Preachers do weird things. One weird thing we do is prepare our sermons alone. Every week you have to get up in front of a group of people and say words. Those words have to be engaging, powerful, motivating, encouraging, accurate, practical and spiritual all at the same time.
Every. Single. Week.
And you prepare alone. All by yourself. I think this started with Moses. He went up on a mountain and heard from God. He came down and told the people, “This is what God said.” We’ve never really changed the model. Preachers have been preparing sermons alone ever since.
I used to prepare my sermons alone. I would read commentaries, watch sermons and research articles, but it was mostly just me, by myself.
If you’re like most preachers, you prepare alone. The problem is, you are not Moses. You are not an Old Testament prophet. There is nothing requiring you to use this method. I’m not saying God can’t speak to you in your study. You should hear from God as you prepare. If you’ve been preaching for any length of time, you know how exhilarating it is to spend time in prayer and study and hear from God. There is nothing like it. But this should not lead you to think that you must prepare every sermon alone.
Why you prepare alone
Why do you prepare your sermons alone? I can’t get inside your head, but I do know what I have thought from time to time. And you and I probably have some things in common. Here are four reasons why you might prepare your sermons by yourself:
1. Your pastor used to go hide in a room for 20 hours. Maybe your pastor was committed to spending several hours a week hidden “in his study” to hear from God. This was the assumed method in seminary. You don’t see any need to change things up.
2. You see it as a more spiritual experience. You are “God’s man,” and it needs to come from you or it won’t have the right amount of pastor sauce. After all, if you were to prepare with others, then wouldn’t that cheapen the process?
3. You want to take all the credit. If you hole yourself up for days in a room with books and come up with the most profound truths anyone has ever heard, then you can bask in the glow of your insights. Everyone will be in awe, and you will be the star. If you develop content collectively, others may find out that every insight didn’t originate with you.
4. You think your ideas are the best. Why talk to anyone else? It’s not like they’re going to contribute something you don’t already know. Why ask what the interns think of your content? You’re the one with the graduate degree in theology. Why ask a group of people to give you feedback before you complete your sermon? They haven’t been preaching for years like you have.
Perhaps you prepare alone for no other reason than it is just what you do. What could be wrong with that? Obviously, this is a matter of preference, but I have found that it is far more beneficial to prepare sermons (at least in part) in teams.
What could be wrong with this model?
So, what’s wrong with preparing sermons alone? If almost everyone does it this way, how could it be so bad?
If you prepare your sermons alone week after week, you draw from the same well, and eventually it runs dry. You start to tell the same stories, use the same examples, select the same Scriptures and teach in the same way. You alone prepare sermons that you would like on topics that interest you for the benefit of others. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it is the standard method of many pastors.
What happens when, week after week, you’ve prepared your sermons sitting in a room with books and a computer? What happens after years and years of limited input from anyone but you? There are three primary outcomes of preparing alone:
1. Your sermons lack relational depth. Your sermons should be rich with relational insight. The stories, examples and applications you use should come from a variety of relational experiences. This only happens when you bring other people into the process. The more input you receive from different kinds of people in different life situations, the more likely you’ll connect with more people. I benefit tremendously by getting input from people who are not like me. I’ll talk to a single mom and ask for her feedback on something I’m planning to preach on family. Or I’ll run a concept by a senior citizen to see if it will connect with them.
2. You miss your blind spots. You have blind spots in your life and ministry. We all do. These blind spots show up in your preaching. Developing sermon content can be one of the most vexing things we do as preachers. You can be so consumed in study and excited about the material that you don’t realize that it will make no sense to most of your listeners. Including others in the process of your preparation keeps you from running with an idea or concept that won’t work.
3. It all depends on you hearing from God. Way too much pressure is put on you when you have to come up with all of the content every week. You’re not infinitely wise. You can’t possibly know every week exactly what needs to be said. Preparing in a team draws from a pool of greater wisdom. Instead of it being just you who needs to hear from God, why not have a team of people hearing from God?
How to get started
I want to give you some practical tools for how to get started preparing your sermons in a team. This practice changed everything about the way I prepare sermons and enriched my preaching experience. When I went from solo preparation to a team-based model, my sermons improved dramatically. They became much more connected to my listeners. I am convinced that a purposeful team approach with intentional input from others at every stage of preparation has been the thing that has most improved my sermons.
It’s important to recognize what constitutes a team. For the purposes of sermon prep, a team could be a structured group that meets regularly, or it could be an unstructured collection of people with whom you collaborate. Our preaching team consists of our pastors who preach in the main services, the service programming coordinator, other staff members and a note keeper. We meet each week to do four things:
1. Pray. The most important part about our team is that we continually pray for our upcoming services, preaching series and sermons to be effective and powerful. We recognize that no amount of collaborative planning can replace God’s movement among his people. So we pray for him to use us.
2. Think and create together. We use the time as an opportunity to bounce ideas around and think together about what kind of teaching content the church needs in the coming weeks/months.
3. Do long-range sermon series planning. We look at the coming months and plan the teaching series we’re going to do. Sometimes this requires a separate meeting to plan further in advance.
4. Do short-term sermon planning. We typically look at three sermons at a time: the upcoming week and the two weeks that follow. On weeks that I preach, I present the basic flow of my content to the rest of the team. We try to boil down the objective and desired response of the next three sermons. This ensures that our goals for the service align with the thrust of the message. It also gives us something to evaluate the following week to see if we hit our target.
When the meeting is over, collaboration continues throughout the week informally. I also seek input from a variety of different people to make sure that my content makes sense and communicates what I intend.
Give it a shot
Structured team. You may be ready to launch a structured team that meets regularly. One great place to start is with the people who are already involved in leading your services—maybe your worship leader, another staff member or a layperson who is invested in your church. You may be surprised to find that people are willing to contribute if you let them into the mysterious world of sermon prep.
Unstructured collaboration. You don’t need a structured team to begin preparing collaboratively; you can take steps toward it now. Think of your sermon in terms of phases and consider what kind of input you can get each step along the way:
1. Before study begins. Discuss your passage or topic with others. Write down what ideas come to mind from your discussion.
2. Once you have begun your study. Take what you have from your initial stages of study and bounce it around. Talk to others to see what they have learned from that passage.
3. After you have a rough outline, walk someone through your outline and ask for feedback. As you say it out loud, you’ll begin to solidify your thoughts.
4. After your sermon, get feedback to help prepare for the next one. Ask people for meaningful feedback. If it was good, what made it good? If it was bad, what made it bad? For a guide to getting more helpful feedback on your sermons, click here.
My preaching has benefited tremendously from this method. My sermon gets a great start as I prepare to meet with the team. It is solidified in its direction as we think through it together. And as I study, I bounce ideas around with a lot of people, which helps me develop a more impacting sermon.
Give it a try. See what happens. You may find that your sermon prep becomes more fun and your sermons become more effective.