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Finding Sermon Subjects

By Jess Hall Jr.

religion, articles, christianity

Sunday is over; two sermons have been preached; there's no time for rest; it's time to begin again. What shall I preach on next Sunday? With a dread that stifles both spirit and imagination, the preacher, head down and back slumped, trudges to the study wondering why his creative incubator seems to lay more eggs than it hatches.

Why do some preachers have more subjects than they can preach on in a lifetime, while others search for hours, find nothing, and, like George Eliot's Maynard Gilfil, resort to a stack of yellowed sermon outlines, selecting two in order without reference to topics or the needs of his hearers? (Scenes of Clerical Life, Penguin, 1973.) The need for two sermons every week can demoralize the preacher and result in "Saturday night specials" that are more deadly than the handguns that bear that name. How are sermon subjects found?

First, good sermon subjects are seldom found while looking for them. The preacher may be reading Scripture, he may be reading some book, he may be listening to conversations on a bus, he may be fishing, hunting, or golfing, but, with a mind that is attuned to the needs of his hearers, a subject leaps off of the page or out of the conversation, and he says, "That is what people need to hear."

Second, the preacher is always ready to record the product of the creative spark. He may carry a small notebook, a 3X5 card, or a small recorder, but whatever device he chooses, he doesn't let a moment pass before he records the thought, perhaps adding other thoughts when he can. Then, without fail, the sermon idea finds its way into a filing system where it awaits its selection. A filing system not only preserves ideas that would otherwise be forgotten, it provides time for ideas to mature and grow. The filing system may range from a loosely organized alphabetized-by-subject filing of the 3X5 cards or others scraps of paper on which thoughts have been hastily scribbled, to a sophisticated computer data base, but the important factor is that there is some system of meaningful recall that makes the information useful.

Third, the preacher plans his sermons in advance. The pressure of the last minute strangles creation. Last minute preparation is no more likely to produce well-balanced nutritional sermons than a housewife can produce well-balanced nutritional meals by going into the pantry at 5:30 and staring blankly at its contents trying to find something that she can have on the table by 6:00. Last-minute preparation is most apt to wind up feeding those who are hungering after righteousness with spiritual junk food! Advance planning eliminates the arduous time spent searching for a subject. It reduces the likelihood of preaching on the same subject. Late preparation gives birth to repetition because it is easier for the preacher to deal with his pet peeve or favorite subject than with what the congregation needs to hear. It has been said that a business man who fails to plan plans to fail. Is it any different for the preacher?

Advance planning provides time for the sermon to ripen and mature. Events observed, papers, magazines, and books read provide information and illustrations that enliven a sermon just as spices enliven a gourmet dish. The observant preacher will find more material accidentally while the sermon is "in the oven" than he will on purpose when time is short and preparation is forced. Thus, he will be less likely to regurgitate stale thoughts from old sermons or sermon outline books.

Advance planning provides time for the preacher to consider carefully his approach to his subject. Is his approach designed to demonstrate his cleverness or to help his hearers? The greatness of a sermon comes not from the cleverness of the idea behind it, but from its ability to "strengthen ... the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees" (Isa. 35:3) of the hearers.

Finally, planning enables the preacher to announce his subjects in advance. Knowing the subjects enables the congregation to be alert to comments, questions, and needs of neighbors and to invite their neighbors when the sermon subject and the neighbor's interests coincide. Additionally, it enables the song leader to select hymns that complement the sermon, giving both the sermon and the songs added meaning.

Sunday is over; two sermons have been preached; there's no time for rest; it's time to begin again. What shall I preach on next Sunday? No problem. I've been planning it for weeks.

Published September 1996