Preachers gather compliments, most of which are merely polite: “Good sermon, pastor.” But one of the ones I cherish most was both simple and sincere: “You’ve taught me how to pray.”
Early on in my preaching days, I learned that sermons about prayer are much less effective in teaching people how to pray than prayerful sermons. But prayerful sermons are hard to come by. Let me explain.
Most sermons have three basic elements to them.
1. Biblical interpretation. Generally, the preacher will spend some time taking a look at the biblical text and explaining what it means. For some, this is the majority of the sermon in what is called expository preaching. For others, this is simple proof-texting, dropping in verses from the Bible to support what the preacher already intended to say. For most, this is the launching point for letting the Scriptures shape who we are.
2. Personal connection. Any decent preacher is an accomplished storyteller. Stories open up the imagination to the point of the biblical text. Not only that, stories engage the personal stories of those listening to the sermon, helping them to make a personal connection with the biblical text.
3. Life application. Usually in the concluding part of the sermon, the preacher gets to the “so what?” part, the “how do we live this out?” part. Some applications will be overly practical and moralistic. Others will be overly abstract, content with just passing on ideas. But most preachers have a sincere desire to live out the text themselves and try to come up with simple steps to doing so.
These three elements are all good and most preachers do them. But early on in my pastoring, I realized that these three steps could be done and everyone would be satisfied with the sermon and never engage with God. The thought horrified me.
Was my preaching just a Christianized version of Chicken Soup for the Soul with some Bible verses sprinkled on top for flavor?
There needed to be a real engagement with God both in the preparation for the sermon and in the delivery itself. In fact, this encounter with God was far more important than any of the other three steps. I needed these Scriptures I was preaching from to lead me to God in prayer, and I needed to lead God’s people to God in prayer as I opened up these Scriptures for them.
So, I started asking the same question in every sermon: “How do we pray in response to what God is speaking to us here?”
If the sermon is about money, for example, I don’t want to just know how to live with (or without!) money, I want to know how to pray about my money choices — how I earn my money; how I spend my money; how I save my money; how I give away my money; how I deal with others who are wealthy; how I deal with others who are poor; how I vote on money issues; and so on. I want to learn to pray all of these aspects of living with money.
If the sermon is about God’s amazing grace, I don’t want to just know how to live in that grace and extend it to others, I want to pray in response to grace — how I receive grace from God; how I receive grace from others; how I extend the grace of God to others; how I am gracious (or not) with those who have hurt me; how I undermine grace in my relationships; how I undermine grace in my politics; and so on. I want all of this to be prayed, too.
By asking this same question week after week in sermons, I had to be asking the same question to myself during the week leading up to those sermons. And the more I asked this question of myself, the wider-ranging my praying in response to the Scriptures began to get. And ultimately, as I asked this same question week after week, the congregation began learning that every encounter with Scripture should lead to prayer, not just to thinking about what was written. It should all lead to a living encounter with God.
All of Scripture is pray-able. When we pray the scriptures and preach them prayerfully, then those who listen start praying them as well.