A friend recently inquired about how a few of us “sermonators” (his word) prepared to preach. His question was in reference to how I (and a couple of others) approach crafting the sermon and how that is like or different from how we approach our other writing (yes, I do a little writing. I’m practicing and learning, but giving it a go and enjoying it.)
So, here’s my approach to preparing and crafting the sermon. This doesn’t get specific about my whole method, but it sketches the basic movements and the basic approach.
Background: I was an associate for 2 1/2 years in which I preached once/month. Then I was the pastor of a congregation for 2 years, in which I preached weekly. Now I’m an associate and preach a little over half the time, but typically in bunches–3 or 4 weeks at a time, then 3 weeks off. We have 2 traditional morning services that the Sr. Pastor preaches, and includes the other Assoc. Pastor and myself in the preaching schedule about 2-3 times or so each in a 4-5 month period. And we have an evening contemporary service that the other assoc. pastor and I serve as the principle preachers for–usually for 3 weeks at a time, then we switch out.
Since the sermon has a deadline on it, it’s a discipline within which the art is cultivated. I think if I had a real deadline for the fiction and non-fiction ideas that I’ve got in my mind and computer, that would be a better approach for me–something that demanded a discipline within which the art could be cultivated.
I’m best when I’ve planned out my texts well in advance. Then, when that week rolls around, I’ve had a sense that it was coming and it’s been on the back burner stewing just a little.
Sermons are essentially events that should help the text for the day intersect the lives of the people in a transforming way. I prefer to select texts by planning preaching series of various kinds on an annual basis–that’s what I did as the weekly preacher (exposit a book, preach a character’s life, address a topic or series of topics, preach on the sacraments, preach the season–particularly advent and lent, etc.). In any event, the sermon is text-led. For me, that means finding the plotline of the text and then allowing it to shape where the sermon goes and what it addresses. You can bring a question to the text, but you’ve got to prayerfully find a text that addresses it and then be willing for the text to answer it how it wants to, not how you want it to. So, it can be unexpected.
My prep method is my own amalgam of the methods of my preaching professor, Dr. Ellsworth Kalas, and my biblical studies professors, Dr. Joel Green and Dr. David Bauer. That combo has been the most practical in being committed to searching what the Scripture wants to say, and having a good shot at figuring that out.
To begin, I print out a double-spaced copy of the text, then take a pencil to it, separating the sections into a rough outline, circling and making connections, jotting notes about terms and structural relationships between the parts and such (recurring words/themes, comparisons, contrasts, causal connections, purpose statements, means/end type relationships, etc.). All of those are really helpful in coming to see the plot and big picture of the text–where it wants to go. I will also write down questions about stuff like historical background, cultural background, and the social worldview of that time. I’ll take those questions to the surrounding text, to the Bible as a whole, and to bible dictionaries and other reference works like that to learn some answers to those questions. I read two or three commentaries on the text, and articles if I find any–The Christian Century, for example, carries regular essays on lectionary texts (“Living by the Word”) that are searchable at www.findarticles.com. Christianity Today and Discipleship Journal, among others, will also have articles that are speaking with a particular text or set of texts in view, which can be helpful.
All of that said, when I “write” the sermon, I never write out my sermon ahead of time. Instead, I list the key concerns of the text, the movements exegetically, the historical and cultural background info that will help the characters or the situation come alive, and the big thing that the text is saying–the point in a few words or a sentence. Plus, any key theological insights, and jot down any particular ways of phrasing them that might particularly good or memorable for myself and the people. Then (though not purely linearly–I’ll often have both lists going at the same time), I list images, personal stories, events, metaphors, phrases, cultural references, illustrations from my fiction and non-fiction reading–books and magazines, as well as other stories in Scripture that might relate or that might illuminate this passage. I’ll list anything that comes to mind that might relate somehow in some way to the text’s story.
Then, I take all of that and write out the components, using a word or two to title and serve as shorthand for each one. This is the stage in which I edit out pieces from the first two lists that I don’t have room for and that don’t really fit, according to the direction the sermon is going. Once I’ve got my key components, I arrange them into an order that makes sense; one that forms a natural flow, a plotline. In the end, it’s more like arranging the segments on a storyboard, I think. As a final step, I’ll jot down the 1-2 word shorthand for each component in order on an index card or oversized post-it note, then look over that, mentally rehearsing it. I talk out the components in my mind, telling the stories, giving the textual notes, etc. in order to feel comfortable standing up with just my bible in front of people. I rarely feel completely comfortable doing it though–everytime is something like stepping off a cliff onto nothing. A little fear and trepidation can be a good thing.
Throughout the whole process, my prayer is this, roughly based on 1 Corinthians 2:4, which is also the prayer I pray after reading the text and before preaching (except in our morning service, where we have a “sermon covenant prayer” printed in the bulletin that the preacher and congregation share–a great tradition, but you can bet I’m still praying my prayer during the anthem prior to the sermon!): “Heavenly Father, we give thanks for your Word. And we pray that this message, this preaching, would be not by human wisdom or understanding, but by the power of your Holy Spirit at work among us, opening your Word to us. And we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
I don’t write out my sermon ahead of time for at least these reasons:
1. I’m committed to preaching without notes and I’ve learned that for me it’s much easier to do that if I do not write out a manuscript beforehand. Yes, I still get up in the pulpit with some notes once in a while. But I don’t like it. One good thing about getting out from behind the pulpit to preach is that you’re just thrown out there and have to do it–have to just talk to the people.
2. My philosophy is that a sermon that is to be delivered is an event in time, not a literary work. Communicating with the congregation is the key. Precise wordsmithing in a sermon is almost always only critical for one or two phrases and maybe one or two sentences in the whole thing. The first sentence is one of those times. The sentence or phrase that presses home the main point is another. Maybe one or two other times the right phrasing is important. What’s more important, to me, is to talk to the people. So, you study and pray and learn and have God work you over really good. Then you get up and talk about that in a way that is organized enough for it to make sense to people.
3. Memory needs practice in order to develop. Working from component parts that I have to think out and mentally rehearse helps me better cultivate my memory. If I compose a written sermon before preaching it, I’ll want to memorize it word for word. Others may not, but I will. On the other hand, if I study, pray, reflect, brainstorm, research, boil down, and organize into a logical, natural plot (usually one that tries to mirror the plot of the text), then I’m internalizing the bulk of it and only memorizing the 2-4 phrases that need to be delivered with some precision.
So, there it is. Secret revealed, for what it’s worth.
I’ll leave this post on a lighter note. I once heard a preaching professor say that she liked to go around and ask preachers what the most important thing was for a preacher to do to have great sermons. In other words, what is the key to great preaching? One respondant said this to her: “The most important thing in preaching is authenticity. And if you can learn to fake that, you’ve got really got it made.”
UPDATE: Here’s a subsequent post with a list of the most influential books for me as a preacher, after the Bible.