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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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 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.

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Faithful Sermon Preparation in a Busy Ministry

“Faithful sermon preparation” and “busy ministry” do not easily fit together. Often one has to be sacrificed – either I give up faithful sermon preparation or I give up busy ministry – and it’s usually “faithful sermon preparation” that gets the bullet.

So how do we try to hold these two opposing forces together? Faithful sermon preparation in a busy ministry…

1. Is PAINFULLY realistic

I well remember my first idyllic week or two of pastoral ministry. I had my color coded timetable, with 2-3 hours every day devoted to general theological  study, daily time in Greek and Hebrew, and a reading scheme encompassing eading a wide range of old and modern theological books. Then there were these beautiful long red sections called “sermon preparation” totaling maybe 15 hours per sermon.

Then ministry started happening. The phone calls began, the visits that took twice as long as expected, the inconvenient deaths, the visits to the local hospital (90 mins away in my part of the Scottish Highlands), Presbyteries, committees, problems in neighboring churches, and then wider denominational issues that would eventually result in our church being split after years of acrimonious controversy. Add on two children in 2 years, a new church building project, etc., and my beautifully crafted schedule was quickly forgotten. I think I observed it for about two weeks.

One of the most amusing exercises that I have my students do is draft a weekly schedule of what they think their week will look like in the ministry. They usually look very like my own ideal. Sometimes 30 hours of sermon prep, nil family time, and no day off. They look at me with incredulity when I start dismantling their beautiful plans with some good old-fashioned Scottish realism.

I once heard a famous American author and preacher say that no sermon should be preached that had less than 35 hours invested in it and it should be practiced 6-8 times before preaching! Multiple pastors’ heads slumped as he floated high above us in his own celebrity unreality.

Back in the real world, if we get to spend 10 hours on each sermon we are doing well. It’s probably going to be nearer 7-8 hours and in some cases 4-5 hours, especially if we have to prepare 3 sermons or more a week (as it was in my first pastorate, with four every second week). Remember not all sermons are equal. Doctrinal sermons or difficult passages will require much more preparation than a more devotional treatment of a Psalm. We need to be realistic.

It’s painful to accept this and work within these limitations. But if we don’t, we will eventually suffer pain in other ways.

I know of one pastor who only survived a few years in the ministry because he was trying to prepare every single sermon exactly as he had been taught in Seminary – following every single exegetical and homiletical step every single time. Eventually, the pressure he put himself under was so great that he dreaded sermon preparation, and found it impossible to preach any sermon that was less than perfectly prepared. Within a couple of years he was off work with stress and depression, and within another year he had left the ministry.

2. Requires PERSONAL preparation

Having said all that, I do want to encourage you to think of preparing sermons in a much broader way than the specific hours spent with the text and the commentaries. If that is the only sermon preparation we do, then our sermons will suffer, and so will our hearers.

We should regard our whole week as sermon preparation, because a large part of sermon preparation is personal preparation, preparing ourselves as well as preparing our sermons.

Our personal and family devotions are part of sermon preparation. They bring us into contact with God, His Word and His Spirit. They are not way over here on left field with sermon prep being over there on right field. No, they are on the same team, interplaying with one another.

Cultivate a meditative spirit as part of sermon preparation. Take your text with you as you drive; think on it as you go to sleep, as you shower. It’s amazing how much light we can get on our text away from the computer.

A holy life is also part of sermon preparation. Holiness is the greatest key to understanding the Bible. There is only so much that academic study can give us. Jesus said, “If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority” (Jn. 7:17). “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him” (Jn. 14:21). God hides truth from the wise and prudent and reveals it to babes (Matt. 11:25). If we live a holy life, God will open up His Word to us in a way that no amount of hours ever will. There are computer sermons and there are communion sermons.

Tomorrow we will continue this series on Faithful Sermon Preparation in a Busy Ministry by looking at (3) Prioritizing sermon preparation and (4) Planning ahead.