Tucked away in a Dallas assisted-living center, Dr. John Reed, age 91, sits in his olive green recliner, looking out his sliding glass door at beautiful White Rock Lake. I have come to sit with him, ask his advice, and work on my sermon for Sunday.
For the past twelve years, I have been preaching at a small church in the suburbs of Dallas. I first met Dr. Reed when he served as my preaching professor in 2003 and little did I know at the time what an important role he would play in my future life.
After graduating from Dallas Seminary, I returned to serve as a graduate teaching assistant for Dr. Reed. When I planted my first church he came and prayed at our inaugural service. And when that same church faced conflict he steadied my faith and gave me encouragement to endure. In 2015, I decided to jump into a Doctor of Ministry program so I could sit under his teaching once more, in his final course prior to retirement.
So as I sit with him today, I ask, “How many years did you teach preaching?” He replies, “I guess it was about 50 years.” Each Sunday, Dr. Reed’s fingerprints are found on hundreds if not thousands of sermons and pastors. “Do you know how your teaching has influenced my preaching?” I ask as I start ticking off lessons I use each week. He seems surprised that he has had such an impact. Teachers don’t often get a chance to see the significance of their work. So, I asked, “How would you feel about me writing a blog on the preaching lessons I learned from you, so other preachers can learn them too?” And so with his permission, I pass these onto you.
Lesson #1: Master the Material
Dr. Reed said during his first lecture to our preaching class, “You have to preach out of mastery. A good sermon comes, first, out of familiarity with the text. Read the book you are preaching at least five times before starting any other sermon preparation. My campaign is to have you read the Bible.”
I ask Dr. Reed about where this passion for mastery originated. He tells me this story: “While a student at Bryan College, I was captivated by the eloquent preaching of a visiting speaker, Dr. Sampson. Someone asked Dr. Sampson, ‘What is the secret to effective preaching?’ He replied, ‘Where I live, in Richmond, Virginia, I have a house that has a veranda, and it is on a hillside overlooking a wide valley. I sit in my rocking chair with the Bible on my lap, and I read the book that I am going to preach, over and over and over until I understand it.’” That message resonated with Dr. John Reed, who would champion the value of biblical mastery for the next five decades.
Dr. Reed urges preachers to begin their preparation by quietly listening to God speak. This puts us, as preachers, in a position of humility, both as a learner and listener. Too many times we assume we already know the passage, topic, or book and jump straight to structures and sermon illustrations. Stop and listen. Read the book or passages you are preaching over and over. God may have something unexpected to say to you, something He wants you to pass onto your congregation or audience.
Lesson #2: Preach what’s there!
As a graduate teaching assistant, I heard Dr. Reed evaluate many student sermons. One time, a student was preaching from a text in the Gospel of Mark, when he began introducing multiple other passages from the Old and New Testaments. Dr. Reed’s evaluation of this student can be summarized in three words: “Preach what’s there!” As the student began to argue about the importance of his Old Testament references, Dr. Reed interrupted, “Preach what’s there!” The student then tried to explain why his other texts were indispensable. “Preach what’s there,” Dr. Reed said again and again, with his characteristic intensity and passion. Before long, the student and the class got the point.
Dr. Reed explained that when the Holy Spirit leads us to a passage of Scripture, there is always sufficient material in that passage for the sermon. To use the passage as a springboard to other texts devalues and dilutes God’s Word. Dr. Reed said, “Who knows when you will get back to this text again. Don’t squander the opportunity to preach what’s there.” I have never forgotten this lesson.
Lesson #3: Get Inside the Quotation Marks
John Reed was a master of sermon illustrations. He authored a book on sermon illustrations taken from the life of 19th century evangelist D.L. Moody. He was so passionate about support material that he offered all his students a free copy of the sermon illustration database he used, already stocked with over 2,000 of his favorite Moody quotes.
When teaching on this topic a favorite phrase was, “Get inside the quotation marks.” By this, Dr. Reed wanted to help students take their generically-told stories to a new level. “Just like in a book or play,” he explained, “the most important points are communicated in dialogue.”
One common student sermon in those days was based on Proverbs 15:1 (NIV) “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Most students, in their sermons gave an example of a “harsh”and “gentle” word, such as: My father yelled at me and said I would never amount to anything. Dr. Reed would then explain that by simply putting words inside quotations as dialogue the story would communicate more powerfully. For example with the same example: My father yelled at me and snarled, “Son, you will never amount to anything.”
Adding dialogue can seem like a small thing, but it has big results. Every time I am recounting a story in a sermon, I hear Dr. Reed’s voice encouraging me to add dialogue. Get inside those quotation marks!
Lesson #4: They are not paying to see you look nervous
Dr. Reed explained to our preaching class that he heard this phrase during an acting workshop many years ago: “They are not paying to see you nervous!” His point was that if we are not careful, our nervous energy can detract from all the hard work we have put into a sermon.
Dr. Reed explained, “Fifteen or twenty hours of work put into your sermon can be easily negated by nervous energy when it distracts the audience.” Over the years, he had seen it all. Some people say “um,” “ok,” or “like” while others play with their keys or wedding rings. Some speak too fast, others too slow. Some intense students pace the stage like a caged lion. A few nervous preachers look only at the ceiling. Most new preachers don’t know what to do with their hands, so they wring them, fold them, or stuff them into their pockets. They touch their nose, their face, their hair and other parts of their bodies. Most of this is done unconsciously. When debriefing a sermon that was derailed by nervousness, Dr. Reed would say, “They’re not paying to see you look nervous.”
And he did not leave us without help. “Know what your nerves do to you, and work to control them, so that God’s Word is not inhibited,” he encouraged. One suggestion was to expend physical energy just before preaching by walking around the building, or even doing a few pushups to dissipate adrenaline. He stressed the importance of recording sermons to examine delivery quirks. He said, “Once you are aware of how nerves come through in your sermon, you can work to control them.”
Lesson #5: Don’t compromise your money time
During Dr. Reed’s lecture on sermon application, he talked about an early TV preacher (Roman Catholic priest Fulton Sheen, if I remember right). In an interview the priest explained that while he sometimes had to cut his message short to fit tightly controlled program time, “I will never cut my money time,” he said. “Money time,” was the time at the end of a show reserved for donation appeals, to support keeping the ministry on the air.
Dr. Reed taught, “For us, the sermon application is our ‘money time.’ Never compromise the time you need to call God’s people to apply His Word.” Without “money time,” there is no call to action. It is better to shorten or cut other parts of our sermon, in order to have critical time for application.
Dr. Reed came into ministry at a time when many people disagreed with application being in a sermon at all. “Let the Holy Spirit make application,” people argued. Dr. Reed was an early advocate of specific and persuasive application. “Don’t compromise your money time.”
Lesson #6: Remember- you never know who you are preaching to
Dr. Reed was hired by Dallas Theological Seminary to work in homiletics, to listen to student sermons, and teach preaching. In the early tenure of his time, he became overwhelmed when he faced significant personal and spiritual struggles.
In 2003, he recounted those difficult times to our preaching class, “While driving home I found myself identifying overpass buttresses, and picking out ones that I could drive my car into, I was suicidal.” He began weeping and said, “What kept me from driving into those cement columns were student sermons. I need to hear from God, too. You never know who you are preaching to.”
Students sometimes can’t fathom their professor being one of those who might need to hear from God through their sometimes awkward messages. But preaching, even in a seminary class for a grade, is still the proclamation of God’s Word. This was a powerful lesson which I will never forget. Dr. Reed reminds us that God uses preaching to change lives, to transform the hearts of real people with real problems. More is at stake than we can know.
My visit with Dr. Reed comes to an end and I close my laptop. “I’ve got to go!” I announce. “How is your sermon coming?” he inquires. “I made great progress today. My outline is done and I have started the manuscript.” “Good,” he approves, and then asks, “When are you going to preach Hebrews? I want to talk with you about Hebrews. It is an important book!” “Yes, John,” I say, “Let’s talk about that next time. I would love to get your thoughts on it.” Dr. John Reed may be retired, but he is still teaching, and I am still learning.
The author, Dr. Craig Schill, with Dr. John Reed (October 24, 2019)
Dr. John Reed is a Senior Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary. He attended, Bryan College, Grace Theological Seminary, Bowling Green State University and received his PhD from Ohio State University. Having served in the Army during WWII, he became a chaplain (Lt. Col., retired) in the United States Air Force Reserves and was a member of the National Guard Association of Texas. Listed in Outstanding Educators of America, Dr. Reed is recognized for his vast pastoral experience, which includes 37 years at churches in Indiana, Ohio, and Texas. He pastored Sherman Bible Church (Sherman, Texas) for 18 and a half years. Dr. Reed has researched the religious experiences of Civil War soldiers, and is currently working on a new novel set in that time. His teaching interests are in preaching and Doctor of Ministry research methods.
 Some of the lessons shared here overlap and are taught by other outstanding pastoral ministry faculty at Dallas Seminary. It just happens that, as far as I can remember, I heard them first from Dr. Reed.