(This is for pastors on the subject of sermon preparation.)
The most vulnerable time for any sermon is in the couple of days prior to its delivery.
At those times, the pastor does not need to be getting criticism or additional input from helpers (like myself!) or further ideas from deep study. This is when he needs to be putting the finishing touches on his message and getting it ready for delivery.
The first part of the week….
Early in the week–unless the pastor is such a rarity that almost none of this applies to him–he should have nailed down his subject and text for Sunday’s sermon. He should know the “one big idea” the Lord wants communicated. And he should have a general idea where he’s going with this sermon.
How did he get to this point? By staying in the word day in and day out, and mapping out sermon ideas weeks in advance. This way, he has known for at least a couple of weeks that next Sunday he would be preaching from this text on that subject. This is not something he “thunk up” at the last minute. The message has been marinating over these days.
Some pastors will protest, “I have other things to do, not just preach. And I’m delivering two or three messages every week. When will I find the time for such advance thought for a sermon?”
Answers: 1) All the more reason to do advance planning. Otherwise, you are reinventing the wheel every week, and that gets old quick. 2) You have the same number of hours the rest of us do. You just have to get organized. Turn off the computer and television, hand your phone to your spouse, lock yourself into the study for a few hours (or better yet, take your Bible and notebooks and head out of town for a three day retreat), and ask the Lord to help you map out your preaching for the next couple of months.
Then, you’re on your way.
Next step, a couple of times a week, pull out the entire folder and give thought to each message you’ve scheduled, jotting down additional thoughts and scriptures and insights that come to mind.
At other times–while reading the paper, chatting with friends, cutting the grass–as ideas occur that fit one of those sermons, stop and write it down, then drop into the appropriate folder.
By the time you get to this folder and begin preparing that sermon, you should have several ideas and insights waiting for you.
The greatest reason I know for giving several weeks of thought to a message is it keeps it from shallowness, from skimming over a subject that is far more complicated and deserving than the treatment you would otherwise give it.
Advance planning is not rocket science, pastor. Just basic forethought concerning the most important thing you do as a minister.
On the Monday and Tuesday of the week you’re going to preach a particular sermon, pull it out and put it on the front burner. This message now receives your full attention. Finish your word and textual study. Then, experiment with different approaches, various outlines and plans. Pray intensely, asking the Father to show you the best way to get this across to your people. Never forget, they’re His people first, and He wants you to succeed more than you do!
Talk out the sermon, or a point you’re having trouble clarifying. (You should be in a room to yourself with complete privacy, so you can speak without inhibiting yourself or bothering anyone else.)
At this stage, it’s still all right to “phone a friend,” asking for his take on a text.
By the middle of the week….
By Wednesday, you should know where this sermon is going. By this point, you’ve finished your word studies and are through consulting the commentaries.
From now until Sunday morning, do no more research on the text and do not consult other preachers’ sermons to see what they did. The time for that is past. At this point, the sermon is like a babe in the womb, needing nothing in the world so much as protection and nurture. (The exception is when something important in the text occurs that you have overlooked and which absolutely must be settled.)
The only person you talk to about the sermon between Thursday morning and the worship service is God. (That’s the point of the title. Obviously, you’ll be on your computer checking emails and other things. But not to do further research on this sermon.)
“Can’t I practice the sermon on my family?” Answer: Unless yours is the rarest of families that can listen and affirm without criticizing, and you are the rarest of preachers who can take a negative response without being thrown off track, the answer is “no.”
Spare them the trouble and save yourself the confusion.
There is a time to practice a sermon to your spouse and solicit her reaction. But it’s a week in advance, when you are not yet emotionally committed to the way the message is structured and there’s still time to change anything you wish. But not in the final leadup to preaching it. You are too vulnerable and the sermon cannot stand negative–even if helpful–responses.
Are there exceptions? Yes, as with everything in life (almost). Say you’re thinking of preaching something that could be offensive to some or questionable to others and you decide you really need the reaction of someone who knows you well and loves you intensely. That might be your spouse, or it could be a mentor or professor. In this case, it’s a good idea to ask them to hear you out, then react.
I have known of a pastor or two who were so completely right-brained (i.e., spontaneous) and brainy that they would read and study and minister all week, and then on Sunday morning decide what they would preach that day! And the sermon would be terrific. Some will remember Dr. Ken Chafin. I’ve been told he did this.
But, my friend, you and I ain’t no Ken Chafin.
Study to show thyself approved and to come up with sermons that bless the Lord’s people.