The Ever-Learning Preacher

By Trevin Wax

We're never truly done with our pursuit of knowledge. Here's why we're called to continue reflecting on God's Word as we keep engaging the world around us.

What’s Your Destination?

One of the most important things you can do as a preacher is keep a posture of openness and continual learning. Otherwise, you’ll run the risk of drying up, of saying the same things the same way, and of losing your ability to illustrate the truth with powerful examples and analogies.

Here’s the vision I want to put before you. Let’s look down the road and assume the Lord gives you the privilege to serve Him for decades as the primary preacher or teacher of your congregation. What kind of older preacher do you want to be? If you want to be a wise and experienced preacher whose sermons are fresh, full of insight, filled with truth beautifully expressed, and marked by the fragrance of Jesus, you’re going to have to take steps now to form the habits you need to reach that destination and become that very kind of preacher.

The Journey Continues

A Canadian pastor friend of mine, Darryl Dash, talks about how, a few years ago, his family doctor moved away, and they wondered what their new doctor would be like. They heard from a friend who said, “The new doctor? He’s a doctor who reads his journals.” They experienced comfort from hearing that simply remark. Darryl loved the image of a doctor going home at night, continuing to read and learn, and digging into the latest medical journal. He was probably even having to sacrifice the time he would otherwise spend watching another game or doing some other hobby—and that kind of dedication matters for a doctor who wants to keep learning.

Now, don’t forget this: We are physicians of souls, tasked with expositing God’s inspired Word for His people. In the same way that good doctors read their journals, good pastors do things to continue growing and improving through reading, listening, and learning.

Commitment to Growth

One of the least known presidents of the United States was Chester Arthur. He was our 21st and became president after the assassination of James Garfield in 1881. A woman in Washington at the time criticized Arthur’s speeches. She said that even if he could quote poetry, “These are only leaves springing from a root out of dry ground. His vital forces are not fed, and very soon he has given out his all.” In other words, once you got past the flowery leaf, you were left with dry ground. In her eyes, the president had nothing else to offer.

I wonder if pastors who stop learning, reading, and growing eventually fit that description. Flowery leaves, but dried-up roots. Maybe we can keep the attention of a crowd. Maybe we can even throw in some rhetorical flourishes here and there, quoting famous pastors and commentators. But all the while, our hearts are still dry. Our lips are still parched. Our vital forces are not fed. It’s a constant temptation for us to go to the Scriptures looking for a three-point outline rather than hunting for life and sustenance.

The Well and the Word

Powerful preaching that endures will contain a depth of insight that only comes from serious meditation on the Word. In a similar vein, relevant preaching that connects with hearers will contain analogies and illustrations that only come from serious reflection on the world; there are no shortcuts.

Todd Henry is a guy who writes about the creative process. He urges his readers to focus on the well. The fountain. The spring. You’re going to run dry if you’re not consistently refilling the well. Now, the things that you read are one of the main streams that flows into that well. However, I’m not only talking about Scripture or commentaries. Some of the driest preachers are those who are unable to connect truth to life because they are too immersed in commentary while rarely engaging in conversation with the people God has called them to. You need a mix of both reading and interaction.

And even in your reading, you will want pull from various sources. Read fiction, read articles on subjects unrelated to your sermon topic, and read history books and biographies. You’ll be amazed at how different kinds of literature can stimulate your thinking so that you can make connections and find illustrations in unusual places.

Input and Output

In all this, though, make sure you are learning more about the people you serve. Interaction matters because good conversations sharpen your thoughts and shape your decisions about what deserves further attention. Interaction informs your reading, which in turn fuels your preaching.

When you preach a lot, you burn a lot of creative calories. You probably know people—maybe you’re this type of person yourself!—who need the intake of thousands of calories a day because of how physically active they are, perhaps from working out or running marathons. Unless your intake matches your output, you’ll eventually lose energy and strength, and your preaching will suffer.

John Stott recommended an hour of reading a day, as well as time spent in the morning, afternoon, or evening every week for a period of three-to-four hours. Stott also recommended a “quiet day” once a month, which would involve reading, reflecting, and more distant planning. That rhythm may seem crazy to you now, but I’ll just say this: If a weekly reading of eight-to-ten hours seems impossible to you right now, look at your phone’s screen time to see how much time you spend on apps. Or consider counting up your hours of television streaming a week. Most of the time, we’ll find that we’ve got time.

Posture and Pursuit

So, make the most of solid book reviews. Subscribe to a reliable theological journal. Look for inspiration from various kinds of literature and books. Spend time in the study of God’s Word. Then, get out and spend time in the study of God’s people—praying, reading, listening, learning, and growing. Feed those vital forces.

Keep up the posture of a preacher who is ever-learning, and keep trusting that God will work through you.

Adapted from a session of the Preaching Masterclass. Take this free course here

Published June 28, 2023

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Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax is Vice President of Resources and Marketing at the North American Mission Board and a visiting professor at Cedarville University. A former missionary to Romania, Trevin is a regular columnist at The Gospel Coalition and has contributed to The Washington Post, Religion News Service, World, and Christianity Today. He has taught courses on mission and ministry at Wheaton College and has lectured on Christianity and culture at Oxford University. He is a founding editor of The Gospel Project, has served as publisher for the Christian Standard Bible, and is the author of multiple books, including The Thrill of Orthodoxy, The Multi-Directional Leader, Rethink Your Self, This Is Our Time, and Gospel Centered Teaching. His podcast is Reconstructing Faith. He and his wife, Corina, have three children.