Are you missing the most essential part of sermon prep?
That God would call a man from the hills of Kentucky to England's Westminster Chapel is one of the great incongruities of church history. I was honored to serve at that famed church from 1977 to 2002. In fact, every time I ascended that lofty pulpit, I pinched myself.
Yet it was both a preacher's dream and a pastor's nightmare.
The dream: All I had to do was prepare sermons and preach them.
The nightmare: Being a good pastor from the pulpit only. John Calvin once said he would as soon enter the pulpit undressed as unprepared—and, believe me, the Westminster pulpit is one platform you do not want to enter having not done your homework.
Taking the Text to the People
I knew I had to be fully prepared every time I preached. Because of that, I consistently followed the principle of taking the text to the people versus taking the people to the text. The latter may smack of being truly pastoral, but I've learned that I did my people no favor by ostensibly catering to their needs.
Week after week for those 25 years, I saw how taking the text to the people always reached them where they were and met their needs in an amazing way.
Let me explain. If the congregation knew I was speaking to their particular needs, that was fine; but in that scenario they have no sense of God being aware of their needs—only me. Yet when I began with the text and was faithful to unfold its true meaning, people began to grasp that it was God who cared about them. After all, that is the only thing that matters!
How then do you prepare a sermon that begins with the text and therefore is God-centered? Always, my preparation depended on my willingness to be led of the Holy Spirit as I attempted to grasp the text's meaning. This meant that I had to be right with God, liv-ing a life that does not grieve the Holy Spirit.
The Ungrieved Spirit
The Holy Spirit is a very sensitive person and can be grieved (Eph.4:30). A preacher in Alabama once asked me, "What has a veteran like you got to say to a young whippersnapper like me?" My response: "Find out what grieves the Holy Spirit and don't do that."
I truly believe the most essential part of our sermon preparation is that our personal, private lives are governed by the ungrieved Holy Spirit. Inevitably, pastors have a public life and a private life. Most of us would agree that what people see in us in the pulpit is only the tip of the iceberg as to what we really are.
How Do We Grieve the Holy Spirit?
The main ways are by hidden (or not-so-hidden) anger, bitterness and unforgiveness in our lives. As soon as Paul told the church of Ephesus, "Do not grieve the Holy Spirit," he added, "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Eph. 4:30-32, NIV).
I regard bitterness as the major sin of the church today. In fact, bitterness climbs to the top of the heap (rivaling pornography) as the chief sin among pastors. When we approach the Bible for sermon preparation but are filled with a grudge toward anyone—regardless of how unjust they were—we hinder and block the Holy Spirit from being Himself in our preparation. Thus, we fail to grasp what the Holy Spirit would otherwise show us.
I can safely guarantee that if you completely forgive every single person in your life—whether it be your spouse, relative, church member or another—your heart will change. Your life will change. The Bible will open up. And your preparation and preaching will never be the same again.
R.T. KENDALL was the pastor of Westminster Chapel in London for 25 years. He is the author of more than 55 books, including Totally Forgiving God (Charisma House), which releases in July. "Most of us would agree that what people see in us in the pulpit is only the tip of the iceberg as to what we really are."