Early in my ministry, Thursdays were my sermon prep day—for the coming Sunday (I’ve never been a Saturday guy; just can’t live that close to the edge). And when we started Cobblestone, eight or nine days in advance was the norm. But that changed about five or six years ago, and here are some of the reasons why:
1. Working two weeks in advance allows for other staff and volunteers to get in on the process. Once a message is written, the work has just begun. The worship pastor plans from it (though she also has the annual teaching plan in outline, titles and Scriptures included, so she does some planning even before that point), the message notes are printed for inclusion in the programs, the presentation slides are created from the message script, any videos or special ingredients are created, etc. Most of this is done by volunteers who really appreciate more than a 24- or 48-hour time frame in which to work!
2. Working two weeks in advance paves the way for extra creativity. For example, a while back, I had mostly finished my message for more than 2 weeks ahead, but was missing something impactful to drive home the point of the message. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I threw it out to my fellow staff members. We thought about it for a few days, and eventually settled on a visual, tactile exercise that really supported the application, and made the response time one we’ll remember for a long time. The message was on submission, and I showed a clip of The Passion of the Christ, which depicts Jesus actually crawling ONTO the cross. If I could have, I would have had a couple life-size crosses on the floor and invited people to crawl onto them to indicate their submission. That wasn’t practical, of course, for a crowd of several hundred. What we did do, though, was to erect two rough-hewn crosses at the front of the auditorium, each with a hundred rough nails driven into them; people then came forward with a small white slip of paper, a “white flag of surrender,” representing their surrender (some folks wrote a prayer or signed their names or listed the things they were surrendering), and impaled the paper onto the nail. It was beautiful … and because the idea had to percolate, and the crosses had to be constructed by one of our gracious volunteers, it would not have been possible if we worked just a few days in advance.
3. Working two weeks in advance allows us to be flexible in the face of unforeseen circumstances. Funerals, births and sicknesses don’t happen on schedule, so working well in advance gives us the ability to roll with the punches. If a call comes on Friday or Saturday and the speaker for the coming Sunday needs to respond, there’s no problem; everything is already in the can.
4. Working two weeks in advance prevents panic. It’s one thing to be creatively “stuck” while working on a message for later in the month; it’s quite another thing when the well has dried up and Sunday is right around the corner! While I’ve sometimes heard pastors insist they do their best work under pressure, I’ve been the recipient (or victim) of some of those sermons, so I know that’s not always true. And for me, knowing that if the creative juices aren’t flowing I can give it some time makes a HUGE difference.
I’ll admit that when I first started working that far in advance, it took some getting used to. It was hard at times to project myself—my mind and heart—two weeks into the future and discern what the Spirit was saying to the church. But not anymore. Now, such distance usually improves my prayerful dependence on God, and gives him more room to work. And there are still times when I scratch an idea or insert a new thought in the last couple of days. But in those cases, the idea is an improvement instead of a concession or an act of desperation.