Taking the Drudgery Out of Sermon Preparation
By Dave Redick
[Note: The author of this article in no way considers himself to have "arrived" in the area of sermon preparation. Though he has taught others to preach, he finds he is still learning after twenty plus years of experience. He is not a novice, however, and has learned some helpful things over the years. It is in a spirit of humility and a sense of awesome respect for the notion that any mortal would attempt to speak on behalf of God that he offers this article.]
"Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching. Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed upon you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery. Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress may be evident to all. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you." 1 Timothy 4:13-16 (NAS)
Early in my ministry I often made the observation to myself and a few trusted confidants, "I love to preach, but I hate preparing sermons." In a calling that demands preparation of something entirely new and interesting several times each week, this attitude presented no small difficulty. Weekly sermon preparation for me consisted of hours of frantically reading through the Bible, fretting over what to preach, desperate prayers, rifling through mountains of unorganised material, then many hours bent over a typewriter in a race against the clock. By Friday or Saturday I was nervous and irritable. The trash can in the corner of the room blossomed with crumpled sheets of typing paper - aborted attempts and false starts. I was frequently wakened in the middle of the night by the same nightmare in which I got up to the pulpit on Sunday morning before hundreds of people and had nothing to say. While many reading this article may not have experienced such extreme levels of difficulty, I suspect that sermon preparation is at its very best, challenging for most. To the uninitiated, I have often compared it to writing a sizeable segment of a term paper in college once a week.
Today things are different for me. No, I cannot say it is easy. Worthwhile things seldom are, but I can honestly say that I look forward to the process of sermon preparation. Provided I get a good start early in the week and don't have to be rushed at the last minute, I have a pleasant routine that I can live with and that allows others (such as a longsuffering wife) to live in peace with me. What changed things? I'll share what I've learned in this article.
Of course experience is a good teacher. At age 48, I am much more proficient than I was at age 25. There is hope for the younger preacher in this. The years of struggle pay off. It does get easier, if one works hard, with nothing more than the passing of the years in the pulpit.
If you've read this far, though, I suspect you're looking for a more immediate solution. What follows is a collection of concepts and practices that have proven helpful to me and delivered me from the drudgery of sermon preparation.
1. Plan for uninterrupted preparation time.
"Hello. You've reached Westside Church of Christ. If you wish to speak to our minister, please press one. If you wish to speak to our on-staff counsellor, please press one. If you wish to speak to our director of evangelism, please press one. If you wish to speak to our director of missions, please press one. If you wish to speak to our church secretary, custodian, or our complaint department, please press one. For all other requests, please press one."
The modern minister, especially in the smaller church, wears many hats. Preaching and preparing sermons is only part of what is expected. Counsellor, C.E.O., evangelist, personal confidant of many, and administrator, are just some of the items in the job description. My experience has been that two or three hours of preparation can turn into a full day of start and stop frustration. This calls for a strategy that puts one out of the way of people who drop in unexpectedly just to pass the time. For me, it means getting away from the church office for larger blocks of time earlier in the week. When my children were small and at home, I would take my Bible, notebook, and selected study items and head for the local public library where I squirreled away at a back-corner table for the first half of the day. After lunch I headed for the office where I managed appointments or continued to study as I could. Two evenings a week were spent calling on people whom I couldn't see during the day.
Today with all but one child out of the home, I maintain a second office at my residence, stocked with books, supplies, and a second computer. Most of my sermon work is done here in the early hours of the day. I find I work far more efficiently in the morning, after exercise, a shower, and a light breakfast.
Probably the thing that helped me most was scheduling my study time just as I did my appointments. I blocked it out on my calendar. If someone asked to see me during my preparation time, unless it was an emergency, I replied that I had an appointment, but could see them later in the day or week. Few people ever had any problem with this. Having my sermons in hand by Wednesday or Thursday puts me at the top of my game. There's no feeling quite like it! The best sermons are born during times of contemplation. If you are going to speak for God, you need to make the time to prepare.
I know one minister who does not even come in to his church office on Monday and Tuesday. This time is used for uninterrupted preparation of sermons and lessons. When he hits the office on Wednesday, he is ready for whatever might come, confident he will not be forced to stay up half the night on Saturday preparing what should have already been done, then struggling with an energy deficit on the Lord's day.
If you are not doing it yet, block out your study time on your calendar and guard it. Consider this: Spending 30-40 minutes addressing the whole church on Sunday morning is probably the most efficient thing you do all week. You could never speak efficiently to so many people in any other context.
2. Get a good personal computer and learn to use it.
I cannot say enough about how the computer has added to my sermon preparation, both in efficiency and added effectiveness. I now own two of them (I use Windows machines and am largely unfamiliar with other types) and would not want to go back to life without them. After the procurement of a personal computer, the choice of software determines how useful the machine becomes in sermon preparation. The following categories of software are most helpful:
This is the basic function a minister will use most. A good word processor and an efficient typing speed along with the standard cut and paste abilities make outline and/or manuscript preparation much easier. (I type 80-100 wpm. If you cannot type quickly, take a class, it's worth it.) I try to stay on the cutting edge of word processing technology. If I'm going to upgrade any piece of software, it will nearly always be the word processor first. Often, in the preparation of lessons, I need only to write the text and "pour" it into my standard lesson form. I used WordPerfect for many years with great benefit. Today I use the latest version of Microsoft Word. It is an excellent program that I will diligently upgrade as it improves.
Because of the ability to keep files on disk, as your sermons collect, they can be there for you at a moments notice. You can search through them by title, topic, or full string text search. May I say here, too, that if you store your work on disk and don't have a backup, it is only a matter of time until you will regret the day you tried to save a few dollars by not purchasing the necessary backup hardware and software. As a professional you need professional equipment.
If you cannot afford a shrink wrapped product, check out one of those available as shareware or even freeware.
The newest Bible study software programs are truly remarkable. Searches that used to take days now take seconds. Multiple translations can be consulted or searched at the click of a mouse. Greek and Hebrew study has been greatly simplified. Many of the standard reference works for Bible study are coming out for use with the computer. Text in both English and the original languages can be cut and pasted right onto the pages of your sermon. My research is not only quicker, I also am more willing to search out issues that before would have been too time consuming. In a matter of a few minutes I can read the verses that contain every occurrence of a specific word in the entire English translation.
I presently use Biblesoft's PC Study Bible for most of my work. I have also used Parson's Quickverse and Logos Research's Level 4 program. Both are excellent and there are other good ones. Since it was one of the first, I have used PC Study Bible since its earliest release and have diligently upgraded as it developed. It fits like a comfortable shoe. I seldom even have to think about what my fingers are doing as I study. A person should take the time to master the few programs he really uses in study.
If you don't have a Bible program, get one. If money is tight, there are several available as shareware or even freeware.
Besides the Scripture, good illustrations are the bread and butter of sermon preparation. An apt illustration can do more than fifteen minutes of explanation and raise the attention level to boot. Having a store of collected material from which you can pull is a great plus. Your sermons will always be interesting if you tell stories while you preach.
There was a time when I had many illustrations kept in what I defeatedly called my "pile system" which consisted of stacks of magazine and newspaper clippings put in this corner or that. Though I collected good material, it was useless to me because I couldn't find it when I needed it. I recall one occasion when, having so much printed material, I filled five 32 gallon trash cans and hauled it all to the dump! I nearly cried as I drove away, but really, the items were worthless to me because they weren't organized.
Today all my sermon support material is kept in one file cabinet and one computer database designed especially for sermon illustrations. The database is Parsons' Bible Illustrator. It originally came with 2500 stories, quotes, and anecdotes. Today mine contains over 50,000 items. I collect illustrations like some people collect stamps. It is a hobby that pays great dividends when it is time to do serious sermon preparation. The search capabilities of the program make finding material easy. Cutting and pasting to and from the Windows clipboard saves much typing.
Rounding out my illustration collection is a modest assortment of the typical illustration books most preachers manage to gather. I seldom use them because the computer is much more effective and convenient. With 50,000 illustrations in digitised form, who wants to turn the pages of a book?
Though I began my early ministry struggling, it is probably true now that I could sit down with most any passage of scripture and prepare a sermon in a reasonable amount of time. That kind of confidence comes from experience and a vast collection of helpful material. I encourage you to work on your collection. Your confidence will grow as your resources grow. Today it is easier than ever to collect and file good material.
To some this item might seem optional, but to me it is critical. I constantly check words I'm not sure of before I use them. This ensures accuracy and freedom from embarrassment. It also builds my vocabulary. The thesaurus function is invaluable when I'm seeking to alliterate an outline or vary my words. I use The American Heritage Talking Dictionary on CD published by Softkey. Other good ones are available. The "talking" function helps when checking pronunciation.
Microsoft Powerpoint is used to prepare overhead transparencies. These are printed on a colour ink jet printer and projected with a standard overhead projector. Some of my colleagues us Powerpoint's video projection capabilities in conjunction with laptop computers with good effect. The cost of such a system has so far prohibited my use of it.
Compton's Interactive Encyclopaedia is a great help for checking the accuracy of facts as is Microsoft Encarta. These and other encyclopaedias area available on CD and are much more reasonably priced than their paper counterparts.
I keep my sermon collection catalogued with Parson's Ministry Notebook, a small multi-function program that also keeps track of expenses, prayers, calls and other things pertaining to ministry. I keep random sermon thoughts, outlines, and ideas in a program that stays loaded on my computer at all times called Info Select. At its base is a freeform database that works magic on random bits of information that would typically be lost because they don't fit easily into categories. You could effectively file sixteen odd socks in this program and never lose one of them. Typing in the search term "John" might bring up three outlines from the gospel of John, the address of John Doe, the recorded result of an interview with John Smith, a quote from John Brown, and yes, even the number of the drawer where you put John's odd sock. (I did say random, didn't I?)
Of late, two of my greatest research tools are my Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers. Both do essentially the same thing - browse the World Wide Web. I use both because I publish a web site and must test the pages on each. Every day new web sites are showing up that support the efforts of the preacher. Increasingly, all sorts of research is possible. I also share ideas and material with several preaching friends via e-mail and computerized mailing lists. My email program of choice is Eudora Pro. I use Microsoft Frontpage Web Editor for publishing my sermons on my Web site.
We live in marvellous and exciting times. The potential for streamlining sermon preparation has never been greater. Get busy learning how.
3. Plan your preaching ahead.
It is proverbially said that half the task of sermon preparation is deciding what to preach. Before I started short and long term planning, I concurred. Now I seldom have to worry about this "first half." It's done months ahead. Occasionally, when I see the need or just have a burning issue I want to preach about, I alter my strategy, but for the most part I stick to my plan.
I like to plan my preaching six months ahead. I prefer expository series preaching for the most part, though I also insert topical and textual sermons between series. Expository preaching is most often built around a book or chapter of the Bible or a biographical sketch of a Bible character. Sometimes, too, a series might cover various aspects of a specific topic.
The benefits of expository preaching are numerous. (1) You always know what you are going to preach next. (2) You are forced to preach on things you might not deal with otherwise. (3) You grow because you are constantly discovering new truth, not just regurgitating what you already know. (4) You preach it in the same context and order the Holy Spirit revealed it. (5) People who hear you will become familiar with the context of the Bible, not just what you think about the Bible.
In an article entitled, The Value of Expository Preaching and Teaching, Roger Johnson laments:
All too often the biblical passage read to the congregation resembles the national anthem played at sporting events. It gets things started but it is not referred to again during the lesson. The authority behind preaching resides not in the preacher but in the biblical texts.
I certainly agree!
For planning, I use a paper chart with blank boxes for each Sunday of the year. At first I pencil in general areas I'd like to cover. I might map out 5 weeks and call it "The Life of Elisha." Then I might leave a couple of blank spaces for topical work, then pencil in a series on the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Next might come a pulpit exchange with an area minister, followed by a couple of topics, then a series on the eldership. For the most part I stick to this schedule, though I may vary on occasion. By knowing what I am going to preaching for the next six months, I can begin a leisurely pace of collecting material for the coming messages. For instance, knowing I'm going to preach a series on the Holy Spirit in three months, I pick up a book on the subject, collect some possibly helpful illustrations, keep notes of a sermon I heard that challenged me and do some reading in my personal devotions that pertains to the subject. By the time I'm ready to start the actual preparation, I have a good file of material and perhaps have even drawn up an outline for the series.
A major key to taking away the drudgery of preparation is to stay ahead of the game. It builds confidence and a feeling of security that contributes to the overall effort.
4. Join a sermon study group.
Can a sermon be produced by a committee? Probably not, but a sermon study group can improve your preaching.
I have been participating in sermon study groups for about three years. I'm sold on the idea as a means to bringing one's preaching out of the doldrums. The concept is quite simple. Three or four preachers decide to work together on an expository series. At the first meeting they decide what they want to preach. The assignment is made for the following meeting to divide up the agreed upon sections of scripture into weekly preaching portions. Once the portions are agreed upon at the next meeting, assignments are given to each participant to be completed for the next week's portion. The way it has worked in the groups I have attended is this: One gets outlines, one gets exposition, one gets illustrations, and one does work in the original language. Anyone is free to range beyond his assignment (and usually does) but must be ready to share the findings of his work in written or typed form at the next meeting. We generally meet in a restaurant (be sure to leave the waitress a big tip!) have lunch, then share and discuss our findings for the next several hours. Each man takes home a complete set of the notes provided by all four who have done research. He then proceeds to write his own sermon, based on his research and that of the group.
There are several benefits of this kind of study. First, it allows you to share with others who do what you do on a level that you usually don't get to share. Secondly, it sharpens you as you match wits with other group members. Thirdly, you have the benefit of a small research team. Fourthly, you are stretched in your understanding of preaching as you watch and see how others go about their preparation.
I don't do this kind of preparation all the time, but three or four series per year done this way injects a vitality in my preparation that wasn't there before. Besides, it's fun!
5. Break up your task into logical parts.
"By the mile it's a trial, by the inch it's a cinch," goes the old saying. Preparing a weekly sermon (or two) is a mile, but it can be broken down into inches.
I try to keep the following schedule in my preparation each week.
Monday: Decide on preaching portion and theme. Read the portion through many times. Look for homiletic clues. Pray.
Tuesday: Outline the passage and do commentary work. Pray.
Wednesday: Settle on central idea, final outline, and main points. Collect illustrations. Pray.
Thursday: Write sermon draft. Name the sermon. Pray. [Recently I read an interesting item in the newspaper that illustrates the importance of mental associations in naming sermons. A high school in Virginia offered a course called "Home Economics for Boys." Needless to say, it got little attention. So the following year it was renamed "Bachelor Living"" You guessed it! The effect was overwhelming. 120 boys promptly signed up. The curriculum never changed. It still offered traditional instruction in cooking, sewing, laundry, and money management. But it needed the right image before the students would give the class a second look. When you name your sermon, you package it. Make the package attractive.]
Friday: Go fishing, mow the lawn, and take the wife to dinner. Don't write sermons. Pray.
Saturday: Finalize sermon and prepare support material (overheads, handouts, etc.) Pray.
Sunday: Go over sermon in early morning, pray and preach!
I find that if I am successful each day at doing each of these chores, the load lightens considerably. If I can get a little ahead, it is that much better.
6. Listen frequently to the preaching of others.
I listen often to the preaching of others. A cassette tape is nearly always loaded into the tape deck of my pickup. I subscribe to several sermon services and I receive tapes from a few men whom I know put out good material on a regular basis. I listen both for style and content. I get ideas as I listen. Lately I have been reading sermons I find on the World Wide Web. Though the quality of some of these could stand improvement, things are changing for the better. Insights from all of these sources are studiously recorded in a notebook for later use.
Let me clarify here that I seldom preach the material of others "as is." I will, however, find and use illustrations and special ways of expressing things.
7. Find a mentor or a peer who will challenge you.
If you are having trouble (and maybe even if you aren't) find an older preacher who communicates well in the pulpit and take him to lunch. Bring along a tape or manuscript of one of your better sermons and ask him if he will critique it for you. Most men will probably be willing to do this as a start. If things work out, consider asking him to work with you for awhile, helping you to become a better communicator. Ask questions. And yes, keep buying the lunch!
Above all, if you want to see the drudgery leave your sermon preparation, try to stay ahead of things. With your planning ahead, your collecting material ahead, and your thinking ahead, you'll find you look forward to your preparation time. In fact, that's where I'm headed just as soon as I'm finished translating this article into HTML for the web. I can't wait for Sunday 'cause I have an outline and a couple of illustrations that I know are going to preach!
November 5, 1998