Busting Out of Sermon Block
Busting Out of Sermon Block
Having to speak doesn't always mean you have something to say
Preaching well is hard work. We're expected to be witty, warm, and wise. And then next week, we have to do it again.
The great science fiction writer H. G. Wells reportedly said most people think only once or twice in a lifetime, whereas he had made an international reputation by thinking once or twice a year. Lots of pastors have to think once (or more) a week! More often than we would like to admit, we begin preparing a sermon with the feeling not that we have something to say, but that we have to say something. Only one time in twenty do I start my preparation feeling that this sermon will go well. The creative process is accompanied with a feeling of ambiguity, uncertainty, of trying to make the unknown known.
Like the homemaker whose goal of three nutritious meals a day is complicated by toddlers making messes, demands of a part-time job, overflowing baskets of laundry, and a phone that won't stop ringing, the multiple demands of pastoral life make fresh thinking and sermon writing even more difficult.
People never die at convenient times. The administrative load preoccupies pastors with scores of details that won't go away. Emotional weariness from dealing with people problems drains creative energies. And speaking several times weekly outstrips your capacity to assimilate truth fully into your life.
Just as savvy homemakers find resourceful ways to feed their families—a deft combination of ten-minute recipes, healthy snacks, a microwave special, and a few full-course evening feasts—pastors, too, can find ways to keep tasty and balanced spiritual meals on the table.
When we feel we don't have anything to say in a sermon, it's usually because we've gotten ahead of ourselves. We're thinking about the sermon before we've understood the text. Instead, we need to divide our sermon preparation into two distinct phases.
What am I going to say?
I start the process by focusing on content, not delivery. Approaching a text with the attitude How am I going to get a sermon out of this? pollutes the process. We can end up manipulating the text for the purposes of an outline instead of first trying to observe, interpret, and appreciate the text.
For one message based on the story of Christ calming the storm, I began my study assuming my sermon's main idea would be that we can count on Christ to calm the wind and waves in our lives. But as I studied the text, I realized I couldn't promise people they would never sink just because Christ was with them in the storms of life.
This passage has to be seen in its broader context. Jesus has called the disciples and told them about the nature of his kingdom: it will start small but spread wide. In that early stage, everything depended on the men in that boat—Jesus and the disciples. If they go under, the kingdom is gone. The point of the passage is that those who have committed everything to Christ's cause can know that the kingdom will ultimately triumph because of the power of the King. This is an eternal truth that shifts the emphasis from the personal storms in my life and whether I will sink to the eternal kingdom that will never fail. If I promised that Christ would calm every storm, I would have twisted the text to say what I wanted. Instead I preached what the text taught me.
I have learned to let understanding the text dominate the sermon process early and later let sermonizing dominate. I have more material than I can preach when I first try to understand and interpret a text for its own sake. I ask, What is the biblical writer doing?
Then I study the context for the flow of thought. (I usually get more preachable insights from context than from studying the grammar and word structure of the original language.) By studying the context, I came up with a major lead for a sermon on 1 Peter 5. "To the elders among you," writes Peter, "I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed" (v. 1). In my study, I found the theme of suffering accompanied by glory runs throughout 1 Peter. Whether in marriage, government, family—or church—when we suffer for Christ, we experience the glory of Christ. My sermon therefore pointed to this theme as it applied to leaders in the church.
How am I going to say it?
In this phase, I move to the communication question. How will I get the ideas I've uncovered in the passage across to people in a way that interests, informs, motivates, and changes them? Out of all that I could say about this passage, what will I choose to say?
This part of the process can also provide us with something significant to say. Early on I ask, Which of the following tacks is the biblical writer taking here: Is he primarily (a) explaining, (b) proving, or (c) applying?
(a) If the passage majors in explanation, then my sermon will major in teaching. In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), the primary purpose of this passage is to teach that the person who sees God as God and humbles himself before him is justified and exalted, and the person who exalts himself before God remains in his sins.
Accordingly, my sermon majors in explanation not exhortation. I dig beneath the assumptions we have about Pharisees and tax collectors, helping my listeners get into the minds of these two men. What did they think about themselves? What did others think about them? How would these roles look today? I talked about the nature of the sins of hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and disobedience.
(b) One of the best ways to overcome "sermon block" is to think through What's hard to believe about this passage? We can underrate the need to prove the truth of a text. Even if there isn't a skeptical bone in our body, we need to ask, Will those who hear me believe this? Does this conform to my and their experience? If not, why not?
Our experience doesn't govern the Bible, but we need to explain perceived discrepancies between what the Bible says and our reality. Suppose someone hears the passage, "If two of you on earth agree on anything, it will be done for you." She wonders, What if I want a blue Cadillac? If I can get two of the elders to agree with me in prayer, is that a done deal? Like most people, she questions, Do I believe that?
In my sermon, I try to be an advocate for that person. She won't raise her hand and interrupt me, but like most people in the pews today, she listens to sermons with a keen sense of skepticism. The preacher who ignores that is ignoring reality. C. S. Lewis has been popular in recent decades largely because he deals with the "Is this really true?" question. He assumed people needed to be convinced.
(c) Good ideas for preaching also emerge as we apply the Bible's truths to people's lives. Sermon ideas ignite when the flint of people's problems strikes the steel of God's Word. Sometimes we can't come up with much to say because our thinking is too steely; it's all God's Word, but we don't link it to specific situations in contemporary life. Other times we come up short because we're too flinty; we're people-oriented, but we lack the authoritative content that only Scripture can bring.
But we almost always spark a preaching flame if we strike those two elements together. So part of my preparation is to ask these application questions: What difference does this make? What are the implications for our lives in this text? If someone takes this truth seriously and tries to live it on Monday morning, how will he or she live differently?
Like labor-saving devices in the kitchen, there are ways to write a sermon that can relieve the pressure of finding something to say. Here are six "kitchen helpers."
Develop a preaching calendar
Many pastors set up a plan for what they will preach over the next quarter, half-year, or year. We can take a retreat for several days and ask ourselves what the needs of the congregation are, what subjects we sense God impressing on our hearts, what themes we have an avid interest in.
A preaching calendar doesn't have to confine us. If some brilliant stroke from God strikes us, we can always change our preaching plans. But if not, when we walk into the study, we have a sense of well-thought-through, well-prayed-through direction. My calendars have been based primarily on expository series through complete books of the Bible (which provides more than enough grist for any mill).
Once a calendar is set, we can set up file folders for each series of sermons, which become repositories for the relevant material we come across in the weeks and months before the sermons are preached. When the time finally comes to begin preparing the sermon, we already have a file of illustrations, quotes, insights.
Work on sermons in ten-day cycles
The purpose of a longer cycle is to provide simmer time. On the Thursday ten days prior to the Sunday I will preach, I do my exegetical study. I read the text and think about it till I hit a wall. Then I write down what is holding me up: What words don't I understand? What issues can't I solve? What ideas don't make sense? If you can't state specifically where your problems are, you won't get answers.
Thus, ten days before I preach a sermon, I know what I need to be thinking about, which I do while driving the car, taking a shower, or laying awake at night. This also directs my reading. I know where the gaps in my understanding are, and I can more quickly find the answers. I can cull twenty commentaries in an hour if I know the key questions. Often, when I sit down to resume study the following Tuesday, the issues in the passage are much clearer. I wonder, What in the world was I so hung up about?
When I preached a sermon on the seven churches of Revelation, I grew curious about the seven cities and how they affected the churches. I did some extra research that added significant insights. If I had been writing this sermon the day or two before preaching, I couldn't have done that.
My next study time in the cycle is five days later, on Tuesday, when I finish up my exegetical work and organize the sermon. By the end of Tuesday, I want at least to have the sermon's homiletical skeleton and introduction completed. I may also have begun shaping the main movements.
My final writing installment takes place on Friday. I finish writing and actually have time to rearrange and polish.
Get double duty off study
Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College, first introduced me to the idea of preparing two sermons from research on one preaching passage. When he was pastoring in Memphis, if his Sunday morning message primarily explained or proved the truth of a passage, on Sunday night he focused on application. Or, on Sunday night he developed a subtheme of a passage that couldn't be given justice in the Sunday morning message. In Philippians 2:1-11, for example, he might preach in the morning on Christlike humility and on Sunday night, the doctrine of Christ's humanity.
Think of words on a spectrum, with abstract words and ideas at the top of the ladder and concrete ideas at the bottom. Scholars climb up the ladder of abstraction; communicators step down to get as close to specifics as possible. When I have an idea without a specific picture in my mind, nothing interesting happens in me. But my mind starts to roll when I have an image.
When I study a text, I ask, What image was in the biblical writer's mind as he wrote this? If the subject is reconciliation, he didn't write about some abstract doctrine; he was thinking about enemies who made peace. As I study such a passage, I pose questions that keep me close to real life: What's it like to have an enemy? Why is it so hard to make peace? I'll think about countries in Europe, where people who have lived together for decades suddenly begin killing each other. What happens when neighbors turn into enemies?
I don't think about abstract ideas like "parenting. I think of bouncing a baby on my knee, of getting up in the middle of the night and staggering to a crib to a child who won't stop crying, and of the feelings of love and anger that go along with all this.
Work on a sermon out loud
My family learned that if they walk by my office and hear me mumbling, I'm working on a sermon. I get in imaginary conversations with people I want the sermon to help:
"Robinson, you say God wants us to love our neighbors, but what do you do when you go to wash their feet and they kick you in the mouth? How many times do you get kicked before you say, 'Forget it'?"
"You have to get kicked three times," I'll continue out loud to myself, "and then you can break his toes. No, I wouldn't say that. What would I say?"
Working through a sermon aloud helps crystallize our thinking. It also gives us a feel for the flow of thought in the text.
God doesn't give us any points for originality. He gives points for being faithful and clear. To have sitting on our shelves books from the great teachers of the world, people who have spent years of their lives studying a book like Romans, and not use them is to deny the many contributions of Christ's church. To think that in three hours of exegesis we're going to match the insights of those who've spent years studying a book is a mistake.
But save commentaries for later in the process. If we go to the commentaries too quickly, they frame our thoughts. But once I have read through a passage and know where my difficulties lie, commentators become my teachers.
Tributaries for high-water preaching
I have developed habits that help me collect material for sermons on an ongoing basis (not just for the sermon I will be preaching this Sunday). They are tributaries for high-water preaching.
Observe and interpret daily life
Helmut Thielicke said, "The world is God's picture book. We can waste a lot of experiences. There are lessons in every day's events, in things as mundane as getting stuck in traffic or hearing a joke.
This is especially so when something happens that touches us emotionally, either positively or negatively. Even if I don't immediately grasp its significance, I write the anecdote down on a 3x5 card and reflect on it. It's a piece of life that someday will fit some insight, illustration, or sermon.
Reading books and magazines and watching movies and television—even commercials—is another way of observing life. I watched an Italian movie, Jean de Florette, which begins with a city dweller inheriting a farm, moving to the country, and trying to learn farming from books. Wanting the farm for themselves, some unscrupulous neighbors block a spring that irrigates the farm, The new owner, unaware that he owns spring water, prays for rain. Storm clouds gather, but the rain falls on the other side of the mountain, never watering his land. Eventually the man dies, and the corrupt men buy his farm for next to nothing. There the movie ends.
I turned off the VCR profoundly depressed. I said to my wife, "That's the way many people see the world. Evil triumphs—The End." If I ever preach on Ahab stealing Nabal's vineyard, though, that movie will be a part of my introduction.
The questions I ask about ads are, What do they want people to do? And how are they motivating them? Marketers spend millions of research dollars to learn what motivates people. Watching their ads, we see the results of their research.
In one recent ad, a school appealed for new students, stating repeatedly that their graduates make more money. The school didn't promise its classes would make students deeper, better people, or open the door to a more fulfilling career. The carrot being dangled was money. In preaching, I can use that ad to raise the question of whether money alone is ultimately going to satisfy.
As another tributary for high-water preaching, I make it a point to converse with people different from me. I've learned to make the most of the power of questions: How do you make your living? In your field of work, what are your biggest problems? Who are the successful people in your world? What makes people winners or losers to you? What do you have to worry about? If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?
One of the most meaningful conversations I've had recently was with a person who has AIDS. He had been involved in a homosexual relationship with a man with whom he thought he had a "love-bonding relationship.
"He didn't tell me he had AIDS," he said sadly. He described his fears of dying in a few years and his anger that someone he loved had done something that would kill him. He talked about his feelings of regret, of being ostracized, of wanting others to care but not sensing their care, of being sexually frustrated yet at the same time hating sex for its drawing power. "I couldn't do to another human being what that man did to me," he said.
Through all of this, he had become a Christian. Talking with him helped me better understand people in such situations. Such conversations feed my soul and add richness to preaching.
The more full our souls, the more we can preach without running dry. Of the many spiritual disciplines that enlarge spirit, mind, and soul, we need to find the ones that benefit us the most.
I have a friend whose son has joined a monastery in pursuit of spirituality. He finds great benefit from the vow of silence and from long periods of meditation upon Scripture. Such disciplines have less benefit for me. But it is impossible for me to overstate how much my friendships with certain people have challenged me. Although being with large groups does more to drain me than stimulate me, I will rearrange my calendar just to spend a day or two with a friend.
There's a difference between someone who derives great pleasure from meditating on a sunset and someone who meditates on sunsets because that's what "deep" people do. We can read in Preachers and Preaching what Martin Lloyd-Jones says about the importance of urgency in preaching, but if we try to be more urgent without having the values and passions that produce urgency, our preaching will strike listeners as affected. The ideas, themes, experiences, virtues, authors, and art that have gripped our souls are the ones that fill our preaching cup.
The number of issues that need to be addressed is so vast, the quantity of preaching material in Scripture so great, the needs of people so inexhaustible, a preacher couldn't finish the job in ten lifetimes. If we organize our sermonic work and stay full of God, more often than not, as we sit down to work out our sermons, we'll not only have something to say, we'll have more to say than time allows.