Three Most Important Lessons I’ve Learned in Preaching

By Matt Carter

There is an art and science to preaching. But the power behind preaching comes from the Word of God.

At the writing of this article, I’ve been a preacher of God’s word for almost thirty years. I began my preaching journey as a young college student, with nothing more to guide me than a fresh call to ministry. My problem was that I had no idea how to do it. But thirty years, two seminary degrees, and a few thousand sermons later, I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but I’ve learned quite a bit about the art and science of preaching. In this article, I’m going to briefly write about the three most important lessons I’ve learned over those thirty years.

1. The power in my preaching comes from God’s Word.

When the Apostle Paul was writing the church at Corinth, he spoke about his preaching this way: “My message and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Cor. 2:4). What Paul wrote that young church is crucial for young (and old) preachers to hear. Paul is making the argument that the power in his preaching does not come from awesome rhetorical ability or human persuasion, but rather a demonstration of the Spirit’s power. How can our preaching possess a demonstration of the Spirit’s power? When we are preaching the words that the Holy Spirit inspired. My humor does not possess the power of the Spirit. My cool analogies and stories don’t possess the power of God. But God’s Word does. The only guarantee that preaching possesses the power of God, is when we preach the Holy Spirit inspired Word of God.

2. Prepare and preach every sermon, like Jesus is coming back right after you finish.

Years ago, an old pastor in his 80s said to me: “young man, prepare and preach every sermon, like Jesus is going to come back the moment you finish your sermon.” Think about it, how hard would you prepare if you knew that this next sermon was the last one your people would ever hear before Judgment day? If you knew that you had one shot to call your people to repentance and trust in Christ, and then the trumpet was going to sound? How much would you labor and pray over that message? Would you wait until Saturday night to put it together? Would you say a few passing prayers on the way into the pulpit? Probably not. You’d work diligently to make sure you were as prepared. You have to put in the work on Monday through Saturday, so that you can walk into the pulpit with confidence on Sunday. As pastors, our task is far too important to not be as prepared as we can.

Secondly, when you finally stepped into that pulpit, how passionately would you preach that message? How fervently would you call the people of your congregation to come to faith in Christ and to offer all of their lives to Him, while there was still time? I’m guessing you would preach pretty passionately.

The sad reality is that many of us prepare and preach our sermons like we have 50 more years to preach. We prepare like it’s just another Sunday. We preach like our people have all the time in the world. But the truth is we simply don’t know when Christ will return, or when ourselves or our people will be called home. Prepare and preach every sermon like it is your last.

3. Preach prophetically and pastorally.

The reality is that the Word of God says some really difficult things. After all these years, I’ve found there’s a sweet spot in our preaching, where we say those difficult things with a mix of truth and love. The problem is that most pastors have a tendency to swing the pendulum too far to one extreme or another. They might be afraid to offend, so they don’t teach the deep and difficult truths of Scripture. They sugar coat the reality of God’s word, so that people aren’t hearing an accurate version of the truth.

The other side of the pendulum is when pastors have such a prophetic edge, that difficult things are preached in a way that people can’t even hear it. That was me in my youth. I was so passionate about what God said, that looking back, at times I was downright mean. That’s not OK. Now, I want to be clear, I’m not saying that we don’t preach the difficult things of Scripture. We must never water down the message of Scripture, no matter how difficult it might be for the audience to hear. But after all these years, I’ve learned there is a way to preach those really difficult things. You preach those difficult things with love and a pastor’s heart. I now preach those difficult truths like a father lovingly pleading with his children to choose the right path. I’ve found that to be the most effective way.

The preaching of God’s Word is one of the greatest privileges God has giving me during my 50 years on this planet. In many ways, I still feel I have so much to learn. But during my time as a pastor and preacher, I’ve learned that if I preach the word, I preach and prepare with passion and unction. And when I preach hard things, I preach with love and a pastor’s heart; then God will use that gift in ways that changes people’s lives and helps build the Kingdom of God.

Published September 18, 2023

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Matt Carter

Matt Carter is vice president of mobilization for Send Network, the largest church planting network in North America. He was also founding pastor of The Austin Stone Church. During his tenure at The Stone, the church sent over 300 full-time missionaries to unreached people groups around the world. Matt holds an MDiv from Southwestern Seminary and a Doctorate in Expositional Preaching from Southeastern Seminary. He and his wife Jennifer have three children.