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The Life Cycle of the Sermon

Most sermons follow a similar pattern: birth, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension.
The Life Cycle of the Sermon

In his 25 years of preaching, Pete Scazzero, pastor of New Life Church in Queens, New York, has noticed a pattern for his sermon preparation process. Scazzero calls it "The Life Cycle of the Sermon," and he claims that his sermons follow this cycle at least 95 percent of the time. This cycle involves five remarkably consistent phases—birth, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. (Sound familiar?) In this candid interview, Scazzero analyzes this pattern and coaches preachers in how to journey through each stage of the cycle.

What do you mean by the birth of a sermon? What does that look like for the preacher during a normal week?

The birth of a sermon starts with a lot of energy. A sermon is birthed when I get excited about a big idea or a particular passage of Scripture, and I can't wait to share it with others. So I plunge into my exegesis and my study. It's all so rich and enjoyable. My soul is getting fed. My mind is filled with possibilities.

God is speaking to me through this text. It's alive. So, initially, I think, Okay, it spoke to me. Now it's going to speak to everybody. At this stage of the sermon prep process, I love preaching. I also love preaching when I finally get to stand up and preach. But something happens between this initial infatuation stage and the sermon delivery phase. I almost forget that it's never as easy as just getting excited about a text. There's a long journey ahead of me. Death is coming. Burial is coming. I find that these must come if there is going to be a resurrection in the sermon

What do you mean by the death of a sermon? How does the preacher experience this "death"?

Soon after this energizing birth phase, I realize that I have to actually put these notes and meanderings into some kind of coherent message by Sunday. And generally that's when death begins. I realize my message isn't clear. I have twelve points, not one main point. I've got nine scattered but interesting thoughts, not one solid message that's been developed. I have to take all of my exciting possibilities and put them into a limited message of thirty to thirty-five minutes.

At this point I usually begin to feel I've got nothing to say. 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?

If you're preaching on a regular basis, God is going to do a great deal work of spiritual formation in your heart—if you let him.

Most preachers I know rarely talk about this, but do you actually know anyone who doesn't go through this? It's the feeling that the message is never going to come together. It's a painful feeling. Frightening might be a better word. It is certainly a kind of death.

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.

It's certainly not a mechanical process. Other books on the themes, commentaries, and other preacher's sermons are helpful. But ultimately the sermon has to come through your journey with the text and how to make it relevant to your particular community at that moment in time. And that's an art that can only be led by the Spirit of God.

There is a creative suffering process through this stage, but God is at work in the midst of this struggle. If you're preaching on a regular basis, God is going to do a great work of spiritual formation in your heart—if you let him. But this takes a lot of time and space. Good sermons that transform people rarely, if ever, emerge out of busy lives. I can attest to that after 25 years of preaching.

What happens in the burial stage of a sermon's the life cycle?

After I've done my sermon prep, my exegesis, and I've let the text pass through my life and God has been speaking to me and I've done the best job I could have done, now I have to let it rest. I have to let go and offer it to God. In the past, I used to keep plowing ahead in my preparation, trying harder and harder to do it on my own. I couldn't let it go, but I learned I need to bury it.

At a certain point I walk away from the message. I leave it alone. I might read a book. I might take a walk on the beach. I'll go somewhere so I can just be with God. The idea is to bury the sermon for awhile. Get distracted with something else. Read a creative article. Just drop the sermon until you can come at it a fresh way.

Okay, we all know what's coming next—the resurrection of the sermon. What does resurrection look like in the preacher's weekly sermon preparation process?

I know God has resurrected the sermon when I get a clear burden from him about what to bring to the people. I've got a clear and simple word from God. I can say it in one crisp sentence. I've edited the material and cut everything that isn't necessary for that clear word. And now instead of nine illustrations, I just have one or two good stories. My introduction is clear. The whole sermon hangs together. I'm excited. The message is burning in me. To me that's when resurrection has come.

But I'm also willing to accept my humanity, that I'm not perfect. As a matter of fact, I accept that there aren't any perfect sermons. Instead, I stand on one thing: God has come to me; he met me in this message, and now he's given me a message to share with others. I know I've got a word from God for the people. And I can feel good about that. Of course I may not always have a great sense of resurrection right before I preach. Sometimes I feel like a sermon will be fantastic and it's merely okay. Sometimes I feel like its mediocre and it has a phenomenal impact. But either way, it doesn't depend on me. The only thing that I can count on is that God will work through my brokenness and weakness. I still can't figure out how it works that way.

It sounds like this sermon resurrection is completely unpredictable. You can never plot on a chart when and how the resurrection is going to happen.

For me the resurrection can come late or early in the sermon prep process. I'm sad to say this, but it usually comes late in the week. But you're right: I can't predict it or control it.

Again, I think the most important preparation happens in my own heart, my own walk with God. When that work has been done, I can preach from a place of centeredness. In other words, it's not about me. It's not about getting my message right. It's not about remembering every detail and getting it perfect. It's speaking to people. I'm present with them in the room. And I'm giving my life to them through this message, not just giving a talk.

At this stage I'm no longer anxious about what people will think about the message. People might say, "Oh, Pete, that was a great sermon" or "That was horrible." Or I might not get any feedback. It doesn't matter. I'm okay because I'm comfortable with imperfection. Not every sermon is going to feel like a homerun. Trying to hit a home run every time is a terrible yoke to be under.

At the resurrection stage, you trust that the Spirit of God is at work in this process. It's very humbling because, ultimately, you realize that only God can resurrect the sermon. You know the limits of study and exegesis and preparation; they cannot bring a resurrection. Only God can breathe life into a sermon.

Pete, you had mentioned, in the past, that even the ascension is important to the preaching process. What do you mean by that?

The key thing to do after I preach a sermon is to let go. The 11 apostles in Acts 1 had to let go as Jesus ascended. We must do the same. I have never preached a "perfect" sermon. There were things I wish I had said more clearly or better. I may have wished I had spent more or less time in a certain section of the sermon. At times I am very aware the message was a single or a double—not the home run I would have liked. "Let it go into the hands of God," I say to myself. Perfectionism is a failure to trust and rest in the love of God who loves me in my imperfection.

What difference has understanding the sermon's life cycle meant for you in your own preaching?

This is the process that produces a true word from God. 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. Within our staff team, we joke around and ask each other, "Hey, how's that sermon coming along? Are you in the death stage yet? Have you buried that thing yet? Any signs of resurrection yet?" There's also a serious side to these questions. We believe that you need to talk to someone else as you're walking through this cycle. It might be your spouse, another person on staff, or someone in the church. It's almost always helpful to talk through the sermon with someone else before I give it. Normally, as soon as I start talking to someone about the sermon, it thrusts me into the death stage because I realize the sermon usually isn't completely clear. I may have thought it was clear, but then when I try to explain it, I realize this sermon has a long to go.

What advice would you give to other preachers about this life cycle?

As long as preachers are willing to enter the process of life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, as long as they're willing to let the word pass through their life first, and as long as they're willing to suffer to bring a word from God, they'll do fine. My word to fellow preachers is, "Relax. You're not crazy. This is the normal process. No one is exempt—at least with sermons that transform lives." If I'm listening to someone else preach, I can always tell if they've surrendered to this process. I often say to myself when listening to a great message, I know they paid a price to get the sermon to this place. And I'm in awe of the work of God. I know they didn't just get up there and wing it. I appreciate their labor of love—all the death and burial they've put into the sermon. And I'm very, very grateful.

Peter Scazzero is Teaching Pastor/Pastor-at-Large at New Life Fellowship in Queens, New York and the author of The Emotionally Healthy Leader. Follow him on Twitter @petescazzero.

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