I was told in seminary that I should spend 1 hour of sermon prep for every minute I will be preaching. For many of us, that means we should spend 20-30 hours preparing sermons. This approach poses some serious problems for me. First of all, I have other pastoral responsibilities. Second, I am bi-vocational so I barely even have that much time to give to everything I do. For those two reasons alone, there is just no chance I am spending 30 hours a week prepping for a sermon on Sunday.
The challenge isn’t finding more hours to prepare sermons; the challenge is finding some kind of rhythm that allows me to spend less time studying in the classic sense while still engaging the text in a way that allows me to lead my community well in the study of the Biblical text.
My sermon prep is no longer about how many hours I “spend studying.” With this approach, I genuinely believe that every hour of the week is sermon prep. My pastoral care, my Web design work, my parenting, my friendship, my going to the store, my arguments, my anger, my frustrations, my celebrations: these are all sermon prep.
Here is my week:
Monday: Ingest the Text (30 minutes)
On Monday, we sit with the text and let it seep into our lives. If it’s short enough, try to memorize it. If it’s longer, get familiar with the contours of it, the themes, tone, etc. Our goal here is to allow the text to live with us all week as we work, play, do pastoral care, etc. Throughout the week, I try to answer the following questions:
Some questions I ask:
- How does this text preach the gospel to the people I interact with everyday?
- How does this text encourage the people I interact with everyday?
- How does this text equip us for witness in the world?
- How does this text critique my basic assumptions about how the world works?
- How does this text call me, critique me, challenge me, encourage me?
The main question I am asking all week: what is the one thing that God wants to say to our community through this text?
Tuesday: Sit w/the Text, Find Context (1 hour)
Tuesdays, I continue to sit with the text. Pray through it. I tend to read the text a few times throughout the day and continue to become familiar with it and let it seep into my heart, soul, and mind. I also begin looking at the context surrounding the text and seek to understand what’s going on around it.
Wednesday: Ask Questions, Make Observations, Context (1 hour)
This is where I ask questions about the text and make general observations about things that stick out. I ask the general “who, what, where, when, why, how” questions. I look up words I don’t know and even do a word study or two on words that seem to have significance elsewhere in Scripture. I do the same thing with the context. Here I look deeper into the context to get a good sense of how it fits into the story of the book as well as the over arching narrative of Scripture.
Thursday: Research and Study (2-3 hours)
I do not do theology, biblical interpretation in a vacuum. I greatly value the diversity of the witness of church history. Today is the day where I seek the wisdom of fellow Christians and especially church history. I spend a few hours with books, commentaries, etc. trying to see how Christians over the centuries have interpreted the text. I also have a few “people commentaries.” Meaning: people who are like live, walking commentaries who I go to for their impressions, thoughts, and interpretations on this text.
Friday: Write/Outline (1-3 hours)
Today is the day where I sit down and start writing. This often looks different depending on the week I’ve had and the text itself. Sometimes, I just start writing, and the outline develops as I write. Other times, I write an outline first and then write. I used to manuscript my sermons, but I have done less and less of that. But generally, what I try to do on Friday is take my week of living the text and get it out on a page to try to get my thoughts together somehow.
Saturday Night: Finalize things (1 hour)
The better I do during the week in sitting with the text, studying it, and living with it, the less I have to do on Saturday nights after the kids and my wife go to bed. In fact, in a perfect world, I’ll have nothing to do on Saturday nights other than look over things quickly and head to bed. But generally on Saturday nights, I’m just making sure it all makes sense – at least in my own head.
Sunday Morning: Pray through the outline/notes
Sunday mornings I get to the building early, or go to Starbucks so I’m not distracted, and pray through my notes and make any changes that come up. Then, I preach. Tim Keel gave me great advice one time (I don’t remember if it was in a book or in a conversation with him): He said to “preach from your gut.” I love this advice because you just can’t do this unless you’ve spent the entire week digesting, chewing, and living the text you are preaching from. Also, I can’t do this unless I have preached it to myself and let the text transform and shape me before I seek to proclaim it to my community.
That’s my personal approach to finding a way to faithfully prepare to preach while holding down a few jobs, raising 4 kids, and taking care of the rest of what it means to lead and be part of a church community. Of course, this isn’t how it is going to work for everyone, but I hope that it helps some of you figure out what works best for you.