There are times when preaching is, from the start to finish, a joy. The text is clear, and the sermon just bubbles up from the Bible, making the structure clear; illustrations and applications emerge from hidden places and drop graciously into place. This happens, but it’s rare.
Most of the time the sermon process is a little more of a struggle. Some weeks the struggle may be deciding which text to preach, what to say about that text, and how to say it. You know, everything. Perhaps you are one of the rare preachers with the right word always at the right time. You can stop reading now. But here’s some practical encouragement for those of us who feel stuck from time to time.
First, do self-evaluation later
The reason you’re in this position may be an overwhelmed work week or unexpected adjustments to the schedule. It might even be due to laziness. As taxing as the ministry is, and as busy as we all are, it’s hard to imagine anyone using the “L” word. Yet, we battle it all the time. Laziness is not the absence of activity; rather laziness is unwillingness to direct our energies to what is best in that moment. Procrastinators work hard, just not for the right reasons. The opposite of procrastination is not more work; it’s the right work. So this needs to be addressed, but not now. At this moment, with hours before Sunday, I can put off dealing with my procrastination. But not forever! Document this struggle in your journal and text a friend with whom you want to meet Monday and discuss it. This will hold you accountable. But that’s for Monday. For now, lets focus on Sunday.
This is not trite self-motivation. Rather, you must come face to face with the reality that many times the Word is not clear at first glance. It’s also possible that God will not reveal the meaning of the text up front. Why this is the case may have to do with sin in my life, or it may not. Sometimes the text is just difficult to mine. Yet there is good news. Every time we keep working on a sermon, even though the meaning is not clear, we are expanding our capacity to wrestle with the text. So, keep reading.
Deal with the text, not the sermon
When time is short we have a tendency to think, “How can I say this?” before we have framed what to say. If you only have a few hours to prepare, much of that time needs to be spent in focused reading of the text. When you preach the Holy Spirit has a way of working out of you what has been worked in, but only if you understand that text. The greatest thing we can do to prevent this is to read the Scripture more.
In this moment of stress, we are thinking we never want to be in this place again. The best way to prevent this is to read the text over and over. When you finish your quiet time, take a few minutes to read over the text. No agenda, you are just reading for understanding. Reading during a break. Take notes if you like, but just read. Let’s assume a worst-case scenario where life demands that your planned sermon prep time gets blown up. You may not get to work through your favorite commentaries, but you have read through the text twenty times. You know the text, you understand the questions the listener will be asking about it, and you already have some clues for application. All this from simply reading. So read, read, and read.
Preach confidently dependent
It’s hard to be confident when our prep time is crippled. However, the crippling of our schedule is a needed reminder that we are not in control. This makes Sunday morning a time of desperate yearning for God, an expression of our need for him. And often the please-help-me-God! sermons with humble beginnings end well. Why? The posture of desperation is itself sermon preparation. A posture often “corrected” by my errant confidence. Yet, if I neglect the preparation of the heart, I’m not prepared. In the desperation I am reminded that this is the posture I’m to take each Sunday. And in my humble plea for God to be complete where I am incomplete, he fills me with His confidence.
Finally, remember you are not your calling. Often our stress for Sunday is a performance anxiety born out of a desire to be a good preacher. And, this is a worthy goal: we are striving to expend all of ourselves for Christ’s service. This ambition should make us work hard at our craft as an expression of our call. Yet, it’s not your reputation that’s at stake, its God’s. So get over yourself, read the text again and again, and then explain what it says. God will give grace for the moment, especially for those who defer to His Word.