Man reading at messy desk.

Starting and Ending with Why: The Importance of Asking “Why?” When We Prepare to Preach

Man reading at messy desk.Tonight, I decided to clean off my desk at Western Seminary. Like my desk at church, it has lost a fair amount of dignity due to the mess of endless piles, sticky marks from drinks, and the occasional untidiness of homeless pens and paperclips. I left it impressively clean when I took a brief leave, but after a few weeks back, it is once again embarrassingly disheveled.

One of the benefits of clearing things off is finding hidden treasures like missing keys, unfinished food, or unread books. I discovered Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why, buried under one stack. I have this bad habit of treating books like some people treat online dating—moving from one opportunity to another without appreciating the whole of the story. So I decided to reconnect with this book, and I discovered that the message, though basic, is really very important.


Asking the Right Question

Sinek wants to know why some people are more influential than others. Why are some organizations more innovative than nearby competitors? Most of us want to see some success in our lives. We hope to make some impact; we want our ministries to make a difference in culture. The point of the book is that you have to ask the right question. Too often, we start with the wrong questions—like what, or how, or when, or where. What is our strategy? Where are we going?

Some years ago, I was up near Mt. Hood. We were meeting as leaders to strategize and plan for the future, and as the time drew to a close, I chose to remain behind. I had a sermon to preach the following morning, so I seized some precious moments away from the hurry and noise of life down below. After going over some of my exegetical work and rethinking my homiletic outline, I was feeling pretty good…until the Spirit showed up.

This wasn’t Pentecost replayed, but it was one of those moments when you realize God has you in His sights. Though there was no audible voice, there was a profound sense God was speaking in my inner spirit, asking one question—“Why are you doing this?” It has been a question that has stayed with me ever since. There is hardly a week God does not sneak up and ask me—just before I prepare and just before I preach— “Why are you preaching this sermon?”

In the Mt Hood moment, I suddenly realized I was far from finished. Here’s what I typically ask on a given week:

  • WHAT am I going to preach?  (Often this has been settled when a series is settled in my mind)
  • WHAT does this text seem to be saying on the surface? What is going on here?
  • WHO wrote this and who is being addressed?
  • WHAT is the context, the history, the setting, the culture, the language being used?
  • WHAT kind of literature am I dealing with?
  • WHAT theological truths need to be explored?
  • WHAT is this saying about God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
  • WHAT is this saying about us?
  • WHERE is this going? Is there a sequence? What is the plot?
  • WHERE is the conflict, the tension, the mystery that need be discovered and eventually resolved? (“something has to turn sideways or the sermon doesn’t commence”, Lowry)
  • WHAT are other scholars saying? (though if I go here too quickly I might lose the insights that come out of my own exegesis; the sermon might turn into a running commentary or mere lessons of explanation)
  • WHERE do things shift in the sermon? Where is the “aha” moment, where things move from itch to scratch?
  • WHAT is the main idea?
  • HOW does this relate to the people I am preaching to? What “congregational exegesis” is required?
  • WHAT is God saying to me? (if I am not profoundly moved, how can I expect anyone to be? If it is not clear to me, it will be confusing to others—a mist in the pulpit leads to fog in the pews)
  • HOW should I introduce and conclude? (if I can’t give a reason for people to listen within the first  minute, I have probably lost them—if I don’t know how the sermon lands, it usually crashes)
  • HOW do I want to send people out (I don’t want to merely discuss God’s power—I want people to go out with victory in their possession)
  • WILL people leave saying that was a nice sermon? (which drives me crazy)  Will they leave knowing they heard a word from God evoking a needed and necessary response?

As important as these questions are, they still miss the essential question. To underscore Sinek’s point, I must first start with why.  Why am I preaching this sermon? Until I can answer this, none of the other questions matter. Sermons defined by “what” just give a lot of information; defined by “how”, they tend to devolve into principles for living.

Yesterday, preaching out of I Samuel 24, I gave some necessary principles to sound decision making. But it’s when I move to the why that this whole homiletical endeavor matters.  Why has God given this text to His church in order to hear the gospel and advance God’s kingdom? Why does it matter in this moment to these people? Why am I doing this?


About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.