In recent years, I have taken to leading writing workshops for aspiring authors. I always have enjoyed helping people with their writing projects, especially helping others stay encouraged and focused as they attempt to navigate the dizzying and confusing world of publishing. After 30 books published in six languages, hundreds of thousands of copies in print, and hundreds of published essays, poems and short stories to show for nearly 40 years of writing, I feel I have something to offer.
Yet I'm always perplexed when I encounter those individuals who believe they can produce an essay, a poem or novel without putting in the necessary time and practice required to become proficient at the craft. There are people, I suppose, in all walks of life who simply believe shortcuts exist, that great work can be produced through osmosis, or those who become proficient on the piano, playing basketball or ski jumping simply have arrived there without practice.
When it comes to sermon preparation—the same also can hold true for many pastors. Some, I suppose, believe sermons are delivered magically by the Spirit, that little preparation is required, or that great preachers have a natural gift that was not or is not continually nurtured and refined through relentless practice.
When it comes to preaching, we always must practice what we preach. You’ve heard that maxim for years, but when it comes to sermon preparation, it is literally true. We must practice…but how?
Consider some of these practice tips that can improve any pastor’s sermons. They have been tried and tested in time by many great preachers. You probably use some of these yourself, but others may be new…or you could give them a try next week.
Sermons Take Time
How much time do you give to sermon preparation? When I was in seminary, I recall Dr. Richard Lischer telling his homiletics class, “You should probably spend an hour of preparation for every minute you are in the pulpit…but most weeks you will need to do your sermon prep in half that time.” Indeed, pastoral work comes loaded with many other requirements, requests and realities. In spite of the great pull to meet myriad needs in our congregations, we still need to set aside adequate time each week to do the hard work of sermon preparation. This prep will take time. There’s no getting around it. Time is essential.
Can a baseball player become a better hitter without spending time in the batting cage (and lots of it)? Were those concert violinists born with the instruments in their hands, or did they dedicate huge chunks of time to perfecting the art? Can a preacher preach his or her best sermons without spending time in study, prayer, reflection, and practice? I think not.
Start with time. Mark it off on your calendar every week. Make this time sacrosanct. If needed, leave your church office and get to the quiet place where you will not be interrupted. Those needs in your congregation, in most instances, still will be there the following day. When it is time to prepare the sermon, give this work your undivided attention.
Sermons Are Spoken
Regardless of how you prepare you sermon (manuscript, outline, narrative, memorization, noteless) you ultimately have to speak. A sermon is spoken. It is still an auditory art (as opposed to a visual art, for example). Yes, we may incorporate visual images into the sermon via PowerPoint, video clips, YouTube videos, etc., but a sermon is spoken. We dare not overlook this fact.
Because the sermon will require some aspect of speaking, the pastor should consider how people will hear the message. This may require additional practice on our part. We may need to practice the sound of our own voice or work on turns-of-phrase or key concepts that we desire to communicate. Inflection, tone, volume—all of these elements are just as important to the spoken word as is voice, pace and verb usage in the written word.
Preachers would do well to practice their voice, allowing the sermon to scroll through their minds and vocal chords. Leave nothing to chance. Tame the tongue so the sermon rolls from the mouth and the lips with the proficiency of a skilled singer. We should consider the art of the sermon to require no less in preparation than that needed by a singer or stage performer.
Sure, we have to rely upon the Holy Spirit, too, but our practice paves the way for the Spirit to work. As we give our best, we can be assured God will give God’s best. Great sermons are born of verbal practice.
Sermons Need Verbs
Many writers believe a sentence moves through adjectives or that if one can pile up enough color, description or overblown adverbs the reader will be moved. However, writing—the same as sermon preparation—actually moves through verbs. Verbs are the action words of language; the more proficient we become at discovering and using verbs well, the more efficient and inspiring our sermons will be.
This week, go back and listen closely to your verb usage. Did you use flat verbs such as went, be, walk or run to describe the action? How would the sermon be improved if you changed some of those verbs to hastened or dazed or shuffled or crazed? Do you see the difference? Can you hear it?
Verbs move writing, but they also inspire sermons.
Sermons Need a Congregation
There are many ways a preacher can work to increase the effectiveness of a sermon by preparing the congregation. This is the beauty of the nearly ubiquitous use of the sermon series—allowing the people to study ahead or anticipate the theme or topic week by week. There are other ways, too.
Sermons work well when the pastor plans ahead—including months ahead—and can begin the hard work of sermon preparation by praying over or contemplating the many themes or topics long before they arrive on the calendar. This is sermon prep at its best when a pastor always can be working on a message while doing other pastoral work such as driving in the car to an appointment. Illustrations, anecdotes, humor and stories—can be had day by day or spirited away for a time until needed weeks or months later.
A pastor can prepare the congregation by inviting members to be great listeners. This can be accomplished through creating a spirit of excitement about an upcoming sermon series or publishing upcoming sermon themes and topics on the church website and elsewhere. Invite and expect people to arrive with a spirit of anticipation and excitement.
Sermons Need the Preacher
In one form or another, the preacher actually must be a part of the sermon. This is not to say every illustration involves the pastor or the preacher always should come across as self-deprecating or (God forbid) as hero, but the pastor must be personally involved in the message. People will pick up on sermons that are canned—or those sermons that are very far removed from the preacher’s own experiences and weaknesses and questions. If the sermon addresses issues that are far removed from the congregation one is serving, people will pick up on this right away and will not feel they are a part of the experience. It is a fine line perhaps, but the preacher always must show up to preach out of his or her own life experience, integrity, hopes, dreams, failures and successes. This is not to say personal stories always must be shared, but the sermon must certainly be real.
While there are other elements to practicing what we preach, these five elements are important to sermon preparation. Being present in the pulpit begins with being prepared.
Our sermons always may be improved upon, but without our dedication and time spent perfecting the craft, we can’t grow in that art.