My pastor did a dangerous thing: He asked me to preach. On the Sunday in question he was going on a well-deserved vacation.

I sweated while preparing that sermon. Is it fresh? I wondered. Is it based squarely on Scripture? Does it answer people’s questions? Have I prayed enough?

“I’m worried,” I told my pastor the Friday before. “I’ve been working hard on the sermon, but with my job and other activities, I haven’t been able to give it the time I would like.”

“That’s the way I feel every week,” he said, and grinned. I think he felt better. I felt worse.

The experience got me thinking. Before my sermonic debut, I had sometimes wondered, Why is preaching so bad these days? (My pastor’s excluded.) Where is the insight, the life, the creativity? Surely thoughts like these have crossed the minds of virtually everyone who has ever occupied a pew.

And from ecclesiastical conversations and publications have come a variety of theories: Churchgoers have grown accustomed to the slick, Tele-Prompted speeches on television; or, after years of education, preachers thrive on ideas, whereas many parishioners prefer concrete how-to’s.

Each explanation contains some truth, but all miss the biggest problem: Modern preachers simply don’t have adequate time to prepare.

In an introduction to Evangelical Preaching, the collected sermons of famous nineteenth-century Anglican preacher Charles Simeon, John R.W. Stott writes: “[His] rigorous daily and weekly regimen of study meant that he had little time for other things.… He steadfastly refused to become an activist, lest he should exhaust his limited physical resources and so damage or detract from his primary ministry of God’s Word.” Simeon himself explained, “I compare myself to bottled small beer: being corked up, and opened only twice a week, I make a good report; but if I were opened every day, I should soon be as ditch-water.”

In 1820, such a regimen might be allowed; in 1989, it is not. Last year I sat with a pastor who prepared four different messages every week. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep going at this,” he admitted.

The problem is compounded by other demands. Too many pastors are forced to become activists in recruitment, administration, and community affairs; the result too often is ditch-water preaching. Few are able to live by the seminary maxim to “spend an hour in the study for every minute in the pulpit.”

To bring a fresh message that faithfully answers the questions people are asking takes time—lots of it. It requires reading books and periodicals and viewing broadcasts and films. It takes spending time with a cross section of the church and community. It demands study, prayer, writing, rewriting, and practicing. Instead, we ask pastors to order Sunday-school curriculum or pray for the Kiwanis Club.

I think it is time for us who have wondered about the quality of preaching to stop complaining and to start working. If we serve on a church’s governing body or pastor-parish relations committee—or even if we simply have a close relationship with our pastor—we can ask, “What tasks might the pastor give up to devote more time to preaching?” The church can also support the pastor’s need for study and preparation by helping him or her buy needed books and attend workshops. Nor does all support require money. Lay people at a Phoenix church assist their pastor by reading selected books and marking material apt for sermon illustrations.

Yes, we would all like to sit under a Charles Spurgeon or a Martyn Lloyd-Jones. But for our pastors to preach as well as their gifts allow, we must help them concentrate on preaching—and let the nursery remodeling committee fend for itself.

Kevin Miller is editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY magazine.

Speaking Out offers responsible Christians a forum for their views on contemporary issues. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions of CHRISTIANITY TODAY.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.