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.