If you loved the show 24, where every season Jack Bauer managed to save the world in just one day, you probably remember the entertainment vacuum after a season ended. You were delighted, then, when the DVD released and included deleted scenes.
Unfortunately, you soon learned the scenes were deleted because they weren’t any good. They were confusing and clunky, took focus away from the central plotline, featured poor acting, or needed greater sensitivity due to an unforeseen cultural moment.
Every time I watch a deleted scene, I feel this way.
Preachers can learn much from deleted scenes. Not everything you’ve prepared should be preached. Perhaps a particular insight is good, but it pulls your sermon off topic. Or maybe it creates more questions than you can reasonably answer. Maybe what you wrote is true, but your tone isn’t right because it arises from anger, not love. Or perhaps, after hours of study, you still aren’t sure whether the sinful desires in Romans 7:13–25 are Paul’s before or after his conversion. And if you force a decision before Sunday, preaching it will feign more confidence in your interpretation than you actually have.
No doubt, there are many other reasons to delete content from your sermon. A good preacher, like a good director, edits material regularly.
Here are five suggestions to help you become better at leaving things on the cutting room floor.
1. Commit to cutting.
No matter how long you preach, whether it’s a 10-minute devotional or a 60-minute conference message, you should commit to cutting.
There’s a dictum popular in writing courses that says “murder your darlings.” During the revision phase, you have to be willing to cut your favorite passages if it improves the project.
Rich sermons don’t include everything. As John Stott observes in his excellent preaching book, Between Two Worlds:
We have to be ruthless in discarding the irrelevant. . . . It is tempting to drag [everything into the sermon]. Resist the temptation. Irrelevant material will weaken the sermon’s effect.
Even the inspired Gospel writers, as they recounted the life and sermons of Jesus, employed selectivity (see John 21:25; also compare Matt. 5:2–11 with Luke 6:20–26). The same is true of Stephen’s pointed Old Testament survey in Acts 7.
2. Get perspective.
If you’re committed to cutting, you’ll need perspective as to what to cut.
The production process in television and cinema is far longer than for a sermon. From the initial concept to storyboarding, casting, production, and postproduction, the entire process often takes three to four years.
Sermons on the other hand are typically conceived, written, and delivered in just a few days—and sometimes a few hours between Saturday night and Sunday morning. Regardless of when you begin preparation, you need distance from the message to see what’s most important, which conclusion belongs in the final cut, and which should become the “alternate ending.”
Mountains and molehills, blockbusters and B-movies tend to look alike when your nose is touching them. Try to include at least one day between the fully written sermon and a final review before preaching.
3. Test screen.
Sermon writing is a solitary activity. Committees don’t write sermons; individuals do. But good preachers know when to seek advice from others. In the movie business they call this practice “test screening.” Prior to release, producers gather an audience to screen part (or all) of a film. It helps them learn what’s working and what’s not.
Don’t try to figure out all the sticky issues alone. As Proverbs teaches, “In an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). Of course, this proverb implies the counselors are wise. Don’t ask the guy who sleeps through your sermons what you should cut. Ask trusted friends and thoughtful Christians. This is especially necessary when the passage yields applications that cannot be applied directly to you. For example, if you’re preaching a passage about being a godly woman, speak to some godly women about their struggles. It’s not always convenient to ask for help, but it’s better to be humbled on Thursday afternoon than to preach poorly on Sunday morning.
4. Seek humility.
Preaching great sermons is worthless if not accompanied by humility and love (1 Cor. 13:1–3). The preacher must realize he’s not as important as he tends to think. God’s Word is far more vital than we could ever imagine, but the messenger is only that: a messenger.
My co-pastor, Jason Abbott, often reminds me that we mustn’t reinforce the cultural stereotype of a preacher—a guy who preaches not because he has something to say but because he really enjoys hearing himself. To avoid this sin, we must pray for humility at all times.
5. Trust God’s sovereignty.
Cutting sermon material means cultivating a vibrant trust in the sovereign goodness of God. If you don’t get to preach a “darling” point this week, save it. Unlike films with special feature DVDs, what we cut will come in handy some other time. As Stott says, “We need the strength of mind to keep it till then.” And because God is sovereign, we can trust our work won’t be wasted.
Since seminary I’ve kept a Word document titled “Extra” for every sermon. Each time God recalls to my mind something from one of those files, it feels like I found a $20 bill in the pocket of an old winter coat. I’d forgotten it, but God hadn’t.
Preachers are not paid to fill an allotted time slot. We must preach the best and delete the rest. Yes, it’s hard to cut, but it honors God, and your congregation will thank you.