Choosing a Sermon

by Pastor Jack Hyles

(Chapter 5 from Dr. Hyle's excellent book, Teaching On Preaching)


This may be the most difficult part of the preparation of a sermon. Especially is this true for the busy pastor who preaches to the same people week after week, month after month and year after year. It is no doubt much like the dilemma that faces the busy housewife who must prepare meals for the same people year after year. However, the preacher faces an even more difficult decision than does the housewife, for the housewife may prepare the same meal over and over again through the years, but the pastor must continually bring something fresh and new to his people, and yet at the same time he must use the new as a cloak and camouflage to cover the same old truths. This chapter is to deal with that all- important subject of how to choose a sermon.

1. Choose according to the needs of the people. The wise pastor will constantly be watching his people and examining them so he can intelligently give them the fulfillment of their needs. This also means that the wise pastor will stay in tune with God and walk with Him so that God can reveal to him the needs of his people in order for him to meet those needs from the pulpit.

2. A sermon is a tool. It is not an end in itself. It is a tool with which to fix something.

For a number of years Evangelist Jim Lyons worked with me as an associate. When he left me to enter the field of evangelism, people asked him to appraise my preaching. He very kindly said that the key to Jack Hyles' preaching was that a sermon was not a sermon to Brother Hyles but rather it was a greasy wrench with which to fix something. I have never heard a better explanation of what preaching ought to be. A sermon is not a painting in an art gallery to be admired and complimented; nor is it a relic in a museum to be examined. It is, as Brother Lyons observed, like a greasy wrench! It is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. The end is to fix something. This means that a good sermon should never be the goal of preaching; it should simply be a "greasy old wrench."

3. A sermon is a prescription. The good physician examines his patient, finds the problem and writes a prescription for its alleviation. This is why I think that Biblical, topical sermons grow healthier Christians than expository sermons unless the expository sermons come from different parts of the Bible as the filling of a prescription to correct the problems found in our people.

When I go to the doctor, he doesn't examine me and then take me to the drug store, find the last medicine I took and give me the bottle right next to it and inform me that he is going bottle by bottle through the drug store! No physician will have healthy patients using this practice.

No pastor will meet all the needs of his people by going verse- by-verse through the Biblical apothecary. It just may be that while the pastor is preaching through Leviticus, his people need some- thing from Nehemiah; or while he is in Daniel, his people need something from the Sermon on the Mount. Some of the driest preaching done in America is done by Bible expositors who mimic the theologian and his method used in the classroom in Bible colleges and seminaries. This is not to minimize the importance of the preacher sitting at the feet of a good theologian. A young preacher would do well to learn the truth about the Bible from a good Bible expositor in school, and he no doubt should take the truths that he learns and preach them to his people, but he should not take the methods used by the expositor in the classroom with which to deliver these truths from behind the pulpit. The pastor is not teaching young theologians; he is trying to change the lives of carpenters, plumbers, electricians, professional men, factory workers, secretaries, etc. The theologian can teach him the medi- cine available in the apothecary; but what medicine he administers to his people and the way he administers it should not be copied from the theologian in Bible class.

One of the sad things about training for the Gospel ministry is that the ministry is perhaps the only profession that does not reproduce itself. One is taught to be a plumber by plumbers. One is taught to be an electrician by electricians. One is taught to be a carpenter by carpenters. One is taught to be a doctor by doctors. One is taught to be a beautician by beauticians, and yet one is taught to be a preacher by teachers. Preachers should train preachers in the methods of preaching! I have no scruples with teachers teaching truths to young preachers. I do take issue with those who would make light of old-fashioned preaching while admonishing the young ministerial student to use the methods of the theologian when he goes to his pulpit. The young preacher should admire the Bible teacher, but he should emulate successful preachers and pastors. If he wants to build a church, he should emulate successful church-builders. If he wants to preach great revival campaigns, he should emulate great evangelists.

4. The pastor must know the apothecary; that is, the drug store. If he searches for the needs of his people and doesn't know the Bible well enough to meet those needs, he will not know the joy of pastoring mature Christians. The most important thing about a preacher knowing the Bible is that he knows where to find the particular prescription that will meet the needs of his congregation. Whatever need he sees in the hearts and lives of his people should cause him to rush to the Word of God to find exactly the medicine for the spiritual healing of those whom he leads.

5. The pastor must study his people in order to find their needs. This means that the wise pastor must know the Book and know the people. Not to know the people will prevent him from knowing what to preach. Not knowing the Book will prevent him from being able to find the spiritual medicine with which to satisfy the needs that he has found in the lives of his people. Now in the finding of the people's needs the pastor could do the following:

a. The pastor should diagnose the people's needs on Sunday night. After the Sunday evening service and after I have counseled with those who have needed to see me following the service, I retreat to my study and relive the day I feel that I can know the needs of my people right after having been with them better than I can a few days later. Usually before I leave the study on Sunday night I know the general directions that I will take in my preaching the following Sunday, so the preaching on Sunday is not only a time of administering the proper medicine but it is also a time of diagnosing so that the wise pastor can write the proper prescription for the following Sunday and, for that matter, the following Wednesday night.

b. The pastor should counsel his people. There are three words in the Bible used for what we call the office of pastor: (1)pastor, (2) bishop, and (3) elder. As the pastor, or shepherd, the preacher is supposed to protect, nourish and care for the sheep. As the bishop he is the overseer of all of the work. He is not the dictator, but he is the overseer. Then as elder, he is the experienced one who can counsel his people properly concerning the needs and decisions of their lives. These counseling sessions can be wonderful opportunities for the pastor to diagnose the needs of his congregation. This wise pastor should watch for trends or even epidemics of some spiritual disease or deficiency. I average about 145 people a week who come to my study for counseling of some kind. Some of these come for just a few minutes and some come for lengthy periods. If, over the period of a week's time, several people come with the same problem or need, I feel that this could represent some kind of trend in the congregation. It may be that I would preach along that line. If 15 out of 150 people were to have the same problem, I would feel that probably hundreds of my people have that problem who did not seek counseling, so I would go to the pulpit for the filling of a prescription from Bible truth.

It is amazing how accurate polls can be. They say that 1500 people chosen carefully from across America can rather accurately reveal public opinion about a matter. This is no doubt true in a church.

It is a wonderful and an amazing thing how God leads His man when counseling. Quite often I give advice and I know that it is God Who is leading me. To be frank, I am startled as Re reveals some great truth to me for the strengthening of someone over whom God has made me spiritual overseer. When such truth is revealed, I immediately make a note of it. When the person with whom I am counseling has left, I rush to my desk and outline the advice that God has just given me for them. I then prepare a sermon with that material, for the time will come no doubt when all of my people will need what I just gave to one of my people.

Preacher, don't trust your memory! As soon as the wisdom is given to you from God, write it down, even while the counsel- ing session is in progress, and by all means rush to your desk as soon as the session has ended and capture the wisdom and truths that God has given you in order that you may share it with your people when the need arises.

c. The pastor should check his own feelings. He may have a deficiency himself. If the pastor has a deficiency, no doubt many of the people would have the same one. For example, suppose that a recession comes. Numbers of the people lose their jobs. This means that the church offerings are down. The pastor becomes concerned about these offerings. If he is concerned about his needs during the recession, how much more will the people who are now unemployed be concerned about their needs! Perhaps the pastor should take his own feelings as representative ones and preach to the people Philippians 4:19, "But my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus," and Matthew 6:33, "But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you."

The pastor is human too. He has his fears and doubts. I often say that preaching is one doubter preaching to another group of doubters trying to convince both preacher and hearer to believe. This, of course, is an oversimplification, but the fact remains that the pastor is human and he has his doubts, weaknesses, trials, testings, problems, burdens and heartaches. When they come, it is probable that his people have had them for some time already The pastor then may administer to himself and his congregation the medicine needed from the Word of God that will heal his doubts and fears and the doubts and fears of those who look to him for spiritual leadership.

d. The pastor should watch his people as he preaches. The way they respond to certain truths give him an idea of their needs. Then he can flee to the apothecary of the Word of God to find the right medicine that will heal them.

e. In a smaller church, the pastor should visit his people regularly.  This visit is not primarily a goodwill ambassage or a pastoral responsibility; but it is a splendid way to find the needs of the people.  When I was a young pastor pastoring smaller churches one of the first things I did upon assuming a pastorate was to visit in the home of each family in order to get to know them better.  This is just another way to diagnose the patient in order that you may flee to the Bible apothecary for the proper medicine for his cure.

f. The pastor should make a list of all the potential needs of the people. Years ago I sat down and listed all the subjects that I felt my people needed. All of these fell under twenty general topics. Every sermon that I preach is just one of these topics cloaked in a different Scripture with different illustrations and different manners of presentation in order that I may keep my people healthy while at the same time being fresh to them.

g. The pastor should schedule times to think about his people and their needs. While thinking about his people, the pastor should ask God to reveal to him how to meet these needs. The pastor who thinks about his people and prays for his people will learn to love his people. The pastor who loves his people will beyond a doubt find the fulfillment of their needs in the Word of God.

So far we have stressed the importance of knowing two things: the patient and the medicine. If we know the patient as we should know him, we will properly diagnose his case. If we know the medicine, that is the Word of God, as we should know it, then we will know where to find the answer for the needs found in the diagnosis.

6. Never preach to individuals. In 1960 on a Sunday night I preached to an individual. The next Wednesday night I asked my people to forgive me, and from that day until this I have never used my pulpit as a whipping post or a place to single out individuals or a place of revenge or vengeance. If I am preaching on a certain subject and an individual comes to my mind, I immediately jump over that thought to the next one because I do not want to be guilty of using the pulpit with which to carry on a private feud or as a place to retaliate. The wise preacher will never attack someone's sin; he will attack sin but will never attack the individual. The pulpit should be a place of action, not a place of reaction! It should be a place of defense of the truth, but not a place of defense of self.

7. The sermon should not be for the specific purpose of enter- taming. That is, unless the pastor feels that the patient needs some entertainment for his spiritual health. I often say when I stand to preach in different pulpits across the country, "I have not come to entertain, though I do think we will laugh some. I have not come primarily to instruct, though I think we will learn something. I have not come to inspire, though I think we will be inspired some. I have come in order that God may change our lives!" It is certainly not a sin to laugh in church, and laughter is certainly an important part of the Christian's needs, but entertainment should not be the main purpose of preaching.

8. The pastor should keep a list of sermons, ideas and outlines with which to stock the apothecary. I have, at the present time, over 100 sermons already outlined any of which I could preach next Sunday Most of these will not be preached for months or years to come, and many of them will never be preached. They just line the shelves of my spiritual apothecary to remain available in case they are needed. There are numbers of ways that such sermons, topics, outlines and ideas can be found.

a. Read the Bible looking for sermon ideas. This reading is not in preparation for next Sunday's sermon; it is the finding of ideas that can be placed on the shelf of the apothecary awaiting the time when a prescription is written for its administering. Look for verses that outline themselves such as II Chronicles 7:14; Psalm 1:1-3; and John 5:24; 15:7; 14:12; 3:18; 1:14, etc. Then read the Bible looking for statements and verses that lead to good sermon ideas. Some of my most usable and useful sermons have been found in this manner. Such sermons as, "There is No Discharge from This War," "At Even my Wife Died, and in the Morning I Did as I was Commanded," and "I Sat Where They Sat," have originated from this source of Bible reading. Keep these passages on the shelf of your drug store right beside those that outline themselves and have them ready in case one of them can fill a need of the congregation.

b. Read CRUDEN'S CONCORDANCE for Scriptural phrases that can be added to those aforementioned.

c. Listen to sermons. One of the best sources for getting sermon ideas is that of listening to other men of God preach. When I hear a good sermon, I usually find three or four sermons within that sermon. When a man of God is listening in the Spirit to a man of God who is preaching in the Spirit, the Holy Spirit Who knows the dilemma of the busy pastor can reveal to him many ideas that can be placed on the shelf of the apothecary and can be used when the need arises.

As the pastor searches for those ideas which can in the present and the future add to the spiritual health of his people by means of reading the Bible for verses that outline themselves, reading the Bible for phrases that are "preachy," listening to sermons of Spirit-filled men, reading sermons of Spirit-filled men, searching for the sermon titles in books of sermons in libraries and bookstores, reading CRUDEN'S CONCORDANCE, and most of all, walking with God, he is lining the shelves of his medicine room with prescriptions that may or may not be needed, but there is certainly a peace that comes to both pastor and people by knowing that they are there!

9. The pastor should beg God to give him spiritual guidance as he chooses the spiritual medicine from the Word of God for his people's needs. This is the most important of all methods of choosing sermons. Once the shelf is lined with great truths, Bible lessons, etc., the pastor must plead with God to let him know which is needed by his people at a given time. It is far better for a pastor to plead with God to lead him to know which of the truths he already knows that he should use than it is for him to plead with God for Him to give him a truth when it is 11:00 on Saturday night and the service is only twelve hours away!

10. The pastor should never use or consider such phrases as, "That will preach!" but rather, "That will help!"

11. When the pastor sees the need, he may rest assured that the filling of that need is the will of God. When a child is lost, it is the will of God to try to find him. When I saw a lady fall at the airport one day, I knew it was the will of God for me to help her up. When I saw a wreck take place in front of my eyes one day, I knew it was my job to rush to the rescue of those who were injured. When a Spirit- filled pastor has lived in the Word of God in order to acquaint himself with its every cure and has prayerfully examined his people in order to diagnose them for their needs, and when he has bathed both of these in prayer, he is then able to go to the pulpit knowing that he is going to meet the particular needs of his people through his message and in so doing he can feel that he has chosen the right sermon.

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Billy Sunday (1862-1935)


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