Getting the opportunity to fill the pulpit as a #2 on a church staff is a tremendous privilege, the passing of a sacred trust, and an opportunity for growth in a skill area that is necessary for effective pastoral ministry. Many #2 leaders on church staffs aspire to be a lead pastor, and these times in the pulpit allow for a great learning experience and to sharpen the calling. It provides an opportunity to do the hard work of prayer and seeking the direction God would have for you, exegesis of a particular text, outlining your message and determining what stays and what gets cut, and preparation for the actual delivery and response.
Because these opportunities tend to happen in isolation (“Hey can you fill in for me on <insert date>?”) rather than in series (“I’m on sabbatical for 6 weeks, can you fill in?”), the most obvious question for the fill-in sermon is “What do I preach on?” I believe there are 4 bad ways to select a sermon text/topic, and I’d like to propose 3 ways that are helpful and beneficial to selecting a text/topic.
Please don’t do these:
- Bible Roulette – This is where you blindly search through the Bible, flip the pages and point your finger down on a passage. This is irresponsible, but I’ve seen it done by people who misinterpret what it means when Paul declares that all Scripture is God-breathed and beneficial. If you do this, I think God has enough of a sense of humor for you to end up in Leviticus or the story of Ehud. Try that on for size.
- Proof-Text – In this approach, you know exactly what you want to talk about, so then your aim is to find supporting Bible verses to back up your idea. Usually these verses are ripped from context, not taken into their full weight or consideration, and often are the result of a lazy preacher who got ahold of a concordance and doesn’t want to do the hard work of an exegete. I sat under preaching like this on a few occasions and leaned to my wife and said “this isn’t just bad preaching, this is textual abuse.”
- Read-and-Run – In this approach you have a text that you read, and then that’s the end of your interaction with that text. Think of it like a hit and run accident. You’re not there to have to deal with the consequences of what you did. In the same way, this approach leaves you unaccountable for the passage you just read. Instead of allowing the text to speak, you’re simply using the text as a launching point to whatever idea you want to convey. In the end, it’s really not the Word speaking, it’s you.
- Ax-Grinder – In this approach, whatever agenda you have is what you bring to the pulpit. It could be something noble or needed, but again, it’s normally not the Word speaking, it’s you. This approach is similar to 2 and 3 where the idea comes before the passage, and it becomes the emphasis of the message rather than the Word. I’ve seen this in #2 guys where they want to make it their Wittenburg church door and nail their theses. Sadly what can happen is the #2 guy can come off cocky, arrogant, or with an agenda. Sadly I’ve done this before, and had to eat a lot of crow for it. Hopefully as I’ve gotten older this is one I’ve grown on.
- Your life-verse – Do you have a passage/chapter that really seems to resonate with your life? Is there a passage you continually come to in those quiet moments that help you define your life, ministry, and purpose? This is likely a passage you’ve meditated on, likely memorized, studied, and really soaked in. Share from your heart how this passage has formed your identity in Christ, shaped your character, and given you a real understanding of your purpose.
- Join in the series – Is your pastor preaching through a particular book of the Bible or along a particular thread for a series? Ask him if he’d mind for you to take on part of that series to ensure a sense of continuity and flow from one week to another. It will help you as the #2 to think through things in progression rather than in isolation.
- Your recent growth – Is there a passage that as you have done your devotions and spent time in prayer that God is recently using on you to help you grow? Consider using that as your text to work through, and allow what God has done for you to be a blessing to others.
OK associate pastors and #2 guys, what others would you add to help you seek out a passage to preach on? What have you done when you’ve been asked to fill in for your lead pastor?
Here are some clips of some solid guys who give insight into their preparation process: