When Does Sermon Preparation Begin?
By Jess Hall Jr.
In giving the limited commission, Jesus told his disciples that they did not need to "take thought" about what they would say when they were delivered up because he would give it to them in that hour. Given the agonizing hours that preachers spend just in determining the subject upon which they shall preach, not to mention the additional hours in developing that subject, being "delivered up" may seem to some a small price to pay for receiving sermons without having to "take thought." Could it be that, for many, preparation is made more difficult than it should be because it starts too late?
Sermon preparation begins long before that moment when the preacher retires to his study to put pen to paper. The preacher who does not understand this will find that time spent in the study is a dreadful and depressing experience. Sermon preparation begins with the preacher's heart — how he lives; involves the preacher's ears — how he listens; and considers the preacher's congregation — how he loves.
Preparation begins with the life of the preacher. That which comes from the preacher's heart is more apt to go to the hearer's heart. The preacher cannot share what he does not possess; he cannot reveal what he has not seen. Lives cannot be changed by eloquent hearsay. Isaiah was a great preacher because his eyes had seen the King, the Lord of Hosts (Isa. 6:5). The apostles were great preachers because
they preached that which they had seen and heard. (1 John 1:1-3). Their preaching was not a theoretical dictum but a declaration; it was not an argument but an announcement; it was not propaganda but an infecting contagious proclamation that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.
Once the preacher has the fire of God burning within him, it is time to listen to the sounds of life. Understand people; understand what is happening in the world; understand the circumstances in which people find themselves; understand the relation of God's Word to both the people and the world. Like a mighty Colossus, with one foot in God's Word and the other in God's world, the preacher brings the Word of God to bear upon the needs of man.
Finally, before a preacher puts pen to paper, he needs to love his hearers. He needs to place himself in their place. He needs to stand in the pulpit in an empty building, see the folks who will worship there Sunday, and ask what will help them in their struggles. Can the preacher who honestly loves his hearers really conclude that they will be helped by a debate over the authorship of some biblical book, a browbeating about the preacher's pet peeve, or a lecture on the technicalities of the Greek or Hebrew? Can the preacher who honestly loves his hearers really conclude that they will be helped by doctrine without application?
The efficacy of preaching diminishes in relationship to the size of the "great gulf fixed" between the preacher and the pew. According to one poll, common complaints about sermons from hearers were: 1) too many complex ideas; 2) too much analysis and too little answers; 3) too formal and too impersonal; 4) too much theological jargon; 5) too propositional and too few illustrations; and 6) too many sermons reach a dead end and give no guidance to commitment and action. These are problems that can't be solved without preparation prior to retiring to the study.
The gospel addresses and assumes the forms of real people's lives or it does not exist at all. It is not theoretical or academic; it is blood and bone, gut and marrow. It speaks to human hurts and hopes, to specific needs and possibilities, or it does not speak at all (John Killenger, Fundamentals of Preaching, Fortress Press, 1985, p. 23).
(Editor's musing: In nothing do we deal more directly with the needs of people than when we affirm the death of Christ, the blood of the cross, the nature of the church, the plan of salvation, and the hope of heaven. Peter's magnificent sermon on Pentecost day is a perfect example of good preaching because he spoke as the Spirit gave him utterance. You can't beat inspiration.)
Published August 1996