How many hours to make a sermon?

5 comments

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Thom Rainer has been conducting some surveys (here) about how long pastors spend preparing sermons in an average week. They’ve covered a few famous preachers (Piper, Dever, Driscoll, MacArthur etc), and quite a swathe of the rest of us.

The findings are fascinating. The big headline is that most of us (70%) spend about 10-12 hours per message. It’s a bell-curve, of course – a few occupy the extremes of either an hour or two, or 30+, but most of us occupy the same space

And those few, famous ones share the same spread. Driscoll spends an hour or two, Chandler 10+, , MacArthur 30+

So the headline is, if you want to preach like Driscoll, prep for a couple of hours at most, and if you want to preach like MacArthur, never get your nose out a book.

Yes?

Not so much. I think the lessons are twofold. One, there’s the wisdom of crowds. Most of us find 10-12 hrs a responsible amount of time to carve out in a busy ministry for each talk. Some of them take a lot more, and occasionally we cut corners (Just me, then? Thought not)

Second, have the confidence to go with your instincts and the way God has made you. It’s not the hours that make the difference, but how you spend them. MacArthur is methodical, Driscoll is improvisational, fed by hours of off-piste study elsewhere.

So don’t think that if you copy one of the famous ones and their methods, you’ll preach like them. You won’t. Go with the wisdom of crowds, and put in the average hours.

My experience? I put in the 10-12 hours, and always have done (or, at least, plan to. Sometimes life happens. Sometimes laziness happens)

But I’ve spotted that I spend that time differently now. More time digging into the text by myself, and less with the commentaries. More time drafting, sketching, mapping ideas out, and less time physically writing the talk. More time thinking through the implications. More time thinking about how I teach it.

What’s gone? I no longer polish a final, full script. I go with sketch notes, even none on many occasions. A bible with post-it notes. Because the message and its plot has so burned into me that I don’t need to be reminded of it.

But don’t copy me. I’m watching Bill Hybels preach right now, and he’s got a full script. I wonder how long he prepares….

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5 comments on “How many hours to make a sermon?”

  1. One of the difficulties with this is what precisely constitutes sermon prep? As someone who thinks in conversation as much as in my study, I find that chatting with the people I meet / read with etc during the week about the themes and problems thrown up by the text is every bit as important as studying the text itself. But it’s hard to quantify that….

    1. I agree, Phil, and I’d add walking the dog. But there’s still the intentional sitting in a chair with a pad, pencil and coffee, that needs to happen. I admire the people who can manage long stretches of that, but my prep is much more a series of high-focus bursts than four hours at a stretch.

      1. Exactly. Somehow the lightning bolts of inspiration, or the casual comment from another dog-walker that detonate in my mind only come (or more likely I only notice them) when I’ve been wrestling and praying over the text in my study.

        PS you should do an entry on dogs. I think every ordinand should be issued with one. Vital ministry tool, even in London…

  2. I’d love to see some research about deliberate (often alien) disciplines that people utilise. To explain, I’m not a book person and would rather just draw together a week’s worth of ad-hoc thinking and conversations that have all been stirred and shaped and coloured by the text and my appropriation of it into that week’s life and work. But I discipline myself to sit down with a pile of books and to write notes because I’ve found that in doing so, I surrender my natural approach and style to be checked and challenged through the careful studied input of strong minds and their fruit. I find that I am no less ‘me’ as a result, but that the Lord graciously shapes and forms me in this more disciplined element of preparation, often speaking to either delete or add crucial material and thoughts.

    1. Good point, Tim. I force myself through a process of working through the text really slowly, precisely because it’s alien. But I don’t know of any formal research on it. Chris

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