Editor's note: As preachers develop their signature method of sermon preparation over the years, they often enhance their process by "cherry picking" from the sermon prep schedules and checklists of others. When someone preaches in a way that consistently intrigues and speaks to us, and we wonder how they do it, the answer may well be found in those schedules and checklists.
PreachingToday.com: Are there any key questions you normally answer, or paths of thought you typically take, as you study a text and write the sermon?
Mark Buchanan: I use the text as a base for mutual cross-examination: it interrogates me, and I it. I let the Word pry me for secrets, search me for hidden motives, scour my shadows, sort my muddled thoughts. I let it confront me, debunk me, teach me, bolster me, mess with me.
And I in turn subject it to a good grilling: how, why, where, when, who?
For instance, I recently spoke on the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), and this was one of the questions I brought to the text: "What does this have to do with the Kingdom of God?" This is the beginning place to exegete the passage, because the wider context makes it clear that Jesus tells the parable to teach about what the Kingdom is like in its consummation, as it comes into its fullness. This question opened the text for me in a fresh way. It helped me see the parable, not so much as a story about financial stewardship (how I'd used it previously), but as a demonstration of how our theology—how we see the master—shapes our actions and attitudes, and how these then have ultimate consequences. As we see God, so shall we live. If we view God as cheap, hard, mean, that's what we'll mimic. Our theology will become our destiny. A taskmaster theology produces a play-it-safe lifestyle, which then dooms us to a dark, sad, anxious world.
That line of questioning led me to another question: What if the man who buried the talent had instead tried to invest it, but in his efforts lost it all? What would the master do then? And I realized, there's another parable that answers that, and then some. The parable of the prodigal son is about an insolent son (surely more galling than a listless servant) who demands his father's wealth, intentionally squanders it, and returns looking for more, with nothing to show for his wasteful indulgence. And the Father not only welcomes him, but gives him more than he could ask or imagine: "Come and share in your Father's happiness!" God has more room in his heart for the one who wastes his wealth than for the one who never uses it. Among the vices God detests most is over-caution with his boundless riches.
That then began to work me over. Am I too cautious with God's riches, a millionaire playing the pauper? Am I trying to hide cowardice and laziness beneath a cloak of prudence? Am I, in short, failing to take risks with God's bounty that would grow God's Kingdom and delight his heart?
Those became the questions that drove the whole sermon.
What schedule routine do you follow in sermon preparation?
Buchanan: On Saturday afternoon, a week prior to preaching the sermon, I spend time in the process described above, and then do a rough exegesis of the text. I then read any commentaries that may help. This usually requires two hours.
On Monday morning, at the church, I spend an hour outlining the sermon based on my exegetical and reading notes. I write this long-hand in my journal. I spend another hour sifting through my stockpile of sermon illustrations that I've accumulated for 21 years and keep in a five-drawer legal filing cabinet. I select ten or so illustrations that could fit the sermon, but usually end up using only one or two, three at most.
On Tuesday morning, I spend two hours writing an introduction to the sermon.
On both Wednesday and Thursday mornings, I spend three hours each writing the sermon. I do this on a computer, single-spaced, in 12-point font. It usually finishes at four to five pages. I am always finished by noon on Thursday. I then put the manuscript away and don't think about it until Saturday night.
On Saturday night, the evening prior to preaching, I read the manuscript twice and make any changes or corrections.
On Sunday morning, I read it once. And then I go for a walk, and get it in my guts. I leave the manuscript on my desk and only walk up to the pulpit with a Bible. I preach the sermon twice, and never use notes unless I'm quoting someone.
The total time spent, from mulling the text over to standing up to preach it, is ten to twelve hours.
Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.