How to preach when you haven’t got anything to say…

Posted by on Dec 15, 2020 in Blog | 4 comments

Amusing though the title is, let me start with the disclaimer that it isn’t mine, but was the topic given to Mark Oakley when asked to preach at a recent Church Times event. Now Mark Oakley always has something worthwhile to say – so do listen to his podcast on this topic, though other than for the title, I have taken this post in my own direction. Furthermore, lest you think this is for preachers alone, I plan to follow it up with a post: “How to listen when the preacher hasn’t got anything to say…” – so I am trying to make sure there is something for us all!

First, a few obvious observations. If you have nothing to say:

1) Ask if you really have to say it.

2) Prepare a little longer.

3) Don’t assume that something significant will come out of your mouth the longer you keep speaking. There is often an inverse relationship between the length of the sermon and the amount that it says. Keep it short. People can forgive short sermons – longer ones stretch even the most cordial of relationships.

But there are more important points to be made.

1) Feeling you have nothing to say might be a sign of spiritual dryness. It can come to the most faithful of preachers and be bewildering. Truths that once captured our imagination suddenly seem ordinary, Bible passages that once moved us now seem dull and of little significance. We might be too tired, too stretched or carrying too many burdens. There is nothing wrong with asking for a season off to renew and refresh our spiritual zeal. We might have the pacing of our ministry wrong, and this can be a helpful sign that a thoughtful review is needed. There is no shame in this – it is an important part of staying in the race for the long term, for ministry is a long distance race, not a sprint, even though some church ministry teams drive their staff on as though the reverse was true.

2) Let the Bible speak for itself. We often feel that the Bible is not enough – as though we have to uncover 17 dramatic new insights about the text to move it into the vaguely interesting category. But the Bible is the Spirits book. Hear that again. The Bible is the Spirit’s book – not the preachers book, the Spirit’s book. While the preacher’s task is to unpack biblical truths, it is the Spirit’s task to bring these truths to life in the listeners hearts and lives. That doesn’t mean that the preacher can be passive, and devise sermons which sound as though they have been lifted from the pages of a Bible commentary, but the preacher is absolved from the responsibility of making everything happen. That is ultimately God’s responsibility, and if we forget it, we are likely to get in the way, devising cute, folksy messages that amuse but rarely challenge or transform. Perhaps the most significant part of sermon preparation is listening for what the Spirit is saying. What is the preaching point that the Spirit wants the people of God to hear. That is more than asking, ‘What does this text say?” – it is probing more deeply and asking: “What does the Spirit want to say through this text – to these people – at this time?” And dare I say this… you might conclude you have chosen the wrong passage for the week. We sometimes slavishly tie ourselves to particular passages and stick to them with iron like determination – we said that this Sunday we will look at Leviticus 1 – and so we shall. While all of Scripture is God breathed and inspired, sometimes there are particular passages that the Spirit wants the Church to focus on – and discerning what these passages are is an important part of sermon preparation.

3) Return to the big truths. While a rich and complex faith – with tens of thousands of interesting nuances and qualifiers, the Christian faith keeps returning to key big truths. When we feel we have nothing to say, it is as well to speak about these truths again. Truths like: God is – and oh the difference that makes, for if God isn’t, life is essentially accidental and without any inherent meaning. Or that God is love – and oh the difference that makes… Or that God forgives – and oh the disaster if that were not the case. Or what about key Christological truths: Christ has come – Emmanuel, and oh the difference to have a God who is not only for us but who is also with us. Christ has died – and oh the haunting things his death tells us about ourself. Christ is risen – and oh, how that transforms everything. Christ will come again – and oh, how that should orientate us in our everyday living. And there is the Spirit, and the possibility of new birth and the mission of God in the world and… well, the fare is extraordinarily rich. Even if these great truths – perhaps because they have been heard so often – now seem a little ho hum, keep proclaiming them, for in themselves, they birth life and hope. And if you struggle to see their significance, imagine that the reverse of each was true. That God wasn’t – or that God didn’t love, or that forgiveness wasn’t possible, or that Christ had never come, had never died, had never risen and would never come again… sense the weight of the opposite being true and it might spark fresh passion in your preaching.

4) If preaching from a passage you know too well, note the characters in the passage you have overlooked, the people who are watching while the passage takes place – but mentioned only in the margins. How would they tell the story? Imagine if the story had gone in a completely different way. Ask some questions of the text that you have never asked before. Curiosity is the preachers best friend. Be curious about the story – for most Bible passages speak at many different levels.

5) Most great sermons address one of the seven basic plots our lives revolve around. A few years ago I posted on Christopher Booker’s book: The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell Stories, and noted that the key plot themes are: Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Tragedy; Rebirth. Think about the passage you are preaching from – which of these seven themes does it address? Knowing the recurring themes makes it a little easier to spot the preaching point in a passage.

6) Remember, people come to meet with God, not with words (and yet more words). If you have nothing to say, perhaps God does. Use fewer words and allow a bit more time for prayer and reflection. Say less, but let it sink in more deeply.

7) Take heart, God is faithful, and people are forgiving. One brilliant sermon will not make your ministry, and one rotten sermon won’t break it. You might have very little to say this week – but next week is coming…

As always, nice chatting…

4 Comments

  1. Thanks Brian – good message even for those of us who give ‘devotions’ sermons our staff!

    • Thanks Phillip. You are right. Pulpits certainly aren’t the only location for sermons – and the call to speak words of life takes place in many settings. Blessings as you are faithful in yours.

  2. Brian, Many thanks. I read your writing regularly but don’t reply often.
    Like Philip above, I give short devotional ‘sermons’ with Christian School and Christian Heritage College Staff on regular basis.
    Not just listening to but hearing from the Holy Spirit is a real key to touching the hearts (Hebrew concept) of those placed in our care.
    Christmas Greetings from us in the Sunshine, now rainy, State.
    Kindest regards
    Rob Herschell

    • Thanks Rob. Very good to hear from you. Blessings in your significant ministry.

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