Mark Twain is credited with saying that the “difference between the almost right word and the right word is…the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning” (www.goodreads.com). A similar dilemma faces the preacher trying to make the decision of what to preach on Sunday. The terrifying answer, from the viewpoint of the pew, is that the preacher simply comes up with something to say. The exhilarating answer, from the viewpoint of the pulpit, is that the preacher will have something to say that will help, bless, and challenge others to walk closer to God.
If there are exceptions, they are rare. No preacher should be frantically searching on Saturday night to decide what they will preach on Sunday morning. To do so, especially habitually, is to reflect a gross lack of understanding and appreciation of what it means to be a gospel preacher. The speaker who struggles from week to week to come up with “something to say” is not only destined for frustration, but will be doing a disservice to those whom he seeks to serve. Of even greater significance, he will be failing God by not becoming the man and the minister God wants him to become.
To be fair, the struggle of a preacher over the conundrum of what to preach may not be so easily dismissed as inadequate training or poor time management. The fact is that Sunday rolls around every week. In many cases, that means the preacher is required to prepare a lesson for Bible class and present two sermons. Then there is the mid-week Bible class. To properly prepare a Bible class lesson or sermon requires a greater investment of time and energy than many people expect. Add to these expectations other tasks such as hospital and home visits, personal evangelism, counseling, benevolence calls, editing and preparing the church bulletin, weddings, funerals, youth events, following up on visitors, keeping tabs on members who have become lax in attendance, mending friction, concerns and complaints that arise between members, and a multitude of other expectations placed upon the preacher. These can contribute to the preacher’s struggle with sermon preparation. In addition, the preacher must not neglect his family, a delicate balance especially as his children grow older. A sensitive eldership and observant church leaders should do what they can to make sure the preacher has adequate time for sermon preparation.
Ultimately, however, the preacher is responsible for how he uses his time in sermon preparation. Fortunately, there are some important steps to progress from needing to say something to having something beneficial to say.
First is to develop a healthy devotional life. When it comes to the Bible, familiarity breeds spiritual maturity. If the preacher is not growing spiritually, how can he expect such growth from those he teaches? If as a young preacher one adopts the disciple of reading through the Bible once a year, imagine the blessings he would reach after twenty years. There is much to be said for such devotional practices in which one does not read the Bible looking for a lesson to preach but rather to gain insight into drawing closer and enriching his relationship with God. Such deepening knowledge of God’s inspired Word will pay rich dividends.
One of the best ways for the preacher to avoid the turmoil of staring at a blank piece of paper on his desk, desperately willing that an idea will come to him so he will have something to say as Sunday morning rapidly approaches, is to adopt a workable plan or timetable for his sermons. The preacher who etches out a proposed plan, even if it is only a month ahead, alleviates a tremendous amount of pressure. Extending out further to three, six, or even twelve months of proposed sermons will allow the preacher to have more “breathing room” from the frantic stress of last minute sermon preparation. Such an approach will allow the preacher to chart out his lessons to ensure that his sermons have a more balanced representation from all various divisions of the Bible (Acts 20:27), provide him more time to “live with” the text or topic while accumulating insight into the deeper meaning of God’s Word, look for and collect relevant and memorable illustrations, and make personal application to his own life before challenging others to do the same.
A third suggestion is for the preacher to demand of himself never to step into the pulpit to preach a sermon without a clear, practical purpose. Except for delivering a lesson at odds with sound doctrine (2 Tim. 4:3), few things will be more unfair to those in the pew than to walk away from a sermon asking, “So what?” What does God expect to result from the study of the text or topic the preacher has selected? A clear purpose statement will serve the preacher well as a guide to what the lesson should accomplish and a measure for how well he has achieved that purpose. With these thoughts in mind, the preacher can step into the pulpit with greater confidence that he has prepared something worth saying that will bring a blessing to his hearers and glory to God.
One of the great privileges in life is to stand before a congregation of God’s people and proclaim the Word. He does not proclaim a message of his own making. If he has done his job properly he will stand as a herald proclaiming God’s truth. The herald is only a middleman speaking on behalf of one with greater authority. He speaks on behalf of the king. When the preacher stands before a congregation to preach, he is not speaking on his own authority, but on the authority of the King! Therefore, the preacher takes onto his shoulders a tremendous responsibility as he dares to stand and deliver a lesson from the eternal King (Jas. 3:1).
David serves on the board of directors for the Carolina Messenger.