J. Stanley Collins, Stoke-under-Ham, England
The Choice of a Subject. The choice of a suitable subject is always a difficulty, very often not because the choice is so small but because it is so vast. More likely tha.11 not yon have many thoughts on many subjects. Let us suppose you arc to preach the gospel, then see to it that the gospel is the theme of the subject you are considering. See to it that it not only contains a gospel message, but that the gospel runs right through it from start to finish. Do not select some obscure verse from the Proverbs, or some learned prophetical subject and then try to squeeze the gospel out of it. Understand what the gospel is: "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures," and let this run like a scarlet cord right through your address. I do not intend to give examples of subjects or some of you might be tempted to save time and make use of them! Be original and find your own. I would, however, suggest that the simple setting forth of the gospel story as contained in some of the better-known parables or miracles is far safer than selecting a text, especially for a beginner.
Make your subject fit your congregation. Ordinary folk are not likely to be impressed with the story of Daniel's image; they know little about this sort of thing and care less. See how wonderfully the Lord suited the right subject to the right people. Choose, if possible, a subject which has a climax; one that has point in it. In this connection it is wonderful how clearly the gospel is set forth in the Old Testament, hut how rarely do preachers make use of it.
Understand Your Subject. It is quite impossible to make clear to your hearers a subject which is not clear to you. Archbishop Whateley, who was a very shrewd man indeed, once said when speaking of the majority of young speakers that: "They aim at nothing and they hit it."
It would not be wise, for example, to preach on the Seals, the Trumpets, the Toes of Daniel's image. Never vesture into historic detail unless you are absolutely certain about what you are talking. Let it be understood that would never discourage the study of prophecy, but remember that to every tiling there is a time and to every subject there should be a. suitable congregation. You must master your subject, but at the same time you must let it master you.
Never under any circumstances cut a text up, at pull it out of its setting, or apply a meaning to it which it was never intended to bear. The late Bishop J. C. Ryle, la seeking to drive home this point, tells of a young preacher who announced as his text: "The old mail, of whom ye spake, is he yet alive?" (Gen. 43). From this he twisted a discourse on the old Adam nature indwelling the believer. A good theme but certainly not the subject of that text!
The Need for Order. The Scripture reminds us that all things should be done decently and in order, and in preaching let us ever remember this. Let your points and ideas follow one another in orderly regularity. Do not begin at the end, and end at the beginning. I often hear preachers do this. Carefully examine and dissect your subject. Sort out the main points and keep the good wine to the last. Bring out the lighter points first, then the more important or heavier points last. Again I say work to a climax, and when you reach it stress it. For example, in the parable of the Ten Virgins two points stand out prominently. These two form the climax. The first is contained in the words: "They that were ready went in." Dwell on this for a minute or two; explain it was not those who were getting ready. Then the final climax comes: "The door was shut," Let your hearers go away with these words ringing in their ears, and not with some vague: idea as to what the oil in the lamps really means.
The Use of Headings. Always remember that those who listen to you preach, are not in the same position as if they were reading your sermon from a book. I therefore strongly advise you to divide your subject under headings. This is a help to both preacher and listener. Deal with each division or heading separately; let them be the scaffold round the building yon are erecting. Whatever may be said to the contrary, it remains a tact that very few preachers can deliver a clear, continuous, undivided sermon which will be remembered. If you study the sermons of the great preachers you will find they all follow the master-preacher, the Lord, and divide their sermons as He did. Of course, you do not want a firstly, secondly and thirdly, but keep the divisions clear. Who could possibly fail to remember the parable of the Sower?
The use of headings or divisions is a great help as regards keeping to time. They help you keep pace with the clock and save you from having to rush the end of your address or, worse still, leave part out.
The Use of Notes. No fixed rule should be laid down as to the use of notes. If you have a first-class memory and your subject is a simple one, you may not need any. If on this other hand your memory is just ordinary and the subject is complicated, you will probably make a mess of things without notes. If you do use notes then don't be afraid or ashamed to allow them to be seen. I know me of the finest preachers in London who always arrives with his tiny Bible in one hand and his notebook in the other; he never attempts to hide either. Why should he?
The use of notes will certainly save you from wandering; they pull you up when you go astray. If you use them, then do see that they are clear. The best method, in my opinion, is to use a plain postcard, and type or print your notes in block letters. I know this takes time, but unless you are prepared to devote both time and thought to the preparation of your sermons they will never be a blessing to you or to anyone else. Obviously a man called upon to preach at a moment's notice will not, in the ordinary course of events, have any notes with him; let him not despair, the Lord will help him through, but let no man be so lazy as to suppose that the Lord will, under ordinary circumstances, give him a message without his having to look for k. The Lord supplies every bird with its food, but He does not throw it into their nests.
The Use of Anecdotes. The use of illustrations, parables and allegories has Scriptural warrant. Many preachers never use them; others never preach without using them. Let everyone be fully persuaded in his own mind. Remember, a good cake is improved by the addition of a reasonable quantity of fruit, but completely spoiled if it contains too much.
If you cannot tell a story really well, then it is far better to omit it entirely. See to it that your story illustrates your point, and do not under any circumstances use old and worn-out stories. There are some still being told which are threadbare with age.
Do not over-paint your picture, you may make it ludicrous or, what is a thousand times worse, melodramatic. Put on colour with a brush artistically, not with a soup-ladle. Once when the good Bishop Kyle was preaching he suddenly pulled out a bunch of keys and began to rattle them; immediately the whole congregation looked up. Then the Bishop said, "Would there be any need for these keys if all men were perfectly honest? What do these keys show? They show that 'the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.'" A magnificent example of a really convincing illustration.
Do not lie theatrical or, as I've said, melodramatic; the theatre or Music Hall is the place for this kind of thing, not the pulpit. As for the funny story it is as out of place as a comic song would be at the Lord's Table. Keep your eyes and ears open and you will soon collect some really telling anecdotes and illustrations.