5 Questions on Preaching with J.D. Greear
J.D. Greear is the Pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, where he has served since January 2002. J.D. holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he is also a faculty member. His theological writing focuses on the correlations between early church gospel presentations and Islamic theology. While desiring every nation to come to Jesus Christ, he developed a burden for Muslims to come to know Jesus while serving among them.
J.D. and his wife Veronica live in Raleigh raising their four children: Kharis, Alethia, Ryah, and Adon. Follow Pastor J.D. on Twitter at @jdgreear.
Q1: How long does it typically take you to prepare a sermon?
There is a story about a preacher who, after a particularly powerful sermon, was asked, “How long did it take you to prepare that sermon?” To which the old pastor said, “My whole life.” The more I preach, the more I understand what he meant. If a preacher isn’t bringing his entire ministry to bear when he preaches the Word, he’s short-changing his congregation. A sermon should be forged by what God is doing in a pastor’s heart long before it becomes a message rolling off of his tongue.
More to the point, though, I invest about 13-15 hours every week specifically in the weekend sermon. I start big picture, usually months before preaching a specific book, by reading through a book of the Bible several times. I want to get it into my blood. As it gets closer to the sermon itself, I follow a weekly rhythm. From Monday to Saturday, I take two to three uninterrupted blocks each morning—alternating between researching and writing—until the sermon begins to take shape.
Along the way, I use a couple of those hours for group consultation, meeting with several leaders in the church to let them speak into it. I’ve heard it said that a sermon ends up sounding like whoever you talked to that week. You apply the text based on who you interacted with. When I share my sermon-in-process and consult with them, I gain the benefit of all the people they’ve talked to that week, too, and where it applies to their lives.
Q2: What do you ultimately want a sermon to accomplish?
A. The specific application points of each sermon should vary based on the text itself, of course. There is, as Ecclesiastes says, a time to weep and a time to laugh. But every sermon should balance depth of doctrine with practical application. In our day, many people seem to think preachers need to choose between the two. But that is a false dichotomy. The greatest preachers throughout the history of the church, beginning with the Apostle Paul, have recognized that doctrine and application are two sides of the same biblical coin.
Ironically, preachers who avoid doctrine in order to be “relevant” are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Shallow, “how-to” preaching no longer connects with the rising generation. They are asking deep questions, and they want substantive answers. They need to be pointed to a big and glorious God, not a religious “life-coach.”
Most importantly, though, a sermon should lead people to experience the presence of God and to stand in awe of what he has accomplished for them in the gospel. As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, the goal of a lecture is that people leave with information; the goal of a motivational speech is that they leave with action steps; but the goal of a sermon is that people leave worshiping.
Q3: What are one or two big mistakes people often make in preaching?
A. I think one big mistake is that we tend to preach for other preachers or for our seminary professor, rather than for our actual audiences. Martin Luther famously said that when he preached he did so for the “servants and milkmaids” rather than the theologians and doctors. Whenever we write, we envision someone listening to us. When that person is another preacher, we preach sermons that they might find interesting and biblically sound but don’t actually engage the people listening to us. The way to fix this is to get out and actually spend time with lost people, because, again, your sermon ends up sounding like whoever you talked to that week. Sermons need to be preached by shepherds, not isolated scholars.
A second mistake, I believe—at least one I made in the beginning—is lacking a clear, simple focus in a message. I wanted to get up and just “riff” on the text, as I thought it would make me sound more postmodern. And while my sermons ended up packed with theological information and streams of consciousness, they often lacked cohesion and, thus, the ability to move people. Again, we need to preach like leaders, not just exegetes and theologians, and leaders move people, not just educate them. In order to do that, we need to have a clear, simple, easily identifiable focus and discernible action step from the sermon.
One of the most subtle and persistent errors, though—and one which I have to constantly guard against—is putting the emphasis of the sermon on what we must do rather than moving our hearers to worship in response to what God has done. What really changes us is not a list of things we can do but the glory of knowing what Christ has done. We call sermons that focus entirely on what we should do “do-do” sermons, and they are worth about as much.
Q4: How do you handle the gospel invitation and preach toward it?
A. The gospel has not been fully preached until some kind of invitation to respond has been given. That was as true for the Apostle Peter as it is for us, though the forms of the invitation can be flexible. At our church, we sometimes invite people to come forward in the service and talk to someone right then. At other times, we direct people to talk with us afterward. Whenever we explain the way of salvation, we always tell them how to respond, and verbally call them to do so, because until that happens, the gospel has not been fully preached.
Q5: What advice would you give to preachers doing pulpit supply?
A. If you preach an “oldie but a goodie” (which is a wise practice), be sure to re-write it fresh each time, thinking of the people to whom you are preaching. You may be surprised at what the Holy Spirit prompts, using the same text and the same outline, simply because the occasion and audience are different. So give him the chance.
And pray a lot. Missionary James Fraser once said, “I used to think that prayer should have the first place and teaching the second. I now feel that it would be truer to give prayer the first, second, and third place, and teaching the fourth.” Nothing quenches prayer, and thus the power of the Spirit, like being so familiar with some subject that you no longer feel desperate for God’s help in getting the message across. Plead with God to open your eyes, to soften hearts, and to use the broken vessel that you are—whether you’re stepping into the pulpit for the first time or the thousand-and-first.