With all the time-constraints that engulf the ministry, the preacher of God’s Word must be a good steward of his sermon preparation. If he is not, he will feel the crunch come Sunday. One of the reasons we have such powerless, anemic, insipid preaching in the pulpit is because we have such flippant, ill-managed, frivolous preparation in the study. E.M. Bounds said it a little more tactfully, “A preacher who is enslaved in his study will be free in his pulpit.”
What may seem like 30 minutes of spoken exposition is really the manifestation of hours in books, in prayer, in meditation, and in travail. If we, as expositors of God’s Word, only have a few minutes to articulate a message, then it is safe to say, we must be careful and concise in the preparation of that appointed hour. This begs the question: How can we improve our sermon preparation?
1. Cut off Distractions
Easy to say, harder to do, but it will be necessary for the serious student of Scripture. I often use electronic devices, refer to certain theological websites and programs, and read electronic books during my study. If I am not disciplined, I will become distracted with the other functions of those devices and lose quality prep time. Have guidelines in place and immediately restrict yourself from those temptations once you feel them coming on.
2. Begin, Continue, and End with Prayer
I realize this is a fundamental, and perhaps elementary point to make; but the preacher of God’s Word will do himself a favor if he is speaking to God as He opens the Word to hear from God. Constant communication with heaven is the secret to successful exposition on earth. Get plugged in, stay hooked up, and keep the lines open. It’s’ not just a practice for me, it is a conviction! I like to begin my prep time with prayer, end it with prayer, and pray throughout the entire session. I say this not because I am such a dynamic prayer warrior, I say it because I am not.
3. Endeavor to Preach a Series of Messages
I have found in two decades of ministry, that my study time seems to be more intentional, deliberate, and concise when I hang around a particular book, subject, or thought. For example, I typically preach expositionally, verse-by-verse during our midweek service. Each week I know where I will be based upon where I ended up in the last message. Although I deviate as the Lord directs, a sermon series helps me stay focused and organized. It also keeps scriptural truth in the hearts and minds of your congregation as they become more and more familiar with the continuing passage each week.
4. Be a Student of Theology
Read theological works on a continual basis. Study soteriology, ecclesiology, theology proper, pneumatology, eschatology, and the like. Having a proper, systematic theological understanding of scripture helps you connect the scriptural dots. A.W. Tozer said, “If our theology is false, our anthropology must also be false. If we are wrong about God, we will never know who, what or why we are where we are.” Having a good, working theological base will provide a strong foundation for your sermonic walls.
5. Downsize Your Preaching Passage
There are times we simply tackle too much text in our preaching. In the past twenty years of studying God’s Word, there have been times when my spiritual “eyes were bigger than my stomach.” In other words, I would bite off more than the congregation could chew. I have reached a season in my preaching ministry where I only try to preach from a few verses. When we try to expound all of Psalm 119 in a thirty-minute time slot, we either skim the passage or overload the people (neither is profitable). Slow down and reduce the amount of text you study. Don’t worry about not having enough “material” there is a world of truth in every jot and tittle.
6. Maximize Word Studies
In his book, He is Not Silent, Albert Mohler said of preaching, “If genuine exposition of the word of God is to take place, then every concern must be subordinate to the central and irreducible task of explaining and presenting the biblical text.” To explain the text you must understand it, and to understand it you must having a working knowledge of the words. Take your time with every word, look up its meaning, see where else it shows up in Scripture, see how it fits in your text, study its history, its origin, measure it with every word around it. Remember, man shall not live by bread alone; every word that proceeds from the mouth of God is life-changing and soul-sustaining. Study it intensely and preach it passionately!
(A word of caution here: You can become so engrossed with a single word that you get bogged down. This could potentially monopolize your entire study time and or dominate your preaching. Use discernment and discretion in the study and the pulpit.)
7. Apply Hermeneutical Principles
It is vital to implement hermeneutical principles of interpretation during the study hour. Remember to reference scripture with scripture. Ask questions even if you think you know the answers: Who is writing this? Who is he writing to? For what reason is he writing? Seek to bridge the gap between the world of the writer and the world of your congregation. Study the passage in its historical, grammatical, and literal context. And remember this ancient truth no matter what: though practicality and relevance are prestigious dignitaries in this postmodern world, context is still king!
8. Write out Your Sermon
This could potentially be drudgery for the extroverted, high-energy preacher. So, before you right this suggestion off, allow me to clarify: I am not suggesting that you write out your sermon to read it verbatim to your people (unless that works for you and your ministry). I am simply suggesting that when I write out my thoughts, my transitions, my illustrations in a concise, thorough, and detailed manner, I am prone to have it more clearly in my heart and mind during the preaching hour.
That’s right, go ahead and preach while you study. During my early days of pastoring, I would set aside Saturday evenings to preach to myself…sometimes I still do (heaven knows I need it). I am not talking about going over notes or running through an outline, I am talking about full-on preaching. You may say, “I will look foolish doing that in my office.” I say it’s better to look foolish by yourself than in front of hundreds of people. I have found that God will often recall something from the passage that I did not include in my notes or outline. I believe such a practice allows the sermon to get into your own heart in a more dynamic and personal way.
10. Invite the Holy Spirit into Your Office
Charles Spurgeon said, “You might as will expect to raise the dead by whispering in their ears, as hope to save souls by preaching to them, if it were not for the agency of the Holy Spirit.” Every God-called preacher I know would confess their need for the Spirit’s power during the preaching hour; but I suggest we need Him just as much in the hour of preparation. Invite Him into your study, let Him study you as you study His Word!