I’ve been preaching for about forty years now (I just re-read that, and stopped to recount. Sadly, yes), and I think it takes me roughly the same amount of time to prepare a sermon than it did then. There’s less sweat, fear and panic than in my salad days, but I still have to allocate the same amount of time in the diary.
What price experience, then? When does it start to become easy?
You’re not giving a standing ovation TED talk. You’re supposed to raise the dead.
Wrong question, obviously – it doesn’t become easy, and in lots of ways it actually becomes harder. The more you know, as they say, the more you realise how little you do know, and how ill-equipped you are to achieve the end a sermon is designed to achieve. Actually, ‘ill-equipped’ massively understates the problem. You must realise as a preacher that your task is actually infinitely beyond you, because you’re not giving a standing ovation TED talk. You’re supposed to raise the dead. Prayer is a non-negotiable.
So, for quite different reasons, is coffee.
But that aside, experiences does count for something.
Even though I allocate the same total number of hours, I do not use them in the same way.
Even though I allocate the same total number of hours, I do not use them in the same way. Experience has taught me where I can improve. So here are eight ways my sermon prep has changed over time.
But first, the start is the same.
I aim to do a sentence flow diagram, ideally in the original (‘ideally’ because the Aramaic of Daniel is a beyond me. As is, to be honest, much of the Hebrew, too, because I am v-e-r-y slow. The Greek can creak a bit as well, if I’m honest).
So I still start pen in hand, with an A4 pad. I’ve tried using software for this, and using tabs and so on in Word; it works, but there’s still something about physically writing the text out which seems to embed it more in my thinking.
Here, though, are those changes.
1. I spend much less time with commentaries.
Now some of that is the fruit of experience, because having mined them several times over the years you get to know which ones are the most useful. And you’ve also retained a lot of the information. But some of this time reduction is deliberate, because I found that as I continued to buy the commentaries, unless I was careful, reading them was taking up more and more of my week. So I made a point of trying to hone in on the key few commentaries, and working out from there. The trick here is to know your authors and your series.
But I’m pleased that in the past I did have a season of careful and exhaustive reading. I remember sitting in Tyndale House library in Cambridge, and realising that I had read everything in English that was relevant to one passage. It was a curious sense of calm. But these days, the books and articles are published so frequently I doubt I could ever get to that place of clarity again. Instead, I do informed deep dives.
I do informed deep dives.
2. I spend much more time thinking.
I sit in a chair with a bible, an A4 pad and a pencil, and scribble, doodle and mind map. I’m not precious about the bible, so I’ll underline and bubble all over it. I’m trying to find the best, cleanest way to get the text to fall apart into its necessary segments, and that involves a lot of false starts and crossing out.
3. I spend much more time on application.
A pastor’s diary contains the conversations and visits that help us see how the bible addresses the needs of God’s people, and a decent course of study on pastoral counselling will help us take that much further. God’s Word is designed to slice open the heart, in all its dark complexity, and apply those great and precious promises. It’s designed to dethrone idols, take prisoners captive, unmask lies and deliver shocks like a cattle prod. Doing all that takes time, and no commentary gets you there.
4. I spend much less time physically writing a sermon.
I started out with a hand-written manuscript. I’d been told to do it and seen it done, and it certainly helped with the nerves of the novice. But it took time, and when I moved to a church with a much smaller building, I found reading using a manuscript cost me eye contact. I stopped it immediately. Over time I’ve had various styles of notes or no notes, but all of them have had the advantage of taking less time to get onto paper (or screen, although I have to confess I’ve never enjoyed writing a sermon on a keyboard. Maybe it’s because I write as well, and for me preaching and writing are two different tasks, with different mind sets). So I save time on the writing – although I’m pleased I did invest in it at the beginning. It made sure I always knew what to say, and that I would be coherent.
5. I spend much more time on simplifying, clarifying, phrasing, and structuring the material.
Time was, I would be happy with three points beginning with P (Jim Packer’s ‘row of sweet P’s); now I’m more careful. Sermons have an argument, a flow, a plot and a climax. Some phrases work well when spoken, others don’t. More to the point, some sentences read well but don’t sound well, and I need to know the difference.
Some sentences read well but don’t sound well, and I need to know the difference.
Honestly, I think I was held back on this for a season by my huge admiration for John Stott. His spoken material was so good it was often published as was, and the result was I felt I had to speak something that was heading in that direction too. Then one day I woke up to the liberating (but blindingly obvious) truth that I’m not John Stott, and I could do things differently. Not so well, but differently.
6. I spend much less time on filing and indexing.
A Baptist pastor I once worked with had a vast archive of quotations and anecdotes, all cross referenced in a great card-index system, and I just assumed I had to do something similar. Curating that took huge amount of my time at one stage. I think this was a bit of Stott-admiration too, because I felt I had to be equally meticulous in my research and study. Then one day, I simply chucked the lot in the bin, and decided that I would only do that kind of work for a particular project, not as a general way of preaching
7. I spend much more time on contemporary relevance.
That’s the flip side, and the gain. I work from the principle that if the Bible is true, it is true today, and that the relevance of that will be in the news and on the screens this month, with no gimmicks. True, with the web you can do a ton of research really fast if you need to, but I tend to go for the fresh, and the now.
If the Bible is true, it is true today, and that the relevance of that will be in the news and on the screens this month, with no gimmicks.
8. l spend much less time in long blocks, more time in 90 minute bursts.
Oh, the hours I’ve spent with a tired mind trying to focus on a boring commentary (shhh – they exist. Just don’t tell anyone which ones you think they are). It’s much more useful for me to run through my diary and block in however many 90 minute sessions I’ll need, with some margin for error. Why 90 minutes? Well, to mangle Orwell, because 2 hours is too much, and an hour don’t satisfy. 90 minutes is about enough time to reach some clarity and closure
That point is often makes by one of those aha! moments, when something becomes clear. And over time, I’ve found that that’s the time to take a break. There will be no further new ideas for a time; instead, it’s time to give the brain a break and something else to do.
So there we go – the 8 big changes, and the stuff that stays the same. What else have you changed in your sermon prep? Pile in!