By Jess Hall Jr.
Sermon preparation is to the preacher what meal preparation is to the homemaker — no sooner is one prepared and served than it is all to do over again. How old it gets. How can I prepare something fresh? Something that they will like? Something that will provide a balanced diet? How can essential but distasteful dietary elements be palatably prepared but still retain essential vitamins and minerals? Fortunately for the homemaker, there are recipe books and meal planning aids that enable her to keep attractive and nutritious meals on the table and still keep the house clean and run the family taxi. But what does the preacher do? A sermon outline book provides skeletal information and organization for themes selected by someone else for other people and other occasions. Commentaries provide more than skeletal information, but it is neither organized for a sermon nor adapted to a specific audience. How can the preacher prepare two sermons week after week, month after month, year after year, and maintain his congregation's appetite and spiritual health?
While there are many aspects of sermon preparation that vary from preacher to preacher and even from sermon to sermon, there is one immutable rule — a price must be paid; the preacher must be dedicated to the task. It must be his first priority. The sculpting of the sermon is the work of an artist. All preachers can dream of great sermons; it requires love's labor to make that dream come true. The preacher must constantly keep the sermon seed in his mind, water it, weed it, nourish it, sweat over it until the wording is precise and persuasive, and then get it in his mind (harvest it) for preaching. There are no shortcuts. There are no substitutes. The price must be paid. The only question is whether the preacher will pay it in preparation or the congregation will pay it in listening.
Sermon preparation is the preacher's first priority. He has no higher duty. It is the air he breathes, the food upon his table, the lifeblood in his veins. Great preaching is the result of great study. Success in preaching is no different than success in any area — 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. Great football coaches may owe some success to the inspiration of game day, but if there is no game plan, no discipline, or no execution of the game plan, then there is only a group of inspired losers. As many a fired coach will testify, adrenaline provides inspiration, not illumination.
If a preacher preaches to 300 people on a given Sunday morning for 30 minutes, he occupies 150 person hours of time. That is a little over 6, 24 hour days or almost 19 eight-hour workdays. What right does any preacher have to step into the pulpit and consume such time without adequate preparation? An unprepared preacher steals time. It is no wonder that Paul exhorted the young preacher Timothy that he must "give diligence" ("study," KJV) to be a workman who did not need to be ashamed.
Certainly preachers will more easily find preparation time in some weeks than in others. Some weeks the sermon will almost leap into the mind without the intermediation of long hours of study. Such serendipity will be more than balanced by the occasions when the river of originality turns into a desert. Carroll Ellis, who was chairman of the speech department at David Lipscomb University and an outstanding preacher, once said that the preacher ought to be permitted to get in the pulpit on occasion and say, "Brethren, this morning I have nothing to say." Probably every preacher has sometimes felt that way. If he has not adequately prepared, he says the same thing in different words. It just takes him longer.
Published July 1996