Neal Thornton

Tips for the Trial Sermon: Preaching in View of a Call

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A few months back, our church called a student pastor to join our pastoral team. Like many churches, ours formed a search committee to seek after God’s man for this particular role. After months of diligent searching, they unanimously landed on a recent graduate from Southeastern Seminary. He came highly recommended by his past professors as well as pastors at his then-current place of ministry.

In order to install this young man in this pastoral position, our church requires a congregational vote. Churches like ours typically schedule this vote following the sermon given by the prospective candidate on a Sunday morning. Such a preaching event is usually called a “trial sermon” or the act of “preaching in view of a call.” All that really means is that his sermon is a courteous convenience whereby the congregation at large can meet and hear the candidate while at the same time serving as a means of encouragement and affirmation of the prospective pastor with a Sunday morning preaching slot. Such was the scene at our church some Sundays ago. Preaching, voting, and thankfully celebrating the addition of a new pastor to our team.

I am writing because many readers of this blog are engaged in the coming and going of pastors and churches. As seminarians or recent graduates, many may be on the brink of their first full-time ministry assignment — perhaps a preaching pastor position. If that is you, you will likely find yourself in a similar situation as our did candidate earlier this year. You will be standing in a foreign pulpit, in a strange land of sorts, looking at people who know more about you than you know about them, with the hopes of receiving the opportunity to serve as their pastor.

9 Helpful Tips for Preaching in View of a Call

What follows are some helpful tips that I have learned personally and have observed from other men in the ministry when it comes time to “preach in view of a call.” I will use the second person singular pronoun “you” to refer to you, the prospective pastor, assuming you are reading this post.

1. Pastor the people.

Albeit a trial sermon Sunday, it is a supernatural event. You are God’s man with God’s message for such an incarnational moment in time. Do not aim to impress, but to exhort the people with biblical truth. True preaching assumes pastoral application. Thus, take advantage of the time the Lord (and the committee!) has provided.

2. Encourage their ministry.

I can say with almost absolute certainty that you do not know the whole story. The pulpit committee, as pious as they may be, has likely put their best foot forward. Time will reveal reality. Therefore, you take this time to encourage the church and set the course for your ministry. You never waste time when you encourage people.

3. Preach a favorite.

You will be nervous. Select a text you enjoy preaching and is frankly easy to preach. Preaching a favorite is not carnal, it is wise. Spurgeon said, “Preach nothing new on the road and nothing old at home.” I think that is good advice both for a life of ministry and for this one-time moment. The familiar textual territory will help your nerves and the sermon!

4. Go for warmth.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. For many in the audience, this will be the first time they see you. Granted, you are preaching to serve the Lord and not simply for votes. However, this is probably not the time for an exegesis on the Nephilim in Genesis 6.

5. Help the struggling.

You just never know who is in the audience. Similar to Tip #1 above, take the opportunity to shepherd those who need guidance, care, and support. Make your pulpit the chief platform of your pastorate. Shepherd the wayward sheep. Exude the leadership of profiles of Psalm 23 as you teach the Bible (e.g., lead, feed, care, protect).

6. Forget yourself.

When Alistair Begg was asked about his method of sermon preparation, he succinctly summarized it in this way, “I prepare myself, and then I forget myself.” Through almost a decade of pastoral ministry, I have made his words my own. I would encourage you to do the same. This is not about you, brother.

7. Share a testimony.

The pulpit is never the place for grandstanding. And if you speak of yourself, you should be the zero and not the hero. However, the people want to hear from you. Tell how you came to know Christ. Share a relevant story about your family. Allow the people to gain a sense of knowing you before they meet you.

8. Preach the gospel.

As Vince Lombardi would say, “Gentleman, this is football.” Perhaps preachers should be reminded every Sunday, “Gentleman, preach the gospel.” With all of the distractions of the morning and the mind, you need to remember to preach a clear, simple gospel. May you make Jesus accessible to everyone in the room.

9. Get your heart right on Saturday night.

How you go to bed is likely how you will wake up. This reality is never more true than on the Saturday night-Sunday morning transition. Turn off your phone, quit the coffee, spend time with your family, and then get alone with the Lord. Thank Him for this new season of your life. Trust him that he has prepared you for this moment. Believe that he will use you as his instrument in the morning to come. You have every reason to be encouraged.

It is Not About You

The bottom line is this: your trial sermon is not really about you or the vote to follow. Rather, it is about the affirmation that God is indeed moving in the church. If the search team is trusted and well-respected by the congregation, by the time you get up to preach, the church has likely already made up their minds. They do not have to trust you if they trust their people and their process. So, this is your job: do not get in God’s way. Relax, open the Bible and let God take care of the rest.

  • Neal Thornton
  • Pastoral Ministry
  • Preaching
  • Preaching in View of a Call
  • Trial Sermon
Neal Thornton

Neal Thornton (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is pastor of Coats Baptist Church in Coats, North Carolina.

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