On the one hand, we are commanded to learn from other preachers. Paul told Timothy, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). None of us have an excuse for not learning from the best. The training is free, and just a click away.
But on the other hand, God has created us all as natural born imitators, in order that we imitate Jesus and become conformed to his image. But we imitate other people in many ways, too, not least of them while learning from good preachers. It is natural to sound like preachers you like.
So when you listen to D.A. Carson, you must avoid picking up his mannerisms rather than his manner of preaching. You can’t start asking your congregation, “Do do do do you see?” You can’t start referring to 1st Thessalonians as “One Thessalonians.” You can’t, especially if you are in urban or rural areas, start using the words “twit” and “cheeky.”
But there are three things you can do, which we will see in a moment.
I’m talking about Carson’s preaching not his lecturing
Perhaps you have only listened to Carson’s biblical and theological lectures. Pattern your preaching style after Carson’s lecturing style and you will end up with a church full of seminary students. Or a church full of empty pews if you’re not near a seminary.
Carson lectures differently than he preaches, and you would do well to listen to his sermons and note the differences.
That said, here are three of the things Carson does well in his sermons that you should try to do, too –with your voice and your personality.
1. Master the fundamentals of preaching
Carson does the boring homiletical basics you learned in seminary, not because he’s a seminary professor, but because they are the essential to good preaching. When it comes to fundamentals, D.A. Carson is the Tim Duncan of preaching.
Carson crafts his main points carefully. He makes them parallel, often including a common key word. This unifies the sermon, makes the main points memorable, and makes it easier for the congregation to follow from beginning to end. He often repeats the main point word-for-word to make sure everyone got it.
Carson uses illustrations. Whether from personal experience, world history, science and math, and more, he brings the text into today’s world. You think that illustrations and exegetical sermons don’t mix? You should hear what Carson says about false antitheses. (If you need help with illustrations, here’s just the thing.)
Carson does application…a lot. Though he might save his heaviest applicational swings for the conclusion, he weaves it into the interpretational sections, too. He does this by inserting a sentence here and there that shows the significance of the verse for today. He also does this by interpreting in second person. Rather than speaking in the past tense, he phrases the meaning of the text by saying “you” to the congregation.
If you think fundamentals are just for getting A’s in your seminary preaching class, think again. The best preachers master the fundamentals, they don’t get over them.
2. Follow the 90 to 13 ratio
The 90 to 13 ratio means this: preach at a level where 90% of what you say is intelligible to a 13 year old.
Two former colleagues of mine, who earned their M.Div. at Trinity, independently recounted to me that preaching tip Carson told them. He said he aims 90% of what he says in his sermon to be understood by a junior high student. This doesn’t mean that he “dumbs down” his content, it means that he speaks in a less technical manner.
This may surprise you if all you listen to are Carson’s lectures, but he does preach at this level.
I used to be a junior high pastor, and one of my students told me that D.A. Carson was her favorite preacher. Part of me wished it was me, but I couldn’t blame her. While most junior highers won’t even have a favorite preacher, it says something that Carson could be a junior higher’s favorite preacher.
Can the 13 year olds in your church track with your sermons?
3. Prep hard for just one teaching responsibility per week
If you are the senior pastor of a small church, you probably teach and preach a lot. A message Sunday morning, and perhaps another Sunday evening. A Bible study here and there, and a chapel once in a while. Two preps are probably your absolute minimum, and three to five is more common.
It’s not sustainable to devote a lot of time each of teaching responsibility, and still do counseling and lead meetings. But if you’re trying “preach like D.A. Carson,” devoting a lot time to each prep is exactly what you’ll be tempted to do.
But that’s not how Carson rolls.
At about the 23 minute mark of this lecture on how to prepare a series of sermons on a biblical book, Carson shares from his busy experience as a young pastor. He mentions there was no way he had time to prepare rigorously for his four to five teaching responsibilities each week. But he always did for at least one. This kept his exegetical tools in working order, which made his other preps stronger, even if he didn’t devote as much time to them.
Obviously your Sunday morning sermon should get the most attention. But if you don’t preach weekly, consider scheduling this kind of exegetical exercise into your weekly routine. It will keep your tools sharp, and you will have a lot prepared if and when you take a role where you preach every Sunday.
Don’t be a homiletical copy cat
Your congregation will immediately recognize when you are not being you. If they feel like you are acting, they will not trust you. This means that – if you’re not careful – you can undermine your pulpit ministry in your attempt to improve it.
But if you can learn from the manner of a good preacher’s preaching, you will bless your congregation immensely. They will not wonder who you’ve been listening to, they will simply notice you are getting better.
And 100% of churches enjoy it when their preachers get better.