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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