5 more ways to improve sermon preparation this week
Brothers, make some intentional plans today to improve your sermon preparation.
In the first part of this article, I offered five ways to intentionally get better at preparing to preach. Below are five more suggestions toward this end.
1. Use the time that you do have
Having encouraged you to mark out blocks of time for sermon preparation and study, I want to offer a balancing word. While it should be your general pattern to carve out time for sustained study, there may be weeks where you are afforded less time than usual. When this is the case, you may be tempted to throw your hands in the air and simply anticipate that this week’s sermon is going to be weak and underdeveloped. Fight that temptation.
The hidden danger in having a consistent blocks of undistracted time each week is that we are tempted to fail to use smaller amounts of time profitably. “It takes me at least an hour to get things humming in my study,” you protest. “This extra fifteen minutes I just got because this meeting ended early is better spent scrolling Twitter.”
I agree that longer amounts of time are ideal when it comes to study and sermon preparation. But Paul’s admonition to redeem the time didn’t come with the caveat: “When that time is sixty minutes or more” (Eph. 5:15). Got an extra few minutes? Pull out your Bible and your Field Notes and write down some insights from or questions about your passage. Waiting for your child at the dentist? Start thinking over your outline. Going on a run? Listen to a sermon on your text. Whatever you do, make the most of the time you do have each week and don’t let your preparation get derailed when your schedule does.
2. Go from manuscript to outline
I understand that the kind of notes we bring to the pulpit is an aspect of preaching that is clearly a matter of preference. Nevertheless, I want to make the case for why a preacher should prepare a full manuscript then take only an outline into the pulpit.
First, writing a manuscript forces you to think carefully over the sermon’s structure, argument, illustrations, and word choice. Writing out your whole sermon helps you form sharp, penetrating sentences, transitional statements, introductions, and conclusions. As I noted above, these are vital components to the sermon. But given these wonderful advantages to writing out a full manuscript, taking that manuscript into the pulpit can constantly pull your attention away from the people in the congregation onto the pages in the pulpit.
It’s usually apparent when a man is preaching from a manuscript: he is often looking down for several seconds and reading long portions of text from his notes. This practice, in my judgment, hinders the pastor’s connection with his people and makes me wonder what about this sermon would have been different had his people just read it in a book? Indeed, there must be something unique about the preaching event that sets it apart from the practice of reading or we could save ourselves 45 minutes each Sunday and just hand out printed copies of our sermons after singing, giving, and the Lord’s Supper.
My preference is to write out my sermon in full but then to create a two-page outline to take into the pulpit. I only go with two pages because I want to be able to see the whole sermon structure from beginning to end as I preach. This outline usually consists of all my major points plus sentences or paragraphs I want to make sure I say exactly as they are written. Nevertheless, having already read the manuscript several times, I have become intimately familiar with the content of the message and much of the wording. The outline, however, frees me to regularly look at the people as I am preaching.
3. Prayerfully absorb the material as you prepare
A pastor who is not affected by what he preaches will find that his preaching will lack spiritual effectiveness, and he will likely not last long in the ministry. Truth is best transferred through a sanctified conduit, and when we spend hours in biblical study but fail to prayerfully embrace the truth by faith, our hearts will experience a hardening and dullness and the manner of our communication will reflect these internal deficiencies. Even if we can fake it for a season, our spiritual anemia will eventually become apparent to our people by our unholy and unloving conduct.
The weekly study of Scripture should be for the pastor a time of worship, conviction, encouragement, and personal spiritual growth in God’s Word. The best preachers are not those with the most dynamic personalities or superior natural speaking talents; they are men who have met with the living God, learned deeply from his Word, and are now sharing with his people what he has gleaned from his devotionally rigorous study the week prior. Let’s carefully heed John Owen’s comments at this point:
A man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us.”
4. Trim your hobbies
Praise God that he provides us with opportunities to pursue and enjoy wholesome recreation and hobbies. But how many hobbies can a man sustain when he has a family and a church to serve? When spread too thin over hobbies and obligations, the pastor must start trimming, and the trimming begins with the hobbies, not the obligations.
If you fear that you may miss out on the good things of life if you don’t “take some time for yourself,” remember that you are headed to a new earth that will be bursting with sanctified recreation, exploration, and discovery. Let me assure you that you will not regret giving yourself to your church and to your family in this life, even if it means that your friends on Facebook are going on more international ski trips than you are. Yes, enjoy recreation to the glory of God, but pursue hobbies that refresh you and prepare you to get back to work, and don’t make them the centerpiece of your life.
5. Walk in holiness
Finally, seek a life of holiness. I don’t mention this point last because it is the least important, but because I want you to remember it after you finish this article.
Everything I’ve just said about our preparation procedure will bear little fruit if we are not seeking, just as diligently, to walk in faith and obedience with Jesus Christ. Scripture repeatedly reminds us that our failure to pursue holiness will inevitably dilute our teaching ability. Unchecked pride skews our interpretational judgment (John 5:39-44); a love of money darkens our spiritual sight (Matt. 6:22-23); bitterness toward our wives hinders our prayers (1 Pet. 3:7); lust wages war against our souls (1 Pet. 2:11). We can spend 50 hours a week in diligent study and preparation, but if we don’t have love, and our efforts will end in nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3).
If we desire for our preparation efforts to bear the fruit of better preaching, our pulpit ministry must be coupled with an authentic life of devotion to Christ. Without this, we best stay out of the pulpit altogether.
So, brothers, make some intentional plans today to improve your sermon preparation. If you expend genuine, Spirit-wrought effort here, God will bless your work and your people will enjoy the fruit of well-crafted, deeply biblical, penetrating sermons (Prov. 16:3). You will find your own soul affected as you bore into Scripture week after week, and your ministry will likely be again endued with joy and passion.