I once heard John Bisagno, veteran pastor of Houston’s First Baptist Church at the time, say he did not understand why many pastors require so long to prepare a message. “Give me some privacy, my Bible and a note pad and in two hours without interruptions, I have the sermon.”
That, I might say, is just one of the five hundred reasons most of us who know Dr. Bisagno have envied this gifted servant of the Lord. To put it bluntly, few of us can produce the kind of sermon we ought to be preaching in that brief a time.
In my case, the preparation time is not measured in hours, but in days or even weeks.
Here’s what I mean.
Perhaps it has something to do with limited intellect, but a sermon has to grow in my mind. Marinate as opposed to microwave, I sometimes put it. It just takes time for me to grasp the thrust of what the Lord is saying, how it pertains to the various scriptures on that subject, how it all relates to the Lord Jesus Christ and the cross, what it means to the average guy in the pew, and what we want to accomplish in the sermon.
Case in point.
Next Sunday, as I write, I’m bringing a message to a congregation about an hour from home. A group I’m a member of will be having its annual retreat in that area and a local pastor asked me to bring the morning message in his church. As I prayed for direction, eventually I decided the Lord would have me to bring a sermon from Romans 12 on the subject of “what the healthy church looks like.”
Now, I’m strongly convicted on the subject of healthy churches. In my last pastorate, we did a church health study over a couple of months and ended my nearly 14-year tenure with a reasonably healthy congregation. I taught a semester-long seminary course on the subject of healthy churches, and have taught the Epistle to the Romans a number of times.
So, it’s not like the subject was new to me. That, however, made the task more difficult for coming up with one message of 25 or so minutes in length. I have far too much information on the subject to put into one sermon.
Over the past six weeks, as I pray in the early morning hours for family and friends, for various causes and concerns, I look over the upcoming preaching schedule and pray for the Father to guide me in several areas: that He will prepare the people who will be in church that day, that He will lead me to exactly what He wants me to preach, that He will bless the preparation and delivery, that some will come to Christ for salvation and believers will be revived. I always pray that the pastor will be encouraged by what I do.
Prayer is first and foremost. When a pastor friend confessed that he frets before preaching a series of meetings in another church — “Should I preach this? Or that? Or the other?” — I smiled in memory of doing the same. I must have given myself ulcers from the anxiety of those days. What cured me? Prayer. I’m not in the least implying my friend does not pray sufficiently, only confessing that prayer changed everything for me. Once I know what the Lord is telling me to preach, I do not ask again, but get on with the preparation.
Second is doing the Bible study. In the case of the message from Romans 12, I already had the basic outline. That chapter, I am fully convinced, is a well-rounded description of a healthy church. The first two verses — “present your bodies a living sacrifice” — deal with the most basic of considerations, the personal commitment of every person to Jesus Christ.
Verses 3-8 describe a congregation in which the members all have spiritual gifts, know what they are, and are exercising them well.
Verses 9-21 present the various kinds of relationships between the members. These are not systematically laid out in any kind of neat order, but are intertwined and inter-related. So, we see how God’s people are to be related:
–with Christ (“patient in tribulation, steadfast in prayer”)
–oneself (“do not be wise in your own sight”)
–with other believers (“kindly affectionate to one another”)
–with newcomers (“given to hospitality”)
–with outside troublemakers (“bless them”).
Clearly, just the Bible study portion of this sermon could easily take an hour. However, the pastor does not tell everything he knows about a text in his sermon. (I recall reminding one of our young seminary student/pastors that he should not include every scripture which deals with his subject in his message. That was news to him. Whether it was good news or not, I haven’t decided. But I guarantee his audience appreciated my counsel!)
As I reflected on the Romans 12 text each morning, one day it occurred to me that I am the product of a healthy church, the role model for the seven churches I’ve served over nearly a half-century of pastoral ministry. What’s more — and this was the insight which made me realize this is from God — I was present the night that church began to self-destruct. I saw my home church begin to die.
As a college sophomore, I had transferred to a school in another city to stay with my sister and her baby while her husband traveled on his job. They moved near the campus and we ended up joining an exciting, large Baptist church nearby. Even though I was the new kid in the college group, and even though almost everyone there had known each other all their lives, they welcomed me as though they had known me since birth. My sister and her husband and I joined the sanctuary choir and formed friendships which continue to this day.
That church was loving, faithful, evangelistic, and Bible-centered. They majored on prayer and ministry and giving. As a senior in college, I heard the Lord’s call into the ministry during a revival in our church in which several hundred came to Christ. Within a year, they had ordained me into the ministry with their prayers and support.
Two years later, it was a different story. A friend called to say a major fight was brewing between the pastor and key leaders, and that a business meeting would take place the following Sunday night. I asked a church member to preach in my little church so I could attend.
That night, the church was packed, the air was tense, everyone was on edge. Over the next hour, I saw the dearest people in the world, the godly men and women who had welcomed me and shepherded me and taught me, acting in the harshest and most unloving manner toward one another. My heart was broken.
A vote was taken on the issue which was before the congregation and we all left. But nothing was ever the same. The love had gone out of many of the members. The joy had evaporated from that congregation’s heart.
That was the night the church began to die. Two decades later, the remnant of the congregation sold the building to another church and admitted what had been true for some time, that household of faith had ceased to be.
There’s nothing sadder.
Telling this story in Sunday’s sermon could take 15 minutes, easily. And, I do plan to tell it. Some things you feel in your gut — excuse me: some things you know in your heart! — have to be in the sermon if it’s to work.
The burden of my heart about this message — and that’s often something that does not appear through the fog of my brain until a couple of weeks into the preparation — is that the members of the congregation treasure the health of their relationship, work for it, and protect it.
A church is a fragile thing. A church is never a static thing, but is always in flux, always changing. Threats to its focus and its health are coming its way from every direction, every day of its existence. The leaders of a congregation must always be on the alert.
Paul told the Ephesians to “diligently guard the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3). Unity is only one facet of a healthy church, but a vital one, and congregational leaders must guard it.
Finally, this morning — on Thursday before I will preach the sermon this Sunday — the Lord showed me the outline for the sermon. (I am not saying loosely or casually that “the Lord showed me.” I believe He is in charge of every detail of a sermon if the preacher will lean on Him sufficiently.)
In thinking of a healthy church as presented in Romans 12, the outline will look like this:
The first two verses — “present your bodies a living sacrifice” — present the FOUNDATION of a healthy church. Every member has a personal and daily commitment to Jesus Christ. Unless that is the case, the church has no foundation.
Verses 3 through 8 — using our spiritual gifts in service for the Lord — picture the FRAMEWORK of a healthy church. As a building’s framework is composed of rafters and studs, joists and frames, so the healthy church must have members who recognize their spiritual gifts from God and are in their proper places, doing the work God gave them.
Finally, verses 9 through 21 — relationships within the congregation — give us the FINISHING of the church. When a house is framed in, there is still a great deal of work to be done — the plumbing and electrical, the walls and flooring, and the fixtures and furnishings. Visitors to the home will not notice the foundation or the framework if they have been constructed well, but will see the finished product. Likewise, newcomers to your church will see the organization or the personal relationship each person has with Christ. What they will see first is the relationships, how the members treat them and one another.
So, I have my introduction (the story of the healthy church that figured so strongly in my young life) and conclusion (how that church began to die), as well as the points of the outline. I have a good understanding of the various points of Romans 12 that need to be pointed out to the congregation.
Now, is the sermon ready to be preached? Not even close.
Were I to stand at this moment and preach the sermon as it now exists in my head and heart, it could easily take two hours. I’m a long way from ready to preach it.
What I plan to do is take some walks or a drive — I have to go out of town Friday; solitude in the car is a great time to go over a sermon — and preach through this message several times. Each time, I will get a better feel for what needs to be pointed out and emphasized and what can be omitted.
This last portion of the preparation — practicing it, refiningit–is just as Holy-Spirit-dependent as any other part. “Unless the Lord build the house” — and that’s what I’m trying to do in this message with the foundation, frame, and finishing — “they labor in vain who build it” (Psalm 127:1)
This is hard work and not for sissies. That is to say, it’s not for the faint of heart or couch potatoes.
I have not mentioned that I also combed the books in my study looking for insights on church health. Some were helpful and most were not. This did not comprise a great deal of time, and was frequently done in spare moments when I was taking a break from something else.
Finally, I need to point out that while preparing this sermon has ended up taking weeks from inception to preaching, this was not the only message I was working on. Each morning after looking at Romans 12 and jotting down whatever notes came to mind, I would move on to other sermons, all of them in various stages of preparedness.
Now, do you see why we keep encouraging you to pray for your pastor!!