How I Prepare to Preach
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal
As is probably true for most pastors who preach on a weekly basis, preparing a sermon is among the most time-consuming things that I do. Sermons – or, at least, good sermons – don’t just fall together on Saturday night or Sunday morning; consistently good, theologically sound preaching does not come easily, even to the best and most experienced of expositors. Oh, sure, any decent preacher can stand up and deliver a message “off the cuff,” as it were, without any extensive prior preparation. I’ve had to do so on occasion and, in my experience, such sermons tend to be compilations of previously preached messages and amalgamations of much unconnected research and thinking. They also tend to be fairly simple messages, rooted either in the core-tenants of the Christian Faith or in one of the well-known and often-massaged passages of the Bible. The most meaningful and best-delivered sermons are the product of consistent, persistent, and diligent prayer, research, and planning over a period of days or weeks. I’ve been preaching on a weekly basis since the Fall of 1989, and most of my Sunday messages still require many hours of consistent research, thought, prayer, and reflection. And, even if my weekly preparation isn’t specific to any single Sunday’s message, it is certainly applicable and necessary to the whole task of teaching and preaching in the local church.
Different preachers have different ways of preparing their sermons on a weekly basis. Some are topical preachers, who prefer to expound upon a subject of interest by applying scripture to support whatever topic they have chosen to address. Often those who are topical preachers will do so in thematic series, where the topics being addressed are dealt with in their several facets over a sequence of Sundays. Other preachers like to preach Biblical series, in which they take a book of the Bible or selection of scriptures and preach through them in sequential or thematic order over the course of several Sundays. Personally, I don’t find any of these to be helpful methods for determining what to preach on. From time to time I’ll preach a topical sermon or a series of sermons on a confined subject but, for the most part, I tend to be what is known as a Lectionary Preacher: I look to the Lectionary for guidance in determining what to preach on.
The Lectionary is a three-year schedule of scripture readings which follow the Seasons of the Church Year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost. Essentially, the scriptures are arranged in a thematic order following from the traditions of the Church over the past 1800 years. Each Sunday is assigned four Scripture lessons (usually, an Old Testament Lesson, a Psalm, an Epistle Lesson, and a Gospel Lesson) and each passage of scripture deals with a topic or issue relevant to that point in the church year. I find that, by following the Lectionary the subjects addressed in my preaching are less controlled by my own opinions and preferences and more guided by the history and traditions of the Church. In other words, I find the Lectionary to be a helpful tool in avoiding what is often called “one note” preaching: the problem that some ministers have of only preaching on a limited number of favorite subjects, themes, or scriptures. The Lectionary helps me to branch outward and deal with scriptures and subjects that I would, otherwise, prefer to avoid.
Over the past few years I have found it helpful for me to project my sermons forward by a few months, looking through the Lectionary readings for each Sunday to determine which one(s) best address the needs of the church, the world-situation, and my own understanding and program for theological teaching. My objective in these projections is to chart a “scripture course” for the subsequent two or three months to aid in my own sermon planning as well as to help both the Worship Committee and the Choir Director in planning our music and liturgy. In some cases I’ve even been able to speculate as to the topics or themes that the particular Lectionary scriptures suggest. This doesn’t mean that I won’t diverge from my own projections at some point, but this practice of projecting forward by a few months helps me in my planning as well as others, and is well-worth the time it takes (and it does take some considerable time).
On a weekly basis my sermon preparation beings on Monday morning: I’ll sit down over breakfast with the lectionary readings for the following Sunday and I’ll read them over with an eye toward both the projection I’ve already made and to the theological, missional, and pastoral care needs of the congregation. By the time I get to the office I’ve usually made a tentative choice as to which of passages of scripture I’m going to preach on – either confirming my prior projection or changing course with a different passage from the lectionary for that Sunday – although at this point I still have no idea as to what the sermon will actually contain.
Sometimes the Scriptures readily reveal the theme for the sermon; sometimes (most of the time) developing the theme takes much more work. I generally spend about 3 to 4 hours translating, reading, studying, and interpreting the passage(s) I am going to be preaching before I even try to give form to a sermon theme or topic. In seminary and graduate school I was taught that the Scriptures should be allowed to form and inform as much of the sermon as possible. In my opinion, few things are worse than a preacher trying to force a theme upon a passage of Scripture, but it is often done – and I am guilty of having done it myself. I was always taught, and hence I believe, that “good preaching” is where the sermon expounds upon, explaining and applying a passage of scripture to Christian faith and practice.
At any rate, by Tuesday evening the sermon topic is usually well established, and the general theme and flow of the sermon is well underway. Wednesday is usually the day that I devote to outlining my sermon, deciding what kind of approach I will take (will it be an expository, an illustrative, a textual, or a topical message?), what the illustrations (if any) are going to be, and trying to give it some kind of body and a conclusion. Some preachers prefer to preach in just one style or with one method of delivery, while others will roam all over the place in how they arrange and deliver a message; I tend to be one of those who believes that there is no one single “best” way to organize and preach a sermon, and that the scripture, topic, and message itself should be allowed to help form the “how” of sermon creation and delivery. Nevertheless, I usually prefer to stick close to the exegetical and expository format, and while I will frequently use an illustration or two in my sermons, I’m not a “story teller” type preacher.
My weekly objective is to have my sermon finished and ready for preaching by Thursday afternoon, but I manage to succeed in doing this only about half the time. Indeed, come Saturday afternoon, when I sit down in my study to review my sermon, I discover that I’ve got some more work to do. I’ve either left out some important point or I have not succeeded in making a complex idea clear, and so I hop back on the computer and do a fast rewrite of whatever it is that is bothering me. All in all, on average a sermon will demand anywhere between 10 to 15 hours a week of research, study, drafting and adjusting to produce, not counting the actual 20 minutes that it takes to preach it. Some preachers take less time to prepare a sermon, some will take more, but from my conversations with my fellow clergy I know that my experience is not uncommon; if anything, I’m told, I may be underestimating the amount of time the preparation takes. This may be true, for calculating how much time actually goes in to sermon creation is a relative exercise – so much time is spent ruminating on the message during the week when one is driving around town, standing in line at the grocery store, or sitting in the tub late at night, that it’s hard to qualify it adequately. And, of course, it’s also true that there are some weeks when a sermon falls together, easily, with only a few hours work. It’s those weeks – when the sermon is easy to prepare and easy to preach – that clergy relish.
© 1995, 2002, 2009 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.