When asked about his own effectiveness in the pulpit, Gardner Taylor replied that
‘the key to a great sermon is to fix your #$# more firmly…to the seat of a chair.
It may seem like a flip throwaway line, but its perhaps the best preaching advice anyone can receive.
To the extent my own preaching has avoided being a complete disaster, its due to the amount of work I’m committed to putting in during the week. Naturally, everyone’s manner of preparation will vary. For some the sermon will come a piece at a time during the week. For others the sermon will require brooding all week long and come all at once on Friday or Saturday. The manner of prep can vary but I’m convinced the need for preparation and study is absolute.
My own habit is to read, study and brainstorm the possibilities in the text for about three hours each day, Monday through Thursday. While I have the upcoming sermon series planned 18 months ahead, I write the sermons from week to week. Those three hours can come in snatches during the course of the day or sometimes they come all at once- now that I have children I most often wake early in the morning and am the first there when they unlock the door at Starbucks. On Friday, then, I write the sermon. It can take all day. Sometimes it takes not nearly that long. I save Saturday morning for writing the ending and editing the sermon down.
Preaching is a gift but, no less than painting or music, its a gift that requires our work or it will never become a craft.
Too often I think talk of the Holy Spirit and spontaneity in the pulpit is just a guise for laziness.
I’ve never understood why the Holy Spirit, who is always involved in the carefully orchestrated, foreshadowed acts of scripture, is always maligned by being associated with spontaneity.
Fair warning: chances are your congregation won’t understand it either.
Here’s one golden nugget of wisdom I can offer after ten years in the pulpit.
If you’re hungry for one absolute in all this that you can stick in the pocket of your preaching robe, here it is:
the amount of work and effort you put into your sermon preparation will convey to the congregation and will give you credibility with them.
Whether your every sermon is Pentecost redux or not, they will respect you for respecting them by preparing so intently. This will in turn give you credibility in every other facet of your ministry.
Another fair warning: that absolute comes with a correlative. The opposite is also true. Your lack of work in sermon preparation will show (they’ve listened to sermons their whole lives!) and your credibility will suffer. You cannot mask or dissemble your lack of effort in the previous week with canned filler material.
We’ve all received the same email forwards.
We’ve all heard the same generic stories from illustration books and we’ve all seen the same video clips and can sense when their connection to the text is tenuous at best.
You can’t fool the congregation into thinking you’ve devoted time and sweat to your sermon when you have not.
A part of this work, I believe, should be writing out your sermon manuscript. I don’t always preach from a manuscript or from a pulpit, but I always write a complete manuscript. I know not everyone holds to this habit, but here is why I do.
I was taught preaching by a famous black preacher, who impressed upon me the fact that even the great black preachers, who often appeared spontaneous in their delivery, wrote out their manuscripts. The reason for this, he said, was the esteem in which the black church holds the Word.
The power and beauty of the Word requires our own devotion to and precision of language. After all, we believe salvation comes by hearing. We believe the chief act of this God is to speak. We believe that before he was Jesus, the Son was the Word.
Words matter in our faith.
To proclaim this faith with the integrity it deserves, I believe, requires we take care with our words.
Such care, I believe, requires more than an outline, idea, or notes. Our words have more than utilitarian function. To be made in this God’s image is to be able to create and give life…with words. Preaching from an outline or notes is fine provided there is a manuscript behind it.
Preaching is less about being Peter, suddenly blessed with the words to convert thousands.
Preaching is about wrestling with the Word and, like Jacob, being blessed week in and week out.
The proper venue for our preaching isn’t Pentecost so much as it is the Jabbok River. It’s where we go week in and week out to meet God, even if the encounter leaves us limping.