Every preacher has had the frustrating experience of coming home on Sunday afternoon, upset with themselves because of their presentation.
Having preached multiple times almost every week since November, 1992, I know this frustration. I suppose I have delivered somewhere between 3,500 – 5,000 sermons over these 28 years. From this journey, I want to encourage preachers not to be over-prepared.
Here is where preachers over-prepare
In my experience, younger (or newer) preachers over-prepare in the area of presentation.
They prepare pristine outlines. They prepare introductions, transition sentences, illustrations that will lift the heart (or bring down the rafters), application that will elicit a hearty AMEN, a smooth transition to soft music and closing prayer. They prepare perfectly crafted sentences that would make even Rudyard Kipling proud.
With all this preparation, they prepare a multi-page manuscript worthy of a post-graduate term-paper. Then they practice (though they may or may not use that word), sometimes hours on end. They work to get just the right inflection. The pregnant pause. The melodious rhythm, the cadence of a pulpitieer, the tone of a counselor, the mind of a scholar, the voice of an angel.
And then, in the fervor of the moment, that sentence that sounded so good got jumbled. And that thought that was so key got lost. And that perfect illustration fell flat.
Seminary taught this over-preparation of presentation. Seminary professors notoriously are book-smart, but short on experience. Sure, many preaching professors preach almost every week, but it is often the same few sermons. Rarely are they required to teach 1, 2, or 3 sermons of new material to the same crowd week after week. So they teach explanation, illustration, and application as a requirement for every sermon…and the “must-have” manuscript.
In truth, the explanation, illustration, and application method of preaching is old garbage that needs to be tossed out (it was perhaps fresh when John Broadus and Basil Manly taught it in the last quarter of the 1800s). While you’re tossing stuff out, get rid of that manuscript too. It isn’t helping you, it’s hurting. It’s a heavy weight you don’t need.
Here is where you should prepare
Other than the most inexperienced of preachers, you don’t need to prepare for your presentation beyond a simple outline for the congregation to use as a listener’s aid.
So spend your preparation time in learning the content of the Scripture passage you are going to teach. To do this right often takes many hours. Even after studying the Word of God for almost three-decades as a preacher, I have to spend hours studying the text I am going to preach.
When the preacher spends time learning the Word, several wonderful things happen.
- The text itself becomes the preachers notes. Outside of writing down some cross-references or some technical issues, the preacher can look at the page of Scripture and preach his sermon.
- The sermon comes from the overflow of study. The preacher knows the context, the grammar, the history, the personalities and places, the words, the cross-references, and so much more. From this, when he looks at the text, a wealth of knowledge begins to flow in his mind, and out of his mouth!
- The illustrations and applications (if any) are secondary (where they belong) and spontaneous, making the sermon much more natural in presentation.
In the study of the text, I rarely consult commentaries. When preachers read every commentary on the text, their sermons become a string of quotes by others. This makes for a boring sermon. I spend my study time getting to know the text itself. A preacher can do this with some very simple tools: a Bible, a concordance, a cross-reference aid.
If the preachers mind is filled with knowledge of the text, when the time comes to start preaching, the sermon will start flowing, and the preacher will go home satisfied that he helped his congregation learn the scripture rather than learn his “three points and a poem.”
What to do if you are an over-preparer
One of the hardest things I ever did in preaching was to get rid of my manuscript, and even my notes all-together. Only when I learned how to prepare for the sermon was I able to shed the notes. If you are an over-preparer, the secret to overcoming this problem is not to change your presentation habits, but to change your study habits.
Here are a few things that may help:
- Become a verse-by-verse preacher rather than a topical preacher. If you preach topics, then you can’t just open the Word of God and have your study-notes all-but-embedded within the text itself.
- Remind yourself that you are fully capable of carrying on a conversation, especially on things you are knowledgeable about. Look at the sermon as an opportunity to have a conversation about something you know something about!
- Learn to study the Word with no resources other than the Bible and linguistic and cross-reference aids.
- Study with the aim of being an expert on the text before you. Then, once you are as much of an expert as the study time will allow, stand in the pulpit and work your way through the text, word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase or oracle-by-oracle, as the genre demands.
In the end, rejoice in this good news: it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe (1 Cor. 1:21).