It's Saturday afternoon, and your sermon is half-done, at best. Your normal sermon prep time got crushed this week by a big funeral on Tuesday, a crisis counseling situation that consumed Wednesday and Thursday, and your wife's minivan breaking down Friday. And now on Saturday, supposedly your day off, you slump in front of the computer puzzling over the main point and application of the text, and straining for the creativity to write a clear, engaging sermon manuscript.
Ever have one of those weeks? God helps us preachers in those desperate moments. But clearly this kind of compressed, last-minute prep has serious drawbacks. And if we prepare our messages this way every week, we're more likely to serve junk food sermons rather than the nutritious, expository feast that our congregations need for spiritual health.
Some gifted preachers can regularly wrestle down a text and craft solid sermons on an abbreviated schedule. But most of us mortals need ample time. We need time to puzzle over interpretive issues, time to pray over application, time to pick others' brains, and time for our creative engines to produce helpful illustrations, introductions, and conclusions. We need time to marinate in the passage of scripture.
Plan for Getting Ahead
I want to share an approach to sermon preparation that for the past 17 years has given me a longer runway for getting sermons off the ground. I didn't come up with the basic concept myself, though for the life of me I can't remember who suggested it. Undoubtedly other preachers do something similar. Furthermore, I'm not suggesting this "system" is the right way or best way to prepare sermons. Every preacher is unique. But if you long for more lead-time to produce a message, I recommend this strategy.
Here's the basic concept: work on three sermons every week.
Before you roll your eyes or hyperventilate, let me explain. By three sermons each week, I don't mean researching and writing three full sermons each week. Rather, I mean working on different parts of three separate sermons.
I conceptualize the sermon writing process in three phases.
Phase 1: Research. This is where we translate, discover structure, study words and grammar, grasp the larger literary context, and consult commentaries (after we have done our own work, of course). Our goal here is to understand the main point of the text and its main applications.
Phase 2: Writing. Here we produce the sermon itself. We lay out the flow, work on introductions and conclusions, build sentences, and think carefully about transitions. Whereas the research feels more like a science to me, the writing feels more like an art.
Phase 3: Rehearsing. Hopefully we take a little time to walk through the sermon before we preach it. I go to my basement on Saturday night and preach the sermon out loud by myself several times. This process not only familiarizes me with the content, but it inevitably serves as a further manuscript edit. Written communication typically needs some adjustment so that it sounds normal as oral communication.
Here is where the three-sermon system comes into play. Let's say you are preaching through Galatians, one chapter each Sunday, starting with Galatians 1 this Sunday. That means this week you will be researching Galatians 3, writing your sermon on Galatians 2 (which you researched the last week), and rehearsing your sermon on Galatians 1 (which you wrote last week and researched two weeks ago).
Next week you will research Galatians 4, write the sermon for Galatians 3, and rehearse your message for Galatians 2. And so on.
This approach has lots of benefits. First and most obviously, it gives me three weeks to ruminate on a text. You will be amazed at how many illustrations, applications, and insights will come to you as you cogitate over a three-week period. You will have a whole week to tweak your manuscript.
Second, this rhythm always keeps the broader literary context in front of you. As you're writing a sermon for Galatians 2 you're simultaneously pondering what comes before (Galatians 1) and what comes after (Galatians 3). This plan assumes you're regularly preaching through books of the Bible, which I strongly urge you to do as the meat-and-potatoes approach to your pulpit ministry.
Third, this plan often dispels that oppressive feeling of pressure and stress that the main preaching pastor feels each week. We still have to do the same amount of sermon prep labor in a given week. And yet knowing on Monday that this coming Sunday's sermon is already written changes your outlook. It is absolutely liberating.
How Do I Get There?
When I share this concept with other preachers, I usually get two responses. First, they say, "Wow! That's amazing!" And then they say, "I could never do that." How could a preacher writing sermons week to week ever move to this model?
Here's an idea. Make it a six- to eight-month goal. In the next half-year, plan to have someone else preach for you two or three times, but don't go away that week on vacation. Ask the youth pastor to preach or swap pulpits with another pastor and just re-preach something at his church that won't require extra work for you. And then use that free week to start working on two sermons at once. And then do it again a few months later and, voila! You're now working on three sermons at once.
Inevitably crazy weeks happen, and I fall off the three-sermons-at-once pace. Even as I write this article, I'm behind on the schedule. I'm now only doing two texts at once this week. But I'm still way ahead, and in a couple weeks I will have an opportunity to catch back up.
Even if you're an associate pastor who preaches infrequently, you can use this method. If you know you're going to be preaching on a certain date, then start chipping away at your sermon three weeks ahead of time, doing one phase each week.
Give it a try. With a little discipline and patience, you can break out of the week-to-week writing pace and give your heart and mind room to breathe. Who knows? It just might improve your pulpit ministry.