For the last twentyone years, I have had the wonderful privilege of pastoring in the church where I currently serve. There are many benefits—and a few challenges!—of pastoring in one church for an extended period of time. One of the great benefits is being able to take a lengthy, biblical journey with the same community of believers. Such a journey does have its challenges, certainly, but they are far outweighed by its benefits. I have found the following realities to be vital for preaching in one location over the long haul.
Read the Bible. Daily. Weekly. Monthly. Yearly. Read it through. Read it all the way through. Then read it through again. And again.
I take an annual journey through Scripture. In my early years of doing this, I read the Bible through in the first two months of the year. I have now slowed down to a more leisurely pace by reading it all through the year. This annual journey has been nothing short of life-changing for me. Nothing can replace this consistent experience of Scripture. I keep paper and pen handy to jot down thoughts, lessons, questions, sermon ideas, and the like. Such a regular experience of Scripture builds one’s discipleship commitment to Jesus in a way nothing else can. Pausing regularly to pray the text into one’s life strengthens spiritual resolve. And that leads to the second reality.
Pray continually. Ellen G. White’s statement that “prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend”1 underlines the deep need the preacher has for prayer. If our best friend, God, opens His heart to us in Scripture, we must open our hearts to God in prayer. That two-way exchange builds deep and solid disciples
"Prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend." Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ, p. 93
For the preacher, it will do something else. Remember the words of Jesus: “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matt 13:52, NIV). A deep and regular life of Scripture and prayer will provide “new treasures as well as old” for the one who preaches. A consistent engagement with Scripture will continually fill the preacher with the Spirit who offers life to his or her sermons.
Listen to life. Little will make preaching more timely than allowing the timeless truths of Scripture to speak to the trials of today. Fred Craddock suggests that there are two “journeys” the preacher must take. The first journey is back— back into the world of the biblical text. This journey comes in the study of Scripture, which we have already noted. It is on this journey that the preacher finds what to say. The sermonic themes will grow first and foremost out of the experience of this journey back.
The second is the journey forward—returning to this world, the world of the listener. To only journey back is to truncate the preaching of the Word and to risk that our sermons will only be the travelogues of a day long past. However, to also journey forward into this world is to make certain that what we discovered in Scripture has direct application today. But in order to recognize where it applies, we must listen to life in our day and time.
The elder or pastor who preaches over a long period of time to the same listeners has the advantage of knowing their lives and world in unique ways. Such allows direct application—so direct that one would need to be careful to make certain not to “pick” on certain listeners!
Preach extended passages of Scripture. This is often referred to as “expository preaching.” Preaching a series of sermons on Philippians, or on the life of Joseph, or on the psalms of lament, or on any other extended passage of Scripture will accomplish at least two ends. First, it will deepen both the preacher and the listener. Studying and applying one extended passage of Scripture over time allows us to enter deeply into the world of the original author of the text, of its intended audience, and forces us to grapple with the spiritual themes (and questions and quandaries) that they faced. When the Spirit of God works in us in the same way that the Spirit worked in them, true growth results.
The second end it accomplishes is that it helps the preacher avoid his or her “hobby horses.” Every preacher has certain themes he or she loves to preach and others he or she would much prefer to avoid. This is especially challenging when in the same context over a long period of time. However, if one is preaching on a particular book of the Bible, one will have to face passages one might otherwise avoid. I have found that few things force me to preach “the whole counsel of God” like preaching on extended sections of Scripture. I highly recommend it! I love it and I dread it—simply because it forces me to face some of those difficult passages and themes. But I can also say that I have learned more through this discipline than through many others.
Keep good records. One of the challenges of preaching for years in the same setting is the very human tendency to repeat oneself. How many times have I asked myself: Did I already tell that story? Did I mention this particular lesson from this passage in another sermon? Have I ever preached a sermon on this text before?
It may surprise some to think that a preacher might not remember the answers to such questions. But pause for a moment and ask yourself the same question about a Sabbath School lesson you taught eighteen years ago: Did I tell this story back then? Even when one is certain that one will remember, I can almost guarantee that there are many times—maybe most times— when, with the passage of time, one forgets.
There are few joys quite like the joy of taking a long journey with the same friends and believers. Along that journey, relationships deepen, friendships grow more steadfast, conflict is faced and resolved, losses are grieved, and joys are shared. What a delight, then, to have the privilege of preaching the Word along the way!
May God strengthen you to declare His full counsel in a timely and timeless fashion.
1 Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1892), 93.
Randy Roberts, DMin, LMFT, is the senior pastor of the Loma Linda University Church and vice president of Spiritual Life and Mission, Loma Linda University Health, Loma Linda, CA, USA.