In great faith, I have written to a number of better-known preachers on both sides of the Atlantic. Each of them has been sent ten questions on the subject of preaching. The following is Tim Keller’s response. For those of you who don’t know, “Timothy J. Keller is an author, a speaker, and the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City, New York.” Find here a more complete biography.
1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
It is central, but not alone at the center. Pastoral ministry is as important as preaching ministry, and lay “every-member” ministry is as crucial as ordained ministry. I wouldn’t make a hierarchy out of these things—they are interdependent. But pastoral ministry and lay ministry are not substitutes for strong preaching.
2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
I preached about 200 different expositions a year for the first nine years of my ministry (when I was age 24 through 33). During that time I was considered interesting and good but I never got a lot of feedback that I was anything special. I’ve grown a lot through lots of practice.
3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
I pastor a large church and have a large staff, and so I give special prominence to preparing the sermon. I give it 15–20 hours a week. I would not advise younger ministers to spend so much time, however. The main way to become a good preacher is to preach a lot, and to spend tons of time in people work—that is how you grow from becoming not just a Bible commentator but a flesh and blood preacher. When I was a pastor without a large staff, I put in six to eight hours on a sermon.
4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallize it?
I don’t know that I’d be so rigid as to say there has to be just one Big Idea every time. That is a good discipline for preachers in general, because it helps with clarity. Most texts have too much in them for the preacher to cover in one address. You must be selective. But sometimes a preaching-size text simply has two or three major ideas that are too good to pass up.
5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
He should combine warmth and authority/force. That is hard to do, since temperamentally we incline one way or the other. (And many, many of us show neither warmth nor force in preaching.)
6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I use a very detailed outline, with many key phrases in each sub-point written out word for word.
7. What are the greatest perils that a preacher must avoid?
This seems to me too big a question to tackle here. Virtually everything a preacher ought to do has a corresponding peril-to-avoid. For examples, preaching should be Biblical, clear (for the mind), practical (for the will), vivid (for the heart,) warm, forceful, and Christo-centric. You should avoid the opposites of all these things.
8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (e.g., pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)?
See my remarks on #3 above. It is a very great mistake to pit pastoral care and leadership against preaching preparation. It is only through doing people-work that you become the preacher you need to be—someone who knows sin, how the heart works, what people’s struggles are, and so on. Pastoral care and leadership are to some degree sermon prep. More accurately, it is preparing the preacher, not just the sermon. Prayer also prepares the preacher, not just the sermon.
9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
British preachers have had a much greater impact on me than American preachers. And the American preachers who have been most influential (e.g., Jonathan Edwards) were essentially British anyway.
10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
I haven’t done much on that front at all, and I’m not happy about that. Currently I meet with two other younger preachers on my staff who also preach regularly. We talk specifically about their preaching and sermon prep.