How I Prepare Sermons

I recently blogged about my decision to start writing sermon manuscripts again. A couple of people asked about my routine in preparing sermons. I don’t know that my routine is the best, but since I enjoy hearing how others prepare to preach, it may be helpful, or maybe interesting.

My approach has been to follow the process outlined in this sermon preparation cheat sheet. I try to discipline myself in two areas, with varying success:

  • Spend enough time in the text before turning to the commentaries. This one is hard for me!
  • Exegesis comes before homiletics. Understand the text before you think about how to communicate it.

In the old days, before church planting, I’d devote four mornings a week to sermon preparation. On Monday and Tuesday I’d work on exegesis; on Wednesday and Thursday I’d begin to craft a sermon from the exegesis.

I now do the same thing, except on one day: Thursday. I fight (again, with varying success) to reserve the bulk of that day for sermon preparation. Everything conspires against that happening, which means that the preparation often spills over to Friday and Saturday. My goal, though, is to get it done on Thursday and then put it on the back burner until I preach. Internalizing the sermon, without looking at it, is a huge part of the preparation for me.

There’s one major disadvantage to saving the preparation for one day: there’s less time to slow cook the sermon over the week. My best insights have come to me outside of sermon preparation time. That doesn’t happen nearly as often when the preparation time is so concentrated.

For the past few years, I’ve used Scrivener to write my sermons. If you have a Mac, it's worth checking out. UPDATE: There's a Windows version too. I love roughing the sermon out using the index card feature, and then filling in the outline piece by piece. It chunks the task so that it’s more manageable and less overwhelming.

I'm rarely with my sermon when it’s done. I’ve been surprised, though, that when reading some of my old sermons they’re not quite as bad as I remembered.

That’s how I do it. I was encouraged to read Joe Thorn’s tweet the other day. It gave me perspective:

I’m thankful that God uses imperfect preachers who are short on time to proclaim his glories.

Why I'm Back to Writing Sermon Manuscripts

When I finished as pastor of an established church in January 2012, I made a massive switch in how I prepared sermons. Up until that point, I’d developed a practice of preparing a sermon manuscript before I preached. I rarely took the manuscript to the pulpit with me, but writing my sermon in advance helped me think my way to clarity in my sermon preparation.

When I began the process of planting a new church, I first spoke as an itinerant preacher, often repeating the same message. In late 2013 I began to preach again regularly to our new church, but truncated my sermon preparation and tossed the manuscript. As a church planter, I felt I couldn’t afford the same amount of time to prepare sermons as I had before.

I still spend less time preparing sermons, but I’ve returned to preparing a manuscript again. The reason? My friend Paul Martin said something that stuck with me:

A church will never be better than its preaching.
— Paul Martin

We walk a tightrope here. Tim Keller says, “If you put in too much time in your study on your sermon you put in too little time being out with people as a shepherd and a leader. Ironically, this will make you a poorer preacher.” Someone else has offered this advice to church planters: “Spend the majority of your time out in the community rather than cooped up in your study preparing messages” (Roger N. McNamara and Ken Davis, quoted in Ed Stetzer’s Planting Missional Churches). 

At the same time, I’ve found that if I don’t manuscript, I’m not capable of producing the kind of sermon that will live up to the kind of church that we want to see planted. Maybe other people can preach without having prepared a manuscript, but I need that practice in order for me to have the clarity I need.

“A church will never be better than its preaching.” That’s not an excuse to devote an inordinate amount of time to sermon preparation, but it is a reminder that every preacher has to figure out what they need to be able to preach a message that sets the tone for the church that is taking shape. For me, that means writing a manuscript.

The Three-Year Preaching Cycle

It happened again this week. A friend of ours stopped us in the gym and told us that she’s moving to Miami. While jealous of the climate she’s chosen — it’s 80℉ warmer there right now than it is here — we are incredibly sad to see her go.

We live in a transient culture. We’ve seen a parade of people come and go in the couple of years that we’ve lived in Liberty Village, a condo community in downtown Toronto. In our own building, the percentage of renters occupying units has increased dramatically, while the percentage of owners occupying units has decreased. That points to an acceleration of the trend.

When you combine the transient nature of our communities and the task of planting a church, there are some significant challenges. One of them is preaching. If you can only count on people being present for a short time in the life of your church, how can you best use that time to ground people in the basic truths of the gospel, and inculcate them into a biblical worldview, especially when people increasingly lack any understanding of any biblical truth?

One answer, I believe, is a multi-year preaching strategy. I heard about a church recently that cycles through three books over three years: Mark, Romans, and Genesis. By the end of every three years, people attending that church will have majored in the life and ministry of Jesus, the theology of Romans, and the foundational truths of Genesis. That’s not a bad idea. It’s not all of Scripture, but you can touch all the major themes of Scripture using these books.

There’s no right way to do this, and it’s increasingly challenging given that regular attendance means something different than before. But it’s worth giving careful thought to the issue: In communities in which many people lack a biblical worldview, and won’t be staying very long, how can we effectively use that time to ground them in the gospel before they leave? That's a question worth considering.

The Preacher's Job

I had the privilege last week of hearing Bryan Chapell speak on preaching. The whole day was good, but what he said at the end will stay with me for a long time. It’s not new, but he stated it in a clear and compelling way.

There are many motivations for behavior, he said, but there is no greater motivation than love. Only love would motivate a mother to enter a burning building to save her child.

The greatest motivation in the Christian life, therefore, is the love of God. Our problem is that, in the moment, we tend to love other things more than we love God. The best way to deal with these competing loves is with (as Thomas Chalmers would say) the expulsive power of a greater love.

My notes from Chapell's talk

The preacher’s job, therefore, is to excavate the beauty and grace of God so that our hearts are filled up with the power of grace. The pastor’s job is to fill people with love for the Savior. We’re never stronger than when our hearts are full with this love.

Does this make people self-centered? Not really. When you love someone, you love what they love. Their agenda becomes yours. Love for God makes us God-centered, not us-centered.

It’s a simple but profound reminder. I wish I had known this in my early days as a preacher. I’ve sometimes tired of my own preaching when it’s filled with calls for obedience divorced from the motivation and power to live, but I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of talking about the grace and beauty of God, and how we get to live in response.

"The Bible Says" or "Paul Says"? A Response to Andy Stanley

Andy Stanley gave a talk last week at Exponential, a church planting conference in Florida, under the theme of "rethinking preaching." Stanley is a powerful communicator, and his message stimulated a lot of thinking.

I want to summarize Stanley’s message as accurately as possible, and then evaluate the strengths of his approach, as well as some of my concerns.

Quote Authors, Not the Bible

Stanley’s aim is to preach to unchurched people with the right approach. He is concerned that we often assume a lot in our preaching, leaving the bottom rungs off the ladder. He affirms his belief in Scripture as God’s authoritative Word.

Because unchurched people do not recognize the authority of Scripture, however, Stanley advises preachers to avoid saying, “The Bible says…” Instead, we should quote authors. For instance, “James, the brother of Jesus, writes…” “Paul, who hated Christians and yet became one, writes…” People who will not immediately concede the authority of Scripture will be led to consider the stories of the authors who wrote Scripture, and that background will make the content more compelling.

Why take this approach? “The problem with ‘The Bible says’ is what else the Bible says,” says Stanley. The unchurched will ask why we should trust one section of Scripture when other Scriptures contain truths that are hard to swallow, and that require some explanation. As well, Stanley argues that the foundation of our faith is not the Bible, but an event: the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The Bible is not a single book in any case, but a collection of books.

Stanley is not disputing the authority of Scripture. He is simply saying that it is important to understand that an unchurched audience does not share this conviction. We can appeal to the authors and their stories in order to build common ground with the unchurched, which can lead to a recognition of Scripture’s authority. For instance, we can use Jesus’ view of the Hebrew Scriptures to build a case of the the authority of Hebrew Scripture.

(Another attendee has blogged his notes from Stanley's talk. It contains a few other points I'm not mentioning here.)

Strengths of Stanley's Proposal

There’s a lot to like about Stanley’s suggestion. We can’t assume that our audiences accept the authority of Scripture. We should be making a case for why people should listen to the text. It can be very effective to root texts in the larger story of how God worked in the lives of the authors so that they wrote what they did. And, in the end, it’s important to remember that effective preaching includes apologetics.

Some Cautions

While Stanley’s approach has a lot to commend it, I do have three cautions and concerns.

I want to expect more of the audience. I could be wrong, but I’m not sure Stanley’s proposal gives enough credit to the audience. We may say we are simply quoting Paul or James, but our listeners will still realize we are quoting from the Bible, and they will still bring their questions about some of the more difficult passages of Scripture. I have no problem with quoting authors; I’m just not sure that people will think I’m not quoting the Bible. In fact, I want them to think I’m quoting the Bible. My assumption is that we can preach in a way that doesn’t sidestep that we are quoting Scripture, even as we build the case for why we need to recognize its authority.

I want to expect more of Scripture. The reason Scripture is authoritative is not because of the authors and their stories. The reason Scripture is authoritative is because God has spoken and revealed himself. There are times to defend and establish the authority of Scripture; there are also times to unleash Scripture and let it do its work, realizing the Holy Spirit is in the room. When God speaks, something happens, even if the hearer doesn’t recognize that it’s God who is speaking.

I want to guard against losing confidence in Scripture. I am not saying that Stanley does this; quite the opposite. I am concerned, however, that those who take his advice seriously may find that it can lead to a subtle shift. It may lead to conceding some of the authority that belongs to Scripture, and giving it to the audience instead. We don’t stand in judgment of Scripture; Scripture stands in judgment of us. I want to keep this clear in my mind, even as I use apologetics to make the case for why we need to hear God’s Word.

To use an illustration: when a judge renders a verdict we don’t like, the judge’s personal story isn’t ultimately the reason why his or her verdict stands. When the judge speaks, the law speaks with all its weight. When Scripture speaks, the personal backgrounds of the authors may be fascinating, but it’s ultimately compelling and authoritative because God has spoken, and the words carry his weight.

Parenthetically: The church in North America faces a lot of challenges. In my opinion, an over-confidence in Scripture is probably not one of them. My impulse is to move toward a greater reliance on Scripture and its authority. Stanley's proposal may be targeting a problem that doesn't exist to the extent that I wish it did.

Stanley loves Scripture, and is clearly a good communicator, and his suggestion has a lot going for it. But I never want to let the listeners escape having to wrestle with the fact that God, not just Paul or James, has spoken, and that we need to listen. We can quote the authors, but let’s never be afraid to say, “The Bible says…”