Tuesday, February 10, 2015

How to Become a Preacher -- Advice for Students and Other Aspiring Preachers

I have thought a lot about how to become a preacher and how to grow as a preacher. Since a student-friend of mine just asked me this very question, and since my answer to him came at a time of particular clarity about my own thinking in this regard, I thought I'd share what I wrote to him on this sorely neglected blog of mine. So, here is my best advice on how to become a preacher who has a practical edge:

- Think about normal, non-academics at church and ask them to go out for coffee. And listen. Get to know them. Become friends. I mean people who are older and who you wouldn’t naturally gravitate towards. These are the people who will be on your heart and mind when you are doing exegesis for sermon prep in the future. And you will quickly learn that none of them will come to church wondering who wrote Ecclesiastes and when. They will come to church wanting hope. The authorship and date of Ecclesiastes’ composition may come into play in your preaching, but it will be a passing comment or the foundation of the real work of exposition and application you will do.

- In time, ask these people if you can share with them what you are learning at school. Then, in your own words and without prep, explain to them  a passage you wrote an essay on — not the content of the essay, but what the passage means and how it applies to you two personally. If they give you a blank stare, apologize and listen. A preacher’s job is to hold the interest of his people and to always be so urgent and loving and interesting that the people want to listen.

- Choose your essay topics wisely. Don’t write essays on minutiae but on texts and topics of utmost importance. Write on Exodus 1, 2, 14, 19, 20; Deut 17:14-20; a prophet like Moses, etc. Do real exegesis and theological wrestling.

- When you write an essay, wrestle and do a ton of notes on the text on your own before reading commentaries. Don’t let commentaries set the agenda for how you approach a passage. Commentaries should be supplemental, but when used this way, they are very helpful. If you don’t know the original language, use the ESV as your base text, but also compare the NIV and the NLT and likely also the NET (reading the NET notes as well). And write a ton of your own reflections on the passage. A ton. I wrote 100 pages of exegetical notes from the Hebrew text of Isaiah before beginning reading secondary sources on this book in prep for my last comprehensive exam.

- Read conservative scholars who are very academic. And also read broadly.

- After you do all of the exegetical work and after your write your essay (and maybe even take someone from church out to explain the passage to them), listen to a variety of sermons on that same passage. The most ideal people I know of for this purpose are Mark Dever, Tim Keller, D.A. Carson and John Mahaffey, but there are certainly others I could mention and still others I haven’t heard much. These preachers are expository, they preach on large chunks of text, they are extremely evangelistic and illustrative and theological and practical and they build a hearer’s ability to read the Word of God. Since you have done the depth-work on the text at hand already, it will be helpful to hear how some seasoned preachers have approached your same text. Soak this in. Don’t listen to only one preacher. Let a variety of approaches soak in. If you only listen to one you will not find your own voice; you will become a lesser mini-replica who doesn’t do nearly as well as the master.

- Continue to be mentored in the context of your local church and let the preaching at church shape who you are and who you are becoming!

- Take Greek and Hebrew and focus here in your studies. Do as much of this as you can and live in the Greek New Testament and Hebrew Bible.

- As your local church gives you opportunities to use your emerging Word-gifts, take them and serve people. You learn by doing more than by practicing without real people on your heart and mind and in your prayers!

- Focus also on Biblical Theology. Read lots of it. See how the Bible fits together and begin to develop an instinct to read every passage in light of the whole and with Christ as the focal point of salvation-history.

- Do your own personal devotions in a variety of places in the Bible. I currently have five bookmarks in my Bible and I read one chapter from each place per day if at all possible. Currently I’m in Exodus, Leviticus, Psalms, Matthew, and James. When you do this you will see connections every day that you would not have seen otherwise. After you read, praise God for the various expressions of his character you see in each of the chapters, before you move to pray for other things — yourself and others. Other alternatives to my more freestyle method are the M’Cheyne Bible reading plan or, even better, Grant Horner’s method. I like my approach because it allows me to cluster things if I want to (e.g. two books of Torah right now), and because it is manageable — I may even cut it down to four chapters so I can read more reflectively; we’ll see.

- So some foundational work in systematic theology — read especially Grudem (as an intro) and Calvin’s Institutes and others. Take classes in systematic and historical theology (especially Calvin) if at all possible.

- Listen to John Piper’s biographies from the desiringgod.org web site. Augustine, Tyndale, Luther, Edwards, and Piper are especially good, but they are all really helpful. Let these be introductions that lead you into reading the works of these pastor-scholars.

So those are some random thoughts, my two cents. I hope they are helpful!

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