One size Fits All?

Is there a right way and a wrong way to preach? Yes and yes.

by Doug Green

Recently this thought occurred to me: Although we believe in the same doctrine, we do not believe in the same methods, especially when it comes to preaching.

Of course, I think the way I preach is the best way. So do you, right? Many of us think our preaching style is better than the next person’s preaching style, finding allies whenever we can. The funny thing we do is measure each other based on our own biased and elevated preferential viewpoints.

All of this begs the question: Is there a right way and a wrong way to preach? Yes and yes, for when it comes to preaching God’s Word, some things are up for grabs (and God allows you to choose what works for you) and some things are never up for grabs.

The Negotiable Items

Local use of the English language. If your congregation prefers the faster pace of the Northeast, speak faster. If your congregation likes folks who drop their gs and slow it … waaaay … down, do so. If you have a church that needs surfer talk, do it, dude. If you have a sanctuary full of Ph.D.s who adore preachers who never end their sentences with a preposition, do not tell them where it is at. However you and your folks communicate, do it unto the Lord, but do not think the other guy or gal is any less God’s instrument because he or she does it in a way you do not. Leave room for local dialect. Know your folks and preach like they talk. God, by the way, does not have a preferred version of English. He hears the heart.

Volume of the speaker. Shouting does not always mean passion and holiness. It can, but it can also just be learned behavior. Using your library voice in the pulpit does not always equal special sensitivity. Whether you shout and pace the stage or speak softly and stay behind the pulpit, it probably has a lot to do with your mentoring, not your spirituality. Someone told me, for example, to preach in the same voice I use to order a hamburger. Thus, I speak conversationally, but this does not make me better than anyone else, just comfortable in my style, hoping the Holy Spirit uses me to point listeners to Jesus.

Preaching Styles. Some preachers are dramatic, using large gestures and lots of secondary voices. Some preachers are a bit more subdued, relying on word choice to relay their take on biblical matters. Some preachers are funny; some are dry and witty. Some are compassionate, often led to tears. Some preach like a motivational coach speaking to his team before kickoff. All of these methods are right, as long as the technique helps the audience understand the Bible — “fleshing out” an eternal truth. Your way is not better than my way. God uses all of us.

Other options. Your choice to use the King James Version, the New International Version, the English Standard Version, or the Message is a reflection of your preference, not God’s. Your choice to preach in a suit and tie, an untucked shirt and a pair of jeans, or a pair of shorts and sandals is not about right or wrong, but about your own indigenous culture. You will probably attract people like you. You can use props, PowerPoint, three points, or fill-in-the-blank handouts. You can preach while the organ is playing; you can show movie clips. All are choices you make and offer to God as a sacrifice of praise.

The Nonnegotiable Items

Telling the truth. Preachers need to tell the truth, especially when their content is a reflection of a God of integrity, incapable of dishonest speech. However, every preacher knows about the temptation to make the story a bit bigger than it really is. Therefore, for the most part, I try to tell stories that happened to me sometime in the last 7 days (since the previous weekend). Why? (1) They are current. (2) I have never told it before (obviously). (3) They are local and, thus, relevant. (4) Most important, they are true. (It is more difficult to stretch the truth in a week’s time.)

Lifestyle of the preacher. It is never okay to live one way in the pulpit and another way out of it. It matters what you do with your heart outside the space of public performance. God cares as much about your preparation time (which happens in the study, the kitchen, the bedroom, the television room, the sports field, the gas station, the … you name it … you are preparing for the pulpit wherever you are) as He does your preaching time in any given church service. You preach what you are, not you are what you preach.

Whatever your style of preaching is, it ought to be an act of worship unto God, not a cover-up to what is really going on inside. Preachers who live what they preach delight the heart of God.

Basis of the sermon. I heard a “sermon” based on a leadership story from the past. All three points came from a historic account. The preacher based his big idea on the military commander at the center of the story. Although the preacher used Scripture texts to illustrate the points of the … um … speech, they were clearly not necessary because the genesis of the thoughts were not Scripture but self-help leadership principles.

A sermon must, without compromise, be based solely on the ideas of Scripture. The main point of the sermon ought to be the main point of the biblical text. Anything less is an unfortunate use of holy, sacred time. Pulpits in America do not need better, flashier ideas; they need an unashamed abandonment to the ideas of Scripture. Do not get me wrong, I like history and leadership principles just like you, but history and leadership principles should not be a substitute for faithfully unpacking God’s Word.

God cares about issues of the heart. He can do more with a bad sermon and a good heart than a good sermon and a bad heart.

Remember, God uses us, but He does not necessarily depend on us. That is why it is not good to ever ask whose sermon is better –– yours or mine. Only God knows what He is doing with all we offer to Him.

So, who is better? You are. I am. We are. He is.