From a human perspective a sermon is so subjective. If a person preaches for any length of consecutive weeks it becomes surprising how differently people respond to sermons.
The exact same sermon can be described by people as: Amazing, Convicting, Deep, Light, Boring, Faithful, Questionable, Solid and Weak.
Several times I have used the scene from Walk the Line to explain a sermon. In the biographical movie about Johnny Cash he finally has a shot to impress someone who could get him started in the music industry. Sam Phillips stops Johnny Cash a couple verses into the audition. The following dialogue ensues:
Sam Phillips: You know exactly what I’m telling you. We’ve already heard that song a hundred times. Just like that. Just… like… how… you.. sing it.
Johnny Cash: Well, you didn’t let us bring it home.
Sam Phillips: Bring… bring it home? All right, let’s bring it home. If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had one time to sing one song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it? Or… would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt. Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain’t got nothin’ to do with believin’ in God, Mr. Cash. It has to do with believin’ in yourself.
Johnny Cash: I got a couple of songs I wrote in the Air Force. You got anything against the Air Force?
Sam Phillips: No.
Johnny Cash: I do.
You can see parts of the scene here:
Please don’t misunderstand my reason for writing this post. It is not to beat up pastors. Satan, sin and the flesh do enough to beat up all of us. Instead, my primary goal is to encourage pastors to preach Jesus with their voice. Don’t preach the sermon of another person. Preach your sermon. Don’t try to emulate your favorite preacher. Don’t try to follow a textbook outline on preaching. Find your Savior. Find your voice. Preach the Word.
One of my living heroes is Chuck Swindoll. It was a privilege to hear him preach every Sunday for more than 6 years while I went through seminary (I’m a slow learner). On many occasions I heard him tell small groups of men about his first pastoral experience. Swindoll has literally preached to millions of people but his first ministry was in the New England area and it was a failure. Swindoll had many “famous” preachers and professors as mentors. Swindoll was one of the first interns of Ray Stedman. Many younger people have probably never heard of Ray Stedman, but he was in some ways the Mark Driscoll, Craig Groeschel, Matt Chandler of a couple generations ago.
Swindoll tells the story that he was basically trying to be like, sound like, and think like his wonderful mentors. He was succeeding in trying to sound like his mentors, but he was failing at actually making any difference for the Kingdom of God.
Swindoll tells the story that he was driving down a highway many decades ago in New England and started to weep. His ministry was a failure. He pulled the vehicle over to the side of the road and continued to weep. Swindoll says Galatians 1:10 came to his mind, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
I’ve heard Swindoll explain many times that it was at that precise moment he realized he had to stop trying to be like and sound like someone else and just be himself. He would speak about Jesus and teach the Bible with his voice. He is not Ray Stedman. God does not want another Ray Stedman. The New England ministry failed but Swindoll’s next pastoral position was in California. He became famous there for his authenticity and clear biblical teaching.
The last time my wife and I heard a sermon we both knew was poor I was waiting for the inevitable question, “What did you think of the sermon?” About halfway home with the kids occupied in the backseat she looked at me and asked the question. After pausing for a bit I said, “I don’t think that’s the message he’d preach if he knew he’d die tomorrow. And, I don’t think he has found his voice.”
If you are a preacher or can encourage a preacher here are some quick points:
- Find your voice. If you don’t know what I mean then you haven’t found your voice.
- Preach Jesus. Every sermon, even on Leviticus 4, is infinitely changed by the reality of the living Jesus.
- Listen to advice, but not too much. You answer to God. You live only for the applause of our God.
- Don’t ever preach what hasn’t first affected you. If it hasn’t moved you, it probably won’t move others.
- Even if you are preaching Leviticus 4, preach it like it’s the last thing people will ever hear from you this side of glory.