Finding Preaching Content

Raiders of the Lost Ark has been one of my favorite movies since I first watched it when I was about 7 years old. My older brother and I used to love watching the Indiana Jones Trilogy together.[1]

Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of those movies I’ve seen so many times that I can pretty much quote the script verbatim. In one of the classic scenes in the middle of the movie, Indy and Sallah are consulting a local expert on the location of the “Well of the Souls;” the place where the Ark was supposedly kept. In true Indiana Jones fashion, they are engaged in a race with the dreaded Nazi regime to find the ancient artifact. The key to finding the Ark’s resting place starts with a medallion, which was to be connected to a staff and held over a scale model of the ancient city of Tanis at the right time of day. If all the measurements were correct (particularly the height of the staff), the sun would shine through the medallion, revealing the location.

The turning point in the race for the Ark comes in this scene, where Indy and Sallah realize that the Nazis have miscalculated. Simultaneously they exclaim:

“They’re digging in the wrong place!”

I get questions almost every week from preachers who are stuck. They ask questions like “How do you know what to preach next?” My first piece of advice is always to remind the stuck preacher about the job they are called to do. The biblical writers reveal that the preacher is a steward, a herald, a witness, a father, and a servant.[2] As such, the preacher’s job is not to “come up with something to say,” but to mine the depths of God’s word for the content of the message.

I think this goes beyond an issue of methodology. It is really an issue of theology. How the preacher develops the message is a matter of what they believe about God and His word. If God is a God who speaks, and the text of Scripture is the content of what He has revealed, the preacher’s job is to say what’s been said. “What’s been said” is found in the Bible that God’s Spirit inspired. If you don’t believe this, say whatever you want. But if this historic Christian doctrine is something you claim to espouse, open the book!

The preacher’s job is to say what’s been said. Click To Tweet

If you preach or teach regularly, the question you and I need to face is “Where are we digging?” Where do you go for the content of your message?

“I go to the Lord.”

What does that mean? How do you determine what the next series is going to be? How do you determine what the content of each of those messages is going to be?

Are you digging in your own soul?

Are you digging in the minds of your congregation?

Are you digging in the newspaper or the 6 o’clock news headlines?

Are you digging by praying to God and asking him for “a word?”

Now, you may have read that last line back again. Huh? Aren’t we supposed to pray and seek God for the word he wants us to deliver?

I think the answer to that question is: Yeah, kind of.

I can imagine God giving us a really straightforward answer when we pray and ask him for “a word:” “I’ve given you my Word in the 66 books FILLED with my revelation, so get to digging!”

If you’re not digging into God’s word to determine the content of your sermon, you’re digging in the wrong place.

And there are a number of reasons why digging in the wrong place is a mistake:

  • It wastes time and energy.
  • It teaches the people we pastor to dig in the wrong place.
  • It unearths things that aren’t ultimately what those we preach to need to hear.
  • It misses the point of preaching.
  • It is a slippery slope to ear-tickling[3] theologically shallow messages.
  • It is counter to the Bible instruction that we “keep a close watch on ourselves and on the teaching”[4]
  • It gives people the impression that the Bible is an answer book to our 37 most applicable inquiries, rather than the revelation of God unfolded through the story of His redemptive work in and through His people in history.

Paul’s words to Timothy should have us on our knees with our Bibles open as we prepare to preach:

1 Timothy 4:16:
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

These final words from Paul’s last letter to Timothy have always encouraged me in my digging. I hope they encourage you as well:

2 Timothy 4:1-5
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.  

[1] With apology to Shia Labeouf, we still do consider the Indiana Jones franchise a trilogy.

[2] John Stott’s book The Preacher’s Portrait details these roles magnificently.

[3] 2 Timothy 4:3

[4] 1 Timothy 4:16