Thoughts on Research for Sermons
At this point in ministry, I have preached approximately 2,500+ sermons. This number doesn’t include Sunday School lessons, Mid-week Bible studies, and college lectures. Moreover, I have lost count of the times I’ve preached at other churches as a guest speaker. In short, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to make a lot of mistakes. The older I get in ministry, the more I realize that most of my early preaching (and a great deal that I hear today from young preachers) was imitation. In other words, I was just repeating what I heard in classes in college and, later, seminary. Better yet, I was just reciting what I read in commentaries. I usually can tell within the first five minutes of a sermon (that is, after the perfunctory opening) what commentaries or sermons the pastor has been influenced by and/or used for “his” sermon. Why am I so critical? Because I too once believed this was faithful preaching. I considered myself an expositor of God’s Word. Yet, I was only rehearsing the scholarship of others.
Note to Preachers: If you are just rehearsing what you’ve read in your favorite commentaries, why not recommend the books to your congregation so they can read it for themselves. I know what you are thinking, “I use several commentaries and always add my own (cheesy) stories to the beginning and end.” The congregation deserves better!
As I pen these words, I realize that I am on a continuum that has not yet found a stopping point. Although my comments above are critical and slightly obnoxious (ouch), I realize that I am far from being an example of how to preach. Thus, I share my thoughts only for those who find themselves on the same journey. That is, a journey away from repeating the thoughts of others to preaching the living word of God.
There is nothing wrong with research.
I highly encourage research. I recommend reading a great deal about the particular book you are preaching through. I am assuming that you occasionally preach through an entire book of the bible. If not, what I have to say may prove to be of little help to you. I’m not saying that every sermon series must be straight through a book (front-to-back, verse by verse). However, a significant portion of your preaching should walk the congregation through the bible as it was written!
Research, however, goes beyond just the two or three commentaries you picked up at the Christian bookstore. God help you if you purchased your source material from the staff recommend section. If so, you have likely confused “Jesus Calling” with a commentary on the Gospels. Worse, you have accidentally stumbled on the “Four Blood Moons” and mistakenly believe that it is a commentary on the Book of Revelation. Back to reality! I recommend that you start by reading the entire book of the bible that you are preaching from. In fact, you should read through it several times. This will be hard for preachers who are developing sermons during the week before the Sunday upon which the message will be delivered. Preaching requires preparation and study far beyond the few days you have from Sunday to Sunday. Preaching through books of the bible (or sections of books) will help you begin to correct this time-management problem.
Checkout Ligonier’s “Top Commentaries on Every Book of the Bible”
Do you know the original languages?
If so, this is another good place to start. However, my Greek professor warned us about preachers who took one or two language classes and then used Greek words and phrases in their sermons to sound smart. If you are not proficient in the biblical languages, just stick with English. Furthermore, since nearly everyone in your congregation has no way of verifying your SUPER CHRISTIAN SKILLS, you may be demonstrating a spirit of arrogance, which is certainly contrary to gospel preaching. Worse yet, is when you cherry-pick from the range of meanings and “word-load” so that your particular theological point sounds legitimate. You may be committing an exegetical fallacy. Who cares, right? As long as you sound smart, keep pronouncing Greek and Hebrew words to people who don’t speak either. For God measure use the occasional Latin phrase, although you’ve never studied the language. This will give you tons of “street cred” with the “long-bearded, coffee-sipping bros” at the Seminary coffee shop.
Whatever happened to humility as a virtue and honesty as a prerequisite to pastoral ministry?
What if you are not competent in the biblical languages? According to one of my professors at SBTS, who was considered an expert in the Greek language, find a strong translation (KJV, NASB, ESV) and use it to diagram the text.
What about theological journals? This is another great source for research. I’d recommend subscribing to several journals (e.g., JETS, ISCA, JBL, etc.). You may not find what you are looking for in this month’s journal, but if you are disciplined enough to study ahead you can catalog material that can be used later. The journal articles do not form the content of your sermon but can be great tools for shaping your study and research. I would add to this category theological encyclopedias because they are (basically) a collection of theological articles. This is a significant financial investment because each one usually costs between $50 to $200.
YouTube? Believe it or not, YouTube is a great source for a variety of reasons. First, you will find a lot of lunatics who are talking about the bible and have twisted nearly every verse or essential doctrine to meet his or her view of God. Keep in mind that your congregation likely watches YouTube and has come across some of these “wild-eyed, end-times preachers.” Plus, many of your congregants have likely encountered the countless skeptics who are using YouTube to attack many of the core doctrines that you will be addressing in your sermon.
Since every sermon should articulate and defend truth, it follows that you should be familiar with both those who are twisting it and others who are denying it.
One Last Point (for now)!
I am in no way suggesting a wholesale departure from the historical-grammatical method as an approach to discover the biblical authors’ original intended meaning. It is a valuable and helpful approach, but it is not the only legitimate hermeneutical method. Thus, my thoughts are meant as a corrective for those who desire to study, know, and teach the Scriptures, but have exclusively relied on the work of others. I hope that, like me, you are not satisfied with simply restating what others have written about the text. Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not suggesting that the text says something new. However, it is dangerous to announce that you are called by God to preach the gospel and then devote your ministry to merely repeating what other fallible ministers have said about a text. Biblical scholarship provides guideposts, warnings, and encouragement. However, it is not meant to substitute for your own significant study, which starts with meaningful and lengthy engagement with the biblical text apart from the comments of others. Only after you’ve spent substantial time in the text, both reading and reflecting, should you avail yourself of the wisdom of others.
[Originally published November 2018]