Students ask, “How much time do you spend preparing your sermons?” My answer, “As little as possible.” By that I mean, as little time as possible to prepare a sermon faithful to the text and structured for the edification of the hearers.
I love preparing sermons. Commentaries, lexicons, Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, and atlases are close companions throughout the week. Preparing well means praying for understanding of the text and my conformity to its teaching, and for the Lord to prepare the congregation to receive the word preached. Were time limitless, I would exhaustively research every point that fascinates me as I study the text.
But time is not limitless. Although preaching is my principal duty, it is not my only duty. Others – visitation, prayer for the congregation, church administration, and caring for the community to which God has sent me – must not be ignored.
Limited time demands a disciplined schedule. Although there are no hard and fast rules, I find Shedd’s counsel helpful. He recommends five hours of study at the start of the day. During that time sermons and lectures are prepared, and other reading interests pursued.* Early in your ministry, the majority of your time will be given to your sermons. Sermon preparation is a skill, and, like all skills, experience will enable you to work more quickly and efficiently. As the years go by, increasing amounts of time time may be given to additional reading that that is not directly related to preparing pulpit and classroom.
For optimal use of your time, these tips will help:
- Focus. Turn off cell phone and email alarms. Disconnect from the internet. Remove all distractions. Five hours spent in study is not five hours of study if you are distracted by phone calls, text messages, emails, and internet excursions.
- Work with the end in mind. Begin immediately to develop a homiletical outline. It is a mistake to spend most of your preparation time researching, and only at the end of the week, to begin to organize your materials for preaching. Ordinarily, I have a rough homiletical outline within a half hour of my initial reading and reflection on the text. The text is not new to me. I’ve read it many times, and perhaps preached on it before. During the week, I will modify the outline. But from the start, I strategize about how to structure the sermon for the good of the congregation that will sit before me.
- Seek clarity. You will not preach well if you cannot accurately explain the text. For particularly difficult parts, take time to write until you can state its meaning clearly. Choose language that is accessible to the congregation. The pulpit is not the place to draw attention to your learning. Don’t shroud the text in a fog of impenetrable words and confusion.
- Prune. Because you study carefully, you will acquire far more information than can be used in a sermon. Just as important as what you say, is what you don’t say. Don’t bog the congregation down with tedious background material. Know how much can be said without overtaxing your congregation’s capacity to listen. The effective use of time in sermon preparation leads to effective use of time when the sermon is preached.
- Appeal to conscience. A sermon is not a lecture whose primary goal is the dispensing of information. Even if you have explained the text well, you have not preached if there is not an appeal to the conscience. Paul reminds the Corinthians that “by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). Therefore, as you prepare your sermon, you don’t want these fundamental realities to slip from your sight: You preach and your congregation listens under God’s watchful eye. Through his word read and preached, God solemnly addresses his hearers. Do your words invite men and women to receive and rest upon Jesus alone for salvation? Do they summon the congregation to trust God’s promises and fear his warnings? Do they exhort believing sinners to confess their sin, enjoy God’s assurance of pardon, and seek the renewing power of the Holy Spirit to lead godly lives? By pulpit manner and words, do you impress upon the congregation the urgent need to walk in holiness in close communion with the Savior? Appeals to conscience require rigorous thinking as you prepare your sermon.
A faithful ministry requires concentrated study. Think carefully about how much time you will give to your sermon preparation, and how you will use that time once study begins.
* William G. T. Shedd, Homiletics and Pastoral Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902), 368.