How to Preach Like Phil Ryken and Duane Litfin Without Sounding Like Them

Ever wondered how to preach like a Wheaton College president?

This spring, Phil Ryken and Duane Litfin each gave a seminar on preaching for our pastors and pastoral residents at my church. Both men are seasoned and gifted preachers, in addition to being the current and former presidents of Wheaton College, respectively.

Each presentation was filled to brim with pastoral wisdom and preaching insight. Here are the highlights.

Ryken’s preaching tips

1. Get into the figginess of the fig. This is Ryken’s way of saying, “Immerse yourself into your illustrations.” He came up with this phrase from a fig illustration he told in a Jeremiah sermon. This particular illustration was a watershed for him. As he got into the details of what made a fig a fig, and what made figs “tick,” his illustration grew in effectiveness. Illustrations are powerful when you tell them with detail.

I’ve applied this principle a few times, with great success, by Googling the topic of an illustration, and then following the links to articles at I’ve recently gotten into the lightness of the lighthouse, the blackness of black holes, and the fishiness of fishing lures to give my illustrations a boost.

2. Put good wood on the ball. Another memorable Ryken phrase, which means never try to preach a great sermon, It’s more likely that your glory, not God’s, will be your focus if you swing for the fences. And you exponentially increase your odds of striking out. Preach for average, not homers. Just get on base.

3. Keep ’em guessing. One question that came up was how to maintain your congregation’s interest during a long series. Ryken said that during one particularly long series, he intentionally never started a sermon the same way twice. You will create a sense of anticipation for your messages if you vary your introduction. They’ll come wondering what’s going to happen.

Litfin’s preaching tips

1. Few rules. Key goals. As long as you are accomplishing the goals of feeding God’s people, you can (almost) make up your own preaching rules. Don’t get so hung up on mechanics that your sermons ironically get worse instead of better. If a tip helps you accomplish your goals, make a habit out of it. If not, then don’t.

2. Surface the need. This is one of Litfin’s emphases. Some pastors, when they consider what to preach, ask themselves, “What do my people need to hear?” They then choose a sermon that matches with this need. The result is that you give your people an imbalanced sermon diet.

Litfin says don’t look for the needs in your people, look for the needs in the text. Each passage speaks to a need every sinful person needs to hear about. It’s the pastor’s job, after discerning what that need is, to then surface it from within his people, and then to show how the text answers the need. The difference between preachers and advertisers, Litfin observed, is that advertisers create needs, preachers surface them.

3. The 15/30 and 20/80 sermon prep rules of thumb. The first rule says that you need half an hour of sermon prep for every minute you intend to preach. Thus, take 15 hours of prep for a 30 minute sermon. How much time are  you putting in? Too little? Too much?

 The second rule is that 20% of your prep is “pre-study,” which you do well before the week to preach arrives (perhaps even before you start the series). The other 80% is done during the week of your sermon. So it follows that the 15 hours of the 15/30 rule comprises only 80% of your total prep for the sermon.

Disclaimer: applying these preaching tips in no way guarantees that you will become the president of Wheaton College someday.

This article is the fourth installment in a running series of “Preach Like Without Sounding Like” posts. To access an index of these articles, click here.

(Image credit)


  1. Daniel Lehn says:

    “Disclaimer: applying these preaching tips in no way guarantees that you will become the president of Wheaton College someday.”



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