The Life Cycle of the Sermon
Most sermons follow a similar pattern: birth, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension.
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At this point I'm also wrestling with more complex questions, like how does this text apply to real people in my congregation? How is it going to change their lives, not just feed my soul? I can't give people all the great exegesis I've done. Frankly, that would bore them to death. I have to find a way to communicate the truth of the text in the midst of contextualizing it to my audience. It isn't just a theoretical message. It has to apply to the single mom in her fifties, to folks who are on the edge of poverty, to the highly educated professionals, to new and long-time believers.
You can't just teach a lesson. Preaching is different than giving a class, and so you need illustrations to make your points come alive. You need moments of lightness. The sermon needs a variety of movements in it.
And of course good preaching involves lots of cutting. Most preachers end up with too much material. But you can't preach it all. You have to cut much of it and throw it out. I don't care if you're preaching 40 minutes or 30 minutes or 20 minutes, you still have to cut. This process of cutting away good stuff will make or break your sermon. It involves the discipline to say, I know I spent four hours going down this road with this text, but I have to let it go. It's going to confuse people or overload them.
So, at this point, I have to ask myself, "What am I going to cut? What am I not going to say?" That feels like a death. It's like taking good content and letting it go into oblivion.
In the birth stage I conceive a lot of tangents, but now I have to let many of those good ideas die. The worst preachers are those who just fill their time allotment with lots of talk and maybe lots of good ideas but they don't have one central thrust. They haven't disciplined themselves to be clear about their main point, focusing on and developing that one point so they can really drive it home. But that's what makes for great preaching. It's hard to do. In a very real sense, this involves some real suffering.
My temptation at this point is to be lazy. I don't want to do the hard work of making this message clear, relevant, simple, and accessible to all the people in my church. I don't want to do the hard work of cutting out the extraneous parts I happen to like. I don't want to embrace the limits of time. Yet God has set it up that people can only listen and take in so much.
At this stage, what is God doing to form and shape the preacher's soul?
A big part of the death stage involves allowing the message to pass through my own life first. God wants to speak to me first. So sermon preparation isn't just about studying. It's praying. It's waiting. It's listening. At this point it's a path of humility and death.
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