Preaching, 101

Among the questions I get from church members quite regularly are ones that relate to my preaching. "How do you prepare?", people ask. “How long does it take? Do you practice in an empty sanctuary or in front of a mirror? Are you disappointed when no one responds publicly during the invitation song?”

I take all of this as sincere interest, although I realize it is possible that the questioner is merely trying to be polite. What else can you talk about with a preacher? But if you really want to know...

In no particular order, this is the gist of my response to queries about my method of sermonizing--

The simple answer as to how long it takes to prepare a sermon is this: It has taken a lifetime. And that's no exaggeration, either. Every message, in one way or another, is shaped by experiences I've had, books I've read, successes and failures I've had along the way. And from sermons I have preached before on the same subject (yes—some do sound familiar, don't they?) I never start from zero but draw from deep in the well of my own life. So, hopefully, I have more of worth to share now than I did nearly fifty years ago with my earliest attempts.

But—focused preparation for the particular sermon you just heard on Sunday started in earnest the Monday morning before.

First and foremost, comes the scriptural text. I read and re-read it dozens of times until I think I understand what it meant when first written, and what it means for today. I keep in mind the wise rule: "It cannot mean what it never meant"—and I want to get that nailed down before going any further. Copious notes are scribbled in my Moleskine notebook.

Then, I try to craft my presentation as a reasonable conversation among friends. A logical progression of information, conclusion, and persuasion. A skeletal outline takes shape and grows more extensive as the week progresses. Of course, bottom line:  I want something to happen—I want to see minds, hearts and lives changed as a result.

Last of all, I add the stories, illustrations, and quotations—windows to let more light come in and shine through. A way to capture interest as I'm getting started. These are heavy on history, as you may have noticed, because that's a love of mine and what I studied in the university. Also—pop culture, if I can keep up with it, in an attempt to connect with a younger crowd. And lines from great literature—my attempt to bolster the efforts of high school English teachers. Shakespeare, Twain, and Hemingway do matter.

When my son was growing up at home, I would regularly drop into the sermon expressions, Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dave Matthews Band lyrics, things he was interested in at the time. Few would notice the slight aside, but I did it to keep him engaged during church. Also, to see the spark of recognition in his eyes—that he knew I was thinking of him at that precise moment.

To this day I will still do that for certain people.

No, I do not practice the sermon out loud on Saturday. But I look over my sparse notes (that outline, not a manuscript) many times and commit it to memory. The phrases and transitions. I will practice a story I'm going to be telling—just to get the timing and word order right, making sure that every word is pulling i's weight and carrying freight. I do it at dinner with friends or in casual conversation—you usually won't even realize what is happening. Trial balloons, I call them.

I'm hearing the full sermon for the first time at the same moment you are.

The entire thing—from start to finish—is bathed in prayer, of course.

A lot of folks express concern for me when I have poured out my heart and yet no one has publicly responded to the gospel call. Do I walk away discouraged or depressed, they wonder?

Well, maybe when I was younger, just starting out. These days, though, I have learned to take the long view. Of course, I want to see decisions for Christ—but I have to believe that it is happening, or starting to happen, even if no one steps into the aisle. God's Word accomplishes its purpose and does not return empty (Isaiah 55:11). Seed is sown and now must take its root. I'm like the tree farmer I met the other day.

And besides, hundreds of people outside the sanctuary are watching and listening, too. All over the country and around the world. I imagine them in my head as I preach. Who knows what's going on in all of those other places?

Thank you for listening so faithfully each week, and for giving me the rare privilege to speak into your life. I want you to know that I take it quite seriously. And thanks for letting me pull back the curtain just a bit to show you how I go about the task.

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