In reflecting over my half-century (plus) preaching journey, I quickly see where I’ve learned a few things. Allow me to share some of those insights with you.
First, I had too much content in my earlier sermons. I packed too much into the box. In this day of sound bites, text messages, tweets, and Facebook posts, people won’t retain what you said in a message titled, “Seven Reasons Why I Want to Go to Heaven.” I’ve learned to build the sermon around one or two “takeaway truths.” One or two! Sure, build around them, wrap them in Scripture, illustrate them, and develop them. If our listeners can remember our one or two takeaway truths by the time they get to the parking lot, we’ve succeeded. Next, I’ve had to learn how to preach to their hearts—not just preach to their heads. Of course, I want good content in my sermons—scriptural, factual, and some historical—but the people in the pews or chairs are silently asking, “So what? How does this message help me deal with the pressures, stresses, challenges, and disappointments I’ll face this week?”
Preacher, translate the Word of God to the real-life journey your listeners are on, and go for their hearts.
To be a good preacher in this culture, we must become a good storyteller. Jesus told stories! Telling stories still works today! Good stories are like windows in the room—they let the light in!
We don’t tell stories just to get a laugh but to illustrate a truth. Therefore, we preachers need to look and listen for stories every day of our lives. They are in the newspaper, the news, the event that happened at the gas station, the quote you heard while having coffee with friends, and selected stories from home. (Caution: Some stories about our spouse or kids are embarrassing to them, so leave those out of the sermon. Yes, I had to learn that, too!)
I was taught way back in journalism class to “develop a nose for news.” Preacher, develop an eye, an ear, a nose for another story right out of your everyday, down-toearth, busy, busy, busy lifestyle. Remember this: They will remember your story longer than they will remember your sermon! Because I’ve been asked numerous times to preach in revivals, camp meetings, youth camps, and crusades, I’ve learned one difference between preaching as an evangelist and preaching as a pastor.
As an evangelist, a person may get to preach to people four or five times, or even just once or twice. I refer to that type of preaching as “hit and run preaching.” On the other hand, preaching as a pastor means you and your congregation are running a marathon race together. Not a quick sprint—a marathon!
A pastor can say, “By the way, this truth relates to what I preached to you three weeks ago.” Since the pastor and the listeners are in this marathon together, as the pastor grows, so grows the congregation. As the pastor learns, so learns the congregation. As the pastor matures, so matures the congregation. No hit and run preaching here! It’s a marathon!
On this joint marathon race, if the preached message doesn’t challenge the pastor, it won’t challenge the congregation. If the message doesn’t burn in the pastor’s heart, it certainly won’t light a fire in the listeners’ hearts. If the message doesn’t feed the pastor, it won’t feed anyone else either. In feeding the flock, the preacher gets fed as well.
Above all, when the Holy Spirit’s anointing is upon the preacher, the listeners’ hearts will be “strangely warmed,” as was John Wesley’s heart. The Spirit’s anointing makes all the difference! If there is no anointing, we are just delivering a religious speech. Therefore, saturate that message in prayer! Saturate that preacher in prayer! Saturate the entire development and delivery of the message in prayer. What a difference the Holy Spirit’s anointing makes. And the people can tell when the preacher is anointed! Oh, Lord, send the anointing!
A very popular form of preaching in this culture is series preaching. I like that connected style of preaching and, in fact, I preached a series of messages last Advent season under the title, “That’s Some Good News!”
Now, to contradict everything I have just said about series preaching, if I were a pastor again, I would love to preach a yearlong series on “The Mountain Peaks of the Bible.” Fifty-two mountain peaks of scripture. That would help both pastor and people to grow! Wouldn’t that be fun?
We preachers have been called by God to help see people transformed, not just informed. Yes, there is a place for teaching and information-giving in our ministry, but there is also a place for preaching—Spiritanointed preaching! Transformational preaching is where both the preacher and the listeners are changed. How wonderful it is to hear the preacher say at the close of the message, “I don’t know if that helped you, but it sure helped me!” I know, because I’ve said it many times!
The veteran preacher Paul told young pastor Timothy to “Preach the Word!” (2 Tim. 4:2). To this day, a general superintendent commissions every new ordinand in the Church of the Nazarene with the words, “I charge thee before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, preach the Word!” There is something different, very different, between giving a speech and preaching an anointed message. Preacher, no matter what the cost, get under the Holy Spirit’s anointing!
While I was pastoring Denver First Church, one week we were hit with a huge and impossible financial problem. It was enough to bankrupt the church. On Friday of that week, I went to our cabin in the Colorado Rockies to beg God for a miracle. Something happened to me while I was walking in the forest, pleading with God. God gave me a new promise! God gave me a plan! God gave me a new anointing! On Sunday, as I poured my heart out to the people, I told them what had happened on the mountain that Friday afternoon. God set me on fire that Sunday morning! The Spirit’s anointing came, praise God! It was a service I’ll never forget.
The following Thursday, George, our board secretary, said he had received several emails about my message from the previous Sunday. He asked if I wanted to hear what people were saying.
“No, George, I’ve had about all the bad news I can handle,” I said.
“Pastor, I’m telling you anyway,” George insisted. “The emails basically all said the same thing: We could tell the pastor had met God on the mountain on Friday. Whatever it takes, send the pastor to the mountain every Friday!” The people and the pastor alike recognized the Spirit’s anointing. That was transformational preaching. And, by the way, God got the congregation through that crisis and the Kingdom of God continued to grow. My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will anoint you, preacher, every time you stand in front of your people with God’s fresh message. The Spirit’s anointing is what speaks through the preacher to the congregants’ hearts! That’s transformational preaching!
JAMES H. DIEHL served as a general superintendent in the Church of the Nazarene for 16 years. He previously held pastorates in Iowa, Georgia, and Colorado, in addition to serving as a university administrator and district superintendent. He now is serving as an evangelist in the Church of the Nazarene. Jim and his wife, Dorothy, live in Lakewood, Colorado.