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What to Leave on the Cutting Room Floor

The distinction between studying the text like a scholar and planning the sermon like a pastor.
What to Leave on the Cutting Room Floor

When Robert Zemeckis was well into filming the first footage of Back to the Future, he realized that much of what he was capturing on film wasn't quite right. Once this insightful Hollywood director concluded that the young Eric Stoltz was not right as Marty McFly, he knew that a casting change would result in piles of unusable film, which would have to be discarded on the cutting room floor. But Zemeckis' bold decision to give the lead role to Michael J. Fox midway through production proved to be just what moviegoers would need to bring the time traveller's story to life.

More time invested in "planning like a pastor" will naturally sharpen our skills at sorting through what stays and what goes in any particular sermon.

I trust that many preachers can identify with the pain of these kinds of costly mid-course corrections in their weekly sermon prep. So much of what we work on in our study never makes it into the pulpit—and for good reason! If the sermon is to effectively hit the mark, much of what we generate at our desks doesn't belong in the finished product. Consider the numerous exegetical rabbit trails, the various word studies, the gathered statistics, all the scriptural cross-references, and of course the many illustrations we worked so hard to hunt down and develop—so much of this work needs to be left on the cutting room floor. The skill we must develop is to become proficient at knowing what to leave out.

Enough to edit

I hope that if you are taking the time to read an article on message preparation, the following parenthetical exhortation is not needed. But just in case …

Please, be the kind of preacher who studies to show himself approved to God, who puts in the time and expends the effort to produce an abundance of exegesis, a surplus of word studies, ample statistics, excessive cross-references, and more than enough illustrations. In all but the rarest of pastoral situations we preachers must have enough hours invested in message preparation to necessitate editing. We must take our calling seriously enough to allot and guard our time in the study of God's Word, so as to always have more coming out of the study than could ever possibly make it into the sermon. This will take discipline, time management, determination, guarded priorities, and hard work.

Try for a moment to imagine the kind of dreadful movie or television program that would result if every minute of raw footage made it into the final product. How unwatchable would it be if nothing ended up on the cutting room floor? What a jumbled mess! You can be certain that a sermon with little or nothing edited out won't be much better.

So be ruthlessly disciplined to do the hard and prolonged work of sermon prep, always producing a bountiful excess of material that will necessitate the process of whittling down entire sections during your own time of "post-production."

Sermon length

I find that when we preachers are able to extend our time in study, our sermons simply get proportionally longer. That may sound like an inevitable reality, but in fact, it only highlights a failure on our part to wisely and skillfully edit our preaching material.

While I'm certainly not an advocate of keeping sermons artificially short, I am quick to caution preachers not to protract their sermons just because they have assembled a ton of material in their prep. Editing is the key. Consider the timeframe broadcast television shows are locked into. If the production crew of one program has twice as much time as another crew to capture their material, the length of the one broadcast does not (because it cannot) become twice as long. Instead, it is reasonable to expect that the first show will be of much better quality, albeit with a lot more work and many more tough decisions to be made in the edit bay.

I assume like most of us, your preaching assignment comes with certain real or cultural time constraints. Don't let the brevity or length of that time dictate your amount of study. Instead, see it as the challenge you'll have to face when you enter the stage of preparation wherein you'll need to begin paring down your material.

Stages of sermon preparation

We will become more skilled in knowing what needs to be left on the cutting room floor each week, when we are able to distinguish more clearly between the necessary stages of our weekly sermon prep. Every time we prepare for a sermon we must differentiate between studying the text, planning the sermon, and preparing the message.

Study like a scholar
Our calling, as those who proclaim God's Word, obviously requires that we become proficient at engaging with the ancient text of Scripture. We must acquire skills that will aid the Christian to master the meaning of the text we are going to preach. We must sharpen our exegetical skills so that we are increasingly experts at drawing out of a passage the accurate meaning that is intended. Unlike the false teachers, who use the Bible to teach their self-serving message, we are called to allow the Bible to use us to preach its message. If that is to be the case, then we must invest quality time intelligently engaging with the words, context, culture, and history that make up and surround the text we are to preach.

Our aptitude, training, and giftedness must be unquestionably strong for this kind of "scholarly" work, even though we may not consider ourselves scholars. If we are lacking these capacities, then we are false teachers just waiting to emerge. Our sermons must be anchored in an accurate interpretation of Scripture. We must clearly decipher what a particular passage in God's Word actually means, or else any aptitude for speaking well will only hasten our judgment as messengers of twisted doctrine.

It is our goal to excel in this area of message prep. That is why we all invest in a variety of study tools like good commentaries, Bible software, and historical reference works. But interacting with these Bible study aids from week-to-week should clue us in to the fact that we do not function merely as conduits of exegetical information. A sermon should not be a biblical data dump of interpretive information on a given passage. Yes, we must seek to clearly present and logically defend the proper biblical interpretation within our sermons, but a sermon is much more than that.

If your preaching is not much more than a biblical data dump, the whittling down of the study material will be a next-to-impossible task. After all, how can a Christian who loves God's Word leave any interesting biblical insights on the cutting room floor? Consider your favorite fat commentary on the passage you'll be preaching next. If you love the insights and the depth of understanding you gain on page after page of that commentary, why would you want to hand the congregation you love a thin paperback commentary on the passage. You'll want to pass on all the knowledge and insight you've gained on that text.

But preaching is more than passing on exegetical insights.

Plan like a pastor
At a designated point in your allotted prep time should come a disciplined decision to shut the commentaries, lay aside the Bible dictionaries, and begin as a loving shepherd to plan a sermonic meal for your congregants. While I share a tremendously high view of Scripture with many pastors, we sometimes struggle to close our commentaries. I cannot stress enough how important it is to give focused time and energy each week to exegeting my congregation in light of the passage I have just exegeted.

A pastor, or "shepherd" as the word means (which we are wise to frequently call to mind), cares for the flock. The shepherd wants lambs to be lead down the right path. The shepherd desires healthy sheep. The shepherd strives to steer the flock clear of the perils and dangers they face from day-to-day. Planning a sermon like a pastor will inevitably keep us from simply delivering another installment of our verbal commentary next Sunday.

When we fail to give our attention to planning how a sermon will direct and guide God's people, we will only be adding to the self-deception of those who regularly sit under the Word, but never put God's truth into practice (James 1:22). A mere data dump may actually be setting them up for a catastrophic failure, as Jesus warned when he depicted the lives of those who failed to apply the sermon as people who built their house on the sand (Matthew 7:24-27). A sermon crafted without clear and well thought out pastoral goals, which have been derived from the text, is likely to add to an increasing congregational arrogance—as congregants are puffed up with more biblical data every week (1 Corinthians 8:1).

To avoid this error will require a pastor's heart that prays much in their planning, and one that is thoughtfully guided by asking and answering questions such as:

  • Do I really care if my congregants understand and live out the truth of this text?
  • What might happen to them if they never understand and live out this truth?
  • What makes it difficult for my congregants to believe the truth of this text?
  • Why is this text a challenge for my congregation to live out?
  • Why is this so important for our generation?
  • How will doers of this text improve our church?
  • In what way will the doers of this text impact our society?

These are just a few of the important questions we pastors must prayerfully ask in our study. When we do, we will find that the answers will help us to quickly and naturally begin to identify and prioritize "reels" of hard-fought exegetical work, which need to be lopped off and set aside for some other sermon.

Prepare like a preacher
The final segment of sermon preparation will require us to employ the best scriptural, rhetorical, and illustrative material that will accomplish the pastoral goals which are prayerfully founded in our exegetical work. This, of course, necessarily excludes a lot of good scriptural, rhetorical, and illustrative material! But the filter or sieve that strains out the best from better is the hard work that was done when planning like a pastor.

Most preachers who share my high view of Scripture struggle at the point of crafting the homily (at least in terms of what to leave out), not because they didn't do the exegetical work, but because they gave little or no attention to planning the sermon like a thoughtful and strategic shepherd. Unfortunately, too many knowledgeable preachers spend 75% or more of their time studying like a scholar, and 25% or less preparing like a preacher. But how can we know what ought to be left on the cutting room floor if we have not pastorally created clear sermonic objectives in the middle period of our prep? It is better for us and our congregants to spend equal thirds of our time 1) carefully studying the text; 2) prayerfully planning the sermon and its goals; and then 3) skillfully preparing the words to be preached.

More time invested in "planning like a pastor" will naturally sharpen our skills at sorting through what stays and what goes in any particular sermon. When the audience changes from the Sunday morning service to a junior high Bible study on Wednesday night, we will recognize that our exegetical study of the text is no different, but the crafting of the sermon is significantly different simply because we were forced to consider a new set of appropriate sermonic goals for the group before which we have been called to preach.

So from now on, think more consistently about the distinction between studying the text like a scholar and planning the sermon like a pastor, and see if your editing skills during the actual crafting of the message don't naturally and dramatically improve from week-to-week. I'm confident they will, they certainly have for me.

Mike Fabarez is the founding pastor of Compass Bible Church in Aliso Viejo, California. Pastor Mike is heard on hundreds of stations on the Focal Point radio program and has authored several books, including Preaching That Changes Lives, Lifelines for Tough Times, and Praying for Sunday.

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