WILL LEARN IN THIS CHAPTER
- You will learn what it means to be “instant in season and out” (1 Tim 4:2).
- You will discover how to make sure your sermon and lesson ideas are good ones.
- You will be able to list the four ingredients that go together to make an effective message.
- You will know why the Word alone is ineffective in changing lives.
A young Bible college graduate was about to preach his first sermon before a congregation. It was his first church and he wanted to show the people that he knew the Word and was able to preach. He didn’t want to read his message or use any notes. He wanted to speak entirely from his heart. So he had no notes, no outline, no helps of any kind.
He climbed into the pulpit to begin. However, he could not remember anything he wanted to say except for the verse that was his text. He hoped that quoting the verse would help him remember the rest of what he wanted to say, so he quoted the verse from Revelations “Behold, I am coming!”
He still couldn’t remember anything more, so he decided to try saying the verse again.
“Behold, I am coming,” he shouted.
It was no use. He still couldn’t remember anything more. He decided to try saying the text one more time, hoping and praying some other thoughts would return to his memory.
“Behold, I am coming,” he repeated desperately, leaning into the pulpit for effect.
Right at that moment, the pulpit gave way and he fell into the lap of a lady sitting in the front row. He was very embarrassed.
“I am so sorry,” he said, looking up at the woman.
“That’s ok, preacher,” she said. “I should have been ready – you warned me three times you were coming!”
SATURDAY NIGHT PANIC
You know what it’s like. You’ve been busy all week counseling, working, teaching, doing all those things a minister has to do. You meant to spend more time getting ready for Sunday, but so many needs came up and you just had to meet them. Now, it’s Saturday night and you still don’t have a sermon ready for tomorrow.
You open your Bible, flip through the pages, look hopefully towards Heaven ·and pray: “Oh God, oh God! Let me hear Your voice!” However, it is almost impossible to prepare a great sermon on Saturday night or to get a lesson ready at the last minute. We have all suffered listening to preachers who obviously put their message together at the last minute. We have made people suffer listening when we didn’t know exactly what we wanted to say, when our sermon wandered from thought to thought without any purpose.
There are many activities in a preacher’s ministry, but there is no one activity people see more than his preaching. People tend to judge you as a minister by your ability to preach and teach. They expect you to deliver great messages week after week. And rightly so. The Bible exhorts us to give attention to the preaching of the Word. (See 1 Timothy 4:13 and 2 Timothy 4:2.) It is the one thing we do that can so powerfully bring people to the Lord.
If you follow the method I propose, you will always have good things to preach about. You will always have a storehouse of material, thoughts, insights, challenges and illustrations to build into a sermon or lesson.
VEGETABLES OR WEEDS?
When I was a little boy, growing up on a farm town, my parents planted a garden behind our house. After carefully plowing the soil, putting fertilizer on it and making the rows, we planted seeds along the furrows. A few weeks later, my parents were out in the garden pulling weeds.
Even though I was only about six or seven years old, I went out to help them. When I asked what I could do, my mother told me to pull the weeds so the vegetables could grow. As I remember it now, we were growing onions in the row I worked in.
After several minutes, my mother, who was working in front of me, turned around to see how I was doing. “Oh no,” she said, “You’re pulling up the onions, not the weeds!” I didn’t know the difference between a weed and an onion plant.
Not every idea that we get is a good one. Not every thought we think is from the Lord. Some ideas and thoughts are good ones; they bear fruit in time. But some are weeds. We need to allow them to grow long enough to be able to see the difference and then be experienced enough to know which ones to pull and which ones to leave to grow longer.
If you wait until the last minute to put together a sermon or lesson, you will inevitably serve up both weeds and vegetables to your congregation. If you begin preparing your sermons and lessons weeks and months in advance you’ll have the time and experience to know the difference. You’ll offer up only healthy meals to the people.
GOING TO WORK
Begin now to build sermons or lessons. On a piece of paper, write out at least seven ideas or topics for sermons you would like to preach or lessons you would like to teach. If you are having a hard time getting started, use these questions to help you begin.
- What do you feel strongly about right now? What gets you most excited? Angry? What moves you to action?
- What do the people in your church or class want to know? What do they ask you about the most?
- Can you preach a message or teach a class on one of those things they are asking for? Can you teach or preach more than one time on it?
- List seven thoughts you have about one of those subjects.
HOW GREAT SERMONS ARE MADE
Outside, it was hot and very humid; inside, the air conditioners made it quite comfortable. Outside, the noise of the car horns and noisy mufflers made it very difficult to talk; inside, people were singing praises so you didn’t want to talk.
After an hour of worship and prayer, the interpreter stood to introduce the speaker. Speaking in Indonesian, he told us about the life of this man from Holland who now lived in Hong Kong with an Indonesian wife and two adopted Japanese children. When the speaker began to share the Word, everybody listened. We forgot the humidity and the noise. We were listening to every word the speaker had to say. He was powerful.
He possessed something special as a minister that made him so powerful. Yes, he knew the Word. His skill as a preacher was finely sharpened. You could feel his love for the people. But I sat there in that Indonesian church, listening and trying to analyze what it was that made him different.
After nearly an hour of listening, I realized what it was. I had taught the principle in my own leadership seminars, and now I recognized it in him.
HE HAD THE ABILITY TO COMBINE THE WORD, EXPERIENCES FROM HIS OWN LIFE, AND THE SPIRIT TOGETHER TO CREATE A FORCEFUL, WELL-PRESENTED SERMON OR LESSON.
There are four parts to effective messages:
- A knowledge of the subject you are preaching about.
- The freshness of the Spirit in your life.
- A vessel.
- Experiences from life.
As we examine these one by one, you’ll see how they fit together. The principle is illustrated in a drawing of a teapot.
The first part is the Word. An effective teacher must have some knowledge of the subject he is teaching. If he is to be really effective, he will spend more time studying and meditating than he will ministering.
That’s why you must spend time in personal study, devotions and meditation. The effective church leader spends quality time studying the Bible. If he can get them, he reads books that give him insight into life as it was in Bible times. He also learns to apply the Bible’s message to life in practical ways.
Some of us were taught that to be really “anointed,” you shouldn’t use any notes when you teach, you shouldn’t write anything down while you study, nor should you use an outline to speak from. “Open your mouth and the Lord will fill it,” they said. However, if there is no life inside of us, no life will come out of our mouths. In our diagram, we would compare the tea with the Word. Tea must be made from tea leaves. Good sermons must be made from the Word of God. But the Word alone is not nearly enough to make a sermon worth listening to. Information alone, no matter how good that information is, will not bring life to people. “The letter kills, but the Spirit give life” (2 Cor 3:6).
The second ingredient in our diagram is water. Tea leaves alone are not enough. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day knew the Law, but their lives were dry and lifeless because they had no personal fellowship with the Author of the Word. They knew the Bible, but they did not have the second ingredient that is necessary in effective preaching. There was no freshness, so no one listened to what they had to say. Maybe you’ve heard someone minister who said the right things, but he was so dry you could hardly stay awake.
What is the second ingredient? It is the Spirit.
The Bible contains everything man needs to know to please God and live a happy life. The directions are old, but they can be applied to life today. The secret of freshness is simple: be fresh yourself. Paul the apostle says that we should “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18). That is not something that happens just a once in a lifetime. Instead, we should be before the Lord every day receiving from Him the freshness of Himself. The Spirit flows through our lives from God and out to others. One of the most effective tools of the enemy is to lock up the answers of the Bible in dry, religious terms. Preaching and teaching alone cannot change lives. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day tried to change people by telling them the Word. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now. Good doctrine will not deliver people. It takes the Word and the power of God to change lives. If you don’t have it in your life, you can’t make it work for others by just talking about it.
The third part of effective teaching is a useful, willing vessel. The tea and the water are mixed together in a teapot. Once, a few years ago, I conducted a teacher training class for the teachers in our Christian school. As part of their training, I asked the teachers to answer these questions:
- Write the title of every book you used in school.
- Write the name of as many subjects you took that you can remember.
- Describe special experiences that you remember.
- Name every teacher you had and why you remember them.
Of the six people who took that training course, only one person could remember the name of a textbook. Two more people could remember a few subject titles. Most could remember several special experiences and activities. Everyone could remember at least six teachers. Why?
Because it is teachers who have the most impact on students, not the things they teach or the books they use. The teachers told stories about their lives; they used words and expressions that were colorful and power-packed. Their classes were not just dry lessons; they were powerful experiences between themselves and their students.
That little activity proved to me that it is people who affect people. We are touched by the lives of others as much as we are touched by the things they say. An effective teacher imparts himself to others. “The disciple, after he is fully taught, will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).
So, we have now examined three parts of good sermons and lessons:
- The Word
- The Spirit
- A vessel
In our diagram they would compare to the tea, the water, and the teapot. However, those ingredients are not yet tea. They need one more thing. Do you know what it is?
The fourth ingredient is heat or fire. The fires of life must be applied before tea leaves and water become something to drink. The one thing that made that preacher in Indonesia so dynamic was that he had lived through hard times so that the truth in the Book had become truth in his life. It is the heating that completes the process. Fired on the burner of God’s stove, baked in the oven of trial and experience, knowledge becomes wisdom.
You may remember the life of Joshua. For 40 years he served Moses and the people in the wilderness. It was those 40 years that prepared him to lead the people into the Promised Land.
You may know the Word fairly well. You may be alive with the Spirit. You may be a willing vessel. But you will never be completely effective unless and until those ingredients have brewed awhile. If you’re feeling the heat now, relax. The Word and the Spirit are combining to make something very good.
A minister will not be effective simply because he learns a workable method of sermon and lesson preparation. Good tools help you minister better. There just isn’t any substitute for an anointed, knowledgeable, Spirit-led preacher.
GOING TO WORK
You have already written out ideas you have for sermons or lessons. You have listed some of the things your people are asking questions about. Look at your list again. Which one(s) of the items on your list are you experiencing? How is God working truth into your life? Now write out some of the experiences you are having that illustrate and demonstrate God’s Word in YOUR life. Try to use personal experiences.