Today we feature more wisdom from Mark Dever in my 2007 interview with him. This time Mark shares details about his personal preparation and delivery of sermons.
C.J. Mahaney: Let’s move into the topic of preaching. The first of the “nine marks” is expositional preaching. Talk to us very specifically about your process of preparing a sermon.
Mark Dever: I assume that my mind is in too many ways a stagnant swamp that needs the fresh water of God’s Word constantly being poured in to understand him better, to understand myself better, to understand life better. So I want to give myself to preaching on a certain passage of Scripture. I usually don’t preach because I am looking to talk about a particular problem. This year we are going through Luke’s Gospel, and so I want to work specifically on the passage I am going to be preaching Sunday. I want to read it over and over and note things.
Gordon Fee taught me New Testament exegesis at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and—although I didn’t agree with his feminism or his kenotic Christology—I did love his story about the graduate student in ichthyology. There is a student studying fish at a doctoral level, and a world-class expert tells him to write down everything he sees about the fish and then he leaves. And the guy is kind of disappointed, because he was studying under this great expert. He thought, “Why am I doing this?”
He wrote down a few things. The expert returns about 30 minutes later and says, “This is all you’ve got?”
And the graduate student says, “Yes.”
He says, “I want you to do this for the next hour.”
And the student says, “An hour? You’re kidding!”
So for an hour the student does it and he starts noting down more things, and seeing more things, and writing them down.
The expert returns an hour later and he says, “All right. This is a pretty good start. Why don’t you do this the rest of the afternoon?”
And the graduate student is thinking, What are you thinking? You are the great expert, I came to learn from you and this is just a fish floating here.
So the student spends the rest of the afternoon doing the same thing. But by the end of the afternoon he realizes he has learned more about fish just by sitting and staring at the fish.
All of that to say: Rather than reading all the commentaries, I spend my first day in sermon preparation just reading and rereading the text and praying about it and noting things I see (any structures or questions that are answered). I find this to be the most fruitful way for me to have my soul freshly engaged by God about his Word.
And I also think of it in the context of where I’ll be preaching it—to this congregation. So I assume my exegesis should be very similar to what other people have done, but I will be looking at it with certain questions in mind from my own life, from the lives of those people in the congregation, and from the congregation as a whole.
So the most fundamental part of the sermon preparation for me is this reading and rereading of the text.
CJM: Do you do recommend pastors consult commentaries?
MD: Yes, particularly when there are things I’m not sure what to do with—but only after I have completed all this work on the text myself. Otherwise I will just become an echo chamber for somebody’s commentary rather than talking with the commentary, as it were. When I have a text, I will put a question mark by a certain thing that I have a question about in my Word doc. I will write out my question and then I make myself answer it. Then I will type in “Answer” and insert the best answer I could think of at the time (even if it is not a very good one).
Then once I have this in mind, I try to answer all the questions I have about the text. Only then do I feel it’s safe for me to look at a commentary. Hopefully a lot of the things commentators will have thought of are some of the questions I have considered as I have been reading and rereading the text and praying over it. So I am able to have a conversation with the people who have written the commentaries, rather than just let them sort of type on my brain.
CJM: All right. Average number of hours each week devoted to sermon prep?
MD: Thirty to 35.
CJM: How long do you speak on Sundays?
MD: One hour.
CJM: You work from a manuscript?
MD: I do, though I don’t generally recommend other people do that.
MD: Manuscripts can just be deadly boring. I don’t want to say there are few people who can use a manuscript well, but it is definitely a minority.
CJM: And you don’t remain restricted by your manuscript, though. That would be the difference.
MD: For whatever reason, I can glance down and pick up several sentences and then talk. So I don’t think it appears that I am reading.
CJM: Not at all, no.
Matt Schmucker: And you often get accused of saying that your best stuff after a sermon is the stuff that wasn’t in the manuscript anyway. We call it off-roading.
MD: What everybody thanks me for as they walk out at the door usually had nothing to do with my manuscript.
CJM: You are unique in your preparation process in that you love to have people around you. True?
MD: Well, honestly, there are some parts of preparation when I do prefer to be alone, especially when I am trying to think things through. But I like having people around for me to be able to bounce things off of. Particularly when I go over my application grid and fill it out, I do that with another member of the church.
CJM: Describe that process. Because before you preach a sermon on Sunday, you meet with a member of the church on Saturday to do what?
MD: They will have been reading over the text of Scripture. We will sit and talk about the Scripture. So they will ask me any questions they have. And that helps me sometimes, because they will have questions—as someone who hasn’t done all this study will have. Sometimes I’m thinking, “Well, you don’t need to explain about the Samaritans. Everybody knows.” They’ll say, “Well, no, actually I don’t know. Who are the Samaritans?”
These things are very helpful as a reality check for the preacher, I think.
But then we labor in giving our time to application where I have various categories set up, which can change from series to series. But generally for each point of my sermon I try to ask,
- What is this saying to the individual Christian? This is the category I think most evangelical preachers preach from—and only this one. But there are others.
- How does this point to Christ?
- What is this saying that is unique in salvation history that I need to articulate?
- What is this saying to the non-Christian?
- Are there any public implications?
- What is it saying to Capitol Hill Baptist Church? How should we as a church, as a congregation, be challenged, encouraged, or shaped by what we are hearing?
These categories provide me a structured meditation on the text. And it is really helpful for me to have someone else to talk through these categories with.