The Art and Science of Preaching, Part 2

Dr. Lloyd Perry lists the selection of a subject as the first step in preparing a sermon. He suggests that it be stated in the form of a single word. He writes, "Normally the subjects are given in terms of a single word or at most a short phrase."[1] If that is the case, then where does that word come from? Our fathers taught us early in the twentieth century Pentecostal revival that the Lord would give the preacher a "thought" as the beginning direction for every one of his or her sermons. Experience taught me, however, that such "thoughts" were sometimes the product of my own mind rather than from the Spirit. Some of my most painful experiences in the pulpit came in those early years as I discovered that.

    On selecting the subject for a sermon, Perry suggests, "The sermonizer should seek the Holy Spirit's guidance to a passage of Scripture."[2] He says further, "The process of a specific sermon preparation involves the crystallization of a sermon starter. This is an area, need, or idea which is laid upon the mind of the sermonizer as being a possible foundation for a specific sermon. This sermon idea may come directly from a passage of Scripture, from a series of passages containing a basic unity, or from a source located outside the confines of Scripture."[3]

    Further, the preacher must depend on the Spirit to work through him or her in the delivery of the sermons. With this in mind, Charles Crabtree asks, "What preacher in this country does not need the Spirit's word of wisdom or knowledge, beyond sermon preparation, to help the body of Christ?"[4] Ray Hughes joins him in expressing similar sentiments as he writes, "The Holy Spirit is as indispensable to preaching success as water, air, or food are to the human body."[5] In fact, a minister must guard against feeling so bound to a manuscript or outline that the Spirit finds no place to demonstrate divine attributes through His chosen vessel on any occasion. At the same time, Donald Hamilton draws attention to the fact that good structure promotes lots of freedom in the pulpit.[6]

    Still, what happens if, after careful preparation, the preacher finds the Spirit leading him or her to discard the sermon outline at the last minute and preach on a different subject altogether? I have had such an experience only a few times in over fifty years of ministry. Once in Nigeria, West Africa, at about ten o'clock on a Saturday night I received a distinct impression to change my message for the next morning. I was to serve as the guest preacher in one of the larger congregations in the area. With the impression, however, came the substitute sermon almost completely prepared. All I needed to do was write it down.

    What happened in the church that day proved that my experience had truly been from the Lord. At the conclusion of the sermon, which apparently inspired him, a deacon requested of the pastor permission to address the congregation. In one of the poorest churches in the world, he shocked all present by declaring, "We have been depending on the help of the missionaries long enough. I feel that we should raise money ourselves here today to purchase an automobile for our pastor." Within a few minutes the people gave so joyfully and generously that sufficient funds were available not only to purchase the car but also to pay for a driver and buy the gasoline for a year!

    On the other hand, if one gets an impression to discard what he or she has prepared and nothing comes as a substitute for it, the preacher would be wise to conclude the "voice" was not from the Lord. If it happens when the preacher is already in place almost ready to step into the pulpit, he or she could simply explain to God in a moment of silent prayer the readiness and willingness to discard prepared material, yet the necessity of having something meaningful to say by way of a replacement. Then, unless the Spirit provides a replacement message, the minister must do the best job possible of presenting the prepared sermon. Concerning all of this Crabtree declares, "I have been a Pentecostal preacher for over forty years. Only four times in all those years has the Spirit of God impressed me to lay aside a prepared message and preach extemporaneously."[7]

    With the passing of many years in preaching, my understanding of the process of selecting a subject for a sermon has matured noticeably. Certainly I have experienced those times when the Spirit placed a message in my mind so clearly that virtually all I had to do was to commit it to paper. Those experiences measure up to the Bible, for the Lord gave such a word for many men and women in scriptural times to deliver. To this day I seek the Lord earnestly for any specific direction He may want to give me for a particular congregation. Then, if nothing comes in response by way of specific orders for preaching on a given occasion, I consider myself to be under standing orders to "Preach the Word" (2 Tim. 4:2).

    I also find instructions in Paul's example when he told the Ephesians, "For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God" (Acts 29:27). If I pattern my ministry after his, then, I will preach all of the great doctrines of the Bible rather than making a "hobby horse" out of a few that are my favorites. Life is so short that, if I overemphasize any subject of Scripture, then I must be neglecting others. Accordingly, as a pastor I prepare a tally sheet listing all of the major teachings of the Bible. On a sermon-by-sermon basis, I keep a record of my subject for the day. With that record, I can continually check to see if I am really "proclaiming the whole will of God." Of course, I will speak on some biblical themes more than others. For example, I certainly want to talk about Jesus much more often in the pulpit than about Satan.

    I find further guidance on selecting sermon material from the instructions that appear in the Pastoral Epistles. Repeatedly, Paul tells the younger Timothy, "Preach, teach, exhort, or put them in remembrance of these things." "These things" contain sound or healthy teaching as well as instructions on applying doctrine to daily living. Paul's writings show me that much of his teaching came out of the knowledge of problems or specific needs within a congregation. Thus a pastoral concern to meet recognized needs in a body of believers is a biblically-sanctioned source for selecting sermon material.

    Once I was invited to serve as a guest preacher in one of the weekend services of a church. From the beginning of my prayer about it, I sensed a desire to speak challenging words to the congregation concerning missions. Therefore, the subject of the sermon was clearly going to be "Missions." On one of those days as I waited on the Lord for His help, a picture of a model church in the Bible appeared vividly in my mind. With it came one of those almost readymade sermons to which I referred above. It determined for me which sermonic form would serve me best in delivering the message, for its focus was on a passage of only four verses, Acts 13:1-4. This message, then, became a textual sermon.

    To narrow the broad subject of Missions, the theme I selected was "Characteristics of a missionary-minded church." The proposition that I settled on was "By maintaining the characteristics of the congregation at Antioch, as set forth in Acts 11:27-30 and 13:1-4, every church can be a worthy model for others to use as a pattern to follow." The key word in the proposition is clearly characteristics. It follows that each of the main points of the sermon must contain a characteristic. Further, following the model for a textual sermon, each main point must come from the text. I altered the pattern just a bit by backing up to the end of a preceding chapter, Acts 11:27-30,  for one of my main points and some material for a sub-point.

The main points of the sermon became:

I.  The church at Antioch was a praying church.

II.  The church at Antioch was a spiritual church.

III.  The church at Antioch was a generous church.

IV.  The church at Antioch was a missionary church.

    As I developed the sub-points in each of the four divisions of the outline, I felt little need to follow the pattern for a textual sermon fully. The guidelines allowed me to support the sub-points from passages elsewhere in the Bible. All of the sub-points, however, flowed naturally from the verses I was already discussing. This becomes clear in the completed outline in the following paragraphs. With suggestions and tips from the homileticians, I then developed the introduction and conclusion. After that I inserted illustrations, seeking to find at least one for each main point. Finally, selecting the title in this case was relatively easy --"The Model Church."

The Model Church

Intro. In my home state not far from where I was born is one of the oldest churches in my denomination.

1.   Many ministers of repute have gone forth from that church as preachers of the Gospel, including Dr. Opal Reddin, a colleague of mine on the faculty of Central Bible College for many years.

2.   My father received the Baptism in the Holy Spirit in one of the meetings of that assembly.

3.  As a mother church, it established numerous daughter churches in the immediate area.

4.  As a mother church, it served as a model for many others with the passing of the years.

Prop.  I propose to you today that by maintaining the characteristics of the congregation at Antioch, as set forth in Acts 11:27-30 and 13:1-4, every church can be a worthy model for others to use as a pattern to follow.

I.  The church at Antioch was a praying church.

A.  The congregation and its leadership spent time worshiping God, fasting, and praying (Acts 13:1-3).

With the privilege of ministering in Burkina Faso, West Africa, on more than one occasion, I have observed that the national church of my denomination in that country is a model church for other national bodies today. It is the only real Protestant denomination in the whole country. It owns the only Christian television station in the nation. Its General Superintendent is so well known that he ministers to all levels of society, high and low. One of its noted characteristics is that it is a praying church.

1.   The church at Antioch no doubt prayed with a burden for souls (v. 2).

2.  The Lord's response was, "Send out workers."

3.  They prayed and fasted again as they sent them forth (v. 3).

B.  Then we may logically conclude that the church at Antioch reproduced "after its kind" through the workers it sent out.

1.   A weak, prayerless mother church cannot reproduce strong daughter churches of faith and miracles.

2.   Prayerless Sunday school teachers don't produce vibrant converts.

Reportedly, a lady remarked to the noted playwright George Bernard Shaw that if the two of them married, wonderful children would come from the union. Said she, "They would have my beauty and your intellect!"  Shaw's wise reply was, "But what if they had my looks and your intellect?"

3.  The church must not neglect prayer and go on with an empty Pentecostal form.

4.  Since churches of note in any city have far reaching influence as models for smaller congregations and young ministers, they must keep prayer at the center of their activities.

II. The church at Antioch was a spiritual church.

A.  It had occasional prophecies in its meetings, including the one involving Agabus.

Luke says, "During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.)" (Acts 11:27- 28).

1.  This utterance was literally one-of-a-kind.

a.  It was not repeated in every meeting or in any other service.

b.   The church at Antioch was in no rut with spiritual utterances.

2.  This utterance accomplished something worthwhile.

a.  It was no meaningless, ambiguous, fortune-teller type manifestation as a product of the human mind and spirit.

b.  This prophecy was actually fulfilled and has long since become a matter of historical record!

B.  There was an utterance of this or some other kind on another occasion.

According to Luke, "While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them'" (Acts 13:2).

1.   This second of such manifestations must not be considered as a "personal prophecy" for Barnabas and Saul.

2.  They had their direction for ministry already.

3.  They had been called to missionary service previously.

4.  This, then, was a command for them to activate their call; they were to be "set apart for the work" to which the Lord had already called them.

5.  It seems that Antioch's pastors directed the church commendably toward biblical spirituality in its worship services.

III.  The church at Antioch was a generous church.

A.  Following the prophecy of Agabus, though a Gentile church, the congregation             sent an offering to Jewish Christians to sustain them in a time of famine.

Luke reports, "The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:29-30).

1.  There was no national selfishness here.

2.  There was no racial prejudice here.

B.  Though not a rich church, every man gave "according to his ability."

1.  They knew that it is more blessed to give than receive.

2.  I have known the joy of paying tithes since childhood.

3.  I knew the renewal of that joy when I had income from which to tithe after being out of the ministry for two years for health reasons, with no income.

IV.  The church at Antioch was a missionary church.

A.  In obedience to God, it sent its best ministers to the mission field.

1.  It sent its senior pastor, Barnabas.
2.  It sent its young, promising associate pastor, Saul.

B.  It serves as a pattern for other churches of all times.

1.  It had no feeling that only young people are called and never mature, settled adults.

2.  A church may commendably give money to missions, but when it gives men, sons and daughters, it is a real missionary church.

C.  It was a partner with the Holy Spirit in missions.

1.  The church sent these missionaries forth (v. 3b).

2.  Yet, the Holy Spirit also sent these missionaries forth (v. 4a).

3.  No church can have a higher privilege nor accept a greater responsibility than to be such a partner with the Spirit.

Before the collapse of the U.S.S.R. veteran missionary Bob Mackish reported interesting conversations with the youth of Russia. When he enquired as to why they apparently longed to live in some other part of the world, including the United States, he expected to hear that it was for the sake of greater freedom or for financial reasons. Instead, the Christian young people replied, "So that we could respond to a missionary call!"  Political and economic policies in their country at the time prohibited their engagement in cross-cultural and especially cross-national ministry.

Conclusion.  By maintaining the characteristics of the congregation at Antioch, as set forth in Acts 11:27-30 and 13:1-4, every church can be a worthy model for others to use as a pattern to follow; this they can do by:

1.  Being a praying church

2.  Being a spiritual church

3.  Being a generous church

4.  Being a missionary church

How can a church be a missionary church?

1.  Having missionaries in Sunday services, instead of hiding them away in a mid-week meeting.

2.  Exposing its youth to missions ministries to encourage them to open themselves up to a missionary call.

3.  In not cutting their support of missionaries first when funds run short. My wife and I engaged in short-term missionary work in the Caribbean island nation of Curacao one summer. One of the projects she worked on was helping our hosts get out a monthly mailing to supporters back home. A church back in the States had been using its technology in doing most of that work for them. However, its pastor informed them that the congregation needed to cut back on expenditures.  Accordingly, it seemed that its missionary support was one of the first things it reduced. Now the missionary couple had to do everything by hand in getting their mailing out.

4.  In resisting the "saturation" philosophy. Concluding that churches now support all the missionaries they can afford, some hold we should declare a moratorium on sending any more out.

This concludes the sermon outline.

    In summary, developing a textual sermon thus requires the leading of the Holy Spirit more than anything else, but it also necessitates sound practices from homiletics. When the Spirit directs a preacher to a passage of biblical text in preparation for a message, a thorough reading of that passage will identify the subject for the upcoming sermon. From that point, the minister must determine the precise theme for the message. Then, he or she must compose a proposition to show what will result from appropriate action on the part of those who hear the sermon. Main points and their sub-points all follow from a careful analysis of the passage. Finally, the preacher crafts an outline, incorporating all of the preceding material in a form that will make sense to the listeners. From a passage of Scripture comes a message that will have an eternal impact on the congregation.

Selected Bibliography

    Crabtree, Charles T. Pentecostal Preaching. Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 2003.

    Hamilton, Donald L. Homiletical Handbook. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992.

    Hughes, Ray H. Pentecostal Preaching. Cleveland, Tenn.: Pathway Press, 1981.

    Perry, Lloyd M. Biblical Preaching for Today's World. Chicago: Moody Press, 1973.

About the Author

    Dr. Charles Harris is a recently retired Profes­sor of Bible and Pastoral Ministries as well as Chairman of the Division of Church Ministries at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. He was associated with the college for thirty-eight years.

    In addition to his career as an educator, Dr. Harris is also an author. His writings have appeared in the Sunday School Counselor, God's Word for Today, and the Adult Teacher. Among his works are three books--What's Ahead, Proofs of Christianity, and Under the Glass: An Analysis of Church Structure--as well as a commentary on the Book of Second Corinthians in the Complete Biblical Library. He was a contributing author of Power Encounter: A Pentecostal Perspective.

    Dr. Harris holds a bachelor's degree in Bible, a master's degree in counseling, and a doctorate in education.


[1]Lloyd M. Perry, Biblical Preaching for Today's World (Chicago: Moody Press, 1973), 45.

[2]Ibid., 30.
[3]Ibid., 29-30.

[4]Charles T. Crabtree, Pentecostal Preaching (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 2003), 40.

[5]Ray H. Hughes, Pentecostal Preaching (Cleveland, Tenn.: Pathway Press, 1981), 19.

[6]Donald L. Hamilton, Homiletical Handbook (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 22.

[7]Crabtree, Pentecostal Preaching, 192.