By J.W. McGarvey
Special Preparation For The Pulpit
On the subject of special preparation I must speak very briefly. As I could not cover the entire ground without giving a synopsis of some work on Homiletics, I will only attempt a few suggestions on points which need, I think, to be emphasized.
First of all, I ask, what is the purpose of a sermon? Its ‘structure, the material which enters into it, and the special study which precedes it, will all be determined by its purpose. It is feared that some sermons are prepared and delivered for the purpose of making a reputation. In all such the apostolic rule is reversed, and the preacher preaches himself, not the Lord Jesus. Other sermons have in view, as their chief aim, the improvement of the preacher as a public speaker. This also is a selfish end, and a prostitution of the noblest office ever committed by God to man. A better class of sermons are intended merely to impart instruction. These, while aimed in the right direction, fall short of the proper aim of a sermon. This aim, if we judge by all of the apostolic sermons, and by all that is said in the New Testament about preaching, is to bring about some change for the better in the life of the hearer. To this end instruction is but tributary, and for this reason it holds a subordinate place. No sermon is effective without instruction, nor is it effective without exhortation. We teach that we may have a basis for exhortation, and we exhort that we may move to a proper action. The last is the supreme purpose to which all else is to be carefully subordinated.
If this view is correct, then the very first step in the special preparation of a sermon, is to select the special change for the better at which it shall aim. This determined, the subject is determined, and often the passage of Scripture which contains the subject. Sometimes, it is true, a certain subject suggests a certain end to be attained by a sermon, and often a passage of Scripture on which the mind is dwelling suggests the subject of a sermon and its aim. But in these cases it is still the practical aim in view which settles the mind upon the choice of that particular passage and that particular subject.
When the special aim of the sermon has been fixed, and the subject or the particular Scripture passage to be employed has been selected, the next step is to study the selected passage until the author’s real thought is ascertained. This and this only should be presented as the teaching of the passage. To wrest the word of God for an evil purpose is one of the greatest of sins. To wrest it for a good purpose, though not so bad, is still a sin, and it is a sin quite common in the pulpit. It is to do evil that good may come. It is deceptive, because it has the appearance of doing what is not done, and it leaves on the minds of many hearers a permanent misconception of the passage which is misconstrued. If a text properly construed, whether it be your principal text, or others employed in the progress of the sermon, does not serve your purpose, find others that do, and if you can find none that do, then conclude either that your purpose is unscriptural, or that you are not yet sufficiently acquainted with the Bible to speak with that purpose in view.
It is also highly important that when the preacher has selected his subject, he makes himself thoroughly acquainted with it before speaking on it. Otherwise he is in danger of taking positions which fuller information would require him to modify or abandon. Multitudes of the blunders and errors which are constantly disfiguring pulpit efforts and which often make them sources of greater evil than good, result from neglecting this rule. The rule requires us to gather before us all the passages of Scripture which treat of the special subject in hand, to study every one with reference to the particular light which it throws upon the whole subject, and when we have made our selection to treat it in the light shed upon it by all the other passages. The careful observance of this rule will save the preacher from many a blunder and will prove to him a very fruitful source of rich and solid material out of which to construct subsequent sermons.
There are two parts of the sermon always requiring very careful attention, which are very commonly neglected. I mean the introduction and the conclusion. A good introduction, fixing the attention and winning the favor of an audience, gives the preacher a vantage ground at the outset and wins half the battle before the real struggle begins. It should never be left to the spur of the moment, but it should be carefully studied as, an outgrowth of the sermon; for though, like a preface to a book, it comes first to others it often comes last to yourself.
Good introductions are more common than good conclusions. How often we have heard sermons which moved on steadily and impressively until near the close, and then struggled as if sinking in the mire. We could see just how far the preacher had made careful preparation, and as soon as he passed that limit we could see that he began to flounder. Perhaps we have been that preacher (who of us has not?) and can remember how we beat about for a landing place and could not find it, – how we felt every moment that our sermon was being whittled down to the little end of nothing, though we struggled with might and main to give it a better ending. All this is the result of defective preparation. We stopped preparing before we got through and as a consequence we got through the sermon before we quit speaking. To avoid this disaster, which sometimes sends a man home, feeling as if he never had preached and never could, we must be careful to fix upon a conclusion and to prepare it thoroughly.
This should be done also for two other reasons. First, it is the beginning and the end of the sermon which are most distinctly remembered by the average hearer. When he has forgotten everything else that was said, he remembers these. Second, it gives greater power and case to the preacher himself all through the sermon. His conclusion, if a good one, contains in the concentrated form an earnest appeal, the practical aim of the entire discourse. Everything he says is aimed at it, and he approaches it at every step. He knows his landing place and he feels increasing strength as he advances toward it. It animates him from the beginning and it lifts him high when he reaches it. His hearers must be hard of heart if he does not lift them with him.
In all that I have said on the subject of special preparation, I refer to preparation for preaching, not for writing. If a man, after thus preparing to preach a sermon concludes to commit it to writing, either before or after delivering it, he does well, provided he does so not for the purpose of reading it to an audience, or of printing it, or of committing it to memory and reciting it. There is a great difference between preaching and reciting a memorized sermon. The former is a living thing, the latter is a machine. There is a still greater difference between preaching and reading a sermon. When the reading is real reading, as when one reads a book, it is a tame affair in the pulpit. When it is not real reading, but a kind of make believe in which the speaker half reads, half recites and tries to convince the audience by gesticulating and posturing, and hiding his manuscript, that he is preaching, the performance is a farce, and the people would laugh it out of countenance were it not for the solemn service with which it is connected.
System In Study
There are some preachers who read a great deal and do some studying, but never reach proportionate attainments because of a want of system. There are many others, who for the same reason never find time for much reading or study, and who consequently make but little growth. The only way to accomplish much in this bustling and distracting world, whatever be our line of work, is to work in a systematic way – to have a time for everything, and to do everything in its time.
Preachers who are moving about from church to church, and from house to house engaged in protracted meetings or missionary work, are apt to imagine that they have no time for study. But it is entirely practicable for them to spend some hours almost every day at a particular time of day in hard study, if they will. It requires only a little resolution and a polite apology to the friends who would otherwise expect your company, and who would perhaps be glad at times to be rid of entertaining you.
System in study requires much more than the mere appropriation of regular hours to study. It requires the steady prosecution of selected lines of study, and the proper distribution of our time between these. It is not well to give our whole time for any considerable period to one line of study; nor must we divide it between too many. The study of the Scriptures should occupy a fixed part of every day. If one devotes but a single hour every day to the study of the Scriptures historically, or by books, or topically, and shall compute how much this will amount to in a year, he will be astonished at the result. In the course of a lifetime it would make him intimately acquainted with every part of the Bible. And besides the study for mere knowledge, he should give another part of every. day to devotional study. Should a man take time to only commit to memory a single verse of a Psalm and meditate upon it every day, in the course of a year he would commit at least twenty Psalms, and he would have all of them in about seven years. I mention these small figures, not because a preacher should be content with them, but to show by the results of a little systematic study that more can be accomplished than those who lack system are apt to imagine.
As preaching is the preacher’s business, the special study of sermons should of course occupy just so much of his time as is necessary to the very best preaching of which he is capable. It cannot occupy all of his time, because the general lines of study which we have marked out are necessary for the accumulation of material on which to expend the special study of sermons; but the most pressing demand upon the preacher’s time, and the demand which must at all hazards be met, is that which is made by the preparation of sermons.
Give me a man of ordinary talents and earnest piety, who steadily and perseveringly through life pursues such a system of study as I have marked out, and I will show you a preacher who will always be sought after by churches that have him not; who will never leave a community except against its protest; who will count his converts by the thousands, if he lives long; who will count in still larger numbers the struggling souls whom he shall have helped on their heaven-ward way, and who will finally bring an abundance of sheaves into the eternal granary.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 8, pp. 234-235
April 19, 1984