Podcast Episode 24 | 11 min
The Life Cycle of Your Sermon
The birth, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of your sermon.
Matt Woodley: This is Matt Woodley, editor of PreachingToday.com. Welcome to our podcast, Monday Morning Preacher. I’m here in the recording studios of Christianity Today with our scintillating guest host, Kevin Miller.
Kevin Miller: Was there just a little bit of sarcasm on that word “scintillating”?
MW: Absolutely not, Kevin. This past week I counted the number of preaching skills articles we have on Preaching Today.
KM: By hand?
MW: Well, no, actually we got a guy that can do that, run a little program. It’s pretty easy.
KM: There’s a guy for that.
MW: There’s a guy for that; we pay him full time to count the articles.
KM: How many?
MW: 1,272, approximately, and all of them are pretty good, I’ve got to say. Otherwise they wouldn’t be on the site. We don’t allow junk on the site.
KM: That was humble, but yeah, keep going.
MW: But there’s a handful that stand out to me as cream of the crop, the crème de la crème, the pick of the litter.
KM: The hall of fame, the top of the class.
MW: A handful of articles that I return to for guidance. One of those articles is by a guy named Peter Scazzero, founding pastor of New Life Church in Queens and author of books like The Emotionally Healthy Church and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. He wrote an article in 2013 titled, “The Life Cycle of the Sermon.”
KM: I remember that. When that came out I thought, Has he been emailing my wife to get comments on how I got through the sermon process?
MW: Yeah, I talk to a lot of preachers and when I explain to them what this is, they’re say, “I can relate to that.” According to Scazzero, our sermon prep process follows a typical series of five stages—the birth stage, the death stage, the burial stage, the resurrection stage, and the ascension stage.
KM: Somehow that process sounds familiar.
MW: I’ll give you a clue: Jesus.
KM: Yeah, always guess that.
MW: Scazzero was talking about a Jesus-shaped cycle to our sermon prep process, and he said about 95 percent of our sermons will follow this process. The life cycle, it’s not a technique at all, that’s not what it’s about. It’s a way to understand what God is doing in your soul as you prepare your sermon.
KM: I am super glad you picked this topic for today’s podcast, Matt, because to me, if you’re going to preach regularly you have to understand this life cycle of the sermon.
MW: It’s really helpful. So the birth stage, that’s the stage, you know that feeling when we get a preaching idea. We love the text or maybe we love a big idea. We’re all excited. When we say, “This is going to preach.” We haven’t actually written a word yet, but we know this sermon is going to be the best ever in the history of the human race. We’re gripped by it, we want to share it. Have you ever had that experience?
KM: Almost every time. So this sermon I worked on during the summer is from Ephesians 4 on the five-fold leadership gifts—apostle, prophet, evangelists, pastors, and teachers—and when I first thought, Oh, I’m going to preach that this summer, I loved it. I lit up. I started putting notes in a file and I was pumped.
MW: Yes, that’s a great example. The birth stage, all about excitement, energy, possibilities, opportunity. But it quickly leads to the next stage of sermon prep, death.
KM: Okay, Debbie Downer, my sermon was just in birth and now you’ve moved it to death.
MW: Well, that’s how the sermon prep process works for a lot of people a lot of the time. So we get this amazing idea but then, boom, we enter into the real work. You’ve got to do the biblical exegesis then you’ve got to focus it, you’ve got to get one big idea, you’ve got to organize the material, you’ve got to apply it to your particular people. Scazzero put it this way: “At this point I begin to think, I must be crazy thinking that I can speak for God. How is God going to shape something beautiful out of all this chaos of study, exegesis, and good ideas?”
KM: That is so true. I was talking with a preacher recently and the big challenge for that preacher was they hit the death cycle and they think, This is so simple, everybody knows this, I have nothing new to say, nothing fresh to say, nothing to really contribute. For me, actually, where I feel the death cycle more is I have so many things I want to say and I think, It’s never going to come together, I’m never going to get one clear, big idea. It’s going to be this jumble and everybody’s going to be confused, including me. That’s what I feel sometimes in the death cycle.
MW: Absolutely. I preached recently on Trinity Sunday.
KM: That’s a deep water of the pool there.
MW: Yeah, I preached on the Trinity on Trinity Sunday and it was …
KM: That was a bold move.
MW: It was historic, groundbreaking. I had the birth stage, I was reading some books and doing some personal study. I thought, This is so amazing and so rich and so deep, and then I got so much information and so many possibilities and so complex, and how do you make it practical. So boom, I was right into the death stage.
KM: So after death then what comes next?
MW: Then there’s burial.
KM: Boy, this is a cheery podcast we’re doing today.
MW: Remember, this is the Jesus-shaped process of our sermon prep. So burial, put it into the ground, let it rest. Scazzero puts it this way, “The idea is to bury the sermon for a while, just drop the sermon until you can come at it in a fresh way. Go for walks, spend time with your spouse or kids. Just stop working on it.”
KM: You know, one thing that was really helpful to me with Pete’s insight on burial, he gave me permission to walk away when I’m not able to really make progress on the sermon anyway. For example, let’s say I just had a hard conversation with somebody in the church and I’m still stewing on that conversation. I’m upset at them, they’re upset at me. And I’m sitting down, I know I’ve got to get this sermon written, and I’m not doing very well writing it because my head and heart are just clutter. So something about just let it sit, go take a walk, go do something fun, that has really helped me gain some space and objectivity and come back with a fresh take.
MW: Yeah, sometimes working harder on a sermon in that moment is unproductive. So remember, again, God is shaping our souls. Which means that God is at work in our lives through this death and burial stage, as he is putting us in a place where we have to trust him, the power of his Spirit, the power of his words. So they drive us to pray and to talk to the Lord about our sermon, before we talk to our people.
KM: That’s great. Well, give us some hope. What’s the next stage?
KM: Hey, there we go.
MW: Easter. It’s coming. So here’s Pete again: “I know God has resurrected the sermon when I get a clear burden from him about what to bring to the people.” You’ve got your one big idea and you’ve edited, you’ve cut, the whole sermon hangs together. It’s just burning inside of you, resurrection has come, you’re ready to preach it.
KM: For me, what I experience in that resurrection stage—and this is one of those subtle, sort of motions in the life of prayer that’s a little hard to describe—is I sense that God is saying to me, “I’m giving you this sermon.” Sometimes that comes really early in the process, sometimes it comes like as I’m standing up to preach and I’m thinking, God, could you have given it to me a little sooner because I’m one big hot neurotic mess right now, worried about it. But usually, he’s kind and gives it to me during the week, and I get this sense like God is in this, and it’s going to come together.
MW: That’s a good way to put it, and to emphasize this is not a formula, sometimes it comes early, sometimes it comes late in the process. I think, especially if you don’t preach regularly, it’s a lot harder to get to a real clear resurrection phase. It doesn’t mean that there’s no anxiety about what we’re going to say or no fear, no trepidation. We can still have all of that, but it’s this clear sense that the Lord put this in me and I’m going to say it.
So we’ve got birth, death, burial, resurrection, and then we’ve got ascension. Again, let it go, stop analyzing it. This is after the sermon. You’ve preached it, now let it go. Let it ascend to God the Father, and let him use it for his good purposes.
KM: This has been a key wrestling spot for me because I have a lot of Debbie Downer Mondays, where I go over the sermon in my mind and think, Boy, that could have been better, I don’t know why I said this, and I second guess myself and it leads me in this downward cycle.
One day I was thinking about all that and I felt like God gave me a great image that has freed me up. I felt like the insight I had was I was thinking about my sermon like it was the last leg of a four-part relay, like it was the anchor leg, like the race is won or lost with this sermon. And God showed me that my sermon is the next to last leg. God will run the last leg, and he asks me to hand him the baton, for the work that he will do in the lives of our listeners is what really counts anyway. This race is for God to win. So that’s really freed me up.
MW: That’s a great image. God is the anchor of our relay team.
KM: Yeah, just hand over the baton.
MW: And he’s fast. He’s really fast.
KM: He wins.
MW: He’s faster than you and I. So Kevin, we’ve been a big fan of this whole life cycle of a sermon process, it’s really helped us. What difference has this made in your sermon prep?
KM: Well, I think it’s kept me preaching because otherwise I think, I’m crazy, I’m neurotic, I shouldn’t be preaching, I don’t know why I’m preaching because every week I go through this. When Pete normalized it for me and said, “This is actually not only part of the process but a good part of the process,” I thought, Oh, okay, I’ll do it another week then.
MW: Yeah, I have this little rule of thumb that four percent of preachers do not fit this pattern; they just go from birth to resurrection.
KM: Where do you get these statistics?
MW: I just made it up. It’s based on hard research actually. I call them …
KM: Hardly research?
MW: Yeah, exactly. I call them preaching mutants. There are preacher mutants, they are extraordinary, there’s something exceptional about them. They have different DNA than the rest of us. But for the 96 percent of us we go through this process every time we preach. I love how Pete ended this article. He said—let me quote from him again—“I’m not so interested anymore in delivering a sermon that hasn’t been forged in the crucible of death, burial, and resurrection. I don’t want to preach something that hasn’t been sifted through a season of listening to God and wrestling with him. That’s a painful process.” I love that. I can totally relate to that.
KM: Yeah, while we’re preparing a sermon, God is preparing you and me.
MW: Amen. So I reached out to Pete recently, emailed him, and said we were going to do this podcast on his article, one of our favorites. And I said, "Give us an update on this whole thing." Here is what he wrote back, “After 30 years of preaching this process remains true. I keep asking God, 'Can’t we skip this excruciating process.'” He goes on to say, “I now am convinced it is for my own breaking and formation and that it is God’s way.” Then he concludes, “It sure does keep one humble.”
If you’re going through the life cycle—birth, death, burial, resurrection, ascension—you are not crazy. It’s normal and the Lord is going to use it in your life.
Matt Woodley serves as the Editor for PreachingToday.com and the Pastor of Compassion Ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. He is also the author of God With Us: The Gospel of Matthew (IVP).