As mentioned several times in the past on this blog Colby Garman are working on some church planting material that we pray will see the light of day sometime in 2011. This week we finished a chapter on the subject of preaching and I wanted to share a bit of it with you.
“I am fully aware that sermon preparation is an art rather than a science and great preachers and pastors through history have employed a variety of different study tools and disciplines to become great at what they do. There is clearly no “best way” to prepare for preaching that applies across the board to all preachers. I am also aware that I am not the world’s greatest preacher and probably not even good enough to be offering this advice but I at least want you to know some of ways approaches that have proven to be helpful for me in preaching. I pray will help you as you prepare to preach God’s Word in personal evangelism, formal preaching and small group teaching.
Write a Manuscript
The very strongest advice I can give, especially for a new preacher is to write a manuscript of your sermon. Getting in the habit of writing my sermons out word for word is the single most helpful habit I have formed as a preacher. There are two primary reasons that the manuscript is helpful for me. First, writing your thoughts forces you to think through the very best way to communicate them. When I use an outline I can capture an idea on a bullet point to remind me what I should say. But when it comes time to actually say it I may or may not be able to articulate my ideas as well as I want to. When I write the idea though, I am forced to consider the very best way to convey it. Writing sermons in manuscript form is my regular practice and I find myself now repeating phrases verbatim that were first conceived on paper in preparation for a sermon. These well thought out phrases become part of my daily speech and help me to articulate my thoughts on a particular subject in a logical manner without having to do the heavy work of carefully choosing my words as I am speaking.
The second reason I write sermons in manuscript is to capture it. Many preachers lose the use of their study by not capturing it in writing. As a pastor you may spend 8-12 hours or more per week in preparation for a sermon, jot your notes down in outline form or on a napkin, preach from it on Sunday and the file it loose it never to be used again. When you write your teaching out in a manuscript before presenting it you have the luxury of sharing it with others as an article, blog post or an email to a suffering church member. If you capture a series it can be used in the future as a small group study guide or even a book. Have you ever wondered how well known pastors have time to produce multiple books each year and still lead vibrant church ministries? It’s because they don’t waste their study, the capture it. Choose a system that works for you and force yourself to capture your study into a form that can be easily used in the future.
Get Feedback From Others
Most preachers I know get very little feedback from others concerning their presentation. If they do it’s in the form of an angry email or a self-appointed theological watchdog. Very rarely do pastors ask other theologically astute individuals or fellow elders to offer feedback. Pastors often critique themselves each week by watching the video or listening to the church’s podcast but I want to warn against this. I think feedback comes better from a faithful brother than from you. Never underestimate your ability to deceive yourself with pleasantries or to berate yourself with unnecessary self-criticism. If you are your own evaluator you will likely make assessments about yourself that you are not qualified to make. Since pastors also tend to spend time listening to and reading other pastors you will likely find the comparison game difficult to avoid. British theologian and Pastor John Stott encourages pastors to avoid this listing to and watching themselves:
“If you look at yourself in the mirror, and listen to yourself on tape, or do both simultaneously on videotape, I fear you may find that you continue to look at yourself and listen to yourself when you are in the pulpit. In that case you will condemn yourself to the cramping bondage of preoccupation with yourself just at the time when, in the pulpit, it is essential to cultivate self-forgetfulness through a growing awareness of the God for whom and the people to whom you are speaking. I know actors make use of glass and tape, but preachers are not actors, nor is the pulpit at a stage. So beware! It may be more valuable to ask a friend to be candid with you about your voice and mannerisms, especially if they need correction. An Indian proverb says “He who has a good friend needs no mirror.” Then you can be yourself and forget yourself” – The Cross of Christ p. 338
Avoid Excessive Commentary Use
Commentaries are tremendous resources for the pastor and should be used to the extent that they are helpful. But commentaries are a late game activity. Early in your study your time is best spent in the text itself. Reading and re-reading the text allows you to marinate in it, to consider, and reflect it’s implications. Study the words in the text to insure that you understand their meaning and biblical usage and search for themes. Remember that you are preaching to see transformation not to convey information. Information alone will not produce the outcome you desire. Give yourself to meditation and reflection, allow yourself an some measure of reflection. If you do this you will notice that the text will come alive to you throughout the week and God will teach you lessons concerning the text as you go about business as usual.
I begin reading the passage for Sunday’s sermon very early in the week. By Tuesday or Wednesday I have moved on to studying the words and doing the necessary language work to understand the text. I talk about the passage with other Christians and ask questions of the text, sometimes a read a book on the theme of the text. By the end of the week it’s time to start writing the manuscript. Only after I am well underway on that do I peek into commentaries to hear how others have interpreted. Most of the time, I find that I have come to similar conclusions about the passage as theologians I respect. Periodically I will find something I totally missed and add it to my manuscript. Either way I have personally experienced the text and can speak about it with first hand knowledge.
Personal Study vs. Sermon Preparation
I have often been warned of the danger of mixing my personal study and reflection of God’s word with my preparation for an upcoming engagement and I want to publicly admit that I have completely rejected that advice. The fact is, when I am preparing to teach I find I do a much better job when I am personally connected with the text. What I mean is that, if in recent days God has ministered to me through a text or taught me some glorious truth about his Son, I am noticeably better at preaching it. So when I’m preparing to preach the Sermon on the Mount… that’s what you’ll find me reflecting on and it’s not a sin no matter what your hermeneutics professor says. The sin is preaching a text that you have only interacted with on an intellectual level.