Reflections on My First Sermon after Twenty Years of Ministry

I preached Philippians 1.

After standing in the pulpit for a few awkward moments, I said, “Hi.”

“Hi.” The congregation responded.

It was a Sunday night service on a holiday weekend. My pastor was on vacation. The smaller crowd was the core. They knew what they were getting. I was twenty-three years old. Only now can I admit I preached that first sermon not having read the entire Bible yet.

Rookie preachers tend to go very short or very long. I was the former. I think I finished the sermon in under twenty minutes. My worship pastor would love for me to do that now.

“That was excellent. Thank you for sharing.” A sweet, elderly woman shook my hand.

“Son, you might have a future, possibly.” One of the deacons waved as he walked by me.

“Well, at least you didn’t mess anything up.” The Sunday school director smiled.

After everyone left, I asked my girlfriend, “How did I really do?”

“Why did you wag your finger at everyone the entire time? It was weird.”

“I did?! I had no idea.”

We married three years later. I no longer awkwardly point when I preach.

I do not remember how or why Paul Chitwood asked me to preach. Perhaps he saw something in me. More likely, no one else was available to fill the pulpit. Regardless, I knew that Sunday I had to preach—every week. Something in me (the Holy Spirit) prompted me to take every opportunity. I served bi-vocationally for three years, ultimately landing at a small rural church with six people.

Twenty years have passed since that first sermon. As I look back, several reflections come to mind.

The death of the traditional Sunday evening service has killed the opportunity for young, potential preachers to practice. I get why most churches no longer have a Sunday evening service, nor am I advocating for their return. But there are unintended consequences to any significant change in a church. The reality is Sunday evening was great practice for up-and-coming young preachers. These opportunities are now largely gone.

Younger pastors should master exegetical preaching before attempting topical sermons. I enjoy preaching topical sermons. Certain topics like addiction, religious liberty, and angelology are challenging to preach with only verse-by-verse sermons. The reality is topical sermons are far more difficult to write than exegetical sermons, if done well. (Topical sermons are easy to write if done poorly). I recommend young preachers spend a few years going through books of the Bible before attempting topical sermons.

Preaching is more a craft than science. For my first couple of years preaching, I wrote sermons as if I was dissecting a bug in biology class. I was careful, precise, and thorough. These sermons communicated the intended meaning of the text with all the details of a technical commentary, but they lacked inspiration. True craftsmen create works of art that inspire, and mastering a craft—sermon writing included—requires years of practice.

Your theology will change over the years. I often tell my church that I do not expect everyone to agree with everything I say every week. That’s what a cult leader expects of followers. In fact, I disagree with my younger self in many areas of Scripture! My eschatology and soteriology have changed. I am more open to the sign gifts now than in the past. I moved away from strong views of close or closed communion. If you preach faithfully, you will likely evolve in your views of Scripture as you learn more about God’s Word.  

Preaching is better when done to edify and not to educate. The sanctuary is not a classroom, and the parishioners are not your students. Should you learn something each week in church? Of course! But delivering and receiving a sermon is a different exercise than pedagogy. Pastors should edify the saints. While education is a part of edification, sermons should aim to inspire people to action guided by the Holy Spirit.

The New Living Translation is ideal for preaching and encouraging the church to read God’s Word. I have preached from a variety of translations. The NLT is perfect for reading aloud. The translation is the best balance of formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence. Most importantly, the NLT is a translation everyone of all ages can read together.

You cannot grow a church with good preaching anymore. I remember a few old-timers telling me, “Get good at preaching, and your church will grow.” This advice was accurate thirty years ago but no longer works. The days of large swaths of people coming to church to hear a good preacher are long gone. Sermons are critically important, but they alone do not grow churches.

“Just preach the Word” is not valid. I’ve heard this saying countless times. Frankly, it’s some of the most harmful advice anyone can give a young pastor. Shepherding a congregation requires far more than preaching. Preaching is only a fraction of what is required of a pastor.

Almost everyone listening wants you to do well. For the most part, your congregation is cheering for you as you preach. The curmudgeons may be vocal, but they are rare. Most people who sit and listen every week enjoy hearing you preach and want you to succeed.

It’s hard to believe I started preaching twenty years ago. In those twenty years, I have preached weekly except for about thirty Sundays. Rarely does a Sunday pass when I’m not in the pulpit. 

I hope God gives me another twenty years of opportunities.

Posted on August 16, 2023

As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
More from Sam

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • Scott Skarda says on

    All very good points and very relatable to me. I have now been pastoring 22 years, all behind the same pulpit God planted me when this/His work was birthed.

    My call has always been drawn to topical preaching as opposed to expository, although I cover LOTS of scripture every week.

    I have been preaching from the NLT almost exclusively for close to 20 years and agree it’s just made for reading aloud and following along.

    Early in my ministry, I feel I did come across as too hard and, without compromising through the years I’ve been able to still boldly share Gods Word, but do so more compassionately.

    Although I’m 62 years old, I feel just as much calling and fire to preach the Word and shepherd His church as at any time and pray I have many more days/years to do so.

    Thanks for your encouragement!!

  • Alain Pierre Muzongo Mpungu says on

    Hello my family!!

    Because the price of my health has been fully paid, my dominion over disease and infirmity is established by the heavenly verdict according to 1 Cor. 6:20
    Matthew 8:17

    Diseases and infirmities are mostly the direct oppression of the devil and I have been redeemed from oppression therefore diseases cannot have dominion over me at all Isaiah 54:14/Eph 1:6/ Eph 1:20 -21

    Through redemption God restored my health and healed me of all my wounds Isaiah 30:17/ 1 Peter 1:24

    As I continue to serve God in truth he has sworn to take my sicknesses and infirmities throughout my life Exo: 15: 26 / Exodus 23: 25-26

  • Alain Pierre Muzongo Mpungu says on

    I say this: “My God supplies all my needs according to his riches in glory.

    I say this: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” I believe that I am promoted and increased every day.

    I say this: “By the stripes of Jesus, I am healed from the top of my head to the soles of my feet.” I am cured !

    I say this: “I claim healing in my marriage in the Name of Jesus!” I have a happy and healthy relationship with my spouse. Together we will serve the Lord.

  • Dan Birchfield says on

    I preached my first sermon on a Wednesday night during prayer meeting at my home church in 1985. I’ve been in ministry ever since with 30 of those years as a pastor. You’re right. Sunday and Wednesday nights were great opportunities for guys like us to test the waters for ministry. The church needs to provide opportunities for young people to explore the call to ministry.

  • Thank you for your reflections on preaching. While I haven’t been preaching as long as you have these observations resonate. The three points which stand out as a challenge for preachers in modern times are the last three. “Just preach the Gospel” is a loaded statement, “old time preaching” has difficulty reaching people who have greater access to commentary and biblical study aids, and Sunday is important for the church but, like Paul said, speaking in tongues is not for non-believers it is for believers – for their edification. While Sunday service may be the tipping point to include someone in a community, it is becoming more clear that the people the church is trying to reach are not the ones in the pews.

    Sadly, I can’t properly attribute the three questions I was taught to answer when preparing a sermon but they have been watershed for me. They are, “who knows?”, “who says?”, and “who cares?” The first two may take the most time to answer – what does the bible and scholars say about the text is important for the preacher. But, the most challenging for me is the last because that is the application of the message of grace.

  • Gary Wright says on

    A few random thoughts:

    “Your theology will change over the years.” It shouldn’t! If you were properly prepared through careful exegesis of the Sacred Scriptures and can handle the Greek and Hebrew well. Otherwise, how do you know if you are conducting your ministry according to sound Biblical theology and not the theology of demons?

    “The New Living Translation is ideal for preaching and encouraging the church to read God’s Word.” Although better than the Living Bible, it’s still a paraphrase. It’s not the Word of God. It often goes astray from the original meaning. As our Lord said, “the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” You are his under shepherd. FEED HIS SHEEP! (With good nutritious food, not junk food).

    “You cannot grow a church with good preaching anymore.” You never could. You can’t “grow” a church/congregation. All you can do is plant the seed and water it. God causes the growth. Give them the Word in all it’s truth and purity. Don’t water it down. Jesus said: “I (Jesus, not you) will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”

    “Just preach the Word” is not valid. Really? What do you propose is more valid? “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”

    Two books I commend to all who want to have a Christ centered, cross focused ministry:

    A Little Exercise for Young Theologians by Helmut Thielicke

    The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel by C.F.W. Walther

    • Sam Rainer says on

      The book by Thielicke is excellent, and I’ve used it many times to train and equip others. This quote from A Little Exercise is pertinent: “My plea is simply this: every theological idea which makes an impression upon you must be regarded as a challenge to your faith. Do not assume as a matter of course that you believe whatever impresses you theologically and enlightens you intellectually. Otherwise suddenly you are believing no longer in Jesus Christ, but in Luther, or in one of your other theological teachers.”