Looking at the clock, my stomach tightens into an ever-deeper knot—1:37a.m. In just a few short hours, it is going to happen, but I’m not ready. Thumbing through page after page in my Bible, looking for something, anything, desperately searching for a Word from God but…still nothing. The anxiety builds, minutes turn to hours, I desperately cry out to God, but my prayers don’t seem to rise above the ceiling of my study. Finally, frustration gives way to exhaustion, so I reach deep into a file of old sermons, pull out a manuscript and drift off into a restless sleep. The next morning, in shame, I stand before the congregation God has entrusted to my care, and instead of giving them the fresh bread of life, I feed them stale crumbs of bread meant for another time and place.
Does that scenario sound familiar? Sadly, most preachers at some point in their ministries discover the overwhelming task of caring for a congregation robs them of the precious time needed to have a fresh word from God on Sunday morning. Early in my ministry, I discovered the need to become more organized in how I was preparing sermons, so I decided to put together a set of practices to help me systematize my sermon preparation. During the past 20 years of experimenting with a variety of approaches, I’ve come up with three basic practices to help destress your sermon preparation.
Step 1: Plan Your Preaching
The first practice that will help reduce the stress from your preaching ministry is to learn how to plan your preaching calendar effectively. Having a plan for your preaching reduces stress because you know what you will be preaching week to week. Planning your preaching will eliminate the gutwrenching agony I described above, but it will take some work to get started.
The first step I take when working on my preaching plan is to spend some time getting my heart tuned to listen to God. Every preacher knows the importance of spending time daily with God in prayer and His Word, but we also need to carve our some special seasons when we can devote a larger amount of time than normal to listen to God. My experience has been that I like to set apart a week in the fall to work on my preaching plan for the next year. Usually, I will dedicate the first two or three days of that week to fasting, praying, reading and meditating on the Scripture to get myself in tune with God. During this time of spiritual preparation, God often begins to lay upon my heart certain themes, topics or books of the Bible He wants me to preach about during the upcoming year.
One objection some preachers raise about planning their preaching is that it might quench the Holy Spirit; but through the years, my experience has been the opposite. The Holy Spirit uses the time I spend planning my preaching to prepare my heart in advance for things my congregation is going to be dealing with in the future. As a result, my preaching has become far more timely and relevant. Last year, for instance, while spending time preparing my heart to plan my preaching for the year, the Holy Spirit started to draw my attention to the Book of Judges. As I read the book repeatedly during the week, God began to impress upon my heart the importance of the message that this often-neglected book of the Bible contains for our generation and more specifically for my congregation. As I worked on my preaching plan throughout the week, I could not stop thinking about Judges and ended up putting together an eight-week series through the book titled “Delighting in Deliverance.” During the planning, I had no idea how powerfully God would use this series or the events that would occur within people’s lives leading up to the series. What happened, however, was nothing short of miraculous. There was no way I could have guessed this series would be as relevant as it turned out to be, but the Holy Spirit knows exactly what He is doing.
After spending time preparing my own heart, my next step in planning my preaching is to think about the needs of the congregation. In his book Planning Your Preaching, Dr. Stephen Rummage notes that while theologically speaking the message from the Bible is the most important element in our preaching, “From a communication perspective…the audience is the most important element…” He goes on to say, “Because the listener figures so prominently as part of the preaching process, the most effective preaching plans will include a careful consideration of the audience.” The late Calvin Miller referred to this stage of planning as “Exegeting Your Audience,” and noted there are four questions we need to answer in this process: Who’s out there? What do they believe? What do they know about God? How can we help them come to terms with who they are?
Personally, I like to take an afternoon to pray through our church directory, asking God to call to mind the needs of individuals in my congregation. As the Lord calls various issues to my mind, I make a list of the needs. Once I have prayed through every name in the directory, I go back and categorize the needs and identify the most pressing issues our congregation is facing. This gives me a starting point as I think about the individual series and messages I will be preaching throughout the year.
Once I have the needs of the congregation in mind, I can start to outline my preaching strategy for the year. Throughout the years, preaching through individual books of the Bible has been the backbone of my ministry, but recognizing the need to provide some variety in my preaching style, I will attempt to include the following in my plan:
• Two or three expository series through individual books of the Bible
• An expository topical series related to the family
• One or two series on major doctrines of the Bible
• Several expository topical series that deal with specific needs of the congregation
• One or two series related to the mission of the church
• Individual holiday sermons or short series
As I plot out my preaching strategy, I also want to determine the approximate length of each preaching series so I will have some guide as to where each series might fit in the calendar. Once I have my preaching strategy outlined, I start to work on the actual calendar, first marking holidays, special Sundays, vacation days, etc. Then I look for openings to schedule the larger expository series, and finally schedule in the other series where they best fit on the calendar.
Having a preaching plan is the single most important step I’ve found for destressing my sermon preparation. Week to week, it provides a guide for where I am going the next Sunday morning. This structure has eliminated the Saturday night drama and stress I described in the opening paragraph, but it also works hand in hand with the second step to destress my preaching.
Step 2: Preach Through Books of the Bible and Longer Passages of Scripture
When I first started preaching, I would try to come up with ideas week by week for individual sermons. After about a year, however, I started to run out of fresh ideas. That is when I came across a biography of the great Southern Baptist preacher W.A. Criswell and was introduced to the idea of preaching through entire books of the Bible. In the past 20 years, this type of preaching has become the backbone of my preaching ministry. However, I should note that preaching through books of the Bible comes with it’s own set of problems.
One of the misconceptions some preachers have about preaching through books of the Bible is that they must preach verse by verse or paragraph by paragraph through the entire text. While some books of the Bible (e.g., Romans) lend themselves to this kind of preaching, others do not. Harold Bryson notes, “Some books, because of the nature of their writing and the length of chapters, lend themselves more to selective series. For example, preaching a series of sermons from Psalms or Proverbs, or one of the gospels would be better for selected texts rather than consecutive texts.” Right now, I’m preaching through 1 Chronicles on Sunday nights; while I’m being careful to cover all of the major themes and emphases of the book, I am not attempting to preach through every single verse of the book.
Another question I’m often asked is, “How do you decide what books to preach?” The answer to that question varies. Most of the time as I identify the specific needs of the congregation, certain books of the Bible will come to mind. For instance, several years ago I had many people in our church who were struggling with the assurance of their salvation. So I preached a series through
Last fall, while I was planning my preaching for the coming year, I decided to preach a series through Lamentations. Frankly, my reason for deciding to preach from Lamentations was simply that I’d never preached from Jeremiah’s lesser-known work and never had heard a message preached from it. So I started working on the series, which I titled, “When Despair Strikes.” God ended up using this series in unexpected ways in the life of our congregation. Although most of the congregants had to look in the index of their Bibles to find Lamentations, God still showed up and blessed the preaching of His Word. This goes to show you the Word of God is powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword. Every book of the Bible is inspired by God and profitable for preaching. When you’re not sure what to preach next, just pick a book and start working. God will meet you in the text and give you something to say on Sunday.
Another difficulty I’ve noticed in this kind of preaching is deciding how much time to spend in a book series. Recently, I was talking with a pastor who spent five years preaching through two books of the Bible: Jeremiah and the Gospel of Matthew. This pastor made the mistake of giving too much attention to the details of a single tree while missing the beauty of the forest. His understanding of expository preaching was that we need to examine every nuance and detail or every passage. His sermons were masterpieces of detailed study, but two problems emerged within his congregation. First, the people became bored. Can you imagine eating the same food at the same restaurant for five years? Second, his people’s growth was stunted. They knew a few biblical themes and doctrines very well, but they did not see how the larger framework of Scripture was put together. For these reasons, I try to keep the length of sermon series between four and eight weeks and try to help people see how the individual passages fit into the overall context of the book I’m preaching from, as well as the entire span of biblical history. Obviously, there will be occasions when I simply cannot do justice to a longer book of the Bible in that timeframe. In these cases, I try to break the book into shorter series. If you are preaching through Genesis, for instance, you might be able to divide the book into several shorter series that could be preached consecutively or spread throughout the year.
On the other extreme, sometimes we make the mistakes skipping passages in a single message, which could bear greater attention. For instance, last year I preached an 8-week series of messages based on the beatitudes titled, “Cultivating a Gospel-Shaped Attitude,” which later was published as a book by the same name. More recently, I’ve been preaching a series on the Fruit of the Holy Spirit. Through the years, I’ve found that breaking longer passages into a series rather than trying to deal with the entire passage in a single sermon helps the congregation to absorb the teaching better. These kinds of series also provide a nice break between the paragraph by paragraph book series.
Preaching through books of the Bible and longer passages of Scripture lends itself to the kind of planning discussed in step 1, and the structure it provides will help to destress your preparation. Yet there is one more suggestion I have for distressing your preaching.
Step 3: Employ a Team Approach
One of the easiest ways to destress your preaching is to involve more people in the preparation process. There are a variety of ways I’ve found to do this. Often as I start working on a sermon series, I invite my staff to give me input on the outline of the series or individual messages within the series. They consistently provide insight I hadn’t thought of or point out areas of application for the message I hadn’t considered. At other times, I look ahead on my preaching schedule and gather a group of men together to study a book or passage that I’ll be preaching through later in the year. As we work through the book together, they help me understand the problems people might have understanding or applying the text.
Another way to involve more people in your sermon preparation is to assemble a creative team to assume the responsibilities of designing background sets, PowerPoint presentations and other multimedia elements to be used in the presentation of the message. For several years, I refused to use multimedia, drama or art in my sermon because (like many pastors) I had enough difficulty simply writing two or three fresh messages a week without the added stress of having to come up with these creative elements. Then I was visiting a small church in West Virginia pastored by my dear friend Larry Garrison and noticed he was masterfully using a variety of creative elements in his sermons. When I asked how he was incorporating so many good creative elements in his sermons, he said he had a team of volunteers who were taking care of all of these elements for him. Genius! As soon as I got home, I asked our minister of music to assemble a similar team of artists, multimedia specialists and other creative types who now design all the creative elements for my sermons series. Now, all I have to do is to give him the preaching plan and they take care of the rest. The stress taken off the shoulders of the pastor, however, is not the only benefit of having a creative team. We all know the importance of involving many people in the ministry of the church, so why not get them involved in the sermon?
Good creative teams will reach out to a wide variety of people in the congregation and get them involved. As they employ their skills, they are able to engage more members through the creative work they produce. There is a synergy created here that can make your preaching and teaching ministry more effective with minimal effort on your part. It is the classic win/win situation.
Social media also offers a number of ways to engage our congregations in sermon preparation. For instance, we can use social media to conduct opinion polls or solicit illustrations about the topic we will be preaching about the following Sunday. Social media offers us a way to engage our listeners about the passage or topic we will be preaching about throughout the week. Once again, this allows us to gain deeper insight into some of the issues people might raise or concerns they might have about the passage. It also has the potential for giving us additional illustrative material for the sermon.
Preaching is hard work, but we can reduce the stress involved with having to come up with something fresh for our people week after week if we simply take a few simple steps. By taking the time to plan your preaching prayerfully, you virtually will eliminate the terror of trying to come up with something to say on Sunday morning. Plus, you will reduce the overall stress of preaching by being more organized and in tune with your congregation and the Holy Spirit. Preaching through books of the Bible or longer passages of Scripture lends itself to this type of planning and will help your congregation deepen its understanding of the Bible in time. Finally, there is no rule that says we have to do all this alone! We can take a lot of the load off of our backs simply by involving more people in the process of preparing our sermons. These three steps have helped reduce the stress involved in my preaching and have helped me start enjoying the ministry again.
Lamentations has been carefully structured around five separate poems, which correspond to the five chapters that make up the English translation of the book. Each chapter, however, shares a common thread pointing us toward a characteristic of God that can give us hope in times of defeat. The overall theme of the book deals with what to do when defeat strikes and the message is for us to remember God in the midst of our struggle with defeat. Specifically, this books calls us to remember:
1.) God is righteous (
2.) God is accessible (
3.) God is faithful (
4.) God is just (
5.) God is eternal (