I have heard thousands of sermons. Except for my four years of college, when I went to church less than a handful of times, I have been hearing sermons for my entire life. And when churches started making sermons available online (for us all to consume any time we wanted to, as God intended), I listened to even more sermons.
I remember very few of those sermons.
When I was 23, I heard a pastor begin his sermon by describing a Jimmy Buffet concert that he had attended, and enjoyed. I was immediately delighted, not because I liked Jimmy Buffet, but because I was used to pastors talking about our kind of people (those who attended prayer meetings, punctuated only by the occasional game of Uno or viewing of Little House on the Prairie) and those kind of people (the ones who attended Jimmy Buffet concerts). I’ll never forget that sermon. It was a small thing, but the main question I was asking at 23 was, “Can I be a Christian and also enjoy life?” It mattered to me.
Does the sermon still matter?
I am writing this post to pastors, because I think the sermon really still does matter, and I want to encourage pastors to preach really great sermons, ones that leave people hungry, not full.
These are some of the things I try to do as I prepare to preach. I don’t do all of them every week. Last week, I barely had any time to finish my sermon, but it was enough. I hope these are helpful.
1. Start With Questions. My text for a few Sundays ago was Mark 1:14-20, the one where Jesus says his famous line about making his followers “fishers of men.” I asked: “Why is it important that we know right away that John the Baptist has been arrested? Why is it important that they’re fishing in shallow waters? Does it bother anyone else that we bait fish and then eat them, and is Jesus really calling us to do that to people?” Questions help us get underneath the text, where the good stuff is.
2. Capture your ahas Immediately. The best ideas come when you’re doing something else – showering, driving, running, even talking to someone. You need to have a place to jot down your ideas/ahas/inspirations as they come. Many people use Evernote. Some people use Reminders on their iPhone. Some even have a little notebook they carry around. If you are trying to write your sermons all at once, they’re probably going to be shallower than you’d like them to be.
3. The Lost Art of Longhand. Our heads and hearts have time to catch up with each other when we write things out longhand. I used to use post it notes for this part of the process, but now I have a huge black glass dry erase board that I use to start capturing ideas, questions, ideas, and quotes – it all goes up there, and then I start erasing as I start focusing. Don’t start on your laptop. A blinking cursor and a blank screen is not inspiring. I dare you to try it this week. Even if you still do your final draft electronically, writing things out longhand will help your creativity and thought process.
4. Create when you’re at your best. Block out times for sermon preparation when you’re at your best, and be okay with saying no to people who want to meet during that time. Certainly, emergencies are the exception to this rule, but you need time to create, to sit with your questions, and to let the text become fresh in your mind. It’s okay to say no to some things because you have to prepare a sermon.
4. NO B.S. Have you explored and navigated the questions that the text raises, or have you jumped right to the answers? Nothing creates a stale, unbelievable sermon more than a trite, though well meaning phrase (examples: God is in control, God’s ways are not our ways, God will never give you anything that you can’t bear). These phrases are usually taken out of context, and they are conversation stoppers. Don’t be lazy. Don’t be trite.
5. Let it sit on Saturday. Play with your kids on Saturday. Don’t look at your sermon. Go for a walk, or a run. Don’t endlessly tinker with it. You’re wasting your time. Get up early on Sunday morning, give it one more pass, and print. You’re ready.
6. When you’re actually preaching, commit fully. If you’ve decided to say something a little controversial, assuming you’ve prayed that through and talked to the right people, say it. If you’re going to go there, go there. Your whole sermon can’t be redlined, but you do need to fully inhabit moments and be passionately all in when it matters. This video is a great example of committing fully.
Sermons matter. They’re not the last word, they’re not the only thing. But I believe teachers have the great privilege of helping people “come and see” where God is dwelling in their lives and in the world, and then inviting them to embark on a journey with God that will take them somewhere we never could.
In it together.