When I was called to my previous church, some gracious folks remodeled the pastor’s office. It was a spacious room, and they went all out with the fixtures: Double-pane picture windows with vertical blinds. Plush carpet. Matching walnut credenza, bookshelves, and a desk big enough to land Navy fighter jets. Color-coordinated stapler, tape dispenser, paper clip holder, and in/out trays.
My diplomas hung prominently on the wall, lest anyone wandering in should wonder about my credentials. A few comfortable chairs made it easy for people to sit back, relax, and keep Pastor Ed company.
An office is a nice place to do pastoral care and administration, but an office is no study. Accessibility desecrates a study.
So I went looking for a place to call my own. In our new sanctuary, behind the piano and up the stairs, just off the little room where candidates for baptism changed, I found that undefiled, sacred spot. An old lamp, a folding table, a chair, and an extension cord for the laptop. I was ready to get to work. It was several months before even the secretary learned the whereabouts of my secret hideaway.
There I read. I prayed. I thought and I wondered. I wrote. I preached passages aloud to myself. Sometimes I even cried. Mostly, though, I asked myself a lot of questions.
Scientists need laboratories. Surgeons need operating rooms. Artists need studios. Mechanics need garages, and welders need shops. Preachers need studies. The study is a place to experiment, to grow, to mend and create, all for the medium of the sermon. Here our passion is restored as we soak in God’s Word.
All professions have their tools of the trade. Ours are bound stacks of paper, filled with lines of words and few pictures. Preachers acquire books like squirrels hoard nuts, filling our nests even when we have enough to last through the winter. We try to sneak more of them into our homes, even when our spouse has laid down the law.
“What’s in that bag?”
“Nothing.” Be cool, now. She can’t possibly know. Don’t look guilty. “Uh, leftovers from lunch.”
“There’s something else in there. Did you buy another book?”
“Well, there was a sale…” It’s sad, really, what we become.
My wife, Susan, won’t let me read magazines or newspapers first, because I tear out illustrations and statistics, fodder for the sermon. I’ve stolen magazines from the doctor’s office, justifying my actions by asking, Won’t this story accomplish more good in one of my sermons than moldering on this table?
These days, though I have an office at work, my study is at home — just seven feet wide and ten feet deep. My study is both monastic retreat and prison cell. When we first looked at this house, I could overlook the smell of pet urine, the sight of stained orange carpet, avocado-green wallpaper, and the filthy appliances (that could all be remedied), because I spotted a little area off the family room behind the stairs that looked like holy ground. All I needed to do was build a wall for privacy and some bookshelves.
Here, I thought, I can meet with God, midwife sermons, and tinker with words.
No stained glass or polished wood in this sancntuary. This is a workshop, where I keep the tools of my trade. An old metal desk holds a coffee mug full of pens, a laptop and printer, and stacks of Bibles, dictionaries, and thesauruses. Next to the desk is a 1950s-era filing cabinet, big as a bomb shelter. There my illustration files are nestled alphabetically by topic, safe from nuclear attack. Sermons are in portable files, easily rescued in case of fire.
Over on the west wall is the bookshelf, floor to ceiling. The preaching books are eye level, left side; theology on the right. Commentaries and novels are on the top shelves, notebooks and old textbooks on the bottom shelf. In case of flooding, the stuff I’d most hate to lose is up high.
Hanging around on the walls is some of my favorite junk: A bridle, a rope, a pair of spurs. A certificate for finishing Grandma’s Marathon sits on the shelf in front of commentaries on the Epistles. A bulletin board I found in a dumpster holds crayoned art masterpieces by my girls and a calendar to remind me of deadlines. Fly rod, vest, and waders hang on a peg in the corner. In the opposite corner, a guitar stands ready; I only play it during my really small group of one.
I have no windows, but distractions aplenty. Just outside my door sits the television and VCR. When my two young daughters are downstairs, their choice in videos allow purple dinosaurs and dancing broccoli to wander in and say hello. About two feet from my right ear, separated only by sheetrock, sits the piano where my wife gives lessons to second- and third-graders. Even though no one is playing right now, a halting rendition of “My Grandfather’s Clock” is bouncing around in my head.
Mostly I’m in here early and late, when the girls are in bed, the TV and piano silent. The pipes rattle at me, a musty smell rises from the crawl space, but it’s mine. I listen for God, pray, read, write. And I wrestle with persistent questions.
Questionable preaching
For about the last five years, I’ve had a 3×5 card taped to my desk with a bunch of questions on it. I ask these questions every time I preach. An airline pilot runs through a checklist before taking off; a lot of lives are at stake. I approach my task with the same idea.
Wrestling with these questions helps for several reasons. First, they simply make for a better sermon. But the biggest reason I wrestle with them each week is that they keep me from succumbing to the inherent temptations of the study.
For all my talk about my study being holy ground, it’s also a wilderness of temptation. Temptations await me even before I arrive. Laziness hides behind the door, jumping on me the minute I walk through it. His twin brother Procrastination whispers, “You have plenty of time,” while their evil cousin Distraction tempts me to straighten piles of books, trim my fingernails, or even clean out and organize my drawers. But these are bush-league temptations. Concentration and the sure knowledge that Sunday is bearing down like a charging bull are usually enough to help me break free from them.
I beat off my persistent adversaries and begin another wrestling match, this time with the text. If it’s a familiar passage of Scripture, I impatiently want to start throwing up walls before the foundation is completed. Get on to the commentaries, flesh out the body of the message, find those illustrations, whispers Hurry.
Not yet.
I read and reread the passage. If I learned one thing in my seminary preaching class, it’s this: I can’t open another resource until I know the big idea of the text.
The study process is like working a high school math problem; the answer is in the back of the book. Back then cheating, looking up the answer first, was useless, because the teacher wanted to see how we arrived at the answer. Cracking the commentaries too soon may give me answers, but the way I work the problem is even more important.
Get specific
So I work with the text and wrestle with my biases and with God until I get it. Once I’ve done my biblical spadework, I break for caffeine, then start in with the first question. I ask these questions every time I prepare a sermon.
1. In one sentence, what is this sermon about? When, on Tuesday, someone asks, “What are you preaching about Sunday?” I hope I can answer with one clear sentence. It may be similar to the big idea of the text, but it’s more relevant.
I recently preached on the Lord’s Prayer, using the text in Luke 11. The idea of the text was “Jesus reveals the secret of his rich prayer life.” My one-sentence description of the sermon was “Prayer charges our spiritual batteries.”
2. What theological category would this fit under? Am I being theologically faithful? If the sermon is not theological, on some level, what is it?
I once preached a Father’s Day message from Psalm 15 on the characteristics of a godly man. It was biblical, but not particularly theological. If pressed, I would justify the message as illustrative of our redeemed ontological nature or some such blather.
I wish I had preached the message on Psalm 103:8-12 by Jim Nicodem in a recent issue of Preaching Today. It was entitled “The Father Heart of God.” It was also a sermon for Father’s Day, but it was a theological exploration of one aspect of the nature of God. Every father who heard it learned something about being a better dad, but the focus was Godward, not manward. Increasingly, I’m moving from the anthropocentric message toward the theocentric.
3. What do I want my listeners to know? This question causes my sermon to engage the mind. What information does a listener need to know before he or she can act?
In a recent sermon on forgiveness, Robert Russell, minister of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, wanted his congregation to know that forgiveness will set them free from a variety of emotional and spiritual maladies. More specifically, he wanted people to know there is a reward for doing the painfully hard work of forgiveness.
4. What do I want them to do? This is the application question, which focuses on my listeners’ hands and feet. I must be as specific and practical as possible. In Russell’s message, he asked specific questions not easily deflected by the heart: “What about your boss, who denied you a raise, even though you had a more productive year than the year before? Will you forgive her? What about your dad, who left you and your mom when you were eight? Are you ready to forgive him?”
5. What do I want them to become? Now I’m going for the heart. What attitudes, priorities, and adjustments in lifestyle will this sermon address?
This question is often the hardest to answer, and for that reason I’m tempted to ignore it. It’s easy to say, “As a result of this message, I want people to become more effective and consistent at prayer.”
But what do more prayerful people look like? Will I know one when I see one? If Rick, our sound technician, put these principles of prayer to work in his life, what would he become in his work, his home, his church?
Naturally, some sermons, by nature of the text, are primarily knowing, doing, or being sermons. Yet I want to identify some element of understanding, action, and regeneration in each message I preach.
6. How does this sermon fit with the larger vision? This question helps me focus on the long view: How does this week’s message move us toward our long-range goals? How does it fit into our church’s vision statement? Am I providing this flock with a healthy, balanced diet of preaching? Is there a cohesiveness with what I’ve previously preached? A sense of direction?
Answer the skeptics
Sermon preparation would be a lot easier if we could just send our congregations to seminary. But since that won’t happen, I have to be relevant. I have to face the pragmatism and skepticism of the age. Two questions help me do that.
So what? That is the relentless question of pragmatists: So what if the Philistines stopped up the wells dug by Isaac’s father, Abraham? I didn’t sign up for a class in ancient Middle Eastern history.
The story of Isaac and the wells in Genesis 26 has relevance for anyone who has felt the undeserved enmity of another. I heard homiletics professor Miles Jones use this text recently to call his fellow African-Americans to remove the dirt of racism from the wells of their souls. Even though they may not have initiated the racism, they were responsible for digging out of it. “We’ve got to dig deeper, ’cause deep won’t do,” became his refrain. He answered the “So what?” question beautifully.
Oh really? Many people are conditioned by life to discount every promise they hear by about 90 percent. I try to imagine the broken promises and empty assurances people have had to face: the large woman and her larger husband, for example, who for more than twenty years have tried to lose weight. Fad diets, pills, expensive health club memberships — they’ve been there, done that. Just last month, an infomercial guaranteed a revolutionary piece of exercise equipment would transform soft-and-flab-by into hard-and-healthy in just minutes a day. The behemoth contraption maxed out their credit card, takes up half the family room, but hasn’t taken off a pound. The woman hangs clothes on it while she’s ironing.
“Oh really?” will be their reaction to a sermon entitled “Six Easy Steps to Spiritual Fitness.” This question saves me from trite preaching.
Analyze my condition
Recently I attended a concert at our county fair by a country singer who has been recording hits for 25 years. Her band was technically precise, her gestures polished, her vocals on pitch. But as she sang, I asked myself, How many rinky-dink fairs and rodeos has she been to over the past two and a half decades? She’s not only tired, she’s bored out of her mind. After five or six of her songs, Susan and I rounded up the kids, ready to go. I’m sure the performer wished she could leave early as well. On the way home, I sang her songs with more gusto than she had. I’d hate to think of my congregation doing the same with one of my sermons. So I wrestle with a couple more questions.
Do I believe this message will make a difference? Without this question, I could drift a long time before I’m conscious of growing cynicism or hopelessness. I can fake sincerity, but contrived passion is ugly to watch. I need to wrestle with my faith every week: faith in God, faith in the Word, faith in the foolishness of preaching.
Has this sermon made a difference in my life this week? By this stage of preparation, I’ve spent many hours engaging the text and thinking about its implications for life. If it has not yet touched me, dare I believe it will touch anyone else in the thirty minutes I’ll be in the pulpit?
John Calvin said, “If a preacher is not first preaching to himself, better that he falls on the steps of the pulpit and breaks his neck than preaches that sermon.”
Have I earnestly prayed for God to speak through me? As my friend Dennis Baker says, “Even a church service can get pretty interesting when God shows up.” Have I met with Him in the study? Am I expecting Him to show up this Sunday?
Have I used the material of others inappropriately? Access to the sermons of great communicators is easier than ever. Plagiarism isn’t just about what it takes from the person I stole it from. It’s about what it does to the level of trust with those who will hear me. They may not be able to articulate this, but my listeners come with the expectation that what I’m sharing came through honest, prayerful work.
Have I tried to make myself look better than I am? Who else besides us preachers can tell stories about ourselves without getting interrupted? If I’m not careful, I can abuse the privilege and select excerpts from my life that make me look smarter, funnier, and kinder than I’ll ever be.
A heart for Nick
Years ago I preached a sermon series on “Who We Are in Christ.” My text for one message was Romans 8:1-2: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (NIV).
In the study that week, I thought a lot about Nick, a recent convert, who was still held captive by a lot of destructive habits. He agonized over them, ashamed, for example, by his need for a cigarette between Sunday school and worship. I pondered the text: What are the implications for Nick? He’s come so far, but he’ll have a tough time growing in Christlikeness if he’s under the burden of condemnation. Lord, what can you say to him? After several moments, other faces came to mind, and I pondered their situations as well.
Something, I don’t remember what, came up that week that made me fall behind on my sermon preparation. Looking in my file from that Sunday, I preached with just a sketchy outline and this firm conviction: Whatever else I do or don’t do, I can’t preach this text with even a hint of condemnation in my words, attitude, or actions.
Sometime later Nick and I sat together at a church potluck supper. He was not a man who expressed himself well, but through a mouthful of macaroni and cheese, in a roundabout fashion, he thanked me for not hassling him about smoking. He ended his rambling with, “You’re a h— of a preacher, you know that?”
Of all the questions I agonize over during the week, the one that may be the most important is “Will my listeners know I care about them?” Love covers a multitude of pastoral sins. If my church recognizes my voice as that of a loving undershepherd, they will listen with ears of trust and faith. They’ll know instinctively that I have their best interests at heart.
And there’s an added benefit: They’ll think I’m a better preacher than I really am.
Reprinted by permission from Preaching with Spiritual Passion by Ed Rowell (Bethany House Publishers, 1999). Copyright (c) 1999 Ed Rowell.

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