Lessons on Preaching: Don’t Be Afraid to Break the Rules

I plan to post these “Lessons on Preaching” periodically as practical and theological reflections that arise from my own study of Scripture and experiences in preaching.

I am thankful for those men of God who have modeled faithful, expositional preaching for me and many other young preachers. I am thankful for their sermons, their ministries, their books, and (in the case of a few of them) their class lectures. I highly recommend that anyone with a call to ministry take at least one course in homiletics (if possible) and read a handful of good books on the subject. The ones that have helped me are as follows:

Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell
Lectures to My Students by Charles Spurgeon
The Supremacy of God in Preaching by John Piper
Preaching with Bold Assurance by Hershael York
Between Two Worlds by John Stott
Rediscovering Expository Preaching by John MacArthur and others

Learn from these men and others like them. Humbly consider what their own years of walking with God and ministry have equipped them to offer to the rest of us. Apply their insights to your own ministry of preaching, but do not be enslaved to any homiletical technique.

This is something I have learned from experience: Scripture often cannot be contained in the structures of modern homiletical theory without damage to its meaning. The Bible was not written as a sermon, and even the sermons it contains do not follow the homiletical patterns of modern American preaching. Jesus’ sermon on the mount hit too many subjects for the modern preaching textbook. He never clearly articulated a main point somewhere near the beginning of his sermon (normally right after the attention-grabbing introduction, which is also missing). He did not clearly delineate successive points with clear transitions between them. He did not summarize his points and restate his main point at the end.

None of this means, of course, that the sermon on the mount has no main point, or that it has no logical development. It does. But the main point and its development throughout the sermon work in different ways than conventional homiletical wisdom dictates. If we try to squeeze the sermon on the mount (or portions of it) into preformed homiletical patterns, we risk imposing a foreign meaning on it. And so it is with many passages. Many times as I have studied a passage in preparation for a sermon, I have found that in order for me to best communicate the meaning of the passage in a way that is intelligible to my hearers, I must dispense with conventional wisdom about summing it all up in one sentence, or delineating my points as imperative statements, etc. Some passages have to be forced to conform to these patterns, and when we force the Bible into our preconceived patterns, we risk making it say not quite what it actually says. The Bible just isn’t as neat as most well-polished sermons are. Some preachers do a fabulous job of being well-polished (with all the alliteration you could imagine) while also clearly bringing out the meaning of the passage. I have decided that I am just not gifted enough, or creative enough, to be that kind of preacher. If you can do it, then have at it. But if you’re more like me, then don’t be afraid to break the rules, if breaking the rules will better enable you to communicate the meaning of Scripture in ways your audience can understand.

I have noticed that most sermons John Piper preaches are not well-polished by modern homiletical standards. They typically do not have three alliterated points that have parallel sentence structure. I usually don’t see one obvious thesis statement somewhere near the beginning of his sermons. He doesn’t use a whole lot of illustrations. But after I have heard or read a sermon by John Piper, I know that I have a better understanding of Scripture than I had before, and quite often I know that God has spoken to me through him. And that is what preaching is all about. Piper’s homiletics are not conventional, but his preaching is solid, biblical, full of passion, and immensely valuable to the church. If I have to break some of the rules to preach Scripture, then by all means I am going to do it.

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