By Wayne McDill
Good sermon preparation is hard work. There are no easy ways or gimmicks that will eliminate that work. It is, however, possible to develop systems of preparation that will make most effective use of your time. Necessary to everything we are describing here will be a serious commitment to put in the effort for good preaching.
What is needed is a system for preparing sermons that remains constant. Whether you think of yourself as an organized person, you will find such a system focusing and enhancing your work. You will use your time more effectively. You will have much better content in your preaching.
Some preachers are lazy. Others do not know what to do. Some rationalize their poor preparation with pious talk about “inspiration” and “just letting the Spirit speak.” The fact is that God has decided to use preachers. Our laziness does not help the Holy Spirit; it hinders him. There is nothing particularly spiritual about poor sermon preparation.
I challenge you to work at your sermon preparation in direct proportion to your estimate of the value of preaching. Determine to strengthen the skills you need most. You will find yourself much more inspired as you see progress, and as your hearers see it. Here are some suggestions.
- Commit yourself to the thorough spadework necessary to good preparation. If you thought preaching was not important, then I can understand why you wouldn’t want to give it much effort. If, however, you believe God has called you to preach his Word, then give it the time and sweat that calling deserves. This will require a continual effort to strengthen the necessary skills. Skills development calls for practice, but it must be the practice of good methods.
- Develop systematic procedures that employ your most effective methods. Over the course of time, you have noticed that certain things you do in sermon preparation work pretty well. Other approaches are not so effective. If we were to sit down and talk about it, you would be able to describe a plan for preparing sermons which includes your best methods. Chances are, however, that you do not follow that plan yourself. Write up a set of instructions for yourself. Put the best you know about sermon preparation into a plan to follow every week. Instead of assuming that what you are doing is all you know, jot down suggestions for yourself that you will review every week for more effective work. Prepare planning tools, lists, and other helps that will systemize your preparation approach.
- Prepare work sheets that provide step-by-step guidance. One of the most useful planning tools you can prepare is a work sheet for any phase of your preparation. This is simply a form to fill out as you do your preparation work. You can use work sheets for your Bible study, your outlining, and your sermon development. They will force your work into productive channels of activity. They will get you started and keep you going when you bog down. Even at times when you are inspired and can hardly wait to preach the truths of the text, the work sheets will keep you on track. They will fence you into solid study. They will direct you to careful exegesis. They will guide you to an outline and development that come from the teaching of the text. They will keep you from forgetting those study methods most effective for you.
- Take every phase of sermon preparation into account. Though you should start with the phase of your preparation you most need to systemize, ultimately aim to include every phase of the work in your system. This means you will want to develop a plan for preparing a preaching calendar. If you have a step-by-step procedure planned out, you will find calendar planning a manageable task. Another key phase is the study of the text. Instead of a haphazard rummaging through your text, plan a step-by-step procedure that will produce the most effective exegesis and exposition. I personally prefer an inductive approach to Bible study that allows you to discover the truths of the text for yourself. After you have carefully studied the text, you need a system for moving from the teachings of the text to the sermon outline. This phase is critical if you want your sermon to communicate the truths that are in the text. Next you need a plan for preparing your outline for clear and timeless truths. After that you will work on sermon development, and you need a system for assuring balanced and effective development.
- Continually revise your preparation system to serve you better. Your preparation system is your plan. You are developing it to serve you. But I have found that my system is never finally set. I am continually learning new ways to do a better job in my sermon preparation. Some parts of my system prove to be too cumbersome, so I discard them. Other parts need to be fine-tuned for sharper focus. The key is to use what works best for you. I have found two errors to be common as I urge preachers to develop a preparation system. One error is the idea that you cannot improve on what you are doing. This response usually indicates to me that the person is arrogant and unteachable. The second error is to let the system use you. This is “the tail wagging the dog.” You must stay in charge and use your system as a set of tools, not as a tyrant to obey.
- Develop a study routine that ensures adequate preparation. When your preparation system begins to take fuller shape, you will find that you are more eager to get at the work of weekly sermon preparation. Having a plan gives you security and a sense of progress. It allows you to get right to work so that you make better use of your time. Even though the system may seem mechanical at times, you know that it provides you the structure you need to do your best work. Setting aside regular study time is a must. Just as you would not flippantly break an important appointment, so must you guard your study time. You will be regularly tempted to bump your scheduled study time in favor of something you know is not as important. Your own human nature will often throw up interruptions because the hard work of sermon preparation requires buckling down and applying yourself. A part of your preparation system must be a weekly study schedule.
- Design checklists to monitor the quality of your preparation. My final suggestion for your system is that you summarize the various aspects of your methods into checklists. Like a pilot preparing for a takeoff, you need to have a check sheet to see that you are ready to preach. A pilot does not trust his memory or assume that all the plane’s systems are working properly. He methodically goes over a preflight checklist item by item. He knows his life is at stake. Many a weakness in your sermon outline can be detected if you write out the standard you want to set for yourself. You may detect an imbalanced sermon development if you go over your checklist for development. You may find wording that can be sharpened. You may find that your conclusion is not as strong as you like. You may note weakness in your introduction. You may find that you have not used faith language. These checklists will give you the assurance that you have done what you intended. You will go to the pulpit with the confidence that your preparation is good. You don’t have to worry about that. You are free to present the sermon without struggling and stumbling because of poor preparation.
You may have never heard of a sermon preparation system. Maybe you are saying that you already have your own system; it’s just not written down. Let me urge you to do it. Write it down. If necessary, tack it to the wall like the menu picture in the restaurant kitchen. Then look at it every week. Your preaching will be better for it.
Adapted from 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching by Wayne McDill (B&H Publishing Group, 2006)