The Spiritual Discipline of Sermon Prep
The Spiritual Discipline of Sermon Prep
It was another Monday and I was staring at a blank screen again. I had just preached a message on God's goodness from James that was enthusiastically received, and now I had to crank out another sermon and I had no idea where to start. Throughout the week the pressure to just get the sermon done only intensified because, well, that's my job. People expect it. Of course God has also called me to preach. And this demand to crank out another sermon comes around with a regular and insistent predictability.
If we preach with any regularity and for any length of time, we know this experience all too well. We know the nagging pressure of producing a sermon worth preaching. We know the angst of working hard in studying, praying, outlining, hunting for illustrations, and manuscripting to produce a sermon worth preaching. That is why plagiarism and lifting material from a respected preacher to boost the quality of our own sermon is so attractive. That is also why we search for short cuts in studying, researching and putting the sermon together. That is also why procrastination is so easy as we're trying to avoid confronting that blank screen. As a result, we preachers can develop a singular focus on the product of the sermon—and almost obsessively so —to the exclusion of the importance of the process we have to go through to get to it.
But what if God were as interested in the process we go through to prepare to preach as the sermon itself? What if we prepare sermons, but God prepares us to preach through our preparation? I think he is. After all, if preaching is "truth through personality" as Phillips Brooks famously said, then it stands to reason that God would work to refine and form that personality to bring greater clarity and power for the communication of that truth. Moreover, since the preacher is first and foremost the adopted child of God through Christ, surely God acts with fatherly concern to shape his child's heart and character in the process of preaching. In other words, God is as interested in shaping us, the preacher, as he is in shaping our listeners.
As a result, the process of preparing a sermon is more of a spiritual discipline than anything else. It is as much a spiritual discipline as many of the classic disciplines of Bible reading, prayer, solitude, service, and the like. And its power and effectiveness is derived in combining many of these spiritual disciplines into a single, unique discipline that progressively forms the preacher in Christ. In my experience I've found at least four ways that God prepares me (the preacher), shaping and changing my soul, as I prepare to preach.
God shapes our mind
For one, God forms our minds in Christ in the preparation for preaching. Aristotle once said, "Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach." The journey of preparing to preach isn't simply a journey of knowing Scripture or God because to preach well requires more than knowledge; it requires understanding. So in preparing to preach, the preacher embarks on a journey of understanding Scripture and God so that he or she has a deep enough well to draw on for essentials and clarity in the sermon. That is why in preparing to preach, we meditate on the text of Scripture that goes beyond reading or studying it. That's why we pray for God to come alongside of us to illuminate the text and give us understanding enough to have something worth preaching. In those spiritual disciplines of meditation of Scripture and praying, God shapes and reshapes our mind in greater alignment with him and what he's revealed in Scripture.
God changes our behavior
For another, God forms our ethics in Christ in the preparation for preaching. What preacher doesn't know the experience of preaching on forgiveness, only to have his or her own resentments and bitterness confronted? Or what preacher doesn't have his or her own level of generosity challenged when he or she preaches on generosity from the Bible? The central thrust and application of the sermon regularly confronts the communicator's own sin and tangles in that area that seemingly compels confession and repentance. But in that spiritual discipline of confession, God shapes and reshapes our ethics to be more harmonious with his own holiness.
God strengthens our hands for ministry
Further, God forms our hands in Christ in the preparation for preaching. The famed preacher, Charles Spurgeon wrote, "If any man will preach as he should preach, his work will take more out of him than any other labor under heaven." This is also partly why Paul expressed what he did to Timothy about those who preach in writing, "The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching" (1 Timothy 5:17, emphasis mine). Good preaching is hard and grueling, with most of it being unknown to most listeners yet in direct service to them. In that spiritual discipline of service, God hardens our hands and steels our work ethic for perseverance in following him.
God changes our hearts
Still further, God forms our hearts in Christ in the preparation for preaching. We are unable to preach about life with Christ without participating in a life with Christ; otherwise, we become the pitiful clichéd figure who cries out, "Do what I say, not what I do!" Just as unenviable and ineffective as it is for a stockbroker making hot stock tips who doesn't own the stock, or an environmentalist driving a Hummer, is the preacher preaching sermons about Jesus Christ without having his or her heart expanded by the gospel. That is why in preparing to preach, we try to find the point of redemption in the sermon and where the gospel provides the ground for the application. Although we may do this for the benefit of our hearers, this meditation on the gospel's connection in the sermon has the effect of progressively deconstructing our false selves and idols, and rebuilding our hearts on Christ and his work for us. In the spiritual discipline of meditating on the gospel God shapes our heart around him, which gives us greater confidence in him, the gifting he has given us, and our stance before God as his children.
Given all of this, it matters a great deal how we prepare to preach. To plagiarize or lift material from other preachers isn't just unethical, and it doesn't just rob our hearers of listening from God through us. It also undermines God's ordinary means to form our minds, ethics, our hands, and our hearts, to become the preachers more ably fit to preach the truth he wants to communicate through our personality. To use shortcuts in the preparation or to procrastinate doesn't just make the sermon suffer in quality; it also shortcuts God's ordinary work to form us in Christ to partake more fully in the life we proclaim. So it is incumbent upon us as preachers to prepare with all the vigor and effort as we can muster, not only for preaching well but also to let God do his work of transformation in us. We should seek to improve upon our sermon preparation so that our sermons improve and the spiritual formation of it gains even greater effectiveness. After all, God is as concerned about producing a preacher as he is about getting a sermon preached.
Steve Luxa is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Davis in Davis, California.