5 real ways to improve sermon preparation this week
Much of our improvement in preaching will come by improving our preparation.
If you’re a pastor, you should desire to preach well and consistently improve your preaching. Paul expected that Timothy’s listeners would be able to recognize growth in this young pastor’s ministry as he immersed himself in his work (1 Tim. 4:15), and our people should be able to perceive the same progress in us.
Beyond this, we should simply want our teaching to be increasingly effective the our people’s lives. While it’s true that spiritual growth is ultimately God’s work (1 Cor. 3:6), it does not follow that we should therefore neglect to improve the vehicle by which God delivers the Word. Pastors who love their people should seek and pray that their mouths would be fountains of life that consistently bless the church (Prov. 13:14).
When we think about how to make strides in our preaching skill, it is certainly right to consider the mechanics of delivery. Have we developed distracting habits in the pulpit that keep people from focusing on the content because they are too concerned about how many times we picked our nose or stroked our beard or played with our wedding ring. Do I speak too fast? Too slow? Do I move around too much? Am I articulating clearly or regularly misspeaking? These are all questions we should ask as we seek to improve our preaching.
But much of our improvement in preaching will come by improving our preparation.
Why is preparation the primary means to better preaching? Because it is in the preparation phase that we become deeply familiar with biblical text, we acquire useful knowledge for ourselves and our people, we take time to create outlines that help our people follow the argument of the message, we ponder over the most clarifying and useful choice of words, and we choose illustrations that facilitate genuine spiritual understanding and obedience.
Fail to cultivate an effective pattern of preparation and you undermine your entire sermon and the very purpose for which God ordained preaching: the edification of the body and the salvation of sinners.
So, what are some practical ways to improve our preparation?
1. Block out large chunks of undistracted time
In his book, Deep Work, author Cal Newport rightly observes that valuable work can only be produced by those who set aside sustained time to focus on their project. While scheduling large chunks of time is no guarantee that you will prepare well (you may still fritter away your time watching YouTube videos or shopping the REI clearance sale), high quality sermons cannot usually be crafted in short bursts of activity.
You might object that large chunks of time are pastoral luxuries you simply don’t have due to all the other responsibilities you bear each week. While it is true that most hard working pastors will often have full schedules, the truth is that you don’t have the luxury to refuse to establish and guard significant segments of time for your sermon preparation. While preaching is not the sum of pastoral ministry, it is a vital part and must be given adequate attention. Paul made it clear in his letters to Timothy that he was to give himself to the task of preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 1:3; 3:2; 4:11, 13, 16; 6:2; 2 Tim. 2:2; 2:24; 3:16; 4:2; see also Titus 1:9; 2:1, 7) which included, by necessity, the work of diligent preparation (2 Tim. 2:15).
In light of the New Testament imperative to labor in our teaching preparations, it is in our congregations best interest to not allow our preparation time to suffer at the whim of every possible need. In God’s providence, genuine emergencies do arise that may throw our schedule into disarray; but we must make sure that the events we allow to grab our attention are just that: genuine emergencies and cases of urgent need.
Generally speaking, however, we need to jealously guard our preparation times; not out of selfishness and the need to “be by ourselves,” but in order to create an environment in which we can craft biblically-rich sermons that will bless our people and sustain them in the day of trial.
2. Cultivate the ability to concentrate for long periods
A related discipline we need to develop is the discipline of concentration. While I don’t want to naively harken back to the good ole’ days of desktop computers and landlines (or quills and candlelight), it does seem that more than ever we are a people who are unable to rivet our attention on mentally challenging work for any significant amount of time. Cell phones and social media have fed our addiction to distraction and slowly eroded our capacity to focus on our tasks—especially the hard ones—for serious amounts of time.
Pastors must lead the way in recapturing the lost discipline of concentration. It seems to be a universal truth that quality of insight is directly related to the quantity of sustained time over which we focus on a passage, illustration, or theological conundrum.
I really believe that there are a lot of pastors today whose preaching would improve ten-fold within just two weeks if they simply disciplined themselves to not look at anything but their preaching text (no phone, no Instagram, no email, no Facebook, no news, no Twitter, no ESPN, no YouTube, no Home Depot) for an hour at a time over the course of the three to four hour blocks they have established for sermon preparation. Don’t believe me? Try it.
3. Write during each step of the preparation process
You may not fancy yourself a writer, and you may not have any grand plans to write a book, but if you are a preacher and teacher of God’s Word, then you must become, at some level, a writer. Why? Because writing is the most effective means to think carefully over your text, form and capture insights from your study, sharpen your understanding of the truth, and develop a well-organized message. As you write, you will grow in clarity and stimulate your mind to bore deeper into the text and all its implications and applications.
Writing, therefore, should not only be the final step in your process; it should attend each stage of preparation, from exegesis, to research, to final manuscript. I am afraid that much time is wasted and much insight lost because we don’t write nearly as much as we should during our sermon preparations. We enter the pulpit in an intellectual fog because we didn’t persevere into a state clarity the week before or we deliver to our people only a fraction of what the Spirit taught us during our study, all because we didn’t discipline to write as we studied.
4. Go Deep into the Word
Sadly, there are sermons that are being preached on Sundays that lack effectiveness because they lack biblical depth. While that’s true (and grievous), I’m not taking aim at those who avoid depth for the sake of numerical growth. Rather, I want to challenge those who already believe that Scripture should be exposited in all its richness and depth to make the text of Scripture the place where you spend the most time.
I’m grateful for the many teachers God has given the church whose wisdom I can access through commentaries and books. I owe much of my spiritual from what I’ve learned through these resources, and I will continue to seek their help and wisdom daily. Nevertheless, in light of the massive number of books available today, it is important to observe that the mere multiplication of resources does not necessarily lead to greater clarity or confidence with the text. In fact, too much time spent in secondary resources can actually hinder communication because the teacher, having been drawn away by a 100 opinions, is no longer confident in what the text is actually teaching.
Now, I’m not making any rules about how many secondary resources we should consult in our weekly study—we need to know ourselves and recognize when we are actually frustrating our learning rather than facilitating it—but I am saying that we need to make the text of Scripture our primary workplace.
5. Work hard on the shape and structure of the message
There some well-trained pastors out there who are putting in the time to carefully exegete their passage and conduct the research required to understand the meaning of Scripture. Unfortunately, those same pastors often bring mediocre messages because they mistakenly think that research is the only necessary component of effective sermon preparation. As a result, their sermons, though full of biblical, theological, and historical content, are often lacking in illuminating illustration, trenchant application, and pedagogically effective points and sub-points.
For those of us who enjoy studying Scripture and learning more and more of God and his Word, we will likely find the research phase of sermon preparation especially enjoyable; it just isn’t real difficult to dive headlong into Scripture and a pile of books with the goal to gleaning as much for our minds and hearts as we can.
But if we are not careful, we may neglect to put in the same amount of time and effort into crafting the actual sermon—introduction, argument, illustrations, applications, conclusion—because that part of the preparation isn’t as fun as the research part. We might even deceive ourselves into thinking that such effort isn’t necessary because the content is what matters; delivery is secondary.
But the sermon isn’t a mere data dump. As we see in Jesus’ messages, effective sermons are well-crafted and brimming with rich illustration and relevant application. Paul told Timothy to “preach the word” which included the necessary work of rebuking and correcting and teaching (2 Tim 4:2). Pastors must labor over the actual sermon itself as much as they do the biblical content they hope to communicate.