For many people in our congregations how their pastor prepares his sermon is a mystery. How does he, week after week, prepare the sermon he will preach Sunday morning? Where does the sermon come from? How are they prepared?
The craft of sermon writing isn’t something I hear many pastors discuss at our monthly Winkels and it’s rarely a topic that emerges at pastoral conferences. When I ask my brothers how they go about writing sermons their typical response is, “This is the way I’ve always done it …” What follows could be a cut and paste version of “How To Make An American Quilt: The Sermon Writing Edition.”
To that point, I have little respect for lazy preachers who rarely, if ever, spend any time honing their craft; they don’t consider that prayer, translation and exegesis, catechesis, and personal discipline are important aspects of crafting a sermon. Instead, week after week they work “off-the-cuff” from an outline. They print off someone else’s sermon then claim it as their own. They search the internet for sermons. They subscribe to sermon clubs that provide them with weekly [relevant] illustrations for their sermons. They buy sermon outline books. They don’t respect the craft of sermon writing so they approach sermon preparation as simply another part of their schedule. “It has to get done and I only have so much time to get it done in!” Thus, when they run short on time and suffer blockage? They go hunting for another sermon that they can claim for themselves.
In my experience, pastors who take seriously the discipline of sermon writing, who deliberately hone their craft, have become a dwindling group in our church.
Four basic principles I use when I begin writing Sunday’s sermon are:
1) Make Christ the subject of the verb.
2) Name the hearer as the direct object.
3) Preach unconditionally.
4) The Gospel is present tense.
Beyond these, there’s the process. The crafting. The writing. Taking aim at the ‘nuts and bolts’ of sermon preparation. Oftentimes seriously. Sometimes with tongue planted firmly in cheek. With that in mind here are five ruminations on the craft of sermon writing.
1) A cruciform sermon, because it necessarily confronts the old Adam in the throes of Spirit-wrought faith, is a mix of beautiful poetic rhythm and over-the-top gonzo insanity.
2) Lack of confidence leads young pastors (and many not-so-young) to get too caught up in perfectionism—they have to alight on every doctrine, get everything just right, so they can’t enjoy the craft of sermon writing. Instead of plowing through the first draft, just getting it down and being satisfied to make it to the “Amen,” they get hung up trying to make everything right, which leads to writer’s block and frustration.
3) It’s a little paradoxical, isn’t it? In some ways it feels like you’re just channeling and this is a divine process, but in others, it’s very cut and dry. “That won’t do at all,” you think, “I can’t preach that.” You’ve got to honor the thesis in the first draft, but be able to go back and do what the text of Scripture demands in later drafts. The Scripture reigns and the Scripture wins every time.
4) You have to love words and love the process of writing, because sometimes you end up throwing the whole sermon away and that’s all you have. You also have to love exegesis, catechesis, assertions, preaching Christ as the subject of every verb, and you’ve got to love this world—God’s world—the world He died to save that you’re now preaching to. Sermons that endure have all these loves.
5) But what if you’re blocked? You’re blocked because you have nothing to say. It’s not about your talent abandoning you. If you have something to say, some axe to grind, you can’t preach the text. You can’t kill your talent, but you can starve your hearers into a coma through ignorance … Pray. Do exegesis. Feed your sheep.