Reflections on 40 years of sermon preparation

It’s funny how decisions made early in one’s career get carried forward for decades. In my early preaching I wanted to “hide” my sermon notes in my Bible (not to be deceptive, just so I could hold my Bible in hand and preach without having to carry a notebook too). I turned the page sideways and typed the sermon outline in two columns, creating a page one and page two. I then folded the page in half and used a rubber band to hold it in my Bible in the same place as my text.

That didn’t work very well because it was hard on the binding of the Bible. Over time, I moved the sermon outline to a notebook that holds the paper with a clip on top. It is the same length and width of the average Bible. I kept the landscape/two column outline approach. Ultimately, I went to a fuller outline and ended up filling front and back of a letter sized sheet of paper, but still using two columns – creating “4” pages of sermon notes.

If you are still with me, looking back, had I not wanted to hide my notes in my Bible I probably wouldn’t have gone with the landscape, two column approach that I’ve now used around 40 years!

I’ll add this: using a manuscript or decent outline is invaluable for revisiting passages. I very seldom just re-preach a sermon, but having exhaustive material from a previous sermon is invaluable to an every Sunday preacher.

Sometimes going back and reviewing old material is quite humbling to me and I’m tempted to write a letter of apology to a previous congregation. At other times, I’m amazed at how the Lord was helping me in those days with insights that are still valuable to me today.

In general, I think I turned a corner around 40 years of age. Work I did after that is generally more to my liking than what I did in my 20s and 30s. Maybe at 45 or so I finally grew up (not kidding here).

I think I’ve found my life verse

I appreciate nice things people say about my writing (hint, hint) but I know there are some talented writers out there who’s “keyboard I am not worthy to plug in” (or something like that).

Still, I admit that I probably express myself in print better than I do with the spoken word.  Even as I just typed that last sentence I hesitated, hit the backspace key a few times and made it a better sentence than it would have been otherwise.  In fact, I can come back in a day or two and fix something I don’t like.

I don’t have that luxury when speaking!

This morning I thought of a verse of scripture that I’ve decided sums up my capability.  The first half of the verse must be taken with a grain of salt, but the rest is about right.

2 Cor. 10:10  For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.”

“I don’t preach long – it only seems that way”

Anytime the length of my sermons comes up I always respond with a smile and say, “I don’t preach long – it only seems that way.”

Actually, I preached my first sermon while I was still a teen – I think it was 5 minutes long and in it I said everything I knew. Now, I’ve been in the ministry over 35 years and I can honestly say I never pay any attention what-so-ever to the time.

However, since nearly all my sermons are archived online, it is easy to check out the length of them and the time is amazingly consistent at between 23 and 33 minutes. I have a personal rule that when I get up to preach, I preach and when I finish I quit. I don’t do add on announcements before the message and I don’t rehash the message at the end.

Also, my style is almost completely expository. I’m not a story teller and I’m not a joke teller. There’s plenty of light-hearted stuff along the way and I try to illustrate points the best I am able, but I don’t have long drawn out stories to tell.

A few decades (no kidding!) ago when I spent a few months preaching in Australia, my friend John White (now gone to heaven) told me I didn’t preach like the famous American preachers who came to Australia – that I preached like Australian preachers who were less story prone and more “come now, let us reason together” in my approach. I think it was a compliment!

In fact, I think that is the major difference between most pastors today and the more famous preachers of my youth. The evangelists who came to our church were terrific story tellers who could make you laugh and cry at the same time. They preached 45 minutes to an hour, with about half of the time spent telling stories. There’s a big difference between that and an hour of more intense expository preaching.

Because of that, I think any question about sermon length has to be qualified as to the purpose and content of the sermon. Had some of those wonderful story tellers preached only 20 minutes people would have been very frustrated. In fact, to be fair, you almost have to subtract the “story time” in the sermons of great preachers like him and time the sermon only by the remainder of the content. If you do that (and I’m exaggerating) some of the “great” preachers of the past only preached 5 minute sermons (the other 55 minutes were great stories).

It takes a thick skin to be a preacher

Some time ago I preached a Sunday morning sermon that seemed to be especially well received. I found out later, and second handed, that one lady went out and did some things in direct response to that sermon. Stuff like that is what keeps preachers going.

Recently, I experienced the other side of that coin. I had a sermon I really felt good about – and in all the right ways. I had sensed the leadership of the Lord as I prepared it. In fact, as do all a preachers best sermons, it had already ministered to me as I prepared it in my study through the week.

Many years ago the Lord taught me the valuable lesson of never preaching “at” anyone. Since I almost always preach expository sermons through books of the Bible, I just preach my way through books trying my best to honestly deal with the passage before me without any agenda concerning anyone.

Still, it isn’t unusual for me to identify people who I think a point will especially help. The very opposite of aiming a statement “at” someone is to be aware that a point is especially suited to help someone. An example from early in my ministry: a young lady asked me exactly why it was that Jesus had to die to be our Savior. As I prepared my sermon for that next Sunday, which happened to be Easter, her question came to mind. That Sunday, I didn’t preach “at” her but I preached with her question in mind.

Recently, as I prepared to preach the next sermon in a series, the passage spoke to my heart and I thought to myself, “I know some folks who will be especially helped by this sermon.”

Sunday morning came and I noted more empty seats than usual. Some were out of town, some were actually in the church building but for one reason or another didn’t make it into the sanctuary, others were, well, I don’t know where they were.

There’s almost no way a preacher can express disappointment about stuff like this without coming off sounding vain or petty. If the preacher does say anything, it is almost sure to be taken the wrong way.

So, what does the preacher do? All I know to do is grin and bear it, even as I grin and bear people telling me I only work an hour a week or that the special speaker the church had a few weeks ago “really knows how to preach” (yeah, I get my place in the comparison).

When you pour your heart into a sermon, giving it all you have, and when you know in all the right ways that some of your folks will truly be helped by it, and when those same folks decide to skip church for some reason…well, that’s when it takes a thick skin to be a preacher.

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