Preparing To Preach
Forty-three minutes. That’s my average sermon time so far this year. It used to be longer and it is meant to be shorter. I serve in a church where our guideline for preachers is 40 minutes; I’m working to consistently reach this target by the end of this year. But what goes into preparing for those 43 minutes? Well, to go by the amount of conversation that passes between preachers on this subject, you may think it an enigma.
That’s why I was so excited to see Rory Shiner peel back the covers a little to give us an insight into his preparation process, and I’m hopeful that the good people at TGC Australia will continue this helpful series — you can read Rory’s insights here, “Preparing Talks and Sermons”. In that article, Rory leads us through a typical two week cycle, helping us to see the logic behind what is often a very personal and always evolving process for many preachers. He begins by saying,
“Anyway, for what’s it’s worth, I’m very interested in how others prepare their sermons. I’ll go first and tell you how I do mine, in the hope that you might return the favour.”
Thanks for breaking the ice, Rory, I hope the water’s fine because I’m about to dive in.
I’m the preaching pastor of a mid-sized, semi-rural church in the Hunter Valley, NSW. We have one service per week, of which I preach about 30 Sundays each year; I also travel and speak at other churches and a few conferences. All up, I prepare somewhere between 40 to 50 sermons each year. Also for context, I am employed by my church for this role and supported the equivalent of 3 days per week.
I’ve been in a mixture of full-time or bi-vocational ministry for almost 25 years, though to begin with it was largely para-church ministry. Since the early 2000’s my ministry shifted to pastoral ministry in various capacities, though all involved some preaching load.
Big Picture Planning
As our church is not formally a part of any mainstream established denomination, we aren’t required to follow a specific lectionary, though we are committed to primarily an expositional approach. In consultation with the rest of our eldership team, my role is to map out where our preaching calendar will take us over the following calendar year. I mostly have this completed in ‘broad brush’ format by the end of September, then group discussion follows, then more editing, with a completed plan presented by the end of October. This plan has a number of blank slots in it, allowing us the flexibility to adjust during the year to unforeseen needs or addressing specific crisis that may occur over the course of the year.
The plan is largely shaped by a few key considerations. The first is a balanced ‘diet’ of Biblical genres, as well as appropriate representation from both Testaments. The second though is formulated through a more pastoral mindset. As a team, we are continually trying to discern the ‘health’ of the local church we are entrusted to shepherd under Christ, with the conviction that God’s Word has all we need for growth and godliness, and the sufficiency of the gospel, so we plead with the Spirit to help us see what specific books (and encapsulated themes) are required in this season to encourage, rebuke, spur on, or build up, Christ’s Bride. The end result is a plan that is on average about 80% book studies, with the balance being shorter bridging series that deal with a variety of key topics or subjects.
Sharpening The Focus
Using the bigger plan, I then set to writing up a more detailed brief for each series. This is an ongoing task that unfolds over the course of the year, with the goal of having a completed series brief available about a month before we are due to start. This brief includes some essential background and overview material, along with a breakdown of the outline we’ll be using, and will usually include a rough idea of sermon titles for each week, the corresponding core passage, and a ‘big idea’ statement. This step is essential for developing other preachers who can work as part of a broader team using a unified strategy. I also make these briefs available to our Core Group leaders (you may call your groups something different), with many of our groups electing to study and discuss the passage in the week prior to it being preached from.
Week By Week
By far the largest component of my preparation process is here—this is the ‘bread and butter’ part of being a preacher, I guess. Here’s how I approach this frustratingly beautiful calling:
I think best when I’m not rushed. The older I get, the more I schedule preparation earlier in my weekly rhythms. Every week begins with simply reading the passage I’ll be preaching from in two weeks time. I find that the earlier I can get that passage swilling around in my mind the better, and I’ve found that about a two week lead-time is ideal for me. I rarely take any notes on this passage at this stage, I am simply regularly reading and trying to hear the rhythms and tone of the original author. A large part of percolation is praying through the text.
Now for the week leading up to actually preaching. During these early stages of preparation, I almost exclusively use a Moleskin journal (my preference is a lined, soft cover edition) to scribble observations, questions, and connections, I find in the text I'll be preaching from. I’ve had limited formal theological education, so I rely heavily on original language helps that I’ve had recommended by trustworthy sources. I’m a fairly non-lineal thinking kind of guy, so this stage can look fairly messy. I almost never use pen, instead, a good mechanical pencil allows me to scribble and scrawl to my heart's content without the dread of unsightly blocked out text. In the very early stages, my moleskin is only usually accompanied by my Bible—other reference material comes later. I do include using Bible software during this stage of preparation, in particular, I use the Bible Arcing method to help trace the original author’s argument and intent.
After the initial blocking out of the text is complete, I start widening my vision to include what other people have seen in the text. Here I tend to favour other pastoral practitioners over scholarly academics, though I certainly have chewed through a few of these technical books on a number of occasions, though my findings rarely feature in the finished manuscript. In recent times I've found that I gravitate most frequently to the 'Christ-Centered Exposition Series' put out by Holman Reference and have found them to be an excellent resource to our church's ministry.
As I only work from my church office three days of the week (usually Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday), I aim to have this part of the process (which for me accounts for about 80% of the time it takes me to prepare a sermon) completed by Wednesday afternoon.
Early in my preaching experience I mostly worked from a notebook or loose-leaf paper with handwritten notes and dot points to preach from. However, over the last decade or so, I have discovered the worth of fully manuscripting my sermon. To do this, I reluctantly left my beautiful notebook behind and ventured into the digital realm. To my surprise, once I got my head around the medium, I've never looked back.
Using my handwritten notes and observations, I translate my rough thoughts into crafted sentences and copy in any secondary Biblical text (other text apart from the key passage I'm preaching from) using an online Bible site—while I do have a Logos package, I've found that there are many other great sites, many that are free or low cost, that also do a great job.
I've trialled numerous platforms for writing and storing my sermons, but the best I've found yet is Ulysses (sorry, Mac only). It offers huge flexibility in writing style, as well as great storage and retrieval systems, along with minimal editing distractions. It also has the benefit of exporting the text into numerous formats, including PDF if you prefer to preach from paper, or in my case, it exports directly into an eBook format as I prefer to preach from my iPad.
This part of the process is alway completed during the day on Friday. Though on occasion, I’ve found that I’ve needed to go back and rework something after having a mental break from it, as I don’t usually touch it after I work hard at it on the Wednesday. I usually spend some time reading my sermon out loud on Friday, as this helps me ‘hear’ the sermon (after all, God’s Word was primarily formulated to be heard, not just read).
I want the last thing I read on Saturday night, and the first thing I read on Sunday morning, to be my sermon manuscript. I never memorise my sermon, but I find that my process helps it ‘embed’ itself in my mind in such a way so that I am ‘familiar’ with it enough that I don’t have to read it. I always have it in front of me, and I use highlighting tools to pick up key words, and phrases, transitions, and illustrations, so that I can easily locate them at a glance should I need to.
When I preach, I almost exclusively preach with an open Bible in front of me, and my iPad sitting beside it. My personal conviction is that preaching through the text should be visually supported by clearly allowing the church to see that the source of authority comes from the written word of God. This is not to say that it is wrong to read the text from a digital device, yet, if it can be helped, I will always read and reference the primary text from a printed Bible. Other secondary Biblical references (unless they are quite lengthy) I will usually include in my manuscript notes, this allows smoother transitions and keeps the focus on the primary text we're working through.
What you will see and hear amounts to 43 minutes, hopefully come November, I’ll have my average down to 40.