Mark Wilson recently moved to South Carolina to teach at Southern Wesleyan University after years of faithful and evangelistic pastoral ministry. You may be familiar with his writing in Purple Fish from Wesleyan publishing house. Here is a more personal introduction to his generously kind and humble personality. We hope sharing his journey into preaching inspires you to reflect more deeply on your own.
Cleaning out my office last spring, after 26 years of ministry in the same place, I stumbled across my father’s sermon notes. Since his death in 1991, I’ve kept several boxes of his hand-scrawled outlines enshrined in a filing cabinet, to honor his memory, maintaining a sacred bond with my heritage. But leafing through these mementos, I finally admitted the truth to myself. There was no life in them.
For Dad, the life of a message was in the delivery. The notes I held were not the sermon. They were just spent casings: scraps of words without significance. The day I carried my father’s sermons to the dumpster, it felt sacramental—somewhat like a second burial with hope of resurrection.
Call to Preach
My call to preach came as a teenager, upon hearing the sad news that my dear friend, David Beckley, had died in an automobile accident caused by a drunk driver. David, an upperclassman, planned to go into the ministry before his tragic death at the tender age of 17. The night of David’s passing, I sensed God calling me to take his place. My preaching journey began there, as I felt the weight of the Apostle Paul’s words, “woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16 ESV).
Dad gave me a chance to preach at a midweek prayer service shortly thereafter. I studied hard and worked up a sermon that covered both ends of the Bible with several stops in between. In the mirror, practicing, I imagined myself to be the next Billy Graham, but trembling before this daunting crowd of 35 holiness diehards, my confidence evaporated and I morphed into Pee Wee Herman. As I stammered through point one, Sister Bailey shouted from the back, “Help him, Jesus!” I knew I was in deep weeds if Sister Bailey was pleading for divine intervention. Fortunately, for all of us, my sermon lasted only seven minutes. After takeoff, it looped a few times and then, mercifully, crash landed in the weeds. However, the people were encouraging, and delighted by their early dismissal, took me out for ice cream. The ice cream mollified the mortification.
Fear of Public Speaking
An issue that plagued me early in life was a speech impediment. I stuttered severely. One night when I was 13, during a prayer meeting, my parents brought me forward and asked the church to pray for God to heal my stuttering. The saints gathered around me and anointed me with oil. That night, God infused my mind with fresh confidence, and, for the most part, my stuttering problem disappeared.
Nevertheless, even though I went into ministry and became a youth pastor, the act of preaching proved to be a formidable challenge. Occasionally, when the senior pastor went on vacation, he asked me to substitute in the pulpit. I enjoyed researching and crafting the message, but the delivery was always brutal. Whenever I preached, I became a nervous wreck: not only behind the pulpit, but also in the days leading up to the event.
When God called me to take a pastorate in Hayward, Wisconsin, my biggest fear was the weekly preaching. I knew if I was going to deliver sermons, I’d have to get over this phobia. One day, I stumbled upon Ephesians 6:19, “Pray for me that whenever I open my mouth, words will be given to me to that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the Gospel.” Immediately it dawned on me. My issue was not fear of public speaking; it was fear of what people think! I immediately went to a wise, veteran pastor and asked him to pray this passage over me. I experienced a powerful liberation as he laid his hand upon my head and prayed that God would deliver me from the fear of public opinion.
After that, with only one exception, I have not been bothered by fear while preaching. The exception was years ago while preaching the Brooksville (Florida) Camp Meeting. That morning, both John Maxwell and Norman Wilson (my homiletics professor and voice of The Wesleyan Hour) attended the service. Talk about intimidating. Instead of keeping my eyes on Jesus, I let myself be sidetracked by Maxwell and Wilson, and ended up flailing in the weeds. I could almost hear Sister Bailey shout once again, “Help him, Jesus!”
God used this humbling experience to remind me that the preacher’s job is not to deliver sermons, but to deliver messages. My focus needs to be on the message, and it does not matter what celebrities happen to be in the audience. Trying to impress people is a form of “pulpit narcissism” ((Reid & Hogan, 2012, p. 34).
The Preaching Load
26 years in one parish meant working hard to stay fresh homiletically. It was always a struggle to have something new and meaningful to say to parishioners who had heard me preach weekly for over two decades. I preached over 2500 sermons in Hayward and, to the best of my recollection, did not repeat any of them. Preaching this many times without reruns is due, primarily to connecting sermons to my devotional life As Lenny Luchetti asked, “can’t the preacher simultaneously wrestle in a devotional manner with what God might be saying through the text to the preacher and the congregation?” (Luchetti, 2012, p. 36).
Reading widely has also been essential for well stocked sermon arsenal. I normally read (finish) two books per week. I have an extensive filing system – but recently downsized my four cabinets of sermon material into one. The rise of the internet and a move to South Carolina significantly reduced the need for paper filing.
I avoid canned sermons, and pilfering messages from others. If the congregation is coming for Thanksgiving, preachers shouldn’t serve pre-packaged TV turkey dinners. I suppose, if you can’t cook, TV dinners are better than starvation—but barely. I don’t grind my own flour, but I bake my own bread.
As a rookie, I preached “popcorn sermons”. Each Sunday was a different theme, depending on what I had been recently pondering. That did not work very well, and I frequently found myself scratching around on Saturday nights for something good enough to preach the next morning. Moving to series preaching helped tremendously. By mapping out several months of sermon themes in advance, I found much more focus and creativity in collecting sermon material. I’ve preached through several books of the Bible, including six month series in Acts , and once, inspired by Ellsworth Kalas (1996), preached through the entire Bible in a year. Mostly, however, my series were four to six weeks in length, alternating between textual and topical themes, while observing the church’s liturgical calendar.
I am a storyteller – a narrative preacher. I call myself an “exposi-STORY” preacher. I love to take a text and unpack its meaning with a good story or two. That is the kind of preaching Jesus did, and I believe it is generally more effective with ordinary people than the John MacArthur method. This approach requires me to put on “homiletic colored” glasses every morning in order to capture the great metaphors, illustrations and sermonic connections I encounter along the way.
Growing in Homiletic Grace
On the long side of middle-age, I am now learning that old dogs can learn new sermonic tricks! Last year, I decided to stretch my brain and joined Lenny Luchetti’s Transformational Preaching DMin cohort at Wesley Seminary. While rigorous, this experience has been delightful and life-changing. It has deepened my insight, expanded my horizons, strengthened my sermons and improved my delivery. My goal is to continue to grow in homiletic grace until God calls me home.
Points to Ponder
- What is your ‘Homiletic Story?’ What influences have shaped the way you preach?
- What early lessons in preaching might you need to revisit again?
- What are you doing to stretch and grow as a preacher?
Kalas, J. (1996). The grand sweep: 365 days from Genesis to Revelation. Nashville: Abington.
Luchetti, L. (2012). Preaching essentials: A practical guide. Nashville: Abington.
Reid, R and Hogan, L. (2012). The six deadly sins of preaching: Becoming responsible for the faith we proclaim. Nashville: Abington.
Wesley Seminary, Doctor of Ministry, http://seminary.indwes.edu/academics/dmin