It is about 3:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon. You are almost finished with your sermon and feeling pretty good about it. The main points have come effortlessly. The structure of the sermon has seemed to fall into place. The unique illustration you filed away has leaped up and said, “I would feel real cozy in between those paragraphs.” You even call your spouse to say that you think this sermon is going to be the best you have ever prepared. Life is good.
Then 4:00 p.m. rolls around and all you have left to write is your final movement and conclusion. But you look down on the back of that receipt where you first wrote down the ideas for this sermon, and the final movement and conclusion do not look as appealing as they originally did. They don’t seem to flow with the rest of the sermon. The conclusion does not have the same punch as it did on Tuesday when you relished in it while eating your lunch. Suddenly, you realize that the wind has gone from your sail, and you are farther away from your destination than you thought. You read over what you have already prepared in the hopes that as you read you will gain enough momentum to be carried over into a new idea, but nothing happens. There seems to be no way over this mountain, even though you are praying that the path will be revealed. The cursor on your computer screen keeps blinking at you, as if it were saying, “Is that all you have?”
We have all been there. For lack of a better phrase, it is called “preacher’s block.” It can happen at the beginning of sermon preparation with a feeling of not knowing where to start. It can happen in the middle of writing a sermon when, for instance, the first point does not flow well into the second. And it can happen at the end of sermon preparation when you have no clue how to conclude the sermon effectively. It is not a pleasant feeling. In fact, it can be downright maddening. You feel like you are stuck in a rut with no hope of getting out.
What is the remedy for preacher’s block? Over the years, I have read a lot of good material and listened to wise counsel relating to this subject. After digesting all this information, I have come up with a prescription for preacher’s block that has helped me. I hope it is helpful to you. Please know that this prescription is not a cure, but it can provide a way to bust through the “block” and move forward.
Take a Break and Allow Your Thoughts to Incubate
When we hit a roadblock while preparing our sermons what we tend to forget is how we usually come up with great ideas. More often than not our ideas for sermon material come when we are not thinking hard to find them. The ideas hit us while we are talking to a friend or taking a walk. And why is this? Our subconscious mind has incubated our thoughts by allowing them to grow through associating with other thoughts.
When we least expect it, our subconsciousness knocks on the door of our consciousness and says, “Look! Your thought found a friend.” And so, an idea is born. But this process can only occur when we allow our thoughts to enter the subconsciousness. We must rest and put our minds to other things in order for this to happen. The great preacher Paul Scherer put it this way: “Spells of hard thinking with the mind under full steam, followed by brief periods of incubation, even of idleness, when the conscious mind is relatively unoccupied, is, I dare say, as near a formula for fertility as a [preacher] can come.”1
So, when you feel preacher’s block coming on, go for a walk or take thirty minutes and call a friend. Let your subconscious do some of the work. You will be amazed at how taking a break from your sermon will bring fresh ideas.
Don’t Give Up!
When we get stuck in the midst of preparing a sermon, the biggest temptation is to take short cuts. We just want to “get it done,” so we reach for canned illustrations or use portions of a sermon we did a few months ago, even if they do not fit. We say to ourselves, “They won’t know the difference.” However, the truth is that over time our congregations will know the difference. If we keep serving up food that has no deep sustenance, our congregations will become malnourished. It may be easier to feed our congregations Twinkies than a full meal, but it won’t be long until our people run out of energy and begin to show signs of anemia. We must take the time to cook up something that will nourish our congregations. Let’s keep working at it. Our people will be glad we did.
Resisting the temptation to take short cuts with your sermons is what separates good sermons from ineffective sermons. It is also what separates good preachers from ineffective preachers. I have always believed in the old adage which says, “The first step toward a good sermon is hard work; the second step is more hard work, and the third is still more.”2
Frank S. Mead reinforces this point when he inquires about what made J. Wallace Hamilton such a powerful preacher. Mead asks, “Did he have some homiletic secret that eludes the rest of us. Was he just lucky in circumstances? Was he just, as so many have told us, a natural-born preacher? What made him so good and great in the pulpit?”3 In response to these questions, Bishop Gerald Kennedy had this to say: “Hard work did it. Sure; he was born with a talent; so is every last one of us. But he didn’t bury that talent. He worked at it day and night. He was never satisfied with his use of it; he was forever trying to improve it …. First of all and beyond everything else it was hard work!”4
The experience of “preacher’s block” may be a defining moment for us as preachers. For it is in the moments of struggling to make a sentence sing or working for two hours on one particular transition or staying awake at night trying to work out the structure of a sermon in our heads that homiletical greatness is born. Don’t give up! You may be closer to a breakthrough than you think.
Keep Filling the Well
A good defense against preacher’s block is an overflowing well of ideas. Practically speaking, this means keeping a running file of articles, quotes, stories, newspaper clippings, anecdotes, etc. Keep folders in your office. Keep a pad beside your bed. When you come across anything that has potential (and I mean anything), write it down or photocopy it and file it away. Then when it comes time to prepare another sermon you will find that your problem will not be a lack of enough ideas, but having too many. You will have a well that overflows.
However, I would caution you about using books of illustrations. Use them carefully. These books have their place, but what you find in them may not fit your language and style. Effective illustrations are born out of your own experiences, observations and interests. Samuel Butler in The Way of All Flesh speaks to this when he says, “Ideas, no less than the living beings in whose minds they arise, must be begotten by parents not very unlike themselves. They do not come into clever people’s heads by a kind of spontaneous generation, without parentage in the thoughts of others or the course of observation. The very worst method of getting hold of them is to go hunting expressly after them.”5
Take Time to Listen
The best advice for overcoming preacher’s block is a faithful devotional life. It is good to fill your well with great thoughts and ideas, but it is crucial to fill it with spiritual refreshment. How do we expect to feed our congregations when we are starving and haven’t collected any food?
It has been said that “good preaching is the fruit of meditation.” Nothing could be truer. Our devotional life should inform and empower our preaching life. I know that this sort of discipline should go without saying, but it is amazing how easy it is to neglect our spirit when we have so much on our plate. And it is tragic when we do neglect it, because if there is ever a time when we need to listen to God, it is when we are preparing to preach God’s word to God’s people.
If this discipline is not part of our weekly routine, it would behoove us to find a quiet place to meditate on the biblical text we will be proclaiming. As we meditate, we must begin to listen to what God wants to say to us and through us.
Again, we would do well to follow the example of J. Wallace Hamilton in this regard: “In our moments of quiet remembering we see [Hamilton] sitting in that study, listening. We call him an idea preacher, a topical or situation preacher, but we would be nearer to the truth were we to call him a listening preacher. He listened for the guidance of a Voice that made his own voice poetic, musical, relevant — an echo of the Voice divine.”6
Preacher’s block happens to all of us, but if we seem to experience it frequently it might be because we have blocked ourselves from the “echo of the Voice divine.” When all else fails, take time to listen to the One who had the first idea.
1Paul Scherer, For We Have This Treasure (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976) 155.
3Frank S. Mead, “Preface” in J. Wallace Hamilton, Still The Trumpet Sounds (New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1970) 9-10.
4Quoted in Mead 10.
5Quoted in Scherer 151.
6Mead 17.

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