Several years ago, I discovered a remarkable method of sermon preparation which, apart from the anointing of the Holy Spirit, has helped my pulpit effectiveness more than anything else I have ever encountered. I discovered the method shortly after my parents began attending Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY. I was intrigued by the pulpit skills of the church’s senior pastor, Bob Russell. [For additional information about Russell’s preaching, see interview in March-April 1995 issue of Preaching.]
In addition to having a keen insight into the biblical text, Russell seemed to have fresh, illustrative material to help communicate the truth of the text every single week. Since I was a pastor and knew the demands of serving a church, I was puzzled as to how he was able to read enough material and spend enough time in his study to prepare and assimilate that material into his sermons. Since then, I have learned his ‘secret’ and have applied similar meth-ods to my own sermon preparation.
Actually the method is no secret at all. Russell has always been open about the fact that some of his sermon prep-aration is done in a small group forum. Like Russell, I have chosen to be honest with colleagues and church members about benefiting from the research and study of other members of a study group. I share this method so that others will benefit as I have.
Biblical Precedent
Sharing resources with other pastors and teachers not only makes sense pragmatically, the idea of benefiting from the godly counsel of close friends has a biblical precedent. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 reads, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!… Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Consider Proverbs 15:22: “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”
God uses the silence of one’s time alone with Him to communicate biblical truth and ways to communicate His message. The wise preacher will realize the unique insights of others and will recognize the value of using the findings of others.
Readers of the New Testament benefit from the gospel story being told from not only one perspective, but four. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John narrate the same basic story in the life and ministry of Jesus, but with unique perspectives, purposes, emphases, and insights. The Christian heritage is richer because God in His wisdom created each of these authors differ-ently. Under the guidance of His Holy Spirit, He told His message through these messengers in ways as unique as their fingerprints.
In our study meetings I have often felt like the man who, in a hurry to go to the church picnic, quickly grab-bed a bologna sandwich and ran out the door. After arriving at the picnic, a family asked him to join them in their meal of fried chicken, potato salad, and apple pie. To keep him from feeling guilty they said, “You share your sandwich with us and we’ll share what we have with you.” Some trade! He sat down like a pauper, but he ate like a king. I have gone into some of our study ses-sions without bringing much to the table, but I have always eaten like a king and left with precious nuggets of truth and insight from God’s Word and His servants.
Methods of Preparation
The first step in our preparation is to determine the themes, topics, or Bible books for the sermon or series to be preached. The preliminary discussions on topics and subject matter may take place over the phone or by fax machine. Each member of the team is constantly reading and doing individual study or becoming burdened in a specific area.
Some examples of series that have been born this way are series on the Psalms and on God’s anointing; a series through the book of Nehemiah entitled When God is at Work; a series on Daniel dealing with integrity, courage, discipline, loyalty, and humility; and a series entitled The Marks of a Great Congregation. Each congregation is unique and has special needs, but the pastors in our group are amazed by the similarities between the church families. Obviously the calendar dictates the direction we take during certain seasons of the year, but normally, soon after we begin discussing what’s on our heart, some common goals, burdens, and areas of need begin to emerge and we ask God to guide us as we focus on the course He wants us to take.
The next step is the preparation for the group study session itself. If we choose to preach through a Biblical book, each member of the group engages in his own study of the material. If we decide to address a particular theme, we consider on our own which Bible passages will communicate best what God’s Word has to say about the topic. Each member considers which passages will be preached and how many sermons will be in the series.
After determining the passages that will be preached, the members work through the passages by exercising principles of exegesis and interpretation. Next, each person forms some rough outlines of the potential sermons to be shared when the group meets. Finally, each gathers illustrative material from printed resources, news events, and personal experiences in order to help the audience form a mental picture of the biblical truth.
The third major stage of the preparation process is the group session itself. In our particular group, we have tried to move the location of the meetings around in order to lessen the burden of traveling on the participants. Depending upon the location of the respective members, other groups may choose to meet in a central location for every meeting. The frequency of meetings determines their duration. A group that meets weekly will benefit from a two-hour meeting, while a group that meets bi-monthly or monthly may need half a day to complete the work.
The meetings should start with an informal time of sharing what the Lord is doing in each place of service. The conversation about the personal ministry taking place in the group members’ churches has a way of leading into the subject matter for the sermon preparation of the day. (The encouragement experienced in this portion of the meeting is discussed below).
After a brief time of catching up on what’s “going on” with the others in the group, each member takes turns sharing his own insights into the text at hand. Included in these findings are personal observations about the text, observations discovered from others on the same topic, fresh and appropriate illustrations to help communicate the biblical truth, and personal experiences to shed light on the material. During the meeting the group needs to have access to a copy machine for the easy exchange of resources. When the group members have done their homework, everyone leaves with three times more material than they brought with them.
For the last step, each group member returns to the solitude of his own place of preparation. After the resources are gathered, the work of editing and putting the sermon together must be completed. Under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the messenger has the message burned into his heart. Our experience has been that instead of digging for illustrations and other supportive material in the Bible to help our hearers, we have been faced with the task of editing and culling material that is not useful.
Benefits of Pooling Resources
In addition to the quality and depth of the final product, the group members receive several benefits from participating in a study group. First, each person brings his own insight and perspective with regard to the biblical text. In a diverse group some are more adept in New Testament studies while others’ strengths are in the Old Testament.
One person may bring a lot to the table regarding the historical context and background of a Bible book or biblical story, while another is more equipped in matters related to grammar, linguistics, or hermeneutics. When God places group members together, He does an excellent job of allowing them to complement one another, and not to be clones of one another.
The second benefit relates to the concerns and areas of need that are addressed to the different congregations. Like people, church families differ in personality. I once heard Fred Craddock say, “No one reads a text quite like a pastor reads a text.” What he meant was that pastors know the hearts of their people. They have wept tears in the waiting rooms and drank coffee in the living rooms, so when they read a passage of Scripture, faces appear — faces of real people with real names and real hurts. With more congregations represented the participants have their vision expanded regarding the possible applications of the text.
As a third benefit, group members avoid unintentionally repeating the same patterns and themes addressed in the pulpit to the exclusion of other important themes. One may preach more effectively ‘the whole counsel of God.’ Teachers and preachers may grind certain axes unwittingly. With more diversity in the group, a balanced diet of both grace and truth may be served consistently to the listeners so that the extremes of compromise and legalism may be avoided.
A fourth benefit involves being a good steward of time in sermon preparation. Never should any short-cuts be taken. Sermon preparation is time consuming by nature, but the time should be spent efficiently. When every member of the group invests sacrificial time in personal preparation, the dividends are abundant for all.
A fifth benefit is not directly tied to the actual sermon, but to the messenger himself. The accountability to one another helps to strengthen the skills of each person and serves as a great source of encouragement. Proverbs 27 reads, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses … Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of one’s friend springs from his earnest counsel” (vv. 6, 9). Every time our group has met, I have been encouraged by my Christian brothers and colleagues in ministry. If this were the only benefit it would be a sufficient reason to meet.
Obstacles to Effectiveness
Even though the benefits are numerous, some dangerous obstacles can reduce the effectiveness of a sermon preparation group. One obstacle is pride. Egos must be checked at the door. Every person has strengths and weaknesses. The goal of the group is to complement the former and supplement the latter. The members must remember that we are all God’s servants and a member of a ministry team. Like a team of horses, we are stronger when working together than when operating on our own.
A second obstacle is the busyness of ministry. No effective pastor or church leader has huge blocks of time that can easily be set aside for anything, even for sermon or lesson preparation. Since time is such a precious commodity, the meetings should be set well in advance and should be missed only in the case of an emergency. Our experience has been that people normally understand the critical nature of the preparation time and are encouraged by the pastor’s dedication and discipline.
The third obstacle is misplaced priorities. A pastor’s role is not limited to the pulpit ministry, but the preaching moment must take priority over other matters. A balance must exist so that ministry occurs in and out of the pulpit, but the period on Sunday morning used for the exposition of God’s Word provides the best opportunity for reaching the most people with the Gospel during the week. We are called “to preach the Word” and to “be prepared in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2, NIV).
After reviewing the biblical precedent, methods, and benefits of participating in a sermon preparation group, perhaps you will begin praying for the Holy Spirit to lead you to the persons who will best complement and be complemented by your own spiritual gifts. No book, article, or human guidance can take the place of the One who first placed the fire of His message into your heart. Whatever methods you use, some of these ideas may help you to be even more effective as you fan into flame the gift of God which is within you (2 Timothy 1:6-7).

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