I am asked this quite a bit. As the minister of a local church, a sermon comes along every week. There’s certainly an excitement to preaching and terror. To think that Jesus Christ is going to speak through my words befuddles me and sends me to my knees each week as I prepare. It is a holy mystery.
The more I have worked to figure out this craft the more I realize how much I need God. This task is too great on our own. To help situate this conversation, I can offer some questions and comments that people have offered me over the years.
“How do you come up with your illustrations?”
I have learned to collect stories. Jesus told stories. Stories capture our attention and help us find our place in the gospel. I write down some of these stories from my own experience. If you’re near a minister on Thursday afternoon be careful what you say or do. You might end up in the sermon. I keep journals and try my best to write down a story or two each week. I realize I will likely only use one out of every ten stories I write down. Sometimes that’s how writing goes. Some of the writing is just terrible and the stories bland but you got to write them anyway until you find the good stuff you’re trying to say even though you didn’t know the story was there to write.
I have also learned from friends to read a lot. In fact, that’s a goal of mine this year. Read a book each week. I have friends who do a much better job than me. I get caught up in the grunt work of church life. However, every time I read a book, a new idea emerges, a new word or phrase strikes the ear. Ernest Hemingway would write early in the morning and read in the afternoon. He believed his best writing occurred when his mind was rested. Reading in the afternoon refilled his writing well after he poured his heart and soul into writing throughout the day. If I read a good illustration in a book, I’m quick to save it in a digital file and categorize it by subject matter.
“What happens if you something big occurs in the world on Saturday night? Do you have to rewrite your sermon?”
I have certainly had to rewrite a sermon on Saturday. To be honest, it is grueling. Imagine spending 10-15 hours on a sermon draft throughout the week and then learn on Saturday night about a deadly shooting in the area. Of course, you want to speak to the tragedy and help people make Biblical sense of it, but it’s still hard. I remember several times tucking in for bed and checking my phone one last time and there’s news of a deadly protest. In those moments, I’m not sure of the details, but you feel the pressure to speak out one way or the other. I read the social media lines, “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough.” But the reality is that all I know is what I have heard reported and the reports keep changing. It’s a hard situation to be sure, especially when preaching God’s word requires so much prayer and discernment. During the pandemic, I had to re-film a sermon on several occasions. The last thing you want to feel on Sunday morning is irrelevant. If everyone else in the congregation is talking about a deadly shooting, it seems irresponsible to say nothing. In these moments, you just do your best and try to respond faithfully.
“When do you write?”
Everyone is different, but I usually prepare two hours each morning throughout the week. That’s the goal, but then January hits and there are so many meetings and end of year reports in the fourth week of January that it makes keeping this rhythm a challenge. I try to have the sermon done by Saturday morning. I’ll use Saturday evening to learn it by heart and add last minutes touches.
“Do you stick to your manuscript when you preach?”
I typically try not to bring the manuscript into the pulpit, but lately I have brought notes. The best part about not using a manuscript is that I feel more connected to the congregation with eye contact. I can tell a story more naturally. On the flip side, the good part about using notes or a manuscript is you can present your message more succinctly and with eloquence. (I have never heard a paraphrased Shakespeare play. The power is in the eloquence of the words). I really don’t like paraphrasing the scriptures so it’s nice to refer directly to the passage. In all, I prefer not using notes, but it requires a lot more time to learn it.
“Why do you even prepare? Shouldn’t you just get up there on Sunday morning and let the Holy Spirit speak through you?”
This line of thinking makes sense in some situations. I think about the women at the tomb of Jesus on Easter. They heard the news that Jesus was risen. They sprinted to proclaim the Easter news to the disciples. The gospel writers never said the women stopped at a coffee shop and prepared their Easter sermon to be delivered that night. No, they ran and testified to the risen Christ while in their moment of terror and joy. And sometimes, that simple, raw and honest proclamation is best. But if you ask most ministers, we put a lot more time into the Easter sermon.
I’ve preached on several occasions without much preparation and the sermon suffered. I have noticed that my reasons for preaching without preparation have little to do with theology. It’s simply a matter of will. When I’m not feeling motivated to write a sermon, I will refer to Matthew 10:19-21, “Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” It’s proof-texting at its best. It’s searching the scriptures to justify how you’re feeling. An unprepared sermon is a nightmare for the preacher and the congregant. I have heard it said, “You can suffer now and prepare the sermon or suffer later by not preparing it.”
“Are there any tricks of the trade?”
Of course. I have had the good fortune of learning from good speakers and writers. The famous southern writer Terry Kay was a member of a church I served when I was an associate pastor. Our senior minister invited him to meet with us about writing for worship services. In front of the other ministers Terry said to me, “Will, your pastoral prayers are monotonous.” “Glad to meet you too,” I thought. He said, “But they are wonderful prayers. Here’s a small tip. Vary your sentence length. If all the sentences are the same length, it lulls the listener to sleep. Start with a short sentence. A one word sentence. Like this. Breathe. Pause. Let them relax. Remind them of the beauty of a human embrace. Then they are prepared for a long dance of a sentence that waltzes to music and stirs their hearts.” I got the idea. He became a dear friend.
I once heard a comedian give a tip about responding to laughter. He advised that when an audience/congregation laughs at a funny moment, let the laughter almost die, but then start your next sentence before it does. That way you don’t lose the momentum.
There are plenty of others. It may sound too technical and gimmicky for someone delivering the word of God, but I also remember Acts 7:22: “So Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his words.” Moses, too, learned the tricks of the trade in order to glorify God in his speech.
Preaching is miraculous work. I marvel when a young man tells me after the sermon that it was like God was speaking directly to him as I preached about the call of the first disciples. You learn to accept the criticism too although it’s never easy. One person told me, “You’re preaching fluff. It’s all too spiritual. I need my preacher to talk about (insert relevant social topic).” Others have said, “That was too political” while others said, “That was not political enough” about the same sermon.
To all the preachers out there, let’s be encouraged and keep at it. Through our words Jesus gets up, walks around our sanctuaries, taps people on the shoulder and says, “Hey you, I got a new path for your life. Come follow me. There’s a world out there that needs saving. I need you to help.”