The magic happens when the preacher mingles scholarship with shepherding.

Good preaching will always be a powerful instrument of God to change lives and to build churches. Bad preaching will always put people to sleep, lessen the effectiveness of the church, and fuel the fires of criticism.

Preaching is so central to the health of the church and so dominant in the pastor’s ministry that good preaching is not optional. Every pastor must give high priority to making his preaching excellent. “Excellence” does not mean “better than all others.” It means “meeting or exceeding the standard.” Since God has called us to excellence (1 Cor. 14:12) we need a clear understanding of the standards and how we measure up. Here are four.

1. Preaching should be rooted in, and communicate, theology. Great theologians such as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Wesley were also pastors who developed their theology out of week-by-week preaching. Likewise, great preachers from Jonathan Edwards to Charles Spurgeon to Helmut Theilicke have been able theologians. It is unfortunate that our modern division of labor tends to place theologians in the classroom and preachers in the pulpit.

Failure to be a theologian in the study and the pulpit creates ills for the church: (1) inability to integrate and synthesize biblical teaching; (2) dependence on the pastor for biblical interpretation instead of being equipped as lay interpreters; (3) contradictions in interpretation of biblical data due to a lack of underlying cohesion.

Every sermon should present theological truth and reflect theological system. Then the people in the pew will have a framework for understanding God and his truth, as well as a system for interpreting everyday life.

How does a pastor do this? The answer is rooted in his being a theological thinker. He needs to see himself as a Reformed theologian, or an Arminian, or a dispensationalist. It’s just unrealistic to label oneself as a “biblicist” who takes all Scripture at face value; there must be a theological system. Next, the pastor can be a theological preacher by reading theology books. Reference tools for expository sermons should go beyond commentaries to the text indexes of systematic theologies. Add to these for every message the discipline of asking and answering the question, “What theological truth will this sermon communicate?” Preach series on the attributes of God, the Apostles’ Creed, the doctrine of the church, hermeneutics, and other theological concepts. When done well, such series will be popular.

2. Preaching should be inseparably linked to shepherding. The grammar of Ephesians 4:11 requires us to hyphenate the gift of “pastor-teacher.” In God’s gifts to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, there are neither shepherds who don’t teach, nor teachers who don’t shepherd.

Harry emerson fosdick preached and practiced this principle. With his office high in the tower of New York’s Riverside Church and across the street from Union Theological Seminary, it would have been easy for him just to study in his ivory tower and then preach to the thousands from his famous pulpit. Certainly there were other staff members to do the shepherding. Instead, Fosdick contended that his effectiveness in the pulpit was directly related to his weekday counseling (shepherding) of needy parishioners.

The pastor committed to excellence in preaching will put in many hours with books, but he will also put in hours with people—counseling, visiting, socializing, equipping. Shepherding without teaching produces well-loved but undernourished saints. Teaching without shepherding produces lots of head knowledge that is inadequately tied to real life.

3. Preaching should complement the whole church program. The most effective preaching clearly correlates with all else in the life and program of the local church. When the pulpit’s ministry focuses on spiritual gifts, the Christian education training should give opportunities to personally discover and exercise spiritual gifts. When the sermon is on prayer, the music and announcements may emphasize prayer, the bulletin list prayer requests, and the book table offer a selection of six paperbacks on prayer.

In other words, preaching cannot stand in isolation. This kind of integration begins with a clear statement of purpose for the church, out of which comes a written strategy and then a specific program. There is a powerful multiplying effectiveness to having sermons reinforce the rest of the life of the church and to having everything else in the church undergird the preaching.

4. Preaching should be interesting. What an immense challenge to keep the interest of an audience at peak level for 52 weeks every year! This seemingly impossible task cannot be compromised if excellence is the preacher’s standard. Interesting sermons focus on what sermons are supposed to do best: proclaim God’s truth. Long gone are the days when the local parson was the best-educated person in the community and could speak with authority on every subject. Modern churches include many educated persons who have not come to hear the pastor’s lay views on current events; they have come to hear an expert on biblical revelation. The interesting sermon will maximize biblical exposition and minimize extraneous material.

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This is not to say that sermons should be lectures that parse Greek verbs and quote dusty commentaries. How uninteresting! Rather, the excellent sermon will have a dynamic relationship to what is happening in the listeners’ everyday lives. When part of the week has been lived in homes, hospitals, factories, and counseling sessions, the preacher has real people in mind when handling divine revelation. Then on Sunday morning the people in the pew will track with the sermon because they see how it relates to their needs, wants, and struggles: “That’s me he’s talking about!”

Most of all, interesting sermons come from interesting people. Those who listen intently, read broadly (everything from newspapers to novels), study the Bible deeply, and love God passionately cannot help but preach interesting sermons.

Mr. Anderson is senior pastor, Wooddale Baptist Church, Minneapolis, and adjunct professor at Bethel Seminary, St. Paul.

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