Well I have to say your letter brought me joy: I know being in your first preaching class makes you nervous, but I think it is just great.
Whether you become “a preacher” full time or not, Christians are given good news to share with the world. Preaching class is a lab to learn to do that.
I hope your first sermon is a great experience for you and those who listen to you.
Your first sermon
Once, at a conference for ministers where I was giving a keynote, one of the other speakers told the story of a seminarian in just your situation. He went to his pastor for some advice.
Pastor, I have to preach my first sermon. What should I preach about?
asked the seminarian.
The pastor, an old southern gentleman, leaned back and thought.
Well, you should preach about Jesus,
he said, slowly.
And, you should preach about fifteen minutes.
A pretty good pastor joke, and pretty solid advice as well.
Preach about Jesus
The advice to preach about Jesus is an excellent starting point. Having listened to a great many student sermons in seminary chapel services I can tell you that from experience.
Setting out to preach about Jesus will help you avoid two common sermon pitfalls:
1. You are not there to preach about yourself.
Many new preachers focus their sermons on the story of their own faith. There are two problems with this.
First, you are not the gospel. If you preach about yourself, you are giving the people far less than they need.
Second, you only have one faith story. Some get started by preaching their own story, and finding it well received, stick to it. They preach it again.
But when the same congregation comes back the next week they actually need a new sermon.
Some stick to their own story for a very long time. The same conversion, or the same recovery from tragedy, or whatever it may be, comes up again and again.
It just isn’t enough.
2. You are not there to preach about the congregation
Some take the other tack, and turn their attention to the people in the pews. The 19th century revivalist Charles Finney did this with great success. He talked about people and prayed about them by name from the pulpit, making them squirm in guilt until they repented.
I think it has probably failed everywhere since then. Think of it as committing yourself to short-term ministry.
It can be as straightforward as the fellow I once heard once who stepped into the pulpit and said
This won’t be so much a ‘sermon’ as a ‘manifesto’.
When you are pastor of a congregation you will, of course, in various ways, need to preach about the community’s life and mission.
But you aren’t there to make the congregation feel bad.
And you probably shouldn’t be trying to convert them to Christian faith. If they showed up in your preaching class or your congregation they probably have that one down already.
And just as you are not the gospel, the congregation is not the gospel. Preaching about them is not enough.
You need to preach about Jesus. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the one who has the living water. He is the one who is God in the flesh, the very substance of our salvation.
Only Jesus will meet their need.
Preach about fifteen minutes
There is a book on preaching from twenty years ago called The Four Pages of the Sermon.
I have not read it, though I’ve heard it recommended. What I recommend to you is the concept in the title:
Write your first sermon out in full (your first many sermons, actually) even if you plan to preach from memory. Type it out in a 12 point Times font, double-spaced with one inch margins.
It should be about four pages long. Maybe five or six, but no more.
For someone new to preaching, this can be a really helpful guide.
- If you only have a page or two, you will be sitting down again just as the congregation figures out what you are talking about.
- If you have seven or eight pages they will be checking their phones for texts long before you’ve made your point.
Fifteen minutes talking about Jesus Christ is an excellent goal for a new preacher.
Fifteen minutes hearing and thinking about Jesus will be an excellent faith-building time for your hearers.
Preach about the text
Of course if you are going to say anything useful about Jesus you’ll need to be preaching about a text of Scripture. More on that another time…
Hey, you want some help with your first sermon? Check out my book! It’s short, practical, and written just for you. Click the image to get it on Amazon in paperback or Kindle.
Fr. Dustin says
I love to see more posts about preaching.
Over the 5 years (or so) that I’ve been preaching, I’ve tried different things. Some more successful than others. I’d be curious to hear ideas about arranging the sermon. For example, I’ve noticed that NT Wright, in his “New Testament for Everyone” series, starts with a story that illustrates the point wants to make. Then he moves into the scriptural passage to explain how his point plays out. I’ve been following that example for my recent sermons.
Additionally, I would like to hear your thoughts on conclusions. I do well (or so I think) talking about the passage, but how do I wrap it up? How do I bring it into the 21st century for my audience?
Gary Neal Hansen says
Thanks, Fr. Dustin, for the comments and questions. Great ideas for continuing the series.
i want to learn more about preching
Gary Neal Hansen says
Thanks for commenting, Martha!
I have a few posts on preaching — you can find those that are tagged with that word by following this link:
I’ll probably post more on the topic in the future. If you subscribe (see the form in the sidebar) then they will show up right in your in-box!