“Read to refill the wells of inspiration,” advises a leading minister who even took a suitcase full of books on his honeymoon
For twenty-nine years I have preached from three to five different sermons every week from the pulpit of Park Street Church, located in the geographical center of Boston. In some seasons, such as Holy Week, I preach as many as eight different sermons in one week. Three messages weekly are on radio, and one other is on television. Then there is also a Friday night Bible lecture.
The responsibility of preaching the Gospel in this intellectual center of 130,000 students in over twenty institutions of higher learning has never lost its challenge or joy. Hundreds of visitors are found in the congregations every Sunday morning and evening, many of them students. Since much of Boston thought is hostile to evangelical Christianity, the pressure of preparation for this preaching is intensified.
Recently a member of a prominent political family of Boston and of another branch of the faith stopped in at the office to ask for a copy of a sermon. The interview revealed that this person had been listening to my sermons for years but had never contacted the church before. One never knows to whom he is preaching.
My work is my life and my life is my work. I cannot preach about a truth I have not experienced by way of present possession or expectant hope. Hence every occurrence in the family, in devotions, in academic pursuits, in relaxation, in travel, and in occasional reading is preparation for preaching. A man’s preaching will rise no higher than the spiritual level of his own experience. Thus I seek “the anointing of the Holy One” upon my thought and action as the fountainhead of conviction in preaching.
The year begins with the summer reading or travel. On my honeymoon to Europe one suitcase was filled with books. I go nowhere without at least a briefcase filled with books for long-term and short-term study. Many summers are spent at Hill-winds, our home in the White Mountains. There I read to refill the wells of inspiration. There I meditate, take inventory, pray, and seek a new filling of God’s Spirit. There I begin to plan the program for the year of preaching.
The fall opens with evening evangelistic sermons, in which I bear in mind the influx of students. These sermons handle the great texts and truths of Scripture that point toward a decision. Once we have a large group attached to the services, I move into doctrinal sermons, giving series on such topics as Christ, the Holy Spirit, the creed, the deeper life, and the steps of salvation. Next I lighten the menu with a series of biographical sermons (for which the Bible is inexhaustible), sometimes preaching a series on the life of one biblical character. Then comes Lent, with its opportunity for exploiting the great redemptive themes. After Easter, I find that topical or polemic sermons will sustain interest at the evening services. I always use series of messages.
The morning sermons in my ministry have always been expository. Here is the richest field of material for a long ministry and for the fullest instruction of the people. I choose a book of the Bible, read it over in the Greek and many times in the English, outline it, and then take each subdivision for a sermon. The sermon must be a unit that stands alone, for visitors will hear only one message. I spend the most time on my outline, so that it is logical, alliterative, parallelistic, and easy to remember. Then I list all thoughts that come to me on the text or subject, using the analogy of Scripture. The next step is to consult critical commentaries to be sure my interpretation is correct. Then I find out what material I have in my file and book index for supporting information or illustration. If necessary, as a final step, I use practical commentaries. When all this is finished, I dictate the message so as to be able to express myself carefully and well.
As I write this, I have just finished three years of preaching on Sunday mornings on the Gospel of Matthew. Nevertheless, I do not hesitate to interrupt an expository series at any time for an occasional sermon when it is appropriate. One must not get into bondage.
I seriously try to take Monday as a day of rest. At least, I get exercise and change. By Monday night I begin some general reading. Tuesday morning brings the routine work of correspondence, bulletin material, administrative direction. As soon as possible, I get at my evening sermon; this must be finished by noon on Wednesday. Wednesday afternoon is given to interviews and administration. Thursday morning I give a television address and record a twenty-minute exposition on the Sunday school lesson to be broadcast on Sunday. Thursday afternoon I begin preparing my Sunday sermon. Friday I spend on the Friday night Bible lecture, plus interviews. Saturday morning I return to my Sunday morning sermon and work at it till it is finished, however late that may be. If time remains on Saturday afternoon, I call on my people, as I do in evenings not taken up with meetings of church groups.
The advantage of this order for the week is that I unload my sermons in the inverse order of preparation: the Friday lecture first, the Sunday morning sermon (last prepared) second, and the Sunday evening sermon last. In this way I can preach without notes, a practice I have maintained for thirty-five years. This means that I must firmly keep Saturday evenings free for studying the sermon outlines and memorizing quotations.
The great objective of preaching is to be a vehicle of the Word of God, to be the means of conversion, of edification, of exhortation, and of instruction. Every talent and ability should be dedicated to this end. When people hear us preach, they should catch their breath in holy awe and say, as the people did of Jesus, “Whence hath this man this wisdom?” All of this goes back to the spiritual life of the preacher.
I keep a prayer list. I put everything—every decision to be made, every responsibility, every journey, every problem, every undertaking—on this list. I pray over them daily. I find that to have prayed well is to have studied well. Much of my preaching direction comes through my praying.—THE REV. HAROLD JOHN OCKENGA, Park Street (Congregational) Church, Boston, Mass.
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