‘HOW DO YOU PREPARE TO PREACH?’
Interview with Greg Haslam by Mike Plant (General Secretary, EFCC)
For my newsletter, I plan to include a feature on how to prepare to preach. I want this to go from the very beginning of the process to the actual delivery of the message.
How do you choose a text?
The primary thing is to hear from God, and catch a prophetic ‘burden’. This can happen whilst engaged in my normal personal Bible readings, or when I receive an awareness of what the church most needs next, or a particular unshakeable concern for an issue I need to address, or discern what I perceive to be the needs of a conference or church I am planning to visit in the near future. This may result in a whole series on a Biblical book, or a one-off message on a passage or verse. At home, I usually preach series but I will interrupt them at any time I believe its right to do so, and resume that series after that new burden has been discharged.
In all cases I am trying to hear from God as to what he wants to say, and I am therefore committed to say it, no matter what. I expect to see change and response to what I bring and do not believe I’m not simply recycling endless deposits of Biblical truth that no one intends to do anything with. We’re all present to hear and implement God’s will.
If your answer to 1. was that you simply go on to the next part of the book you are preaching through then how did you select that book and how do you decide how long or short the next passage should be?
When preaching a book, I am more aware of the flow of argument and context, so I try to see the next unit of thought and expound that. I usually do this in significant chunks like whole paragraphs or half chapters, rather than single verses of part-verses. Dr. Lloyd-Jones could do the latter, but most of us don’t have his gifts, and may end up boring or frustrating people with our slow pace!
What do you do initially in your preparation? Do you jot down any thoughts before proceeding to research the text?
I always spend time trying to hear from God, praying and waiting on him with a blank paper or computer screen in front of me. As a result, I jot down every thought that occurs to me on each verse in sequence. I may not use all of this in the sermon, but I spend hours doing it. I never consult a book until I have wrung my own brain and spirit dry on this. It’s important we hear from God for ourselves and not just ‘lift’ what some commentator has said. Then I investigate the books for all they’re worth, often having 7 or 8 commentaries ‘on the go’, related to this book of the Bible, and other works too, from which I glean illustrations, insights, quotations etc., but only after I’ve done my own thinking. Sometimes the books correct my thinking and I will adjust accordingly. Mostly they help me run down fresh avenues to explore still further.
When you come to investigate the meaning of your text what is your procedure? Do you use Greek and Hebrew? When does the use of commentaries come in? What kind of commentaries do you use and find helpful?
I like to use semi-technical commentaries on the Greek or Hebrew texts for insights on word meanings etc. But I love using more accessible works too, and especially books written by practicing preachers because they handle scripture in an earthed, relevant and practical way, doing theology for the church not just fellow academics. Series like the Tyndale commentaries, The Bible Speaks Today, The NIV Application Commentary and other volumes by favourite writers like Walter Brueggemann, James Boice, Michael Eaton, Dale Ralph Davies, John Macarthur and Kent Hughes etc, are also used extensively.
Do you sketch out an outline of a sermon before preparing in detail? What would be included in this – for example applications and illustrations?
I always make an outline for greater clarity for my sake and the listener’s. Sometimes this comes immediately, but often I leave it until last. I try to work with the divisions of the text, so it’s broken apart according to its own natural divisions like a Terry’s chocolate orange! I work on an arresting introduction and a memorable conclusion that often requires a response there and then. I liberally sprinkle this with excellent quotations and the best illustrations and applications I can think of. If you can’t illustrate it you probably can’t teach it! I seek to speak very directly to my audience, often using the second person pronoun ‘you’. I am as earthed and ‘earthy’ as I can legitimately be. I try to speak like someone who lives in the 21st century (not the 17th or 18th!) and I use familiar applications from our present world and contemporary language throughout.
What sort of length is the final manuscript?
I take a fairly full manuscript into the pulpit, usually six to eight pages on A5 pages printed into a small booklet from my computer. This fits neatly into my Bible and is secured with an elastic band at the spine. This way I won’t lose it and no one sees me turning pages too conspicuously. I print it out in black (exposition) red (illustrations) and blue (quotations), to make it more readable, and to check if it is balanced in content. I familiarise myself thoroughly with this before I preach, knowing what’s there at a glance as I speak, so that I can maintain lots of eye contact with my hearers, but never lose track of what I want to say. I also feel free to depart from my manuscript at any time, since I want to remain open to the Holy Spirit at all times. The manuscript will be there next week, the Holy Spirit may not!
What do you take into the pulpit? Full manuscript? A page of notes? Headings? Nothing?
Is there anything you would like to add? Does your method of preparation vary greatly from the sort of method assumed above?
This is almost my invariable method, but I would just underline the priority of depending on the Holy Spirit and seeking his power and flow in the meeting in general, and on the preaching in particular. He will glorify Christ and set Christ’s people on fire. This ‘anointing’ must be deliberately sought every time, so that we are consciously depending on him and expecting him to show up. If that’s so, we must be prepared for some fireworks occasionally, as well as tears, strong emotional reactions, and deep response form the people. Indeed this can become the norm not the exception.
Therefore, I do not hesitate to call often for response at the end of the message. This may be call forward for salvation, prayer ministry, laying on of hands for healing (James 5), surrender to God, repentance or commitment to new obedience.
It also implies our willingness to say whatever the Spirit gives us, and therefore great freedom from the fear of man’s criticism or censure. We are there to help change lives and whole churches by God’s help. We are not playing games, and nor should our people ever suspect we are. Preaching is a serious business, but at the same time, the greatest privilege and most joyous calling on earth.