For those unfamiliar with ministry, the pastor's work week can be mystifying. What is there to do besides visit a few folks in the hospital, talk a few others in your office, and prepare a little talk for Sunday morning? In reality, pastors face many competing demands on their time as they work toward that moment on Sunday when they stand before the congregation with a word from the Lord.
Every pastor's week looks a little different. So I can offer you no foolproof method for effective sermon preparation. Indeed, ministry typically results in a consistently shifting schedule. With those qualifiers in mind, here is a glimpse of what my weekly approach looks like, followed by some suggestions for continual growth in our preaching.
Approach to Sermon Preparation
One key to my sermon prep is always having an eye toward what is ahead. At any given time, I know the basic structure of what we'll be preaching on for the next 12 to 18 months. This is usually decided in consultation with other pastoral staff members who help to ensure that we are preaching the full counsel of God's Word. We look to maintain a balance between the Testaments and the various genres of the Bible. An example of how this works out can be seen in the preaching schedule at Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston over the last two years or so:
Jan. 2010 to May 2010: 1 Peter
June 2010 to August 2010: OT Narratives
Sept. 2010 to August 2011: Gospel of Luke
Sept. 2011 to May 2012: Encountering God (various genres, mostly OT)
June 2012 to Aug. 2012: Wisdom Literature
Sept. 2012 to May 2013: 2 Corinthians
With a schedule in place, you're never scrambling for a text. You're also letting the Scriptures determine what you're going to preach, rather than returning to your favorite topic or doctrine of interest.
Now that I have my text, how do I go about preparing to preach on it?
For me, sermon prep starts on Tuesday morning when I gather my preaching staff (assistant pastors) for sermon discussions. We meet for about two and a half hours to read the text, talk it over, and pray that it would begin to shape us. During our discussions, we are collectively looking to find two things:
- The Main Idea: What is the micro-contextual meaning of this text? What is the authorial intent? How do the various sections of the text hang together?
- The Big Idea: How does this text fit into the one-story-plotline of the whole Bible? What redemptive-historical threads are present in the text? This element is essential in helping us find the gospel entry point: where the text intersects with the macro-context of the canon and Christ is seen as the ultimate fulfillment of redemptive-history.
By the end of our discussion, we will have determined a basic outline for the sermon, a general idea of where the sermon is headed.
On Tuesday afternoon, for about four hours, I continue down the micro-contextual route. Here, I'm looking at the original languages, doing discourse analysis, and trying to get a handle on the logical flow of the text. Word studies and grammatical analysis are also useful at determining the main idea of the text. I have not yet gone to any commentaries; they are usually consulted late in my preparation. It is essential that we wrestle with the text as it stands before calling in the “experts.” Furthermore, this exegetical work keeps us from missing authorial intent or moving too quickly to application.
Sermon prep is typically on hold Wednesday when meetings, counseling appointments, and other pastoral responsibilities call for my attention. I use this day to sit on the sermon, allowing the Word to affect me personally.
For about four hours on Thursday, I take what I've gathered from textual study and begin to look closer at the inter-canonical themes in the text. I've got my eye out for ways in which Christ is the fulfillment, resolution, or completion of the dramatic tensions in the Bible's plotline. A few common inter-canonical themes I might be looking for include kingship, grace and law, creation/fall/redemption/new creation, idolatry, marriage/faithfulness, Sabbath rest, justice/judgment, and so on.
This is also the point when I consult commentaries and other books. Perhaps surprisingly, I don't go to the technical commentaries all that often. Because I've done the exegetical work, I use more popular-level books and commentary series to help me make gospel and application connections. Tyndale, The Bible Speaks Today, and The Gospel According to the OT are all helpful series in this regard. Three to four of these types of commentaries should be on every pastor's shelf. Finding other books and articles that address particular themes in your sermon series is also a great help.
Friday morning signals a shift toward application. I think about the hearts of individuals in my congregation, consider potential points of application, and continue to pray the text into my own life. What heart idols are being addressed in this text? What are the apologetic issues that will need to be addressed? How can I preach the gospel to the unbelief in the hearts of both Christians and skeptics? A great way to be thinking along these applicational and contextual lines is to keep an eye on publications like The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and your local newspaper. I also find it helpful to keep up with the top four or five non-fiction books creating conversations in these publications. All of this helps me keep my finger on the cultural pulse of the people in my church and leads me to interact with the major ideas shaping our world.
Friday afternoon is the point at which I write up a basic manuscript—-not a full narrative, but something more akin to an outline.
All day Saturday I spend with my family. Then, on Saturday night, I prayerfully read over the manuscript for about three hours, making small, last-minute adjustments.
The final step to my sermon prep is a time of prayer on Sunday morning from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. The goal of all my preparation is to do three things: expound Christ, adore Christ, and apply Christ. With this in mind, I pray Sunday morning that while I am preaching the gospel, I'll be able to exalt and worship Christ who alone can bring about change in the hearts and lives of his people.
1. Connect Your Text to the Whole Bible
Throughout my ministry, I've come to learn the importance of connecting the main idea of the text into the big story of the Bible. When I first started to preach, I was trained to understand expository preaching as simply communicating the main idea of the local context. There are several people who helped me to see that this was not Jesus' hermeneutic (Luke 24; John 5:39, 45-47), and they urged me to see how the meaning of a text ought to fit into the one-story-plotline of the Bible: Meredith Kline, Greg Beale, Edmund Clowney, and Don Carson among others. This realization has moved my preaching, which formerly tended to be moralistic, to become more redemptive-historical and Christo-telic.
2. Connect Your Life to the Lives of Your People
Young preachers often hold high ideals of spending 18 hours in sermon preparation each week. While significant study and preparation is essential, it may be largely unfruitful if you don't know the pains and trials your congregation is facing. If your preaching is to be marked by love and compassion for God's people, you must know them. Understand their lives so that when you preach the gospel, it is affecting them where they are, not where you imagine them to be.
3. Cultivate a Posture of Constant Learning
You can always refine and improve upon your approach to the extremely important responsibility of heralding Christ and the gospel. Here are two suggestions:
- Learn from any and all preachers, but don't try to imitate them. We've all got to get to a point where we realize, “This is who I am.” I'm not Lloyd-Jones. You're not Piper. Seek to become increasingly comfortable with your own style and voice.
- Invite constructive criticism, but don't become preoccupied with it. Whether it's about your inflection or a potentially distracting tic, your spouse, friends, and fellow preachers will be extremely helpful in fine-tuning your preaching. Remember, however, this advice from John Stott: “It is essential to cultivate self-forgetfulness through a growing awareness of the God for whom and the people to whom you are speaking.” The only way to do that is to do the following:
4. Consistently Find Your Identity in Christ, Not in Your Preaching
The gospel you preach must define you. You need to taste it to know that it is good. What else will sustain you through your first 100 sermons, which are not likely to be very good?
You must keep preaching the gospel to your own heart so that you do not get your identity from preaching. You cannot rise or fall on evaluations of your performance. If you feel good when people complement your sermons but feel terrible when you think you've dropped the ball, preaching itself may be functioning as an idol.
Ultimately, we need to work towards the goal that Paul speaks about in 1 Timothy 4:10: “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God”—-not on our preaching, sermons, or ministry.