I go to a Christian college, studying biblical studies and youth ministry while serving on leadership. I felt God’s call to ministry in late high school, but I’m not sure if one of my gifts is preaching. How can I get better?
It is a tremendous honor to teach anyone the Word of God. Thank you for considering your gifts and taking this responsibility seriously.
Before we get into the details, I want to encourage you. I do not think I am the world’s greatest preacher, I know I still have a lot to learn, and I am my own worst critic. So I always feel odd talking about preaching, as I fear giving the impression that I’m someone who has arrived. Honestly, I’m with you on the path of figuring it out.
I did a lot of public speaking to large groups in high school as a non-Christian and student body president. In college I got a B.A. in communications with a focus on speech from Washington State’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, which is one of the top in the nation.
While all of those things helped, none of them prepared me to teach the Bible.
I struggled a lot in my early career, teaching and preaching to groups of dozens on the best days. I did not know how to lead people spiritually, I did not know how to rely on the Holy Spirit moment by moment in preparation and preaching, I did not know what to keep or cut from a message, etc. In short, the early years were rough. Really rough. My early sermons are not online because some were not recorded (praise God) and others were simply not good.
To this day, I still make mistakes. A few weeks ago, I thought a funny illustration would really work, and it totally bombed at the first service, so I cut it. I also recently preached an 80-minute sermon and went way too long—even for me, which is saying a lot. I did not focus the sermon, and I tried to pack in too much.
That being said, here is some advice from someone like you, trying hard to get better at teaching God’s Word by God’s grace.
Step #1: Work harder
Paul speaks of those who “labor in preaching and teaching.” Some guys want to be a pastor because it’s an indoor job that involves a lot of potlucks, but it’s supposed to be work. Like anything else, you have to work at it, toil over it, and improve at it.
A great sense of humor, an engaging personality, or the ability to tell a great story is not enough to make you a lifelong Bible teacher or able to grow people in the truth of God. You have to work hard at being a repentant, growing Christian, a devoted Bible student, a prepared teacher, etc. Work hard to find a way that works for you. All of this is by God’s empowering grace.
Step #2: Put in your hours
Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become world-class at anything. This could be playing a violin, hitting a curve ball, or preaching Romans. So you just need to get in your hours somehow. Teach small groups, large groups, formal groups, informal groups, old groups, young groups, Christian groups, non-Christian groups—simply get your hours in.
I reached 10,000 hours of preaching while I was in my 30s. I would preach and teach anywhere and everywhere to anyone and everyone. Take any and every opportunity you can. It’s your job to gather people to hear you preach/teach. No one owes you anything. If you want to speak to people, you have to love them and gather them. Do not expect anyone else to get you an audience.
Step #3: Preach the same sermon multiple times
Preaching the same sermon more than once is a huge blessing. Whether it’s back-to-back sermons on a Sunday, or teaching the same message to junior high students and then to high school or college students, preaching the same content multiple times is hugely beneficial. It allows you to see how people respond, recognize the emotional flow, see where it worked and where it didn’t, and make course corrections from one delivery to the next.
Step #4: Be on the floor for a long time after you preach
After you teach, position yourself in a place where you can have conversations with people who have questions. Invite people to come and speak to you. Stick around for a while. Early on, this time was a huge gift.
When people have follow-up questions, they are helping you learn what you missed in your sermon. When lost people want to talk about the message, they are helping you learn to do evangelism. When people are confused, they are helping you learn how to communicate more clearly. When people need prayer, they are helping you learn to love well. When people criticize you, they are helping you grow in humility. When people praise you, they are helping you stay encouraged.
Don’t fight and don’t defend yourself, but be humble and seek to use every post-sermon conversation as an opportunity to learn and grow, even if the person you’re speaking with is mean-spirited and unfair. There will be resistance—that’s just part of teaching and preaching God’s Word.
Step #5: Learn to be a sanctified version of only you
Don’t try and preach like your favorite preacher. Be you. Be a sanctified, growing version of you, who is becoming more like Jesus. The Bible is written by various authors inspired by the Holy Spirit but whose personalities are evident within the text. So it is with preachers, in a different sense, of course.
If you are older, you will sound more parental. If you are young, you may have more motivational energy. If you are funny, that will come through in your messages and people will simply be more inclined to like you. If you are an evangelist, you will probably include a more clear invitation to salvation. If you are a brainy Christian who loves footnotes and dead theologians, you will come off more like a professor.
Whoever you are, just be a sanctified version of you. Do your thing. Don’t do someone else’s thing. Learn from other preachers/teachers, appreciate them, respect them, enjoy them, but don’t try to be them. Be you. There are people who will hear God’s truth through you in a way they won’t hear it from someone else, so rejoice that you can serve them!
Want to learn more about preaching and teaching? On Tuesday evening, December 11, there will be a special preaching and teaching event at Mars Hill U-District. Various preachers will give live sermons, followed by feedback from a panel of coaches, including Pastor Mark Driscoll. The event is free and open to the public.