Rules for preaching: Don't Come Up With A Message

Ryan Hayden • December 8, 2022

preaching ministry

In this series of posts, I'm writing out my personal rules for preaching. These are the things I would want to teach a young preacher in training coming up under my ministry.

In the first rule, I talked about how preaching isn't about the preacher. I want to carry that thought further with this second rule:

It's not your job to "come up with a message"

Sometimes I'll hear preachers use this language. I know they mean well. But words mean things and there is a lot of danger in this seemingly benign phrase. In dealing with that danger we can get to the heart of what separates good preaching from bad preaching.

The limits of creativity

When you preach a message, it should not primarily be an act of your creativity. You might imagine yourself to be like an artist staring at a blank canvas. You might imagine yourself like a novelist staring at a blank page. But those imaginations are wrong and dangerous.

Your job is not to create a message. Your job is to deliver a message that has already been given. Making the act of preaching primarily about your creativity moves the authority from God and His word to you and your imagination.

Again, going back to the first rule: it's not about you. You are not the hero of this story. The people you are preaching to are not the hero of this story. God is the hero of this story. He's also the author and the provider and He has already given people what they need through His word. You just have to deliver it.

When we send kids to school, the teacher should not be making it up as she goes along. The teacher has a curriculum that she teaches, she has goals and objectives she is supposed to be working towards. She should not go into the classroom every day and think "what do I teach today?" That decision is above her pay grade. Her job is to get the students before her to understand the curriculum and learn the lessons someone else decided.

If you are a preacher, it's not your job to come up with a lesson. You have a curriculum - it's the "whole council of God." You have clear goals and objectives. You don't get to make it up as you go along - that decision is above your pay grade. God gets to decide what people need - not you. You are just there to teach the lessons and curriculum God created for you.

We've all heard horrible sermons before where the preacher made applications that were totally cringeworthy. There is an easy way to avoid that - stick to the text.

Discover, don't create

It's not your job to "come up with a message", your job is to discover the message that is already there. Every text has a message. Every text has a meaning. You just need to figure out what that text means and how it applies to today and then teach that authoritatively to the people you are preaching to.

When I approach a text, I'm not thinking "how do I come up with a message?" - the message is is already there. I just need to figure out what it is and then help people understand it and obey it.

The core of writing a sermon isn't creating, it's understanding and discovery. Before I ever apply my creativity, I need to do the work to understand THE message God intended by the text. Without doing this work, my message will have no authority and no power. Without doing this work, I'm more likely to hurt people than to help people.

Imagine a chef applying their unbelievable cooking skills to prepare a meal out of plastic. It might smell amazing. It might be presented beautifully. It might even taste good. But it's still plastic and it will still hurt you. You'd be better served going to someone who can't cook at all who just gives you raw vegetables. It might not taste as good - but it won't kill you and it will sustain you.

If you apply creativity too early, it's like trying to serve a meal without any actual food. Maybe you can impress people, but that meal isn't going to keep anyone alive and it will probably kill them.

When creativity comes into play

It is only after you have done the work of discovering what a text means that you apply creativity. You aren't using creativity to come up with a message, you are using creativity to help people understand the message.

Going back to the teacher analogy. We don't want our teachers getting creative with the curriculum (see LibsofTiktok on twitter for how that works out) but great teachers use all kinds of creative ways to keep our kids engaged so they can learn the pre-approved curriculum. They think up games. They come up with unique assignments. They decorate their classrooms. They write little songs. Teachers have to be creative, just creative within the limits their curriculum.

In preaching, we absolutely need to be creative, we just don't apply our creativity to coming up with a message we apply our creativity only after we have understood the message God has given us. There is all kinds of room for creativity in delivery and explanation, but only applied to understanding the message God gave us.

God's message is better than yours

I remember a "sermon" I once heard. The preacher stood up before the people with a Winnie the Pooh puzzle and the main thrust of the message was something like "You fit in God's puzzle."

A Winnie the Pooh puzzle!? Why? Of all of the vast and wonderful content in the Bible, this preacher thought we needed a direct word from Winnie the Pooh!

I remember this episode because it is such an extreme example of what many preachers do all the time: they sidestep God's wonderful word to share their own obviously inferior message. I sat under a preacher once who was a good man, but every sermon I remember him preaching was some bizarre departure from the text. The applications of those sermons were almost always whatever thing he was into at the moment.

God has given us a message. We have "the whole council of God." It's so vast that it would take us many lifetimes for us to preach it all. Our job as preachers is, first and foremost, to figure out what that pre-existing message is and to deliver it to people. Even if all we did was read the Bible to people, that would be far more valuable than us coming up with something on our own.

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