About Sermon Prep

I am serving in a generous congregation that wants to make sure they compensate the preacher fairly. A question then, that came up more than once was “How long does it take to prepare a sermon?” Others may disagree, but I think it’s a difficult question to answer. In order to preach a sermon the preacher must pull from every place visited, every person met, every conversation held, every family get together, every book read… for every sermon the preacher pulls from a lifetime of experiences.

I suppose one could start the clock on a Monday, select a text, consult outside resources, and arrive at a finished product by Sunday. But that sounds like a recipe for a boring sermon.

Because of this dilemma, well-meaning consultants like Bill Tenny-Brittian and Bill Easum have offered consultation. Their solution, spend less than two hours a week on the sermon. Preach a sermon from a great preacher who writes great “sermons that rock people’s lives” (their words not mine). A short list of such preachers include Andy Stanley, Tim Keller, Adam Hamilton (their list not mine).

I want to point out I think they are well meaning Christians who want to see the church grow. They demonstrate common sense. They are helpful in terms of efficiency. They demonstrate acceptable ethical suggestions. But the fact remains, this is not the way to prepare a sermon. It is the un-carnational version of sermon prep.

The preacher should be who they are in the pulpit and never pretend to be someone else. A sermon is local and specific and incarnational. The sermon brings together God and text and congregation in a specific place and time.

Still, we cannot deny the necessity of reading, listening to, and learning from others. I like what Scot McKnight says about this. “To be sure, nearly every sermon emerges from books and sermons and ideas and all sorts of things that are used. But it is bricolage, it is quilting,it is convergence – it is precisely those things and not simple usage of others.” I rather like that description of piecing a sermon together. He goes on “Taking someone’s sermon destroys the bricolage and turns it into a canned, deceitful act of creating a false image in front of God’s people.”

This is exactly why preachers should spend time with the people. If they do not, I am not sure they will have anything to say. This is why preachers read and watch movies and follow plot. This is why preachers listen carefully to text and carefully to the stories of people. This is why nearly any activity becomes a new source for sermon prep. Only by spending the necessary time to engage in these things will they be able to participate meaningfully in the conversation between text and people on a Sunday morning.

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Sermon Crafting with Craig Barnes

At the Festival of Homiletics, Craig Barnes presented a list of sixteen points to consider when preparing a sermon. He reports that he decided to share these after receiving multiple e-mails asking him to list practical points to consider when preparing a sermon.

1)the preacher is maintaining God’s sacred conversation with the congregation. Barnes notes a rhythm in the way he prepares. Listen to word from God, then listen to the words of people. A rhythm develops. A conversation takes place. We want to weave holy words from the ordinary words we collect along the way.

2)preaching is more art than science. Instead of utilizing a certain method; read the text, develop a thesis, think of where the pastoral contact point might be, and think about the transforming purpose of the sermon. Art is imaginative. Art is interpretation.

3)get inside the text. The word of God for your congregation is in the sub-text. Do not assume that you know this text. People are asking, is there anything in there for me? Think of it as if people are looking over your shoulder wondering if they will show up in the story.

4)attend to the changes in your own voice. Pastoral theology is caught between how it is and how it ought to be.

5)teach yourself to be able to write more than one style of sermon. You do not want every sermon to sound the same.

6)sermons need to revolve around a big idea. Be clear about what this is. Keep coming back to the big idea.

7)preaching reveals! It does not simply tell what happened.

8)try to write a sermon in one setting. Barnes suggests this is something like holy ground. You do not start a sermon, break for a Seinfeld rerun and later return to finish.

9)edit. Make transitions smooth. Remove what does not support your big idea, even if it is your best line.

10)avoid linear arguments. Instead continually spiral back to the text.

11)write the sermon for the ear, not for the eye. Proclaimed word is different from written word.

12)congregations are full of visual learners, help them by developing verbal pictures.

13)be careful with illustrations. Instead, trust the power of the story. Use images, images work as verbal icons.

14)use different voices. First person allows for vulnerability. Second person singular may be the best. A sermon spoke only in third person makes it too safe. Sermons should not be safe.

15)take words seriously, do not throw them away. The way we put words together is serious stuff.

16)take steps to get as free from manuscript as possible. Barnes proposes that if you use a manuscript, try a detailed outline. If you use an outline, try to simplify it. You can do this, the sermon is in you.

If you read this list like I do, some parts are very affirming, others you may have little interest in. But the benefit of such a list from Craig Barnes is that it is helpful to see what goes through the mind of one who is skilled in sermon crafting during preparation.