What “preaching out of the overflow” means and why it’s not necessarily a good idea.

“My cup runneth over” (Psalm 23:5).

A child rushes into the kitchen to tell his mother something going on in his life. He’s so excited he’s about to explode. His words gush out in torrents, the story appears in no particular order, and mom gets a tale she will remember forever but which the child could not reproduce in the same way for love or money.

Something similar happens when a pastor “preaches out of the overflow,” as we say.

He is so full of his subject, has so many great insights and stories and convictions and burdens to relate, and excitedly pours them out all over the congregation. No one is bored, no one goes to sleep, but some have a little trouble following his train of thought.

Granted, such a sermon is a vast improvement over the kind of dead monologue some ministers inflict on their dozing flocks, as though the sheep weren’t getting enough rest at home and needed a sedative. Given a choice, most of us would take the “explosion of joy” any day of the week.

Such preaching can be a delight to the hearers and a joy to the preacher. But there are several problems with “preaching from the overflow”–

1) From the congregation’s standpoint, it’s often hard to follow the pastor’s train of thought.

2) There are problems from the preacher’s standpoint also. Each message being unique, it can never be repeated in just that way.  (I can hear someone insist that this is fine, that each preaching of a message should be one-of-a-kind. And I agree. However, if the sermon is a real winner, he would at least like to remember how he did it last time, otherwise, he has to go back to the drawing board and begin anew with each presentation.)

Preaching from the overflow pretty well sums up my style for the first few years of pastoral ministry: “Fill your mind and heart, find a starting place, and unload on the audience until you are empty or they are full, whichever comes first.

Woe to the preacher who is called upon (or “feels led”) to deliver the same sermon at some point in the future. He has his notes and his strong convictions, but has to return to the drawing board and as we say, reinvent the wheel.  (To interrupt myself here, perhaps this is an issue only for those of us not pastoring a church but “on the road,” preaching in a different church each Sunday.)

Case in point.

The Lord has given me a sermon on Luke 6:27-35 which I love to preach. “Love is something you do” is such a critical message I find myself looking for occasions to present it.

Recently, I began preparing to preach this sermon in a church in Southwest Louisiana. A week or two in advance, I knew the Lord wanted that message for that congregation. Only later did it occur to me that Valentine’s Day was the following Thursday. (It doesn’t hurt if some think I was doing this to stay with the calendar. But the calendar had nothing to do with it.)

However, as much as I love the message and believe it to be an essential part of the teaching of our Lord, I’m unhappy with the way I present it.

In my mind, this sermon exists mostly as a jumble of insights and convictions, stories and testimonies.  And that’s not good.

The dozen times I’ve preached this message in the past few years, in the absence of a clear outline (recipe, road plan, skeleton, route, blueprint, framework–thank you, Mr. Roget!), I have indeed opened the valves and let the overflow spill out over the audience.

Now, I’m not denigrating the practice entirely (see above; it’s better than boring people).

The problem is the sermon was a mess and I can never remember exactly how I did it the last time.

In order to do the message justice and to remember it the next time, I need a definitive outline, an order for this message that “works” and works every time. Begin here, move on to there, emphasize this, tell that story, and end up over here.

That was the burden of my heart all that week: find the ideal outline for this sermon.

“What overflow?”

I was ordained in late 1962 by West End Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama.  Specific memories of the ordination council are murky, but I recall vividly something the editor of our state Baptist weekly said in front of the other half-dozen ministers in the room.

Dr. Leon Macon looked at me and said, “My advice, young man, is to study hard until you are in your 40s. After that, preach out of the overflow.”

Now, it would be impossible to reproduce Dr. Macon’s exact words. His advice sounds so questionable I can understand anyone doubting that he said it. But that’s how I heard him.

On one occasion, perhaps 15 years later, I told that story to a mentor, Pastor James Richardson of Mississippi. When he heard Dr. Macon’s words, “After that, preach out of the overflow,” James scoffed, “What overflow?”

Good question. What indeed?

I’m now nearly a quarter of a century past my 40s (and Dr. Richardson–precious friend–has been in Heaven a full decade). The one thing I know without question is that reaching one’s forties is no time to shut down the learning and growing and studying mechanism.  In fact, there never comes such a time. No one ever knows it all.

What overflow, indeed?

What I did in that sermon from Luke 6.

As I prayed over the message that Saturday night and into Sunday morning, the Lord gave me a simple outline–I always need it to be simple and logical, otherwise, I’m hopelessly at sea–which seems to have worked well.  I preached it, felt right about it, the people listened intently and responded appropriately (as far as a visiting preacher can gauge), and the pastor said it was effective.

So, I may have found (read: “been given”) the definitive outline for that message.

Now, if I can just locate it.  Which Bible did I use last Sunday? and where can I put the outline so as to find it next time?

The one thing readers do NOT need is an illustration of the fuzzy way my mind works. You have it in front of you. There is no outline to this little article.  I have worked on it nearly a week (I started last Saturday before preaching that sermon the next day and today is Thursday) and deleted several paragraphs and insertions during the daily visits to the draft in an attempt to tighten it up and make it easier to follow. I posted it on the website, and keep going back to edit it.

(There’s a lot to be said for being right-brained. You can be a cartoonist, a story-teller, a fun-lover, and a conversationalist. But on the negative side, you tend to be disorganized, undisciplined, messy, and scatter-brained.  Woe to your wife if she is left-brained. Which she is.)

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