October 28, 2020

Mondays with Michael Spencer: February 22, 2016

Lenten sanctuary (1)

This is an extra post on preaching that I’d like to add to the series of 2006 iMonk posts that we’ve been running on Mondays. That series was called “What’s Wrong with the Sermon?” and this particular post (from 2009), that was originally part of Michael’s “Evangelical Liturgy” series, summarizes much of what that series covered, adding some important points to Michael’s perspective on preaching.

Past posts:
• Part 1: The sermon’s too long
• Part 2: The sermon’s boring
• Part 3: The sermon — I don’t understand it
• Part 4: The sermon — it isn’t practical
Part 5: The sermon — More stories please!

• • •

The Sermon in the Evangelical Liturgy

This post is particularly about the place of the sermon in the evangelical liturgy.

First: The first thing I want to say is that the sermon must be prominent, but not dominate a service of worship. We are living in a time when preaching is experienced in extremes and balanced preaching is rare.

What is balanced preaching?

  • Appropriate length. Not too long (most anything past 25 minutes is in danger) or too short. (I heard a Catholic homily last week that clocked in at just under 5 minutes.)
  • Law and Gospel, sin and grace, exposition and application and so on. There are many of these balances that, while not always present in every sermon, are importance to consider in every sermon, and important to consider over the long whole of a preacher’s ministry.
  • Personal and objective. Popular preaching today- with a few exceptions- tends to be dominated by the personality and personal life of the preacher. The long-term results of this in the life of Christians is bad, no matter how much people like it.
  • Biblical and illustrative. Biblical material needs to be illustrated with material close to the life experience of the congregation. Scripture itself demonstrates this and no one was a better practitioner than Jesus. The best preachers are skillful illustrators. Ravi Zacharias is a master of this.
  • Traditional and creative. Communication needs structure, but it also needs the freedom to go in an unexpected direction. Calvin and Lloyd-Jones are good examples of traditional approaches. People you may not want to admit you listen to may be great examples of creativity.
  • Lectionary and selected text. The lectionary is a fine guide, but a good preacher will use the “spaces” in the Christian year- ordinary time especially- to depart from the lectionary and address needed subjects.

Second: In a service that uses frequent communion, the sermon will be early in the service, and I hope my evangelical friends will see the value of this. The sermon should come after the scripture readings, and it should not bear the burden of closing the worship gathering. (Invitationalism has done terrible things to much evangelical preaching, and none worse than making the sermon a 30 minute plea to walk forward.)

Third: Some of you are going to wince here, but getting rid of the pulpit was a bad idea. In fact, I can’t think of a single change in architecture that says more negative things about worship than the removal of the pulpit, or replacing it with a clear plastic podium. The desire to make worship into non-worship was facilitated more by the removal of the pulpit than anything else. All the “barrier between the pastor and the congregation” rhetoric is specious.

The pulpit speaks of the centrality and importance of the Word of God proclaimed, and it relativizes the preacher into a proper place: disciplined and called to stay behind the Word. Harness the personality to the Word. The preacher stalking the stage with an open Bible is a scene out of balance: the preacher and his personality are overly emphasized. The Word is literally being “used” by the preacher before our eyes.

I recently read a Roman Catholic priest’s letter to his congregation explaining the valuing of making the service ad orientum, i.e. with the priest facing front rather than facing the people. He listed several liturgical reasons, but he was doing all he could to say one thing without actually saying it: Look what making the minister the central focus has done in Protestantism/evangelicalism!

He is right, and many evangelical churches will never have a balanced and disciplined liturgy because the church must be the preacher’s stage.

Lenten sanctuaryFourth: Allow me to give a few words of practical advice:

  • Series are over-rated and over done. The single text message is still a good idea. The copying of series ideas- SEX!!- has become absurd. Congregations should be suing ministers.
  • Use a text. Explain a text. Illustrate a text. Apply a text.
  • Preaching robes are a fine idea for evangelical ministers. Obviously not for everyone, but they are a good middle ground between showing off a suit and being so casual that worship leading seems almost inappropriate.
  • Have someone identify your characteristic grammatical, rhetorical and homiletic problems. Then work on them.
  • Use a Trinitarian blessing at the end of the message.
  • Transitions to and out of the sermon make liturgy flow. For example, I’ve used the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed as a transition out of the sermon for many years.
  • Don’t talk about your sermon preparation. Nothing shouts self-importance more than “I spent 30 hours pouring over this text.” And if you claim “the Holy Spirit changed my mind at the last minute,” I tend to think something else entirely is going on.
  • Don’t invest a single sermon with so much importance that it drives you to distraction. Relax. Enjoy the text.
  • Stop listening to the preachers that tend to make you want to preach, sound or look like them. Just stop.
  • Listen to preachers who challenge you in areas where you need to grow. I listen to Willimon and Zahl. I’m nothing like either. I want to be like both.
  • Instead of listening to all those mp3s of celebrity preachers, read some books by some practitioners. Read Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching. Read Craddock. Read Buttrick. Read Inductive Preaching by Lewis. Read Clyde Fant’s book on developing an oral manuscript. Read Stott. Read Lloyd-Jones, On Preachers and Preaching. Anything by Willimon or Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching. Those books will help you more than sermons.
  • You aren’t and never will be Spurgeon. He had a lot of bad habits. Remember that popular preachers get by with things you won’t get by with.
  • Read Luther’s House Postils. Great examples of evangelical preaching in a pastoral context.
  • Don’t seek to be loved as a preacher. That’s the biggest mistake I’ve made in life and ministry. Seek to be loved as a shepherd, pastor, leader and above all, fellow pilgrim. Better yet, just seek to love others and look past assessments of your popularity. Have an audience of one and a flock to feed and serve.
  • You should, if you are truly called and prepared, be able to put together a good talk in a couple of/few hours. If it takes you 25 hours to create a sermon, I am deeply suspicious of what you are up to and why. Did your people call you to live in the study?


  1. You aren’t and never will be Spurgeon. He had a lot of bad habits.

    I bet IMonk threw that one in there just to tweak the noses of the Pyromaniacs. 😉

  2. And speaking of Spurgeon, one of my favorite quotes of his:

    “Don’t you know, young man, that from every town, and every village, and every hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London…So from every text in Scripture, there is a road to the metropolis, Christ. And my dear brother, your business is when you get to a text, to say, now what is the road to Christ?…I have never yet found a text that had not got a road to Christ in it, and if I ever do find one…I will go over hedge and ditch but I would get at my Master, for the sermon cannot do any good unless there is a savour of Christ in it.”

    I have heard far too many 45 minute sermons that mention Christ only as an afterthought, as if the congregation has grown beyond the need for Christ. Having the sermon point the congregation to Christ, to the hope we have in his life, death, and resurrection should be rule #1 in any sermon or it’s not a Christian sermon. You would think this would be obvious but sadly, it doesn’t seem to be the case.

  3. What are the two lovely old (and small!) churches in today’s photos?

    • I found one. I know the top one is a Lutheran church, in western NY I believe. The other is a church in Minnesota, which may be Congregational or some form of community congregation.

      • Michael Bell says

        The bottom one is:
        Union Congregational Church of Christ
        3700 Alabama Avenue South
        St. Louis Park, Minnesota 55416

        For what its worth – If you right click on an image using google chrome you can search the web for the image. Also lets you know if people are using your own copyright images.

  4. Michael Bell says

    You should, if you are truly called and prepared, be able to put together a good talk in a couple of/few hours. If it takes you 25 hours to create a sermon, I am deeply suspicious of what you are up to and why. Did your people call you to live in the study?

    I find this statement interesting. Michael Spencer was a gifted writer. To him sermon writing was natural and quick. I know that for myself to produce something worth listening to, or worth reading, it takes a LOT of effort. That is why when I was writing for Internet Monk I could only commit to once a week. More than that and I would be burning myself out.

    So my question for Pastors out there. What is your experience. How long does it take you to craft a good sermon? Is Michael on or off the mark on this point?

    • Twenty five hrs plus on a sermon means many hrs NOT spent doing a wealth of other things for the flock. Sure, some messages will take longer prep than others, but LONG hrs in the study, from what I’ve seen, are a convenient excuse to do what many pastors would prefer: teach. This is my personal experience with this , at least. No doubt some pastors are ill prepared, and didn’t put in the necessary time for a good sermon.

      • Michael Bell says

        “Twenty five hrs plus on a sermon means many hrs NOT spent doing a wealth of other things for the flock.”

        I agree Greg, but at the same time “You should, if you are truly called and prepared, be able to put together a good talk in a couple of/few hours” seems to be too little. So my question is, where is the happy medium? What should our expectation be of our Pastors?

        • I used to spend 15-20 hours a week when I first started. Now I take about 7-10.

          I don’t find a strong correlation between how much time I spend on a sermon and how well that sermon seems to go (though, of course, that is very hard to discern).

        • Very good questions, and for someone like myself who has never had that responsibility, I should be open to a greater variety of response. I’m sure solid, creative teaching takes time to develop.

      • For a great many Presbyterian and Calvinist Baptist churches I attended, the main pastor was expected to put in 30+ hours of sermon prep and do little else (except the rare bedside visit for a prominent parishioner). Pastoral care was for the elders and deacons, not the Preacher.

    • Michael Bell says

      As an interesting note, I found this:


      It seems that well know preachers spend anywhere from 2 to 35 hours on sermon prep, varying widely between preachers.

    • Awesome question Mike. In my experience, if I knew the audience I could write a sermon in a couple of hours. A few caveats – most of that was spent researching, and all my sermons were in outline form. However, I did generally spend hours rehearsing my words, but that generally came in the form of while I was driving, going to sleep, etc. If I wasn’t familiar with the audience it was much more work, as I had to be sure I wouldn’t be offensive or misunderstood. As well, I always considered the sermon as a kind of performance art, so I practiced heavily if I were to be in front of a strange audience.

    • –> “If it takes you 25 hours to create a sermon, I am deeply suspicious of what you are up to and why. Did your people call you to live in the study?”

      25 hours does seem to be a bit long to me, just because it shifts a pastor away from perhaps more important things, but then…what’s the right answer? IS there a right answer?

  5. David Cornwell says

    I’ve always loved to preach. I preached my first sermon when I was 17 in my home church in southern Ohio. Of course this was before my ordination or receiving any kind of license from the Methodist Church. All the way through college and seminary I received requests to preach in various local churches. This spanned a variety of denominations.

    So I’ve taken notice of the articles on preaching by Michael Spencer. These will be of great assistance to anyone who takes them seriously and wants to improve his/her preaching.

    In today’s piece he speaks of several preachers who are worth listening to, or to reading their books. Two preachers stand out to me, and have been of great help. YouTube videos are available featuring the preaching of William Willimon, retired bishop of the United Methodist Church.

    Also several of his books are worth mentioning. They are Proclamation and Theology, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, and Conversations with Barth on Preaching (one of the best).

    Another very practical book is Robert Farrar Capon’s The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel against the Wisdom of the World. The first part discusses the necessity of having “a passion for the Passion.” The second part concerns the practical, and emphasizes his method of preparing for the sermon, and its actual delivery. For his preparation he uses a three column MS Word template that he has developed. I seldom preach anymore, but have used this method for when I do. I’ve also used it for our Wednesday evening lectionary study at my local church, just so I can be prepared to contribute something of value.

  6. Pellicano Solitudinis says

    I would imagine that the amount of time required to prepare a sermon varies enormously from one preacher to another, and does not necessarily bear any relationship to the length or quality of the finished sermon. Which means, I suppose, that some preachers will have to accept the fact that they cannot produce excellent sermons without spending more time than they and their congregations can afford, and settle for “good enough”. It also means that the congregation will have to learn to live with less-than-wonderful sermons – and that’s not easy in a church where the sermon is the focal point of the service.

  7. I think Michael evolved beyond this position later in his life. I really haven’t ever benefited more from an “expositional”, or text-explaining, sermon. The reason is simple – the text will always be interpreted through the beliefs and agenda of the pastor, so in most cases I already knew what to expect as soon as I read the reference in the bulletin. As well, it is interesting to consider that there is not one solid example of “expositional” preaching in the entire New Testament, but plenty of topical, typological, or allegorical.

    • Michael Bell says

      This was posted in 2009. This was Michael’s “later in his life”.

      Though Michael was none to have more that one position on a topic!

  8. I take out the trash,
    look up at the stars, full moon,
    receive night’s baptism.

  9. “receive night’s baptism”


  10. I’ll take the five-minute homily, thank you, sorry about all those bruised egos. I’ll grant that five minutes could be a bit short. Make it seven minutes, seven and a half, no problem, ten on rare occasion. I could reduce all of Michael’s points to one question: What’s your point? Ten words or less please, something that would fit on a piece of paper the size of a bookmark, which is what I’ll use it for if I can pick one up on my way out. Or in. If you can state your point in ten words or less, I would imagine your homily would hang together and be effective, add to the communion, not chip away at it or belabor. If I want a well reasoned and insightful teaching session, I’ll come here, as long as I continue to be allowed to speak my mind.