Any person who works against the clock for a living understands the tension. Don’t rush but be on time. If you work too hurriedly, you will not produce the best results. If you linger too long, you won’t produce any.
Preachers work against weekly countdowns. No matter how you planned your week (or didn’t), Sunday’s coming. Our crowded schedules can easily suffocate sermon prep. And there’s only so much time we can cordon off for it. Yet we know the late night, last-minute sermon cramming is not the solution either. We don’t preach our best sermons that way and our best should be the bar we strive to meet.
The solution is not to simply quicken our pace. Rushed work is sloppy work. And we can’t add one hour to the 168 we get each week. But we can work more efficiently. We can work more diligently in the way we use the limited hours that we have.
Here are five tips to help us “work smarter, not harder.”
1. Preach through a book.
If you are not regularly preaching lectio continua — preaching through a book or section of the Bible one passage at a time — you should consider it.
A popular approach today is to make up sermon series where each message is on a relevant topic and filled with multiple points and various Scriptures. But this is absolutely exhausting. It drains the creativity bank, taxes our limited energy and just simply devours time. If you’re a responsible preacher, you need to be studying each passage you attach to each point. You need to decide how many points is enough, which points are best and in what order to present them. You’re essentially creating a mini-systematic theology of topics each Sunday. There are other reasons why I think this is not the best approach, but one of them is that it is a time-eater.
Conversely, when you preach through a book of the Bible your sermon series is laid out for you. You simply need to discover it. You determine the appropriate preaching units and preach them in order. The Bible is giving us the map, rather than our cutting and pasting our own map all the time.
2. Sketch the basic outline weeks ahead of time.
Before you begin a series through a book, have someone else preach for one Sunday and use that week to map out the general information of each pericope or passage in the series. What you jot down in advance is subject to change — each week when you dive deeper into the passage you may have to adjust your previous take on it. But most of the time you won’t have to adjust much if you did good work outlining the series ahead of time.
That means each week, before the sermon countdown even begins, you will have a pretty clear understanding of the Big Idea of the text, the major moves within it and the essential need the text is addressing. For some of them you will already see what basic sermon pattern will probably work best for it. You may have even been thinking of appropriate illustrations ahead of time. You’re ahead of the game big time.
3. Master 3-4 sermon patterns.
Sermons take shapes, whether we intend them to or not. Every sermon has a road map. It can be streamlined or sloppy, logical or lazy, but there’s a map. There’s always a pattern.
If you use the same pattern every week, your sermons might become predictable and, as a result, boring. What’s more, your weekly pattern may not be the best way to handle every text. On the other hand, if you attempt to create a new structure every time you preach, you are working against yourself. Tailors use patterns, woodworkers use templates. Rather than measuring every single time, you cut a few templates and then use these repeatedly to make quick work of beautiful projects.
Go to your old preaching textbooks on your shelf and pay attention to their chapters on sermon structures. The basic four I usually use are explained in Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching but there are more. Break yourself of your go-to pattern and force yourself to adopt a couple of new ones. Then take the time to master three or four. Learn to recognize why one works better than another depending on the passage. In time, you will become proficient at choosing sermon patterns that fit the text and the occasion and this will cut down on the time it takes to build an outline. You already have the blueprints!
4. Shut down distractions.
Guard the study time that you set aside for sermon prep. Turn off your phone notifications. Shut down social media, texting, calls. If you’re working on your computer or tablet, turn off your browser. Let your staff know when your study hours are and not to interrupt unless it’s an emergency. Wasted minutes add up to squandered hours. After every distraction more time is wasted as we reorient ourselves: “Ok, where was I?” Stay focused and better work will get done in less time.Wasted minutes lead to squandered hours. Stay focused and better work will get done in less time. Click To Tweet
5. Listen to others on your passage or subject.
We all hit walls. We experience “writer’s block” for preachers. Often times what we need is stimulation. Look into what others have said about your text or the subject of the passage. Listen to a sermon by a reputable pastor. Read a highly rated book that is relevant to your text. Staying stuck at a wall can be incredibly frustrating. This is one way to get unstuck.
This should be done after you have done your own homework in the Scripture. You’ve wrestled with it and you have a good grasp of what it means. You should also be careful not to plagiarize. Give credit when you borrow. Otherwise you’re just ripping it off and it’s dishonest. But go to these kinds of resources, not for material but for inspiration. See them as muses to dislodge your brain-clog and get your thoughts going for your own sermon.