How to Develop Confidence in Gospel Preaching

By Clint Clifton

Dispense God’s Word to His people with care. The gospel is church planting's most concentrated weapon. Wave it like a banner before your people.

The gospel is like a caged lion, it does not need to be defended; it just needs to be let out of the cage.[1] As a church planter your ability to accurately and confidently explain the gospel to others will have a profound effect on the overall well being of the church you are planting.

The gospel is not only a caged lion but it also is the chemical used by the Holy Spirit to dissolve the corrosion that lines the walls of the human soul. It’s a healing medicine used to coat the soul with the type of faith that pleases God. So the church planter’s job in regard to preaching and evangelizing is simply to open the lion’s gate, to simply release to gospel, in all its power, to do the work God desires it to do.

This confidence in the gospel should mark the life of a church-planting pastor, but sadly it doesn’t. Here are three of the more common approaches I’ve observed.

1. Marshmallow medicine By far the most common approach to preaching I have seen among planters is the “marshmallow medicine” approach. Like sticking a child’s pill inside a marshmallow to trick him into swallowing it, these well-meaning orators hide a simple gospel truth in a tasty candy shell. Sin becomes struggle, depravity becomes weakness, God becomes a genie in a lamp and the Holy Spirit becomes our conscience. This approach leaps from the heart of those who lack confidence in the gospel’s power to rebuke, correct, exhort and instruct. Instead of assuming the gospel to be powerful and finding contentment in simply uncaging it, the gospel is assumed to be weak, out of date and only truly effective only when properly animated by a creative communicator. The gospel, however, needs no marshmallow; in fact, it’s best when not tampered with at all. Avoid the common sentiment that your creativity is necessary to honor God.

2. “Let the Spirit lead” – A close second in frequency is the “let the Spirit lead” approach to preaching. This is where the church planter spends little to no time in preparation for his sermon, arguing that preparation would quench the work the Holy Spirit plans to do through him on Sunday. Here is my question: Is it any more likely that God will speak to you in the pulpit as you preach on Sunday than he will in your office on Thursday? Of course not! The biggest problem with this approach is that guys who take it are terrible preachers. Their thoughts are disorganized and they have no effective illustrations or quotations prepared to stir people to godliness. Their limited study gives little space for understanding the setting, context – even the meaning of the text’s words. The Scripture proclaims that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.”[2] Faith does not come by hearing the word of man.

3. “Field of Dreams” – I also have met church planters who seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that their presentation is awkward – not because of the things they say but because of the way they say it and the environment they say it in. For example, I have attended tiny church plants in high school auditoriums and movie theaters to find a zealous young pastors preaching through a sound system to a dozen or so souls. They have an “if you build it, they will come mentality,” believing that working out the logistics of a church meeting will attract the crowds. This approach has a terribly disappointing outcome. Bob Thune, pastor of Coram Deo Church Community in Omaha, Nebraska, says this:

“People have an innate sense of what ‘fits’ in a certain setting. You don’t expect arena rock at a coffeehouse. Similarly, you don’t expect a pulpit and lots of yelling in a small church plant. What will grow your church in the early stages is not the formality or power of your preaching, but rather how accessible and engaging it is. Tailor your preaching for the size-dynamics of your church. Think of venues where 25 to 75 people gather – coffee shops, college classes, house-show concerts – and then aim for that sort of feel. Engage the audience in dialogue by asking questions, inviting feedback, and answering objections. Build your sermons around missional conversations you’re having during the week. Three things will happen: non-Christians will feel honored and welcomed, Christians will learn how to have authentic gospel dialogue with outsiders and your church will grow.”[3]

Logistics and volume matter, but what’s really important is the accuracy of the preached Word. The Word of God itself is the power. In my early years of church planting, I spent far too much time “putting on church” (spending energy on making sure that all the elements of the meeting were just right) and I spent very little time “being the Church” (actually loving and serving those who were gathering). If you will place your energy on the transferring of the Word of God from your heart to the hearts of the people you are leading, you will find that your church will respond to the Word of God. Spend your time on the study of God’s Word, so you know it well, and then freely dispense it to others. It is the promise of the Scripture – and my firm belief – that if you will place your energy on being a well-studied, faithful preacher of God’s Word, that Word, when it is dispensed, will work dramatically in the hearts of those who hear it.

The bottom line is this: Many things will contribute to the overall health of the church you begin – small groups, meeting location and the quality of your leadership to name a few – but nothing will affect the overall health of your congregation nearly as profoundly as time well-spent in the pulpit. The hour you spend before the people of God each weekend can have a profound an impact on the habits and hearts of those who regularly attend.

Sermon Preparation

I am fully aware that sermon preparation is an art, rather than a science, and great preachers and pastors throughout history have employed a variety of study tools and disciplines to become great at what they do. There clearly is no “best way” to prepare for preaching that applies across the board to all preachers. I also am aware I am not the world’s greatest preacher – and probably not even good enough to be offering this advice – but I at least want you to know some of the approaches that have proven helpful for me in preaching.

I pray these four suggestions will help you as you prepare to preach God’s Word in personal evangelism, formal preaching and small group teaching.

1. Write a manuscript. The very strongest advice I can give, especially for a new preacher, is to write a manuscript of your sermon. Getting in the habit of writing my sermons out, word for word, is the single most helpful habit I have formed as a preacher. There are two primary reasons the manuscript is helpful for me. First, writing your thoughts forces you to think through the very best way to communicate them. When I use an outline, I can capture an idea on a bullet point to remind me what I should say. But when it comes time to actually saying it, I may or may not be able to articulate my ideas as well as I want to. When I write the idea though, I am forced to consider the very best way to convey it. Writing sermons in manuscript form is my regular practice and I find myself now repeating phrases verbatim that were first conceived on paper, in preparation for a sermon.  These well-thought-out phrases become part of my daily speech and help me to articulate my thoughts on a particular subject in a logical manner, without having to do the heavy work of carefully choosing my words as I speak.

The second reason I manuscript sermons is to capture it. Many preachers lose the use of their study by not capturing it in writing. As a pastor you may spend as many as 12 hours (or more) per week in preparation for a sermon, jot down your notes in outline form or on a napkin, preach from it on Sunday and then file it loose, never to be used again. When you write your teaching out in a manuscript before presenting it, you have the luxury of sharing it with others as an article, blog post or an email to a suffering church member. If you capture a series, it can be used in the future as a small-group study guide or even a book. Have you ever wondered how well-known pastors have time to produce multiple books each year and still lead vibrant church ministries? It’s because they don’t waste their study, they capture it. Choose a system that works for you and force yourself to capture your study into a form that can be easily used in the future.

2. Get feedback from others. Most preachers I know get very little feedback from others concerning their presentation. If they do, it’s in the form of an angry email or a lecture from a self-appointed theological watchdog. Very rarely do pastors ask other theologically astute individuals or fellow elders to offer feedback. Pastors often critique themselves each week by watching the video or listening to the church’s podcast, but I want to warn against this. I think better feedback comes from a faithful brother than from you. Never underestimate your ability to deceive yourself with pleasantries or to berate yourself with unnecessary self-criticism. If you are your own evaluator, you likely will make assessments about yourself that you are not qualified to make. Since pastors also tend to spend time listening to and reading other pastors, you likely will find the comparison game difficult to avoid. British theologian and Pastor John Stott encourages pastors to avoid listening to and watching themselves:

“If you look at yourself in the mirror, and listen to yourself on tape, or do both simultaneously on videotape, I fear you may find that you continue to look at yourself and listen to yourself when you are in the pulpit. In that case, you will condemn yourself to the cramping bondage of preoccupation with yourself just at the time when, in the pulpit, it is essential to cultivate self-forgetfulness through a growing awareness of the God for whom and the people to whom you are speaking. I know actors make use of glass and tape, but preachers are not actors, nor is the pulpit at a stage. So beware! It may be more valuable to ask a friend to be candid with you about your voice and mannerisms, especially if they need correction. An Indian proverb says “He who has a good friend needs no mirror.” Then you can be yourself and forget yourself.”[4]

3. Avoid excessive commentary use. Commentaries are tremendous resources for the pastor and should be used to the extent they are helpful. But commentaries are a late-game activity. Early in your study, your time is best spent in the text itself. Reading and re-reading the text allows you to marinate in it, to consider and reflect on its implications. Study the words in the text to ensure you understand their meaning and biblical usage and to search for themes. Remember that you are preaching to see transformation, not to convey information. Information alone will not produce the outcome you desire. Give yourself to meditation and reflection, allow yourself a measure of reflection. If you do this, you will notice that the text will come alive to you throughout the week and God will teach you lessons concerning the text as you go about business as usual.

I begin reading the passage for Sunday’s sermon very early in the week. By Tuesday or Wednesday, I have moved on to studying the words and doing the necessary language work to understand the text. I talk about the passage with other Christians and ask questions of the text, sometimes a reading a book on the theme of the text. By the end of the week, it’s time to start writing the manuscript. Only after I am well underway on that do I peek into commentaries to hear how others have interpreted. Most of the time, I find that I have come to similar conclusions about the passage as theologians I respect. Periodically I will find something I totally missed and add it to my manuscript. Either way I have personally experienced the text and can speak about it with firsthand knowledge.

4. Personal study vs. sermon preparation. I often have been warned of the danger of mixing my personal study and reflection of God’s word with my preparation for an upcoming engagement – and I want to publicly admit that I have completely rejected that advice. The fact is, when I am preparing to teach, I find I do a much better job when I am personally connected with the text. What I mean is that, if in recent days God has ministered to me through a text or taught me some glorious truth about his Son, I am noticeably better at preaching it. So when I’m preparing to preach the Sermon on the Mount, that’s what you’ll find me reflecting on it. It’s not a sin, no matter what your hermeneutics professor says! The sin is preaching a text you have only interacted with on an intellectual level.

So as you prepare to dispense God’s Word to His people, dispense it with care. Study to show yourself approved to God.[5] The gospel is the most concentrated weapon you have for the establishment of a church in any location. Wave it like a banner before the people you have been called to minister to.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation, first for the Jew then for the nations.”[6]


[1] The quote is often attributed to C.H. Spurgeon, although no actual reference could be found in his writing.

[2] Romans 10:17

[3] Thune, Bob “Is Preaching Killing Your Church Plant?” Tuesday June 9th, 2009  (

[4] Stott, John R. The Cross of Christ pp. 338

[5] 2 Tim 2:15

[6] Romans 1:16

Published December 12, 2022

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Clint Clifton

Clint Clifton is the founding pastor of Pillar, a multiplying church in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and the senior director of resource and research strategy at the North American Mission Board. He is the author of several books and periodicals on the subject of church planting, including Church Planting Thresholds: A Gospel Centered Church Planting Guide and Church Planting Primer and is the host of the Church Planting podcast.