The Art and Science of Sermon Preparation: Planning Ahead

“Habitually to come into the pulpit unprepared is unpardonable presumption.” — Charles Spurgeon

ImageThere seems to be an assumption amongst many that sermons form themselves as the preacher stands in the pulpit.  We preachers are often asked, half-jokingly, what we do with the rest of our weeks.  While a clergyman has many duties, I suggest to my brother priests that the lion’s share of the week ought to be spent preparing Sunday’s sermon: prayer, meditation, prayer, study, prayer, composition, more prayer and only then, finally and after yet more prayer, stepping into the pulpit to deliver the sermon.  But what does that preparation entail more specifically?

Preparation ought to begin long before the week in which the sermon will be written and delivered.

Planning Ahead: Long Term

Planning ahead is relatively simple when preaching through the lectionary.  The lessons have already been determined.  There’s no need to sit down with the text to determine exactly what you’ll be preaching on.  That said, the lectionary has been purposely structured around themes that build on and interweave with each other.  The Church Year is best experienced by a congregation when the lectionary is preached purposefully and thoughtfully rather than as a series of disjointed texts with few, if any themes building from Sunday to Sunday.  (Note: Melville Scott’s “The Harmony of the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels” and Fred Lindemann’s “The Sermon and the Propers” are good starting places for the preacher looking for these unifying themes in the lectionary.)

If you’re preaching a series of sermons through a book of the Bible or part of a book, planning ahead involves a bit more work.  Some preachers are able to plan out an entire year of sermons with complete precision.  They’re able to take a book and, after reading through it with a sermon series in mind, plan out exactly what they’re going to preach and when.  More remarkably, I know a number of preachers who actually stick to the schedule.  I gave up hope long ago of ever being able to plan out my preaching schedule with anything like that kind of precision.  I do take a day or two to read through what I’ll be preaching on and as I’m reading, to make tentative notes as to how I think I’ll be likely to break the text into sermon-sized pieces.  I planned on preaching through First Corinthians in twenty-five sermons.  It took thirty-one.  On the other hand, I planned on seventy sermons for Genesis and it took only sixty.  Only when preaching through Psalm 119 did I manage to stick to me schedule, only because it was most natural to preach through one stanza each Sunday.

I often find it helpful to consult sermons on the Internet and in expositional commentaries as I break up the text for preaching.  It’s helpful to see how other preachers have broken it up in the past. That said, we need to be faithful to the literary integrity of the text and, at least from my observations, we preachers are notorious for chopping texts up in what may look like convenient pieces at first glance, but that ultimately undermine their narrative and literary integrity.  Consult a good commentary in addition to looking at what other preachers have done.  Between them you should find some balance.

Why plan so far ahead?  I find that it keeps my musicians happier with me.  They select service music a few weeks in advance and like to have a sense of what I’ll be preaching on.  I find it helpful to know where I’ll be in the “series” in relation to my personal holidays or time away and in relation to the major feasts of the year.  I’m currently preaching through Luke’s gospel and thanks to some advance planning I was able to start the series this past Advent.  The first several chapters of Luke lent themselves to the theme of Advent and then coincided with the lectionary Gospels of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons.

Planning ahead also helps your parishioners prepare themselves.  If you can give them a reasonably good sense of your preaching schedule, they’ll be able to prepare to hear the sermon by reading it at home during the week.  I even know some preachers who are very good at keeping to a schedule drawn up a year in advance who publish that schedule in a pamphlet that their parishioners can keep at home or in their Bibles.  Our planning ahead as preachers assists our parishioners to be good sermon listeners!

Planning ahead is also a must in terms of acquiring study resources.  The nearest seminary library to me is several hours away.  Not only that, but I also live on an Island and a trip to a seminary on the mainland isn’t just inconvenient, it’s also expensive.  I’ve tried to build a personal library of good resources to assist with my own study and research, but commentaries need to be purchased in advance and there are many resources that are only available in a good library.  Thankfully, my local library has a very helpful inter-library loan department.  While they can usually obtain just about anything I ask for, it typically takes about a month for anything to arrive.  I’m always skimming the biblical text and the commentaries about two months ahead of where I’m currently preaching, looking for the journal articles and other resources that I think I might need to deal with difficult issues in the text or just to allow for more thorough study.  If you live near a good library this may not be an issue for you, but if you have to rely on inter-library loans, you’ll need to plan ahead.

Thinking ahead also allows you to prepare well in advance to address difficult, thorny, and controversial issues that will arise as you preach through a text.  Some of these issues require more study than can be undertaken during the week before you preach on them.  Some issues you may have already studied in great depth, but one of the advantage of expository preaching is that it forces even the preacher to grow as he addresses subjects he hasn’t dealt with or pondered.  Before preaching through 1 Corinthians 11 on the subject of headship and women’s headcoverings I spent three months intensively studying the subject.  I spent even longer preparing to preach on spiritual gifts and to deal with all the controversial issues that have arisen around them in the last century.

Planning Ahead: Short Term

Preliminary long-term studies aside, I begin working with the text of my sermon at the end of the preceding week.  Typically, on Saturday afternoon I open the Prayer Book to the appropriate set of lessons or my English Bible to the appropriate text, pray for wisdom as I read, and then I’ll read the text through slowly several times.  I’ll usually then transition to the Greek or Hebrew text and read through another time or two.  My goal is simply to get the text in my head so that I can be thinking about it and meditating on it during my “weekend” and in preparation for serious study starting the next week.  As I read I keep a notepad handy and if anything jumps out at me that I want to make special note of I jot it down.  If I notice anything peculiar about the text or some words in Greek or Hebrew that I want to look into in more depth during my study I’ll take note of them too.  At this point, however, my goal isn’t “study”; it’s simply to get myself thinking about the text for the next few days.  If more things come to mind during those days, I may jot them down too.  I’ll be preaching on the current text on Sunday, but between Sunday afternoon and Wednesday, when I jump into my studies for the next sermon, I’ve got two-and-a-half days to ponder, meditate, and pray with the upcoming text.

In the next instalment we’ll look at what’s involved in a deeper study of the sermon text.

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“Genesis: An Expositional and Devotional Commentary” by William Klock

ImageThis new instalment in our series of expositional commentaries includes sixty chapters adapted from Fr. Bill’s recent series of sermons on Genesis.  In the early chapters of the book Fr. Bill focuses our attention on the place of Genesis within the context of ancient cosmology and history, showing that much of today’s “Origins Debate” misses the point of Genesis by imposing modern ideas onto an ancient text.  Instead of reading Genesis as an account of material origins, Fr. Bill reads it as ancient people would have—as an account of functional origins—showing the themes of God’s sovereignty and faithfulness and showing God confronting false gods and pagans on their own turf.  The rest of the book follows these themes of God’s sovereignty and faithfulness as they are put on display in the calling of Abraham and his family and as God works through them to restore fallen humanity to himself. This a book for everyone interested in learning from Genesis.  Its devotional insights will encourage a deeper faith in the God who actively sustains his Creation.  We also hope that it serves for preachers as an example of good biblical exposition, and also shows how we can address from the pulpit difficult and contentious matters of biblical interpretation with grace.

Image(Hardcover, 469 pages, US$30.00)

Image(Paperback, 469 pages, US$22.00)

Image(Electronic, epub format, US$8.99)

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7 Tips for My Younger Preacher Self

How many of us have ever wished that we could go back in time and impart the wisdom we have now to our younger selves as we embarked into the world of ministry?  On the Gospel Coalition blog today, Jeramie Rinne offers seven very practical tips to the rookie preacher in a post titled “7 Tips for My Younger Preacher Self“.  These are tips that all of us would do well to consider:

1. Preach the Word
2. Trust the Word
3. Preach Shorter Sermons
4. Talk Like a Normal Person
5. Work on Application
6. Get Feedback
7. Be Patient

I encourage everyone to read Rinne’s post to see how he fleshes out each of these pieces of excellent advice.

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“Baptism and Baptismal Regeneration” by Archibald Boyd

ImageThe Anglican Expositor is pleased to offer this reprint of Archibald Boyd’s classic treatise on Baptism and baptismal regeneration. This book might be little known but for its being mentioned in Ray Sutton’s Signed, Sealed, and Delivered. In fact, Boyd’s work underlies that of Sutton, who fleshes out in greater detail many of Boyd’s thoughts. Boyd was, himself, quite the controversialist in his day, writing extensively in defence of the Church of Ireland against the Presbyterians. This book, although written later in Boyd’s career, addresses many of the Presbyterian accusations against and critiques of the Prayer Book and its baptismal office. Boyd also addresses the criticism of infant baptism raised by the “credobaptists” who were on the rise in the 19th Century.

Boyd does an excellent job of demonstrating the soundly biblical nature of the Anglican baptismal office and of the effects and benefits of baptism, especially discussing at some length the proper and biblical understanding of baptismal regeneration—a concept condemned by many in his day (and ours) due not so much to a difference in doctrine, but to the evolving meaning of the term “regeneration”. Boyd closes the book with an excellent discussion of the Reformers and their understanding of the subject.

Originally printed in 1869, Boyd’s work is very readable and a very important contribution to our sacramental theology.

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu. (Hardcover, 272 pages, US$23.00)
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu. (Paperback, 272 pages, US$12.50)

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The Annotated Book of Common Prayer by John Henry Blunt

product_thumbnailIf you’ve browsed our Resources for Sunday library here at the Anglican Expositor, you’re probably familiar with John Henry Blunt’s commentary on the Epistles and Gospels.  We’re pleased to bring you this reprint of Blunt’s The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, the source for that commentary and one a treasure trove of historical, doctrinal, liturgical, and ritual commentary on the entire 1662 Book of Common Prayer.  This is not only a great resource for preachers, but is an essential volume for the study of Anglican liturgy and the classic Book of Common Prayer.

This reprint has been produced from fresh, quality scans of the final 1899 edition of the commentary and is printed in the original oversized format.

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu. (8.25″ x 10.75″ Casewrap Hardcover, 754 pages, US$48.00)

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An excellent article on the nature of preaching as God’s Word was posted today on The Gospel Coalition blog.  Anyabwile always has good insights to share on preaching, but his thoughts here are particularly good.  I’ve been working my way through Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics of late and had recently been pondering his assertion that proclamation of the biblical witness is truly God’s Word.  Anyabwile affirms this profound truth.

Something indescribable happens whenever we faithfully preach God’s word. God speaks, too. He speaks first. He speaks powerfully. He speaks presently. His voice rings true insofar as His word comes through. This mean the preacher never preaches alone when he preaches the Bible. This means the power of preaching derives from God, not the preacher. This means all preaching should be expositional. This means the preacher should put His trust in God and His Word. This means preaching is glorious!

Consider what it means that as preachers our words are God’s words.  Such knowledge drives me to my knees in prayer and motivates me to biblical faithfulness.  Read the full article here.

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“Christ did something or other, which, somehow or other, had some connexion or other with salvation.”

ImageIs the Gospel clear in our preaching?  Do we drive home the important doctrines of the faith from the pulpit?  Or do we preach a feel-good, non-confrontational, sentimental, and wishy-washy message of the goodness of God and the goodness of man?  I ran across this blog post at the Scriptorium on the life and preaching of F.W. Robertson and it caught my attention.  Robertson was popular in his day not because he was a preacher of hearty convictions, but because he was a hearty preacher of little conviction other than that those of hearty conviction were wrong.  As Sanders points out here, a lack of strong doctrinal truth in the pulpit often points to a lack of doctrinal truth being lived out in the life of the preacher.

F.W. Robertson (1816-1853) was the kind of preacher people spoke of in superlatives: Charles Dickens reportedly said that “”he was one of the greatest masters of elocution I ever knew. To hear Robertson read the church prayers was in itself a liberal education.” He was very popular in his day, and after his death (on this day, August 15) many volumes of his sermons sold briskly.

He started out as a fiery young evangelical of the type that read the journals of Henry Martyn and David Brainerd. Studying at Oxford, he ran up against the Tractarians with their own, competing radicalism. In the end, he developed into neither an Evangelical nor a Tractarian, deciding that both the low church and the high church were too committed to specific doctrines and forms. Robertson opted for a form of Romantic liberal theology, and preached it exquisitely.

The height of his popularity came during his curacy in Brighton, where he preached for six years, beginning in 1847 and lasting until his death, at Holy Trinity Church. The word spread abroad that a great preacher was in the land. Luminaries like Gladstone and Tillotson would go out of their way to hear his preaching.

In the last few years, new light has been shed on Robertson’s personal life. Investigators have discovered Robertson’s private journal from the year 1849. He made his entries in a code that protected its contents from those who shared his household, but is no barrier to later scholars. What’s in the journal? No surprise: extramarital sex. The entry for October 1, 1849: “Four hours in bed with Augusta.” Mrs. Robertson’s name was Ellen, and the name of Augusta’s husband (she had one) is not recorded.

We don’t know everything about Robertson’s life or character, and it’s not possible to say precisely how he dealt with his sin. Did it torture him inescapably, or did he weave elaborate excuses and self-justifications? Was the contradiction between his Christian ministry and his actual life something that pressed down on his consciousness, or was he blithe about it? We don’t know.

One reason we don’t know is that Robertson’s sermons, whatever other merits they may have, are pervasively vague. They are vague with their liberal theology, they are vague as to personal application, and they are vague with poetic suggestiveness. The classic evangelical take-down of Robertson’s overblown reputation is the line: “Robertson believed that Christ did something or other, which, somehow or other, had some connexion or other with salvation.” Spurgeon didn’t coin that one, but he loved to quote it.

To test the vagueness of the sermons, try this experiment: Knowing what we now know about how Robertson spent October of 1849, read his January 1851 sermon about David’s repentance from adultery in Psalm 51. Are there cracks in the sermon, through which we can see anything like the repentance Robertson needed? There are many fine phrases and considerable insight:

Two sides of our mysterious twofold being here. Something in us near to hell: something strangely near to God.

This psalm, written three thousand years ago, might have been written yesterday: describes the vicissitudes of spiritual life in an Englishman as truly as of a Jew.

Conscience, when it is healthy, ever speaks thus: “my transgression.”

We can not help believing that our sentiments towards right and wrong are a reflection of God’s. That we call just and true, we can not but think is just and true in His sight.

I venture to say, into true penitence the idea of punishment never enters. If it did, it would be almost a relief; but oh! those moments in which a selfish act has appeared more hideous than any pain which the fancy of a Dante could devise!

When I read Robertson’s sermon on Psalm 51, I can barely pick up the note of spiritual reality. And just when I think I might be catching it, Robertson swerves the direction of the sermon to an attack on evangelical commitments. In turn, he mocks the ideas of punishment, atonement, heaven, and hell.

Doug Wilson once described the connection between pastoral sin and vague preaching, in a blog post titled “Porn as Liturgical Corruption:”

when men preach wiggle room they often find that other men will frequently like the look of that wiggle room…. This creates a cycle — the minister is being pushed to compromise from within, and once he begins preaching more tolerant (and therefore more tolerable) sermons, he begins to be pulled. He has presented handles to those who would pull him. And so the lie about Jesus that he has allowed to take root in his heart is a lie that works its way into his manuscript. And from there into other hearts.

No doubt there are many explanations for the vagueness of Robertson’s sermonic work. “Robertson believed that Christ did something or other, which, somehow or other, had some connexion or other with salvation.” His sermons were somehow or other about that.

And, of course, if there is little conviction in the life of the preacher and his sermons, how can we ever expect there to be any conviction in the life of his congregation?

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