Most pastors enjoy preaching. Moreover, many thoroughly enjoy the hours of preparation spent in the study among their commentaries, etc., in the work of biblical exposition and sermon preparation. Why, then, do we hear so much dissatisfaction about preaching from preachers themselves these days?
The basic dissatisfaction, about which I am speaking, is the outgrowth of another problem stemming (in turn) from still another.
First, dissatisfaction comes from not “having enough time” to prepare properly. It is precisely that opportunity which pastors enjoy so much that is lacking. They want to spend more time in the study of the Word and in the preparation of messages, but other demands constantly call them away from this work. Doing half-baked study and inadequate preparation is what takes away the joy of preaching. That’s the first problem.
But before going on to the second (from which it derives), let’s consider this problem of the lack of time a bit more thoroughly. Perhaps you are expecting me to say, “Well, if you’re too busy to find time, then you’re just too busy,” There is something to that, of course. Any number of preachers take on tasks that do not belong to them; disregarding the clear statement of their function in Ephesians 4:11, 12, they try to do the work of their people for them, in addition to all their own. That, of course, is impossible. Some pastors run a taxi service, mow lawns, operate mimeograph machines, etc., when there are any number of persons in the congregation who could (should) do these things instead. When they arrogate to themselves the tasks that others ought to do, but are not doing, they make it easy for others to shirk their responsibilities, they rob them of their blessings, and they crowd out the study of Scripture and sermon preparation. It ought to be a rule for every pastor not to do anything himself that a member of his congregation can do (or can be taught to do) as well as (or better than) himself. Of course, there will be times (in emergencies, in brand new mission churches, etc.) when a pastor must do such things, but he will not make it a practice. His work is ministering the Word, privately and publicly, in order to build up and encourage all the members of the flock to do their own ministries. When extraneous activities are eliminated from his schedule, he will have more time for study and sermon perparation.
“But that isn’t all,” you say. Right! I know there are weeks that we’d all like to forget; and I know that they come more frequently than we’d like to think. On Monday it looks tight (especially with that special men’s meeting address on Saturday night), but everything seems to be in hand. You have selected your preaching portions for Sunday morning and evening and the prayer meeting topic, and you.are about to go to work on them (Saturday night will have to wait till Thursday). You are well into your exegesis by Tuesday morning, when things begin to break loose. The phone—that two-faced blessing and curse—rings. Mrs. Green has been rushed to the hospital … it is serious … can you come immediately? You do, of course (torn at leaving the study at such a time). When you get back (three hours later), there is the afternoon’s list of activities staring you in the face. No way for you to fudge on them. So, you don’t. That means one half of a morning’s study shot. “I’ll catch up tonight,” you think, as you drive out of the yard. But that night finds you at the hospital again—Mrs. Green has taken a turn for worse; they think she may die. Somehow, she rallies, and you go home late, weary, but no further ahead in your study. Wednesday morning. Sunday sermons are set aside. Tonight’s prayer meeting must be considered. “I’ll take off this afternoon and do the study I had hoped to do yesterday. Who is that driving up to the study? Bill and Jane Wilkes. Wonder what they want?” It turns out that last night Jane threatened to leave Bill, and only at the last minute was she persuaded to stay on condition that they see the pastor right away. “Of course,” you hear yourself saying, “sit down; let’s talk about it.” Glad to help, but reluctant to give up the time, you counsel them. When you are through, an hour and a half later, your secretary informs you that this really looks like it for Mrs. Green—and that the family would like to see you (they have all gathered together at the hospital). You go (of course!). Mrs. Green dies (this means another unanticipated message for Saturday morning at the funeral). Bill and Jane take up another day or two—and so it goes (I’ll not finish out the week-it’s too discouraging to do so). I know about those kinds of weeks-and what they can do to sermon preparation and study.
“Well?” you ask. “What can I do about that sort of problem? There isn’t any way that you can regulate funerals, marriages breaking up, etc., so that they fit your study schedule, is there?” Don’t be too sure! While you can’t predict emergencies, you may be able to regulate your schedule to fit emergencies in a way that doesn’t destroy your study and preparation.
I am about to make a suggestion that at first you will reject—but hear me out. In one fell swoop you can solve not only the problem of weekly pressure, but a number of other problems as well. Indeed, following this suggestion can—as it did for me in my last pastorate—make preaching a pleasure.
The suggestion is simple, but profound: prepare every sermon six months in advance. Now wait, don’t turn me off. Hear me out, I beg you. I want to make it clear that this is the most practical thing to do. Here are my reasons:
In preparing six months in advance,
1. You gain plenty of lead-time that will allow you to make all the schedule adjustments that you need to meet emergencies. What you lose in time one week can be gained the next week (or the week after).
2. You gain perspective on your text. Too many sermons are cut down green; they do not have time to ripen.
3. Illustrations come naturally. When you know well in advance what you will be preaching about, all the general reading you do, as well as the experiences you have, feeds into the sermon. You don’t have to search for examples; they come to you.
4. When preaching a series of sermons on a book, you can preach the first sermon in the light of the exegesis of the entire book. Instead of discovering that what you preached in the first chapter was wrong (now that you understand it in terms of what is said later in chapter 3), you begin to preach the book only after having studied the whole.
5. You solve the problems of an exegetical conscience. When you begin preparing a message on the Monday or Tuesday before it is to be preached, you may move along swimmingly until—in the mail Friday—you receive that new commentary that you ordered that knocks your previous understanding of the passage into the proverbial hat. Now, what do you do? There isn’t any time to adequately prepare a new sermon. Do you preach the old one, knowing it is wrong? I’m afraid many do.
6. Preachers tend to ride hobbies (Ezekiel at night, Revelation in the morning and Daniel for prayer meeting). Planning large blocks of sermons, well in advance, requires thought about balanced feeding of the flock.
All in all, then, I think you can see the values of preparing six months in advance.
What you do is this:
1. You do the exegesis for your passage and outline it in rough form six months ahead.
2. You allow time for your thinking about it to mature, gathering illustrations, etc.
3. A couple of weeks before preaching you pull out your folder and put the sermon into final form.
Of course, you can always make adjustments in unforeseen circumstances by inserting a special sermon now and then to meet these.
Let me diagram the process:
The Preaching Year
You divide the year (roughly) into four segments, according to some functional form (as suggested above). Then you plan two segments of the year all at one time (e.g., at the end of summer you might plan the spring and summer segments of the following year. Then you begin studying each of the messages to be preached during those segments, keeping six months ahead. That looks like this:
The two segments ahead also can be prepared in balanced terms by using the diagram, thus:
“OK, OK. I can see the value of this. But is it practical? Can it really be done? If so, how?”
What you are now doing isn’t practical, is it? Well, consider this then.
1. The best time to make the change is when changing pastorates. Simply preach out of the barrel for six months while preparing the next six. A sermon is best preached the third or fourth time!
2. If you are in seminary, determine not to leave with less than six months’ sermons in hand. Start out right from the beginning.
3. If you are in a pastorate, and intend to stay, but want to switch over to the new program, I suggest this:
a. Dig into the barrel for your oldest, very first sermons.
b. Develop six months worth of sermons from these.
c. Use each major point of these as a separate sermon in itself. (Typically, new preachers include too much in their sermons. When you preach these points separately, you will have the sermon you should have had to begin with.)
I have outlined a process and procedure that can revolutionize your preaching. Don’t lay it aside lightly. I have suggested this to any number of persons. Those who have adopted it agree that they have been liberated. Preaching can be the pleasure you always wanted it to be.—J.E.A.