Years ago I wrote a book called Refining Your Style, for which I interviewed twelve top communicators. I asked each of the twelve if they ever had someone read their message before preaching it. Every one said yes except for one: Franklin Graham. I remember asking Franklin, "When you finish writing your sermon, do you send it around to other people to read it over to see if they have any suggestions on a better way to say something or a different route to go?" There was this long pause; then he said, "Why would I ask someone else to tell me what the Holy Spirit has laid on my heart to preach?" There was another long silence … and I went on to the next question.
Franklin Graham's take, and it's a valid one, is that if the Holy Spirit lays something on your heart, you should preach it. That approach is a good match for his personality and style of preaching. But he's more gifted than I am, and he's probably in better tune with the Holy Spirit's promptings. For me and my house, I need more sets of eyes on a sermon, or else I'll butcher a text, say something I'll regret, or miss out on something.
I have prepared messages in community since I came to Southeast Christian Church 22 years ago. The norm for me before Southeast was to write sermons on my own. I might have had someone read a manuscript, but I never had people looking creatively to suggest ideas or giving input at several stages in the process.
I need more sets of eyes on a sermon, or else I'll butcher a text, say something I'll regret, or miss out on something.
I don't oppose preparing in isolation. There have been a few times when I wrote a sermon that God just laid on my heart. I sat down, and four hours later I got up, and it was 90 percent done. But for the last 22 years I can count on one hand the number of times that's occurred. I've found it's better to get more insight, to have folks looking over my material and shooting holes in it.
Years ago, even though Bob Russell and I worked on sermons together during the week, we decided to critique each other on Saturday nights after the first service. Bob was my hero, and the first few weeks that we did this I said things like: "I liked this point." "I loved the story you had at the start of introduction." "That was a great quote." "Boy, that joke went over great!" I went through the whole sermon saying all these positive things, and at the end I'd say, "Don't change anything. It was awesome. You the man."
After two weeks of that, he said, "I appreciate the encouragement, but this really isn't helping me. You need to feel free to share your constructive ideas. That's the only way I'm going to improve."
So the next week we sat down after Bob's message and with a straight face I looked at him and said, "What in the world are you doing in the ministry?"
Eventually we struck a happy medium of about 80 percent encouragement and 20 percent suggestions.
If you have multiple service times, sometimes the most helpful critique comes after the first message because reading a sermon and hearing it preached can be two different things. Sometimes someone will say, "When I read that, I thought it was good, but when you delivered it, it was so much better than I expected." Or vice versa. Sometimes a sermon looks great on paper, but when you preach it in front of a crowd, it feels flat. You think, Well, maybe it was just me, but then someone on the preaching team gives feedback that confirms it.
I like humor and used to use more of it than I do now. I remember Bob Russell saying things like, "I don't think you need that joke in the second part of your message," but then he would say, "But if you have it in there for your own sake, then keep it in." He was saying something that's essential to working on a sermon together: The person who is in the pulpit holds the keys to the manuscript. He has to preach what he feels comfortable with. Others can submit ideas, but the person who is preaching will probably only take two of every five suggestions, and that's because they are trying to let their personality come through. They're saying: That might fit for you, but that's not my style. That would be a stretch. People would know that's not me.
Team prep can also be detrimental if you try to throw a bone to a staff person by using something of theirs that's not of good quality. You think it will be a nice pat on the back for that person, but you've got to think of the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people who will hear the message. You want to give your congregation the cream.
How to Help Each Other
Over my time at Southeast, working together on sermons has taken different forms. Initially it was primarily Bob Russell and I. Then for several years six or seven pastors from different churches in the region came to Southeast on Thursdays to work on a sermon together. We would all prepare ahead of time. All the messages had the same topic, text, and title. We'd go around the table, and each person would share how they were going to approach the subject. That ran its course, and now I meet weekly with the preaching team from Southeast: our preaching intern, teaching minister Kyle Idleman, and another staff pastor who is a great preacher. We discuss the material of whoever is preaching that weekend.
In a way it's weird for me to write about preparing a sermon as part of a team because I have an independent streak that bristles at that idea. I don't want you to think there's a team of six people who are writing my sermon and that all I do is look at it and say, "I like this, I like that, I don't like this," and then just preach it. That's not what it's like. Most of the time we bring 70 percent of our own stuff and then get a few ideas from one another, like how to improve an outline, how to conclude the message, finding a quote for the introduction. So it's an authentic process.
Here is how the process works right now. We have three meetings for each sermon. First, we have a creative planning team that meets about a month before the sermon to come up with ideas for graphics, props, or a special touch.
Second, the Monday before the sermon—we already have our titles and our texts in mind that have come out of that previous meeting—we have a meeting with our preaching department and our worship department. Ideas come, and they spur other ideas. It primes the pump.
Third, the preaching team comes back together on Thursday. When I'm the one preaching that Sunday, I send a manuscript to the other three guys, and they come to that meeting prepared to say what they like and what suggestions they have. I've written 80 percent of the message, but I'm getting a set of eyes to look over my shoulder and say, "Well, some people might hear it this way," or, "That phrase might seem inflammatory to some people." After that Thursday meeting, I spend Friday and Saturday making little adjustments, cutting out two pages and adding two pages, as I fine-tune the message.
Two of the guys from the preaching team hear me preach the message at the first service on Saturday, and they will leave me a voicemail and tell me ways they think I could improve the sermon for the next service.
The Right People for the Team
How do you put together a team of people to help you?
First, it's important to get input from the right people. If those helping you are not excellent writers or communicators, they're probably not helping the cause.
It takes time for a study group to gel, because at first your defenses are up. You come in with your baby; you've worked hard on this message all week. You can start to bristle when others say, "I don't think this point is valid," or those who've listened to your message in the first service say, "I didn't feel that you did a good job telling that story. Either you need to know it better, or you need to cut it." If that person doesn't have your respect, you're going to dismiss their advice, be defensive, or stop listening to their counsel. As I said earlier, others need to offer 80 percent encouragement and 20 percent challenge.
Finally, if you're starting a team, I recommend trying it short term. If you start it on a trial basis, like for a six-week series, you can ask a group of people to help without then hurting their feelings if you don't continue to seek their advice. Say, "For the next six weeks, would you be willing to tell me what you like about my sermons, as well as what you don't like? I'll need you to lace it with a lot of encouragement, but I need your insights and perspective." If you start short term, you always have an exit strategy. If you find someone extremely helpful, you can ask him or her to help you every week. If you don't disclose to each person who else is on the team, no one will have hurt feelings. Eventually you will stumble onto one or two people who can really help you.
Such people allow you to reach more segments of your congregation. For example, Mark Jones, one of the pastors who used to be in our Thursday preaching group, was a history buff. I'm weak in history. As we talked about our plans for our sermons, he would often share a story about the Civil War or an Old Testament story that had not occurred to me. Sometimes I would use that story in my sermon, and it was not unusual for people to say to me afterwards, "I loved that story."
What Mark allowed me to do, because we were in a study group together, was to scratch an itch in the minds of my listeners that on my own I couldn't scratch. I naturally share a lot of sports, business, and travel stories, but when I can share something from history or science—two areas that I struggle with—that sermon steps up a notch. More people engage in what I'm saying because I've touched on their interests.
So, all in all, my experience with working with a team on my messages has been positive. Getting input from others can smooth the rough edges of a message, add strong tributaries to the sermon river, and broaden my perspective.
Dave Stone is the former Senior Pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky,