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Podcast: The Basics of Good Preaching (Doug O’Donnell)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Identifying and Pursuing Good Preaching

In today's episode, Doug O’Donnell talks through common questions laypeople and pastors alike have about preaching and what makes for a good sermon.

The Beauty and Power of Biblical Exposition

Douglas Sean O'Donnell, Leland Ryken

Douglas Sean O’Donnell and Leland Ryken give pastors tools to better understand the literary nature of Scripture in order to give sermons that are interesting, relevant, and accurate to the author’s intention. 

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:04 - First Experiences in Preaching

Matt Tully
Doug, thank you for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Doug O’Donnell
It’s great to be with you, Matt. Thanks for inviting me.

Matt Tully
Today we’re going to talk about preaching, sermons, and all that is entailed within that. Do you remember your first sermon?

Doug O’Donnell
I do, but it depends what you say my first sermon was. I was converted when I was nineteen, and then the first time I ever gave public testimony (I wouldn’t call it a sermon) was when I was working at Wheaton College—I was about to be a student at Wheaton College—in the Physical Plant. I had told one of the workers my testimony. He said, You need to share in chapel next week. So I shared in chapel, and that was just my testimony—how I became a Christian—but it was my first time speaking publicly about the things of God. I knew, not just from that, a sense of calling—Oh, I think I’m good at this. My wife was actually in the audience. She was in high school (four years younger than me) and she was working for the Physical Plant as well, so we wouldn’t meet until years after. She remembered me, so that’s another interesting thing. This question is really intriguing because my first sermon as a pastor—

Matt Tully
Yes, let’s talk about within the context of a church.

Doug O’Donnell
It’s super memorable, and I actually wrote about it in the book that’s coming out with Crossway. It was the Sunday after 9/11.

Matt Tully
Were you the pastor of this church?

Doug O’Donnell
I was the associate pastor. This was a church plant from College Church called Christ the King, and Ken Carr was the senior pastor. What we decided to do, if my memory serves me correctly, is that Ken preached the first week—the opening Sunday of the church in early September—on the incarnation. I believe it was Philippians 2. I was tasked with preaching on Revelation 19, which is the second coming of Christ. I was a bit nervous going into it like, Will people want to read about birds eating the flesh of kings and all these sort of graphic images? But after 9/11 it was so providential that this was the passage that I got to preach on the first time as a pastor—the coming judgement of Christ. I was riveted with the text, and I think people were as well, so it was a very memorable first sermon as a pastor.

Matt Tully
Do you remember, as you were preparing to preach for that Sunday and then 9/11 happens, did you have to make changes to the sermon? Did you go back to the drawing board to some extent, or were you able to preach it like you had planned?

Doug O’Donnell
I definitely added a long pre-introduction before I read the text, and I’m sure throughout the service we had prayed and acknowledged it in some way. I shared a longer version of what I just shared and said in God’s providence I was a bit concerned—This is our pastor? This is the text he picked for the first time he’s going to preach? Who does that? It’s so graphic in its imagery and the violence that it’s depicting of the judgement, but I said how, in God’s providence, I think this is exactly the word we need to hear today as God’s people and as a country. Christ is coming and is going to make everything right in his time. I said something like that, and then I didn’t have to change so much. I probably weaved in different aspects of what had happened that week, but the meat of the sermon didn’t change.

Matt Tully
Do you remember feeling nervous? I would just imagine that being your first sermon in front of your new church, the second sermon the church has ever heard and on a difficult book of the Bible, and then on top of all of that, coming off of this national tragedy like we had never experienced since Pearl Harbor. Do you remember what you felt going into that sermon?

Doug O’Donnell
That’s an interesting question. I feel like in my early preaching I was somewhat oblivious to nerves. I don’t know why. It was actually later in life when I got more nervous at different times.

Matt Tully
Do you have any theories as to why that might be?

Doug O’Donnell
I think the setting is one thing. This is me throughout my life: I’m very comfortable at my own church. I know these people. I’m very comfortable preaching at a church. If someone has me preach at an outdoor venue at some summer fest thing where I think, I know people aren’t really here to hear the Bible I get a little more nervous because it feels like I’m the show. But at a worship service, there’s a lot of other elements and we’re all here to worship God and we’re all here to listen to the word. And maybe just youth and overconfidence, feeling like, I got this.

Matt Tully
You thought you were better than maybe you do now even.

Doug O’Donnell
You should have heard me back then! I was also confident in God’s gifting to me, that this is what I should be doing and I’m excited to be doing it.

Matt Tully
So maybe it wasn’t all youthful over confidence.

Doug O’Donnell
Right. It was a mix. And then I think I was also confident in the text—This is what we need to hear—so I don’t remember being anxious about it.

Matt Tully
How big of a part is that in terms of feeling prepared and feeling confident in your preaching—this settled confidence in the text itself and the message of the text itself being appropriate, true, and good for the people? Have you ever struggled with that at times with certain passages where you just felt, I don’t know how this is going to go over (not the sermon, but the actual truth of the Bible)? Has that ever been an issue for you?

Doug O’Donnell
For sure. There are certain passages I know coming to I can say, This is going to be prophetic to this congregation or at this moment in history or something like this. This could go over well or not go over well. I might have some sort of consternation about how it’s going to go. Usually, when you’re then preaching it, you get a sense of how it is going over. There have been times where I feel like, Okay, I’m a little too strong here—or I was too strong and I wish I didn’t say that. It’s mostly texts that I feel the author—the prophet or Jesus or whoever—like at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, he says, You will stand before me on judgement day and some of you will say, ’Lord! Lord!’ And I’ll say, ’Depart from me’ Those are hard hitting texts, and I think part of good preaching is leaving the tension in the air like Jesus did. That’s how he decided to end the sermon.

Matt Tully
Not trying to console the listener.

Doug O’Donnell
Yes. It’s like you want to present the gospel at some point, but not always at the end. Once I preached the opening of Nahum, which I don’t remember very well. All I know is it’s a lot of judgement. It’s all judgement. I knew it was going to be hard for people to hear. I wanted it to be easiest enough to hear—How can I make it easy enough?—and also, How do I not take the feel of the text out of it by making light of it or something? Letting the weight land on the congregation. But that’s always dangerous because people aren’t used to that. Even last Sunday I was preaching, and it was a heavy passage. My wife was with me and my family was with me. Someone came up to her right afterwards and said, It’s so great to see you guys! She was like, Did you not listen to what was just said? We just all need to kind of pause. I think some people react to that kind of text and preaching in that they don’t know what to do. Like, Hey! How’s it going? What are you guys doing for the Fourth? When I’ve preached things like that, I’ve often said I don’t want to talk to people afterwards. I just want to go in a room because I want it to land on people and for them to think, This is some serious stuff that we don’t normally think about that we should think about.

Matt Tully
I’ve wondered about that because I’ve done a little bit of preaching myself, but I’ve also done far more listening to sermons, and it’s funny how there can be a little bit of this dynamic of sitting down to listen to the sermon, you’re engaged, I’m paying attention and thinking about it. But as soon as that final song is sung, there’s a switch that flips and it’s like, now we’re in what-to-do-for-lunch mode and we’re in small talk again. How have you sought as a pastor to extend the impact of that sermon beyond that forty-five minute window?

Doug O’Donnell
That’s a great question. I don’t think I’ve had much success with it. From time to time I’ll say, Maybe as a family answer this question on the way home: What was surprising? When were you the most engaged? When did you feel God’s presence during the service or during the sermon? Why do you think that was the case? But it is hard right after the service. Occasionally, maybe once or twice, I’ll say that same sort of thing to the congregation: I want you to walk out of here and turn to somebody and talk about this. Don’t talk about the Bears game that’s coming up, or whatever else. There obviously is a time for small talk and for fellowship in the sense of talking about our lives and what we are doing this weekend or during the holidays or whatever vacation you’re going on. It’s a real challenge because I do think we’re not trained as a congregation to process certain sermons in a way that’s really healthy for us.

11:40 - Topical vs. Expository

Matt Tully
This relates to an age-old question/debate that Christians, and in particular the pastor-types, have had for decades now. That’s the question of what to prioritize in our preaching. Should it be expository through books of the Bible? Or is it better to be more topical, having a topical series of some sort where you’re engaging different issues as they’re relevant? How do you think about that question? Often there are these hard and fast battle lines drawn, at least in our camps sometimes, so what would be your approach and recommendation to a pastor trying to discern how to think about that?

Doug O’Donnell
Part of it is my own mentoring and what school I learned from (“school” in the sense of school of preaching and formally). College Church and Kent Hughes was my biggest influence, so that was serial exposition—going through a book of the Bible, verse by verse, for most of the time. And going through the whole book—the whole of Genesis or the whole of a small book like Colossians. Maybe there are breaks in between with different things. For example, if it was a large book. I preached through Matthew in almost ninety sermons, and I did it in four years. That’s breaking it up a little bit, or a lot.

Matt Tully
Did you have little mini-series’ in between those?

Doug O’Donnell
I think I did Psalms in the Summer so that if people are on vacation they’re not like missing a series. They’re all one-offs, but they’re all from the Psalms. I would mix it up with a different genre. For example, not the Gospel of Mark or something like that, and typically the Old Testament.

Matt Tully
That’s some of the critique, perhaps, of the straight through a book of the Bible week after week and verse after verse approach. You might get bogged down in one particular book or section of Scripture, and you’re not really getting exposed to the breadth of what Scripture has for us. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, another critique could be that the church might be facing something specific right now, or culturally there is something specific going on, and it would be important to address that from the Bible and let God’s word speak to that issue. How do you balance that with the benefits of going through a book of the Bible and teaching different contexts?

Doug O’Donnell
I think there are certain things that happen—and 9/11 would be a good example. If I wasn’t preaching on Revelation 19, I would have picked something. But I wouldn’t have done a topical sermon on Islam or something like that. There are a number of reasons for that: 1) I’m not an expert, 2) I don’t know if I trust myself picking all the right topics. With those two things combined—like, in our culture Critical Race Theory is a big thing. Well, I don’t have enough knowledge. And to be honest, I don’t think I have enough time or desire to read all the right books and then write a sermon on it. It’s not that it’s an unimportant issue. Another example is abortion with Roe vs. Wade. That might be one that would be so historic that I’m going to do a one-off on abortion and maybe child sacrifice in the Old Testament. That would be more than appropriate. I would always go to specific texts and walk through it rather than a more systematic approach. That’s just me, but I’m not opposed to someone doing—

Matt Tully
A survey of all the passages.

Doug O’Donnell
Here’s what the Bible says on the theme of feeding the poor, or something like that, and go all over the place and show. I would rather go to a certain passage and walk through it, and then maybe jump other places to support what that passage is saying.

Matt Tully
You look at some of the sermons that we see in the New Testament, whether it was Jesus himself or other apostles, and there are lots of differences to how they’re doing stuff, but they do often pull on multiple Old Testament passages to kind of make a coherent point. Do you think that’s a valid way to do it at times?

Doug O’Donnell
I think at times. Again, I actually think there’s a larger time commitment to do that and to do that really well, whereas if you just say, I’m doing this passage this week, next week I’m doing this passage, etc. and you’re in the same book and you’re getting to learn this book is about this. I will say that I think we should be preaching through the Gospels a lot. I think they are so suitable for Sunday morning service. This is why historically, both in the East and the West, liturgically, the Gospel reading is the last reading before the pastor gets up and preaches something. The Gospels work really well. With something like the longer Prophets, like Isaiah, those are really hard to preach through, and I’ve never done it. They’re intimidating for a number of reasons, but one of them is just the repetition of mercy and judgement over and over and over again. There is a lot of beautiful poetry and a lot of interesting things happening, but you have to know a lot of history, what’s going on, and you have to know how to sustain a congregation for sixty-six + weeks on these repetitive themes that are hugely important. Isaiah is hugely important in the New Testament, but I don’t think it’s suited as well as the Gospels, and even some of the shorter Epistles. I’ve done a lot of work on the Song of Songs and I actually think there are different places where we should use—and I’ve preached through the Song of Songs—but I also feel like why don’t we just use it for what it’s intended for—as a wedding song. Let’s use it at weddings all the time. Put music to it, sing it, and that’s when we use the Song of Songs most naturally. The same with Paul’s letters. I often feel devotionally they should be what we read all the time. Also, he says read them aloud in the churches. Let’s read the whole thing aloud. That would be a good use of that. That’s not to say you can’t preach on Paul, obviously.

Matt Tully
That’s such a helpful nuance, too, because we would affirm that all Scripture is God-breathed, all of it is useful for us and given to us for our good, but that doesn’t mean there might not be certain uses for different parts of the Bible that might be more natural to them than other parts.

Doug O’Donnell
That’s what I’ve learned over the years. I’ve preached through all of Mark and all of Matthew, and I don’t think people get bored with Jesus, and the Gospels have almost every genre in them. The Lord’s Prayer is poetry, the Olivet Discourse is apocalyptic literature, and so you’re jumping to different places and different genres. I think that helps people. But if you’re doing just prophetic literature sixty-six weeks in a row, that’s hard to preach. I’m not saying you can’t and I know people who have, but I just think there are certain books that are easier for the preacher to get into and easier for the congregation to listen to.

18:58 - How Long Is the Ideal Sermon?

Matt Tully
Maybe a few quick questions here: How long is the ideal sermon?

Doug O’Donnell
I think thirty-five is what I do, and I do that because I think it’s ideal. I am doing Crossway chapel where the sermon has to be twenty to twenty-five. It’s been a really good challenge, and I think I’ve learned through that. When I lived in Australia, they typically do shorter sermons.

Matt Tully
Is that just a cultural difference?

Doug O’Donnell
It’s a cultural thing, yes, and they advocate for it too. They say your sermon should be twenty-five minutes or something like that. Not across the board, but a lot of preachers would do that. I actually found that helpful, and this goes back to the editing thing. I actually think that by shortening this it improves the sermon. Not always, but I can listen to a fifty-five minute sermon if it’s Sinclair Ferguson. But there are very few people that I would listen to and think it’s good for fifty-five minutes.

Matt Tully
That you would think you needed fifty-five minutes for that.

Doug O’Donnell
Yes, and I think especially with my editor hat on, I’m like, You didn’t need that illustration. You spent way too much time exegeting. There was way too much information. That is my problem a lot, so I often need to get through that information quicker. That means editing words. I often find that when I have to edit the exegetical information and say it in one sentence instead of three paragraphs, it’s going to be much better. I think there are preachers who just like to hear themself talk, or they’re good storytellers and they can go on and on about things. Their congregation might get used to it and they might think it’s great. That’s wonderful. Go ahead with fifty-five minutes. But for younger preachers, I always say shoot for twenty or twenty-five minutes, but you’ll probably go longer because you think you’ll have to say this. I’ve learned over time that I don’t have to say everything. And if I’m pastoring a congregation, I have a lot of time to say that another time. So I can use that illustration another time, or I can talk about that theme I really want to talk more about when this passage comes up, because I know it’s coming up in a few weeks.

21:33 - Preaching from a Manuscript

Matt Tully
It’s not a one-and-done kind of thing when you’re the pastor of a church. Do you preach from notes, a manuscript, or from memory?

Doug O’Donnell
I preach from a manuscript. I tried all three when I was in college, and part of it had to do with Kent Hughes, who is a manuscript preacher, and really learning from him. Not learning from him by sitting down with me and showing me how to write a manuscript, but I’ve looked at his manuscripts, I’ve seen him preach from a manuscript. Part of that is that it was just my training. Imitation more than anything. In college, as I tried to get up and preach with just my Bible open, I felt it was very freeing, but I felt like two things: 1) I wasn’t as accurate as I wanted to be, 2) I wasn’t myself, in that I love word-smithing. I could memorize some of the lines that I might want to have, but not all of them. For me—and this is as a writer too—every line is gold. That’s how I’m feeling, that every line has got to be gold. Even as I’m giving information about this, if I’m not happy with a sentence, then it needs to be edited. I’m the same way with sermons. I want every sentence to have cadence. If there’s a long sentence, then here’s a short sentence. If there’s word, word, word, then I’m using alliteration that is subtly lining the sentence.

Matt Tully
And it’s harder to do that in the spur of the moment.

Doug O’Donnell
You have to have a brilliant memory to do that. So what I do is I just become a better manuscript preacher—hopefully better! When I was young and preaching at College Church, I had someone come up to me after every sermon with another good rebuke that I constantly think about and it was, “Eyes up.”

Matt Tully
He would say that to you every sermon?

Doug O’Donnell
Yes, almost every sermon. That was early on, and I got my eyes up more and more as time went on, but I learned over time that I can’t get my eyes up if I don’t know what’s on the sheet of paper in front of me. So the more I can get the sermon in my head the better. Again, I don’t memorize anything, but what I do is through the editing process I am getting very familiar with my manuscript. Then, once I’ve got it published—and I’m always repolishing as I go. By the time I get it ready to preach there are always little squiggles here and there where I’ve changed things, but I remember those because I just squiggled it that morning. So I know when I get to a certain page what it’s about. I know what this is, and I know the flow of the sermon. It wouldn’t be like if you took the manuscript away from me I would know exactly what I want to do, but I would be able to finish the sermon (I think). I also—more and more, the older I have gotten—I do certain things like memorize certain phrases or sections to make sure my eyes are up when I say that, because I know it can be more powerful when I’m actually looking at people when I say that. The other thing is I record myself preaching the sermon (just on my phone), and then I will listen to it. On Sunday I preached as I was driving to church.

Matt Tully
This is right before the sermon?

Doug O’Donnell
Right before the sermon. This is a new thing I do. I’ve been looking at it with my eyes, but my ears have not heard me preach it. To hear it just helps with my memory a ton. On Sunday morning I will always read the sermon kind of quickly, but with the sense of memorize as much as you can. And then I will say it aloud. I’ll go into a room upstairs and I’ll just preach it exactly like I want to preach it—where I want to pause, sometimes with gestures.

Matt Tully
It’s like a full dress rehearsal.

Doug O’Donnell
Yes, like a full dress rehearsal. And then I’m listening to it in the car now, and I find those steps really help me get it in my head.

Matt Tully
It’s amazing to hear you say all of this, both the amount of time that you spend preparing to preach, and then the intentionality with the words that you’re using and how you’re crafting each sentence, and then all of that preparation work and practice that you’re doing to try to internalize it, even though you do have a manuscript. This is all the way up to the morning before you preach it.

Doug O’Donnell
Maybe I’m abnormal.

Matt Tully
No, I’ve heard you preach a number of times and I do think of you as an experienced, effective preacher. I think sometimes the assumption can be that when someone has been doing it for a long time and is good at it and naturally gifted towards it, it should at some point become pretty easy. You don’t really have to work that hard at doing it. Do you think that’s true? Is that the right way to think about this? Or is that like the path to bad preaching?

Doug O’Donnell
It could be the path to bad preaching. That’s my gut instinct. But I’m sure I can be proven wrong. I mentioned Sinclair Ferguson earlier. I’m going to guess Sinclair Ferguson is pretty good on his toes. I don’t know him personally, but I think there are certain people who you could just say, Open this passage; can you preach on it? And they don’t know what passage it is ahead of time, but they could do it. Someone like Charles Spurgeon was like that, but the thing with Spurgeon is that his stuff is so carefully crafted too. I don’t know if he did that off the top of his head, but that’s amazing. The literary value to his sermons is incredible. But with that said, there are people out there who can do that pretty well. And I don’t think they’re cheating anybody, obviously, because we think it’s brilliant. God has gifted them. It is in sort of knowing yourself, and I am a bit of a prepare freak for everything. I don’t think I could not do that. But what I’ve gotten better at is saying, I’m going into this thing and I don’t have all the parachutes I want, but that’s okay. Just do it. Even with this interview, I walked in and you said, Oh good, you don’t have any notes with you. There was no half and hour prep time.

Matt Tully
Nope. Just jump into it.

Doug O’Donnell
Just jump into it, and a part of me is like, Trust yourself. You can talk about preaching for an hour and you’ll do just fine. So it’s the same with preaching. I can trust myself more the older I get, and yet I have habits—and those are good habits, in my mind. What I’m in now is a day job with Crossway stuff, and then you’ve got to preach in chapel. Part of the sermon I will work on during Crossway time since it’s for Crossway, but I remember Josh Dennis, our president, saying, How much time does it take you to prepare? I had redone a sermon and shortened it for Crossway and changed it. I said it took me ten hours. He was like, What? Ten hours? I thought, Oh, that was kind of short. It was a redo. I do think that I don’t know if I could get out of those good habits, but I could, if I was forced to work as a mailman and then I was the only guy in town who could open God’s word and be somewhat effective, I could do that. And it would probably be a good challenge.

Matt Tully
You have to adjust to what you have.

Doug O’Donnell
I’ve often thought that if a preacher gets sick or faints or something, I would hope I would be able to get up and just open my Bible and teach something that would be coherent. Let me just share this too. I think this was from my friend, either Josh Moody or Doug Sweeney (both Jonathan Edwards scholars). Jonathan Edwards’ early manuscripts are all meticulously written out—and I hope I’m getting this right—and then at the end as he gets older, he would just write, Talk about the new birth (squiggle). He knew that topic so well. He knew what he would say on it.

Matt Tully
That’s a lifetime of study.

Doug O’Donnell
I think I could do that. I don’t do it, but I think I could do it. There are certain stories in Scripture, like talk about the young, rich ruler. I probably have it memorized, or could very closely paraphrase, and I could tell you exactly what’s happening there. There are things like that where I am confident enough that I could swing it and I would be fine.

30:48 - What to Do (and Not Do

in Every Sermon)

Matt Tully
What is something you want to do in every sermon that you preach? And then I want to ask the opposite of that: What’s something that you never want to do in any sermon that you preach?

Doug O’Donnell
What I want to do is I would love to cover everything. Bryan Chapell has a great definition of expository preaching. I don’t have it memorized, but it’s something to the extent of, Everything you have read for the Scripture reading and promised to preach on actually needs to be covered.

Matt Tully
There’s nothing more frustrating than, Let’s read our passage for this morning, it’s read, and there’s maybe three verses at the end—maybe the most interesting and tricky verses—and they just disappear. There’s no mention of them whatsoever.

Doug O’Donnell
What I do is, especially if I’m in a longer section of Scripture, is just try to be honest with the congregation. I learned this from David Jones in Australia; he’s a Welshman who preached in Australia, and I sat under his preaching for three years. He would say that, kind of in Puritan style, My text for today is verse 17. The reading was longer, and he’s going to cover the reading, but he’s going to do it through the lens of what he sees as the key verse. Then I don’t feel gipped. He said he was going to tackle that verse, and every part of that verse he tackled. For me, it typically is I want to cover everything. Let’s say I’m preaching a narrative; I want to do justice to what is the setting, why is it important. Not twenty minutes on the setting, but something. And then you do know that this is a tricky verse, or this is a textual variant and I’ve got to say something because they’ve got it right there in their Bibles. Or, verse 41 isn’t there and someone’s going to notice it. Even those kind of technical things I want to make sure I’m covering whatever has been presented there in front of their eyes.

Matt Tully
I heard a pastor once say when you preach a sermon, you better make sure you address—even if you say, I’m not going to address this in this sermon—address the main thing that someone with a study Bible would say, This is the big thing I’m thinking about right now.

Doug O’Donnell
That’s right. So I try to cover all of the material, do good exegesis of the passage (expositional preaching), and exalt Christ would be the other thing that comes to mind.

Matt Tully
What does that mean? That seems so lofty and good, but what does that mean in practice in a sermon from Genesis or from Revelation?

Doug O’Donnell
Probably the nicest note I ever got from someone was a young lady in one of my congregations, and it was a paragraph on this sort of theme. The gist of what she said was, Every sermon you’re going to give us Jesus, and I’m so thankful for that. I think what it means is I’m not only going to hermeneutically take you to Jesus if I’m in Genesis or anywhere else, but I am going to express how grateful I am for Jesus, how needy I am, and how I’m thankful for what Jesus did or how Jesus fits into the flow of Scripture. Isn’t this amazing? Isn’t he amazing? I say a lot of things like that, like, Isn’t Jesus amazing? Do you ever stop and think about how amazing he is? Things like that that really engage people and exalt Jesus. I think to the flip side with the other question, and this goes a little bit with autobiography, is I don’t want to be the hero; Jesus has to be the hero. And then I think I want people walking away understanding what the passage is about. Not so much like, Oh, he’s such a great preacher! Or, if you use a dog illustration, people will come up to you afterwards and say, I love that dog illustration! Preachers, the more and more you preach, you know people’s soft spots and how you can emotionally get them. Like I said, it can be dangerous telling your own story just to emotionally get them. But if I’m trying to tell a story about my life or something else that emotionally gets them and is related to the truth. Jonathan Edwards has a phrase that I love for preaching: My goal is to raise their affections as high as possible, provided they’re raised by the truth. That’s the connection I want to make. There are lots of tricks of the trade where you can get people to cry, or you can get people thoroughly engaged and just think, Oh, he’s such a brilliant storyteller! That’s all they think as they walk out. They don’t think about Jesus or they say, What on earth was the passage today? Who cares! Isn’t our pastor so great?

Matt Tully
Have you ever felt that temptation, or maybe re-read a sermon you’ve written and kind of recognized, You know what? I veered too much towards stirring their emotions with this story or with this great illustration. It’s not really what I should be doing in this moment.

Doug O’Donnell
I don’t struggle with the storytelling aspect. I feel like I’m careful, for whatever reason. I also don’t use stories as much as maybe other preachers do. What I struggle with is wit. I’ve got this sharp, Irish wit, so I’ve got a lot of witty lines here in there. I think it’s used effectively, but I can also cross the line. I sort of know when I do, especially when it’s a certain congregation. With a group of college kids you can do all sorts of witty things and you’ll look great. But with an older congregation, you can sense after that you’ve crossed the line and think, I shouldn’t have said that. And I was doing it because I wanted a laugh. That’s what my motive was. I try to use wit, and I do want to get a laugh because I want to re engage people maybe, or I just want to be myself. That’s what came to mind, and that’s why I put it in there.

36:55 - Handling Discouragement

Matt Tully
What do you do when you feel discouraged by a sermon that you’ve preached? Let’s say you go up there on a Sunday morning, you give your sermon, you do your best, and then you step down and immediately think, That did not land the way I wanted it to land. On the drive home you ask your wife how it went and she kind of gives this non-committed, It was okay. What would be your next step in that kind of situation?

Doug O’Donnell
Never ask your wife on the way home. I have a very discerning wife, so there’s always something she can tell me. Now I do ask my wife, but early on, honestly, I wouldn’t ask her right away.

Matt Tully
That’s some of the hardest feedback—the people closest to you—that’s the stuff that maybe stings the most, when it’s not overwhelmingly positive.

Doug O’Donnell
Or not, Here are all the positive things, and here are two things you could have worked on type of thing. My wife is very good at the balance of that, but you do want someone you trust. I would say discouragement—I can’t think of a time when (because I prepare a lot) I felt like I didn’t get that text right at all and it was just a disaster. There have been times I’ve been nervous preaching, but I’ll ask my wife afterwards and she’ll say, I couldn’t tell you were nervous. That’s not a fun experience for me, but I’m not discouraged by that if it didn’t come across. When you see someone who is nervous, you’re nervous for them and everyone is feeling awkward.

Matt Tully
It’s an uncomfortable experience.

Doug O’Donnell
If that wasn’t happening, then I’m okay. But if it did happen, then I would be like, Oh boy, what was going on there? For me, it was more getting used to, during the first few sermons or year of preaching, feeling discouraged every time after a sermon because you always thought, I can do better than that (at least that’s what I thought). Or you thought, People are really going to be engaged when I do this and they’re not, or some people aren’t. Or, people yawn all the time. Kent Hughes would say that he knew he had people listening when there were no yawns and no noises, basically.

Matt Tully
So he set that up as the example for you? You’re shooting for silence and no yawns?

Doug O’Donnell
I’m saying there is something about silence. People aren’t coughing, and everybody is listening. I think as a preacher you think, Everything I’m saying is really great, so you should be listening to everything. I think getting over that is tough. It’s so hard. Like, if I’m preaching at Crossway or something and someone takes out their cell phone. Cell phones are so hard today because I don’t know if they’re looking at the passage or they’re responding to a text. But if I see them start typing, I’m like, They’re responding to a text. So, not to get thrown off by that kind of stuff, and it’s easy to do so, but just saying that’s going to happen all the time. There are going to be ways you’ll be discouraged. More of my philosophy of preaching changed over time. I use the analogy of I’m feeding a meal to you. Some sermons are going to be meat and potatoes, really hearty, and a meal I would want to strengthen me. And some are going to be like Corn Flakes. Both are going to feed you and both are going to sustain you and you’re going to grow taller and you’re going to get bigger. My mother fed me everyday; I don’t remember what she fed me. But she fed me.

Matt Tully
You probably only remember a couple of meals out of your whole life, really significant meals.

Doug O’Donnell
That’s right. You may remember the terrible ones and the good ones, typically. The same with preaching. If I’m faithful to what the text is saying, and I’ve done my best for this given week—there may have been a lot of things that came up and I wasn’t able to give it as much time as I want, that’s fine. In God’s providence he gave me that week. So I’m feeding you something, and you can determine what it is, what the quality of the substance you’re putting in your body is. And in God’s providence, some people will really be fed. Some people will be saved with your worst sermon. But if it’s faithful to what the passage is saying and what God is saying in his word, then you’re good to go. I think there is also a lot of ego going on with preaching. I’m an expert in Ecclesiastes. Everything I say is going to be forgotten, and so I’ll be forgotten. That’s good and that’s fine. I don’t remember sermons. I remember parts of them, but I do remember that God used that sermon to get me closer to my wife or something, but I don’t even remember the text it was. So I think as long as you can think in those sort of maybe dark perspectives, but also that’s reality. I just need to be feeding God’s people weekly, or whenever we’re called upon, and that’s my job. It’s not, Oh, he was so memorable! Isn’t he great? Wasn’t that sermon amazing? I’m going to remember that forever.

Matt Tully
That’s not always the goal, and that’s not how God even works in our lives spiritually. Doug, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today about preaching and that important calling that God has placed on many men’s lives. We appreciate it.

Doug O’Donnell
Thanks, Matt. It’s wonderful to talk with you.


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