[Author's Note: In writing this article I in no way consider myself to have "arrived" in the area of sermon preparation. Though I have taught and coached others, I find I am still learning after twenty nine years of experience. I'm not a novice, however, and I've learned some helpful things over the years. It is in a spirit of humility and a sense of awesome respect for the notion that any mortal would attempt to speak on behalf of God that I offer these words.]
"Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching. Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed upon you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery. Take pains with these things; *be absorbed in them*, so that your progress may be evident to all. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you." 1 Timothy 4:13-16 (NAS)
Early in my ministry I often made the observation to myself and a few trusted confidants, "I love to preach, but I hate preparing sermons." In a calling that demands preparation of something entirely new and interesting several times each week, this attitude presented no small difficulty. Weekly sermon preparation for me consisted of hours of frantically reading through the Bible, fretting over what to preach, desperate prayers, rifling through mountains of unorganized material, then many hours bent over a typewriter (Ah, the good old days!) in a race against the clock. By Friday or Saturday I was nervous and irritable. The trash can in the corner of the room blossomed with crumpled sheets of typing paper - aborted attempts and false starts. I was frequently wakened in the middle of the night by the same nightmare in which I got up to the pulpit on Sunday morning before hundreds of people and had nothing to say. While many reading this article may not have experienced such extreme levels of difficulty, I suspect that sermon preparation is, at its very best, challenging for most. To the uninitiated, I have often compared it to writing a sizable segment of a term paper in college once a week.
Today things are different for me. No, I cannot say it is easy. Worthwhile things seldom are, but I can honestly say that I look forward to the process of sermon preparation. Provided I get a good start early in the week and don't have to be rushed at the last minute, I have a pleasant routine that I can live with and that allows others (such as a long suffering wife) to live in peace with me. What changed things? I'll share what I've learned in the three parts of this article.
Of course experience is a good teacher. As a "seasoned citizen," I am much more proficient than when I first started preaching. There is hope for the younger preacher in this. The years of struggle pay off. It does get easier, if one works hard, with nothing more than the passing of the years in the pulpit.
If you've read this far, though, I suspect you're looking for a more immediate solution. What follows is a collection of concepts and practices that have proven helpful to me and delivered me from the drudgery of sermon preparation.
Plan for uninterrupted preparation time.
"Hello. You've reached Westside Church of Christ. If you wish to speak to our minister, please press one. If you wish to speak to our on-staff counselor, please press one. If you wish to speak to our director of evangelism, please press one. If you wish to speak to our director of missions, please press one. If you wish to speak to our church secretary, custodian, or our complaint department, please press one. For all other requests, please press one."
The modern minister, especially in the smaller church, wears many hats. Preaching and preparing sermons is only part of what is expected. Counselor, C.E.O., evangelist, personal confidant of many, and administrator, are just some of the items in the job description. My experience has been that two or three hours of preparation can turn into a full day of start and stop frustration. This calls for a strategy that puts one out of the way of people who drop in unexpectedly just to pass the time. For me, it means getting away from the church office for larger blocks of time earlier in the week. When my children were small and at home, I would take my Bible, notebook, and selected study items and head for the local public library where I squirreled away at a back-corner table for the first half of the day. After lunch I headed for the office where I managed appointments or continued to study as I could. Two evenings a week were spent calling on people whom I couldn't see during the day.
Today with the children grown and out of the home, I maintain a second office at my residence, stocked with books, supplies, and a second computer. Most of my sermon work is done here in the early hours of the day. I find I work far more efficiently in the morning, after exercise, a shower, and a light breakfast.
Probably the thing that helped me most was scheduling my study time just as I did my appointments. I blocked it out on my calendar. If someone asked to see me during my preparation time, unless it was an emergency, I replied that I had an appointment, but could see them later in the day or week. Few people ever had any problem with this. Having my sermons in hand by Wednesday or Thursday puts me at the top of my game. There's no feeling quite like it! The best sermons are born during times of contemplation. If you are going to speak for God, you need to make the time to prepare.
I know one minister who does not even come in to his church office on Monday and Tuesday. This time is used for uninterrupted preparation of sermons and lessons. When he hits the office on Wednesday, he is ready for whatever might come, confident he will not be forced to stay up half the night on Saturday preparing what should have already been done, then struggling with an energy deficit on the Lord's day.
If you are not doing it yet, block out your study time on your calendar and guard it. Consider this: Spending 30-40 minutes addressing the whole church on Sunday morning is probably the most efficient thing you do all week. You could never speak efficiently to so many people in any other context.
Get a good personal computer and learn to use it.
I cannot say enough about how the computer has added to my sermon preparation, both in efficiency and added effectiveness. I own several of them (I use Windows machines and am largely unfamiliar with other types) and would not want to go back to life without them. Technology has advanced sufficiently where an adequately powered laptop is a good all around choice if you must be limited to one machine. After the procurement of a personal computer, the choice of software determines how useful the machine becomes in sermon preparation. The following categories of software are most helpful:
This is the basic function a minister will use most. A good word processor and an efficient typing speed along with the standard cut and paste abilities make outline and/or manuscript preparation much easier. (I type 80-100 wpm. If you cannot type quickly, take a typing course. It's worth it.) I try to stay on the cutting edge of word processing technology. If I'm going to upgrade any piece of software, it will nearly always be the word processor first. Often, in the preparation of lessons, I need only to write the text and "pour" it into my standard lesson form. I used WordPerfect for many years with great benefit. Today I use Microsoft Word. It is an excellent program that I have diligently upgraded as it improves. It is also available as part of the larger and more extensive Microsoft Office.
Because of the ability to keep files on disk, as your sermons collect, they can be there for you at a moments notice. You can search through them by title, topic, or full string text search. May I say here, too, that if you store your work on disk and don't have a backup, it is only a matter of time until you will regret the day you tried to save a few dollars by not purchasing the necessary backup hardware and software.
As a professional you need professional equipment. If you cannot afford a shrink wrapped word processing product, check out one of those available as shareware or even freeware. If I were looking for a no-cost word processor I would probably use Writer which is a part of the free Open Office Suite. This is an "open source" program developed by many programmers cooperating to produce a high quality product. It is compatible with Microsoft Office. The suite contains the following components:
Writer (Word Processor - Similar to Microsoft Word)
Impress (Slide Show Builder/Presenter - Similar to PowerPoint)
Math (For building mathematics equations)
Draw (Graphics Creation)
The newest Bible study software programs are truly remarkable. Searches that used to take days now take seconds. Multiple translations can be consulted or searched at the click of a mouse. Greek and Hebrew study has been greatly simplified. Many of the standard reference works for Bible study are coming out for use with the computer. Text in both English and the original languages can be cut and pasted right onto the pages of your sermon. My research is not only quicker, I also am more willing to search out issues that before would have been too time consuming. In a matter of a few minutes I can read the verses that contain every occurrence of a specific word in the entire English translation.
I presently use Biblesoft's PC Study Bible for most of my work. I have also used other Bible programs but this one is most familiar to me. I have used PC Study Bible since its earliest release and have diligently upgraded as it developed. It fits like a comfortable shoe. I seldom even have to think about what my fingers are doing as I study. A person should take the time to master the few programs he really uses in study.
If you don't have a Bible program, get one. If money is tight, there are several available as shareware or even freeware. The free Bible program I recommend is E-Sword. It is a robust program that is diligently upgraded with more modules added regularly. And did I say it is free?
More coming in Part 2.
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