As a seminary professor (and a pastor) I spend a lot of time helping students grow and develop as preachers. After hearing a student preach, I will often get coffee or lunch with that student and we will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the sermon and how it can be improved.
Over the years, I have learned to ask students a key question that can reveal a lot about how they are developing as a preacher.
“What did you leave out?”
Most of the time that I ask that question I am met with a blank stare. Students expect to be asked about the content of the sermon—i.e., what was left in. But, they are not prepared to answer the question about what is left out. And there is a reason for that. Often, very little is left out.
One of the key mistakes of young preachers (and a mistake I still make!) is to take all that they have learned during their sermon prep and to put it in their sermon. Every exegetical observation, every textual nuance, every connection with OT (or the NT), every analogy or illustration, makes it into the final version.
Of course, this is why sermons from seminary students are known for being extremely detailed, overly technical, and, often quite lengthy.
Why do seminary students tend to do this? Positively, it is because they are textually-oriented. They care about content. They care about theology. They care about getting it right. And these motives are to be commended.
But, if sermons are going to be effective, and if one is going to grow as a preacher, there needs to be another factor guiding one’s sermon prep beyond concern for content. And that something is the congregation. God calls us to preach the word, to be sure. But he calls us to preach to people. Real, living people. People with a distinctive set of issues, needs, and problems.
And once you have your God-given audience in mind, then suddenly you have a reason to hone, shape, mold and craft the sermon to connect with the people to whom you are preaching. And when you do that, some things get left out. Some points aren’t as important as others. Some illustrations just don’t work.
And this is, by far, the hardest part of sermon prep. It is one thing to sweep together a bunch of information about a passage. It is quite another to shape that content with real people in mind.
Put simply, preachers need to make a distinction between mining and sifting. Mining is the hardcore research that draws the raw material of a passage together. Sifting is the hard work of picking the jewels out of that material that are needed by your congregation. We do mining because we are textually-oriented. We do sifting because we are people-oriented. Good preachers do both.
It is the same with those who make films. A director may have countless hours of footage at the end of the production process. But, no one puts all their footage into the movie. A good film is due not just to many hours spent filming. A good film is also due to many painful hours spent editing.
When we are done with our sermon prep, we should be surrounded by many good points, observations, and applications that just didn’t make it into the final version. And that is a good thing.
So, what is a key sign of a maturing preacher? Scraps on the cutting room floor.
Thanks. Indeed I think this is true to my experience. I have often thought of that principle being illustrated also in the difference between an English cottage garden and a Japanese garden. In the former, you cram as many plants in as possible, and in the latter you take out everything that doesn’t absolutely need to be there.
Brian Robinson says
Interesting brother. I always felt bad because I didn’t explain this or that or missed out on a wonderful application. But now I have been relieved of that pain as we are to leave out as well as put in. Actually I do put too much into my sermons and I weary my poor people and their brains if they are listening at all
Jeffery Ferrell says
Tremendously helpful, and insightful. Thanks !
Sandra Hudson says
This same applies to teaching the Word
wonderful great illustration thanks
it’s what I once heard a pastor call the “gift of omission”. Really helpful, thanks
Amen!!! GOD Bless You Bro
I’m guessing there is a time limit for how long a post is open for comments? I’ve been chewing on the “Saint or Sinner” post since you published it and I wanted to actually “apply” it to myself before commenting. I just spent a week at the jersey shore with about 15 others doing evangelism every night and I had a lot of time (and need) to examine myself and my doctrine etc and I have really been blessed by your post. Especially the following portion, which is what I’ve been trying to apply to myself:
“And when our true identities are understood rightly, it actually affects the way we view (and respond to) our sins. We might think that the best way to appreciate the depth of our sin is to think of ourselves primarily in the category of “sinners.” But, this can actually have the opposite effect. If we think of ourselves only as “sinners” then our sins are seen as something rather ordinary and inevitable. They are just the result of who we are. Sure, we wish we didn’t sin. But, that’s just what “sinners” do.
If we instead view ourselves as “saints,” then we will begin to see our sin in a whole new light. If we really are “holy ones” then whatever sins we commit are a deeper, more profound, and more serious departure from God’s calling than we ever realized. Our sin, in a sense, is even more heinous because it is being done by those who now have new natures and a new identity.”
Dr Kruger I have really been blessed by this and both fortunately and unfortunately I find this teaching to be quite profound and counter-intuitive; an earmark of true gospel explanation and exhortation! Thank you Sir.
Brandon Davison says
thank you for this sir…. We are preaching to people, some of them lost and dead in their sins and others having been regenerated by the Spirit of God to walk in newness of life. We must be able to preach to them both with compassion and clarity…..
Amen. I usually wind up leaving about 50% of my prep on the floor … and always have. The better you know your congregation and your community, the easier this will be.