Preparing to Preach; The Week Before the Sermon
Preaching looks easy enough. Someone stands up and talks to (or at) a bunch of sitting people, telling them what they need to know and do, and hopefully they use the Bible and mention Jesus and His teachings. If it is a good talk, the preacher shares something new and he yells a little to keep it real.
If only it were that easy.
I’m sure Mark Driscoll isn’t the only one to have said this, but I do recall him tweeting the following words: “Preaching is hard work. It is a man’s work.” My preaching professor was fond of saying: “If you can’t think then you can’t preach.”
I was recently reminded of both of these things when I was asked, along with two other pastors, to share at a meeting how we planned and prepared to deliver a sermon each week. This exercise was probably as beneficial for me as it was for my hearers because it made me think through what I do to prepare each week. I thought maybe it might be beneficial to others who are preaching or who want to preach. Here is what I compiled:
I’M STILL LEARNING AND ADAPTING After two-plus years of regular preaching, I’m still learning to prepare and deliver, and I suspect that will be the truth for the rest of my preaching life.
PERSONAL PREPARATION I can’t take people where I have not been. Do I want people to commune with God and be impacted by the Holy Spirit through the inspired text? Of course I do and so I need it also. I often pray a verse of scripture like Psalm 119:18: “Open my eyes that I might see wonderful things in your law.” Then I ask that I would be gripped and taught by the text I am to preach. I continue by asking that God would give me the humility to be taught as I would want my hearers to be. As I prepare the sermon and preach the sermon, I want to come from the angle that I am not only preaching to others, but that I am preaching to my own heart and mind.
LONG TERM PLANNING We preach through units in books or through the books of the Bible. The conviction behind this plan of preaching is that it is never a bad idea to follow the outline the Spirit inspired. We do at times take excursions away from sequentially working through the book we are preaching through. For instance, on Easter we believe a sermon on the resurrection is imperative. Additionally, as we are working through books we may take on a topic or issue that is in the text. As an example, while working through the book of Acts and coming to chapter eight, we see that Philip was baptizing those who believed (8:12; 8:38). This enables us to focus on, and devote a whole sermon to an important church practice, while maintaining the continuity and flow of Acts.
WEEKLY PREP – HOW IT HAPPENS Before I go to work on the next sermon, I go back and try to learn something from my most recent sermon. On Sunday I will usually ask my wife what she thought about the sermon and what she was able to learn from it. I know my wife will tell me the truth, but with gentleness and love. I will also read her sermon notes. If her notes match my notes, then I know in part I have preached with success because it is evidence that I was clear in what I was trying to communicate.
On Monday I listen to Sunday’s sermon as soon as it is available on podcast. It is a painful experience to listen to yourself, but I value deeply hearing where I can be a better preacher. Doing this is especially helpful in avoiding repetitions that might become distractions. Recently I said in a sermon eight times: “I suggest….” Because I listened to the sermon, I was able to identify that and correct it.
On Monday afternoon I talk to our worship minister and we do a podcast of about 30 minutes based on questions that were submitted in response to the sermon via text message. After we record the podcast we then talk about the coming week. Sometimes we talk more about planning and the various elements of the worship gathering, but we also look at the upcoming biblical text and try to identify a general direction or angle for what we will be preaching through. He sometimes raises questions that he would wonder as a sermon listener. Our discussion doesn’t mean that the focus of Sunday won’t change; it often does to his chagrin. But at least he has an idea of where I might be going with the application of the text.
All week I am reading through the text devotionally at least once a day. I have a wide-margin NASB Bible that I keep notes in and I also carry a small black book (5 x 3 in.) with me wherever I go. Just this week I was on my way to a meeting and a thought popped into my head. I safely brought my car to a stop and jotted down a note for later. Not only do I read the text devotionally, but I also study the text critically. I will do lexical studies and read as many commentaries as I can during the week. Occasionally, in addition to what I have already said, I will have the staff help me by asking them questions about the text during our staff meeting.
By Thursday my goal is to have a rough draft finished. I wish this happened more than it does, but a goal is what it is. The hardest part of sermon preparation for me is synthesizing the sermon (bringing it all together into something that a person can listen to and understand). On Friday my plan is to do nothing that is sermon related. That is a family day, but I am still thinking about the text because by this time I have it roughly memorized. On Saturday and Sunday Morning I am constantly tweaking the sermon and fine tuning it. I try to get to the church on Sunday Morning early enough (6 to 6:30) to preach it before anyone else gets to the building. I then tweak it more, and then I preach it silently in my office before I finally give birth to the finished product.
PREACHING OBJECTIVES – THE STYLISTIC MEANS What am I trying to accomplish with the sermon? What are the means, or styles that I use to fulfill the ultimate goal of having my hearers obey Christ?
Before I give the three that I use, I want to start with a foundation that informs and guides all that I do in preparing the sermon and then delivering the sermon. The foundation is this: “God’s Spirit uses God’s word.” This means ultimately I trust the Spirit to use the word that He inspired. My conviction about who has the power and who does the transforming and what means He uses will drive how I preach and dictate how I use the three styles or means to prepare and deliver the sermon. Who empowers for transformational obedience? The Holy Spirit using the word He inspired. Here are the stylistic categories I try to incorporate as I prepare to preach:
- I want to explain the text. I want to teach the text. I want to show people what the text means and I want to give evidence for how I came to my conclusion. I want to ask questions like: “Would my interpretation of the text offend the human authors?” Because if it offends the human authors that were inspired by the Spirit, then I can know that I have deviated from what the Spirit intended. This also helps me to examine myself to see if I tried to lay my own meaning on top of the text. Explaining the text is very important for a number of reasons, but for me personally there are two that stand out. First, if I show the text means something outside of my subjective desires, then I am establishing the word of God as the objective authority that it should be. I don’t want people thinking something like: “Brent is giving his opinion again.” They may think that anyway, but I want to give them reason to think that my opinion is informed by a devotion to what God says and not what I want God to say. Second, I live in a university town. I therefore preach to people who are mostly used to an academic setting and they are going to want to have the word of God explained. For me, teaching is a contextual necessity.
- I want to keep interest. I want to entertain, so to speak. Just because I teach does not mean that I need to give a dry lecture. As I preach I want to use interesting expressions, ask questions, raise and lower my voice, illustrate truths, etc. Good expositional preaching doesn’t have to be boring. Bad expositional preaching is always boring and God is not boring. Boring preachers are boring.
- I want to persuade. Now I think this might be my weakness, but I do want to plead with people to actually correct their thinking and act in light of that correction. I want to teach people to observe all that Jesus commanded. I want to give people gospel-driven reasons for obeying God’s reliable word. I want to illustrate and broadly apply the text. And sometimes I might give a specific directive. The last thing I want to do is fill people’s heads with some interesting facts and let them feel comfortable or glad that they learned something that they don’t need to do anything about. Jesus has called us to believe with our hearts and minds and act with our lives. I want to persuade the people I preach to, to do both.
PREACHING DIAGNOSTICS So I have established that I have a plan, but what is it that I want to accomplish by explaining, keeping interest and persuading? How do I know I did these things well? Because I might actually do these things well and fail. Here are some of the end goals that I work toward by which I judge my sermon. I ask:
- Did the sermon make much of Jesus, showing Him as the ultimate answer to all things (Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:1-4)? Though not every text teaches Jesus, did I show that Jesus is the answer to every text? Did I get to the gospel and show that the gospel is the foundation and informs all of life? Because to be a disciple and make disciples is about all of life. Nothing else matters a part from this truth, but every part of life matters when this truth is established, loved and lived.
- Was I clear with what I was trying to say and mean? I love to probe the text and ask questions. I love to see truths and ideas and applications that I have never seen before. But just because I have a lead or an idea doesn’t mean it is good to preach it. I must guard myself from trying to wow people with something new. If I don’t understand or know what a word or sentence or paragraph means and I try to teach it, I can be sure that my hearers won’t understand because I don’t fully understand. And worse case scenario, I may tell them something that is not true. If I see something but I am not sure about whether I should say it, then I shouldn’t say it, and I should back up to what I can say with certain clarity. Am I clear? I need to be as clear as I can be. Confusion is not a fruit of the Spirit.
- Did I say what I said in love? Was I loving to those I preached to? This is a question that I have begun asking myself on a regular basis. How is this sermon helping someone obey Christ? I define Love as doing what is best for others. So how then are my words beneficial to those who hear them? Now this does not necessarily mean saying what others want to hear. I believe it was Tim Keller who said that the job of a preacher is to: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I want to encourage, edify and comfort, but I don’t want to preach a K-Love sermon that lets people be fine with a lethargic and status quo “Christian” life, when Jesus has called us to urgent action for the glory of God and the sake of the perishing nations. By the way, I have to preach this to myself a lot.
So this is the short of my preaching prep. I have many people to thank for helping me learn to preach and I have much left to learn. I am no expert in preaching, but I do know that preaching is not easy. It is hard work and I won’t be useful at it without a plan to do it and a plan to get better. Maybe my preaching journey will help a few people along the way to be the preachers God would have them be.