I thought I’d start a series here where I ask pastors 10 questions about preaching (perhaps it will evolve to other topics in the future). Today we’ll start with CRM’s very own Eric “Gunny” Hartman. Gunny is the pastor of Providence Church and also blogs at Semper Reformanda. Here’s some “good bull” on preaching from the man himself:
1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
Right, wrong, or otherwise the “Sunday morning sermon” is where a preacher is most often measured. Sometimes preaching is over emphasized by a church (e.g., a “pulpit committee” is assembled to find a pastor), but it’s a huge part of the pastoral position. In the life of the church it’s typically the one time all the saints are gathered to worship and hear the Word of God proclaimed. Since Scripture alone should be the highest authority, a church needs to prioritize the role of Scripture in the life of the church. There are certainly other tasks to which a pastor/elder is obligated, but we must remember that the deacons were set aside to enable the elders to devote themselves to the Word of God and to prayer (Acts 6).
2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
Historically, I’d experienced success with public speaking, but it was after my conversion that I received affirmation with regard to my propensity for communicating the truths of Scripture in a way that people could understand and act upon. Perhaps the greatest asset in this discovery was the blessing of preaching every Sunday night as an associate pastor while in seminary, in addition to the occasional Sunday morning sermon.
From my personal vantage point, I very much enjoyed the process of preparation and the delivery of sermons. Eric Liddell’s “When I run, I feel His pleasure,” ran true in that I got the distinct impression I was doing what God wanted me to do when I was preaching.
3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
I was once asked after a sermon how long it took me to prepare it, to which I responded 36 years. In many ways, all of the experiences of my life whereby God has led me and taught me are necessary in the preparation of this preacher and subsequently the sermons preached.
To answer the question more specifically is hard to do as well, because it depends on that which I’m preaching. Since I typically preach through books of the Bible expositionally, however, the fluctuation comes from how familiar I already am with the book and its genre. Narrative literature, OT vs. NT makes a bit of a difference because there’s less emphasis on particularly words and/or phrases in the original language, so the analysis is different.
Prior to actually starting to preach I will spend a great deal of time reading the book multiple times, trying to get a handle on the big picture and main message of the book, particularly the goal(s) of the biblical author, but also the intentions of the Author with regard to how that book fits in the whole of Scripture. That process also includes the tentative breakdown of the book as far as preaching units, centered around a complete idea.
So, each Sunday night I’ve already got next week’s sermon text and its general idea. I start on Sunday night getting a better feel for the text and the sermon because I get a list of the congregational songs to our music directory by Monday night. That means I pretty well need to know what songs will lead up to the sermon and what song best should follow to help drive home the thrust of the sermon.
Over the course of Monday through Thursday I will devote time each day to language study and reading commentaries. I try to take off on Friday and then Saturday evening I prayerfully put together the fruit of my research. Some would think this is crazy to finish Saturday night, but for me it’s always helped in that the ideas are still very fresh in my mind Sunday morning. Thoughts of the sermon are the last ones before bed.
That’s likely more (and less) than the original question requested, but that’s about the best I can do in describing my process and the time involved.
4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallize it?
I certainly think it helps. My assumption with each passage is that the author/Author had one meaning primarily intended. I’d like the audience to know what that is and how it applies today. Majoring on a theme helps to make the truths communicated more memorable and it’s hard to remember and apply that which cannot be remembered.
I think a sermon builds to a climax, which to me is typically that major emphasis. Everything else is an argument to that end, making a case for the application. Toward that end I show how exegesis and theology validate that application of the text and how it’s congruent with the intention of the author/Author.
5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
By style do you mean word choice or do you mean a preacher’s “presence” or manner of delivery? Either way, I think clarity is important. If people don’t understand the what or the why or the how, then it’s hard for them to have any real conviction regarding change the Word requires of them, be it cognitive, affective, or behavioral.
6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I use an outline with full sentences for at least the top two levels of subordination. For a typical 40-minute sermon, I have 2-3 pages of notes. I try to memorize my introduction and various illustrations. In spite of having a pretty good memory, I don’t have enough confidence, however, that I would enter the pulpit risking a meltdown by not having any notes.
I am impressed when I see it done, but I know for me it could only fuel my pride if I was successful and give a sub par sermon if not. For me, either way it’s a lose-lose situation.
7. What are the greatest perils that a preacher must avoid?
A preacher needs to avoid believing everything he hears with regard to sermon feedback, both the positive and the negative. Don’t get me wrong, there needs to be an openness to feedback, but people are often prone to extremes so your sermon probably really wasn’t “the best ever” or “the worst sermon endured” by your congregation, contrary to what you might hear.
A preacher needs to avoid putting too much confidence in the preacher or the sermon, as it’s prepared or preached. It’s the Gospel that has the power to save and Word by which we are sanctified. God is able to humble you with what seems like ineffectiveness after you’ve preached what you thought was a home run. He can also amaze you after you think you’ve hit a dribbler off your foot back to the mound and somebody says, “That’s exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you for a great sermon.”
A preacher also needs to avoid laziness in sermon preparation. This can take the form of too little time spent with Scripture and/or its Author. It can also be seen in too much reliance upon commentaries or preaching the same sermon from different texts, those things which are familiar and personal favorites. It can also be seen in a process reliant on one’s self as opposed to reliant upon the Spirit to guide & empower preparation and delivery and receptivity.
8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (eg. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities, family, etc)?
I’ve only ever pastored what would be considered “smaller” churches, so this has been a huge fight for me. I fight what I call the “tyranny of the urgent” whereby things demand attention NOW. At times I have to remind myself that my primary responsibilities are in the spiritual arena, but it’s hard when there aren’t secretaries or administrative assistants to alleviate the burden of printing bulletins or picking up supplies or ordering curriculum or whatever.
Add to that the assorted drama and some who can be more “high maintenance” than others and you can be on the ropes before too long … and potentially in hot water with your family.
I rank my responsibilities where the church is concerned and just know that sometimes the more important things are not the most urgent. I have an obligation to ensure the congregation is being fed spiritually, by myself and others in the church. I have a responsibility to train up leaders for the church, including the development of myself and our elders. I also don’t sleep very much, so I try to squeeze as much into my day as possible.
Admittedly, this is not a strength and one of my greatest fears is children who resent the church and all its random demands/expectations. I think for a man who really loves Christ and His church, this is a tooth and nail battle every day for as long as God calls him in that position. Sometimes I envy the lazy people who just don’t care and preach canned sermons and see each position as a stepping stone to the bigger & better deal.
9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
As a preacher I actually really benefited from Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, particularly his Artistic Proofs: Ethos (persuasion through character), Pathos (persuasion through emotion/passion), and Logos (persuasion through logical argument). All three of those are very influential for the listener and must be used with wisdom as we strive to change lives to the glory of God.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching & Preachers was also huge in my understanding of the responsibility of preaching. As far as a preaching manual, I’d recommend Bryan Chappell’s Christ-Centered Preaching. Books I’ve required in class include: Feed My Sheep: A Passionate Plea for Preaching, Kistler ed.; Toward an Exegetical Theology, Kaiser; and Exegetical Fallacies, Carson.
10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
Two things, and the experience of both has blessed me with my own development as a preacher: (1) I’ve been blessed to have in my church young men intent on ministry, typically seminary students. I try to give them some guidance and instruction and then some opportunities to preach. Afterward, we have an After Action Review wherein we ask & answer: What went well? What didn’t go so well? What could be done better for next time? I think it’s crucial to help these guys determine their gifting and calling by some OJT and my congregations have been supportive of their development as well.
(2) I’ve also been blessed to teach preaching at DTS & SWBTS as an adjunct professor. It’s a treat to help shape future preachers and to exhort them to faithful exposition of God’s Word. In class, they preach and receive immediate feedback from their peers and they do a self-evaluation after watching the video whereby they answer the same After Action Review questions.
Thanks Gunny for answering these questions! May the Lord continue to bless your life and service at Providence!