Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert | Interview by: John Starke
Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert offer a theological and practical guide to preaching—not just "how to" but also "why." They present in Preach: Theology Meets Practice (purchase from Amazon or Westminster) a biblical argument for expository preaching and counsel us on how to prepare, deliver, and review sermons. Gilbert, senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, answered a few more questions on preaching that every preacher, young and old, wrestle with—from contextualization, preaching books from the Old Testament, and the best and worst advice he's ever received.
How would you answer a younger preacher who's wondering how much time he should be spending with his sermons along with his other duties as pastor?
Obviously there's no prescribed amount a time a pastor needs to spend in preparation for sermons, but I find it helpful to remember—and to remind my congregation—that the most important thing I do as the senior pastor is preach. In fact, as Mark and I argue in the book, that's the most important thing that happens in the life of the church. Now if that's true, then it becomes really important for you as a pastor to reserve and protect a significant portion of your week for preparing to preach. How much time? Like I said, I don't think we can put a number on it, but it needs to be enough time for you to understand your text at a much deeper than superficial level, and to apply it at a much deeper than superficial level, too. That can't normally be done with a notepad and an hour before the service. So I'd encourage a fellow young pastor to let his church know that at least a day of his week (maybe two?) is going to be blocked out for the purpose of studying and sermon preparation.
Very little if any of the book deals with the issue of contextualization when preparing for sermons. Some would likely lead with trying to understand the context. Is contextualization superfluous to the power of the proclamation of God's Word? Does location of the church, whether set in Washington, D.C. or Seymour, Indiana, matter to your preparation?
I think the things most likely to change a bit from church to church are illustrations and applications. The point of the text isn't going to change, and therefore the point of your sermon shouldn't change either. But from church to church (whether you're talking different countries, or different regions of the country, or across the same city), the illustrations and applications will probably differ. If the church to which you're preaching this year has different struggles and different broad interests than the church to which you were preaching last year, then even if you're preaching the same text, you're probably going to illustrate it and apply it in a different way. In fact, that's probably going to be true even if you've stayed in the same church for the last year. Dominant interests and struggles don't stay the same for long, even in the same church. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't see any profound concept of "contextualization" working there. It seems to me that's simply a matter of communicating well.
For the preacher who feels ill-prepared for preaching in the Old Testament, what books or resources have been most helpful to you?
The most important thing, of course, is simply to be intimately familiar with the story of the Old Testament. You need to know how it all fits together, how it ebbs and flows and makes its way toward the Messiah. So reading it over and over is crucial, and doing so with a guide like Dempster's Dominion and Dynasty or Goldsworthy's According to Plan is really helpful. That's how you begin to pull all the different parts of the OT into a powerful whole. As for individual OT books, commentaries can be immensely helpful in opening your eyes to parts of the story you might otherwise miss. It would be hard to run through every book of the OT here, but look for commentaries that are sensitive to (and certainly not dismissive of!) biblical theology, and authors who understand that the OT does not exist for its own sake, but rather for the sake of pointing to Jesus the Messiah.
What are a handful of things a young preacher can do to work on his delivery?
Get honest feedback! If you don't have some structure in place for receiving feedback on your sermons, then you're robbing yourself of an immensely valuable source of improvement. But you need to guard against this: I find myself before I preach really wanting to get feedback on my delivery—things like tone and passion and timing and even grammar—and asking guys to give it to me. But a lot of times, when the time comes for me to get that feedback, my heart bucks against it because I start to think, Oh for crying out loud! I just preached about God's glory and you're wanting to talk to me about my grammar!? You're seriously going to get on me about my tone in that one five-minute section?? Puh-lease!! And yet that's exactly what I asked them to do, and it's important for me to hear that kind of feedback. Is that all I hope to get from those guys? Certainly not. I hope they'll also tell me where the Holy Spirit used the sermon to convict and encourage them. But getting feedback about even the little things is an important means of improvement, and I need to discipline my heart—even when I'm tired—to receive it well.
What do you hope your sermons accomplish every week?
My first hope is that the Holy Spirit will pick up my feeble words and empower them. That's the only way my sermons are ever going to accomplish anything. But what I pray each I time I step into the pulpit is that the Holy Spirit would do a few things. For one thing, I pray that he'll convict people of sin, give them spiritual life, and draw them to faith in Jesus. I want sinners to see the beauty and all-sufficiency of the Savior and run to him for salvation. Not only that, but I also want Christians to be deepened in their love for Jesus and in their determination to pursue holiness and fight against sin. I also want them to be encouraged in their Christian walk as they are reminded of God's promises to them in Christ, and of his unstoppable determination to keep those promises. Practically, that means that I try almost every week to lift people's eyes out of this age and focus them on the next. I want them looking at eternity, and I want eternity shaping their perspective about the things of this age. If the Holy Spirit uses my sermons to help people love God, love Jesus, love God's Word, and love God's people more, I walk away a grateful and happy pastor.
What is the best and the worst practical advice you've ever received that has helped your preaching?
What's the best? Wow, that's a really hard question, just because I've received so much good advice about preaching. One piece of advice that's shaped my whole thinking about how to preach was to be sure to write down a one-sentence main idea for your sermon. Whether you share that sentence with the congregation or not, it helps enormously to focus your preparation. The points you're going to make, the exegesis you're going to share, the illustrations you use, the applications you're going to make—all that is helped to focus and fire like a laser beam if you've identified a single truth (or two, maybe) you're laboring to make in the sermon. If your sermon is just a scatter-shot of truth, yes, it may be effective in its own way, but I think biblical texts are generally more pointed, and I think sermons are more powerful when they're aiming in one direction.
As for the worst . . . I don't know. One bad piece of advice, I think, would be to submerge your outline—to not tell your congregation where you're going with the sermon and not flag it for them when you're moving from point to point. I actually think a hard outline is really helpful to a congregation. It gives them a roadmap for what to expect and "handles" to grab onto as you make your way through the sermon, all of which helps them listen better, I think. Not only that, but it also gives your people natural "re-entry ramps" for when they inevitably check out of your sermon. When kids attack, or when the late night catches up with them, or when that guy across the room does something kind of distracting and they lose you, it's helpful when you say, "All right, point two!" That's a natural, easy opportunity to refocus attention and get back into the sermon. Maybe you're so enthralling a speaker that you never lose anybody, and therefore you don't need any "re-entry ramps." That's not me, so I find it helpful not to let my sermons be just a smooth, uninterrupted "slide" from start to finish. It helps my people listen and learn if they have handles and road markers.