Faithful Sermon Preparation in Busy Ministry (4)

The last in the series looks at the place of commentaries and prayer.

Faithful sermon preparation in busy ministry…

7. PAUSES before using commentaries

When ministry gets busier and busier, it is very tempting to stop thinking and start collating. Instead of meditating on the text to understand it for ourselves, we simply start cutting and pasting others’ thoughts and ideas together from commentaries, etc.

That’s certainly one way to prepare sermons in a busy ministry, but it sacrifices “faithful.” Faithfulness must involve some measure of personally wrestling with the text, wrestling with God, and wrestling with congregational application.

Personal meditation on the text lends freshness, relevance, and depth to our sermons. That’s why we should wait until we’ve milked the text dry before opening a commentary. We ask it lots of questions from lots of angles. We use the mind that God has given us for our time, place, and people and work hard to understand the text in our context before resorting to what God has taught others.

Meditation might seem as if it’s a waste of precious time – it might only yield one or two insights or profound thoughts, whereas you could be cut and pasting paragraphs from the latest expository commentary. But two thoughts that God gives you is worth more than 100 from someone else. We must not measure our sermons by length or density. A little blessed by God is worth more than anything else.

8. PRAYS without ceasing.

Most books and lectures on preaching will emphasize the necessity of a long period of time in prayer before preparing to preach. When I first started preaching, I would not put pen to paper or finger to keyboard without praying for at least an hour. However, this self-made rule became increasingly legalistic and almost superstitious. I increasingly found little or no pleasure or profit in the practice and it became an immense burden and even an obstacle to sermon preparation.

One day I asked a godly old minister about his own practice. He said that he too used to feel that he could not prepare a sermon until he had prayed for hours. However, God had taught him two things over the years.

One was the importance of a prayerful life and spirit throughout the whole week. Secondly, instead of praying for one long period, he began sermon preparation with brief prayer, and frequently called on God throughout the preparation process.

“Often and short” rather than “once and long” was his theme. He said that this helped to keep him in a devotional spirit throughout the preparation day. I also have found this to be a most helpful practice. I try to ensure that I stop frequently to thank God for His help, to seek his help with difficulties, and to give me efficiency, concentration, perseverance, understanding, etc.

Prayer is not an excuse for laziness, but it is a tremendous comfort when we regularly have to preach sermons that are not what we would like them to be. If we have been busy yet faithful, we can pray the Lord to bless our loaves and fishes and multiply their effect far beyond what logic expects.

Previous posts in the series

Faithful Sermon Preparation in Busy Ministry…

1. Is PAINFULLY realistic

2. Requires PERSONAL preparation

3. PRIORITIZES sermon preparation

4. PLANS ahead 

5. Follows a regular PATTERN

6. Is PRAGMATIC in the use of biblical languages


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Faithful Sermon Preparation in a Busy Ministry (3)

Last week we proposed four ways to continue faithful sermon preparation in a busy ministry (Part One and Part Two). Today we’ll look at how regular routine and a pragmatic use of biblical languages will help us achieve what seems to be impossible at times.

Faithful sermon preparation in a busy ministry…

5. Follows a regular PATTERN

How Sermons Work is not the most devotional or heart-warming book on preaching – there are lots of those around; it’s more like a mechanical instruction manual that guides the reader through the sermon preparation process step by step, taking nothing for granted. There are lots of checklists and practical guides.

My aim is that as the preacher gets used to the exegetical pattern I set out, he will no longer need the book. It will become second nature to him, part of his mindset, a way of thinking that is automatic and instinctive.

Each time I went up a level at Tae Kwon Do, I used to think, my legs or arms will never manage that. It felt so awkward and unnatural even when done at 1 mph. However, after we repeated the movement a thousand times – and believe me it was at least a thousand times – it felt so normal and even boringly easy. The brain and muscle tissue had learned the pathways and patterns and it became second nature, even instinctive.

Similarly when we get into a sermon preparation pattern, the moment we settle into our office chair, the brain knows it’s time to start whirring, and knows what to whir and when.

The more routine we build into our sermon preparation, the more routine it will become. There is a supernatural element to it, of course, but there’s a lot of routine as well, basic mechanics, which if we learn and practice, the brain gets into the usual groove, allowing more space and opportunity for the supernatural as well.

I’m not saying that the How Sermons Work routine is the best for everyone, but I do believe everyone should have a basic pattern of reading text, translating, word studies, structure/outline, exegesis, commentaries, illustration, application, into, outro, etc.

6. Is PRAGMATIC in the use of biblical languages

I teach Hebrew exegesis. I want preachers to use Hebrew in their sermon preparation. However, I also want to be realistic.

When I started in the ministry I used to spend hours parsing verbs, looking up lexicons, etc., for 10 or more verses. I ended up with lots of lovely pages of Hebrew study, but not a sermon.

I’ve therefore adopted a method which I believe still places great importance on the study of God’s Word in the original languages, while at the same time increasing my time-efficiency.

So, I am very much against abandoning Greek and Hebrew. However, I am for re-positioning them, especially in the early days of our ministries, as we grow in knowledge and ability. I would not want any of us to kill our ministries or ourselves by trying to be a Lambdin or a Wenham while trying to preach three sermons to lost souls every week. If we try to persist in this we will soon give up on the original languages altogether – as many, sadly, have done.

My more realistic approach to the original languages has five components:

  • I read the text in various English versions first of all, to familiarize myself with the various translation options and differences.
  • I limit my original languages study to the 2-3 main verses. If I’m preaching OT narrative or a NT parable, I try to identify the few key verses and focus my study on them.
  • I study the Greek or Hebrew text, parsing and translating, with a particular focus on what my study of the text in the English versions highlighted. For example, if 4-5 mainstream translations agree on 90% of the text but differ on 10%, then I focus on the 10%. I don’t see the point in reinventing the wheel.
  • I make use of the many electronic helps to parse and translate my text. My preference is for Logos Bible Software.
  • I try to get time throughout the sermon preparation process to meditate on the text in the Greek or Hebrew. Apart from the subconscious and spiritual effects, such meditation will often yield thoughts and ideas which may not have been suggested by studying only English translations. God honors and rewards study of His Word as He originally gave it.

This is not the ideal, but almost everyone I know who has tried to reach for the ideal has fallen far short, got discouraged, and has given up all language study.

I prefer a more realistic approach that will maintain contact with the original languages, and will, over time, actually increase skill in them in a way that the “ideal” approach rarely will.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the last two strategies for faithful preparation of sermons in a busy ministry.


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Children’s Bible Reading Plan

This week’s morning and evening reading plan in Word and pdf.

This week’s single reading plan for morning or evening in Word and pdf.

If you want to start at the beginning, this is the first 12 months of the children’s Morning and Evening Bible reading plan in Word and pdf.

And here’s the first 12 months of the Morning or Evening Bible reading plan in Word and pdf.

And here’s an explanation of the plan.


Faithful Sermon Preparation in Busy Ministry (2)

Yesterday we proposed two ways of combining faithful sermon preparation with a busy ministry. Today we’ll look at how prioritizing sermon preparation and planning ahead also help that happy union. 

Faithful sermon preparation in a busy ministry…

3. PRIORITIZES sermon preparation

An old minister who was also a shepherd told me when I entered the ministry, “Feed the sheep and you won’t hear them bleating.” So true! I’ve seen extremely promising ministries ruined because the pastor did everything but feed the sheep. It doesn’t matter how many people you visit, how much you evangelize, how popular you are with the young folks, if you don’t feed the sheep, they are going to start bleating.

The opposite is true too; a church can get through many problems and troubles if the sheep are kept full and satisfied.

We must prioritize sermon preparation. If we do nothing else well, we have to do this well. If we do nothing else in a week, we must do this. Nothing must get in the way of sermon prep time. OK, we won’t have the ideal schedules we all thought we would have in Seminary, but we must still schedule our week to make sure that we have our sermons ready for our sheep.

  • They should be scheduled times. As fixed as a doctor’s appointment. Everything else is worked around sermon prep.
  • They should be regular times – in the same place in our calendars each week – so that our brain is in the groove and knows what to expect when the starting blocks appear.
  • They should be large sections of time – a minimum of 3 hours at a time.
  • They should be the best times in our week – our high performance times.
  • They should be uninterrupted times – we tell our families and our elders, maybe even our congregation, that these times are virtually sacrosanct. We get our phone on voicemail and shut off all digital distractions.

Faithful sermon preparation will never happen without faithful time management. It will amaze you how much you can get done in regular, concentrated times of study.

4. PLANS ahead

I rarely preached series of consecutive expository sermons. Maybe two in my whole ministry. I much preferred to preach texts that caught my attention or that met a particular pressing need at the time. However, that didn’t mean that I sat down on Friday or Saturday and started looking for a text. No, I was looking all through the week, looking for a text that struck me in my own reading, family worship, in visiting a home, in my reading of Christian books, or something that spoke to a local or national issue. Sometimes I would gather 10 or more texts like that in the course of the week and I’d only need three. Some of the others would be used in later weeks and some never became sermons at all.

My point is, I was planning ahead and not just waiting until the moment I needed to start writing a sermon. I wouldn’t just write down a text though; I would often write down my initial thoughts or even a skeleton outline. Often I came to prepare a sermon and nothing had really impacted me that week. But I had dozens and dozens of previous texts, thoughts, and outlines stored up that I often plundered.

You probably are not quite so free-spirited as I was and am. Most American pastors are preaching at least one series of consecutive expository sermons. In some cases two or three at the same time. I’m sure many of you plan ahead your series, even months in advance. That will certainly help you save time with weekly text selection. But you can also be planning a bit more by reading ahead, studying difficult passages before they drown you the week you have to preach them.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever had was from an older pastor who told me to preserve the fruits of your study. I’ve used various systems to build up a database of information on various theological issues and subjects so that when I come to preach on a text that touches on say fellowship, or adoption, or the atonement, I already have a list of articles, quotations, etc., that I can quickly access without searching theological tomes for them. Although the cataloguing takes time, it saves so much time in sermon prep.

As much of my reading is done online now, I use Diigo.com to bookmark Internet articles with keywords and highlighted phrases.

Next time we’ll look at establishing exegetical routines and at a pragmatic use of biblical languages.