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Saturday, October 20, 2007

How long does it take to write a sermon? part 2

Over the past ten years I’ve written about forty sermons a year. Occasionally I repeat, but most weeks they’re fresh new. And even the repeats undergo extensive rewrites.

My preference is sermon series, that is, several sermons on the same subject. That way I can hit one big idea each week and link them together under a common theme.

Each week’s big idea is essentially what I hope people will remember long after they’ve walked down the front steps, packed their family in the car and headed off to lunch.

Last year I did a four-part series called “Songs of Deliverance.” The first week’s message was from Psalm 91. The big idea was that God is a God of deliverance… but not always the deliverance we might expect.

The second week was “A Greater Promise,” which described a promise greater than deliverance. Week three – “The Power of Song” – was about the actual songs of deliverance and week four was “Whose Song Is It Anyway?” The title is an obvious riff on the comedy show. But the big idea is that the song promised to us in Psalm 40 belongs to the Lord. Our songs are new songs from Him, about Him and to Him.

Once I have the big idea I outline the message, noting key verses, writing a few specific lines that I want to say a certain way, and indicating where transitions, anecdotes, illustrations, etc. are needed.

Each big idea is based on a scripture so that becomes my starting point. Then I quickly introduce the main point in a way that hopefully provokes the listeners to wonder what will come next. I think of this as sinking the hook and then giving it a twist.

For example, in the “Whose Song Is It Anyway?” message I started with Psalm 149, emphasized the reference to "a new song" and then listed four complaints about new songs:

1.      The songs have too many words; too hard to remember.

2.      The music style is too much like popular secular music.

3.      Churches start singing the new songs and quit singing the Psalms.

4.      People prefer the older, familiar songs, not new ones all the time.

I could hear quiet comments agreeing with these sentiments. That was the hook: everyone could relate to one or more of these complaints. Then I twisted the hook: These complaints are from … 1742!

Recently I introduced a message on prayer by asking, “If there was something in your life that really bothered you, that distracted you from serving the Lord, how many times would you pray for that problem to be removed from you life?”

Most everyone would keep praying. But Paul prayed for the thorn in his flesh to be removed just three times. Why? For the answer listen to my message A Change of Heart part 4 – Raise Your Hands.

The reason for all of this effort is simple: If I get my audience hooked right way by arousing their curiosity I have a shot at keeping their attention all the way through.

To that end I like to keep things interesting. I love to tell stories to illustrate my points. Some personal anecdotes, some from other resources. I rarely use jokes, preferring the natural humor that arises from actual circumstances. I like to create a sense of expectation, of tension: Where’s he going with that? What’s going to happen next?

My goal is to engage the imagination of my audience, help them to visualize the truth of God’s word and how it relates to them. There is profound truth in scripture but if all you had to do was tell people what the Bible says and then tell them it’s important they do it, they would do it. But they don't. 

Throwing scripture at them doesn't work either. Ten years ago I crammed in as many scriptures as I could find to support my point. Over the years I’ve learned to simplify, to focus on one primary scripture with a few scriptures to support it and bring clarity. I’m always learning and hopefully improving.

I put a lot of effort into improving my sermon craft. I listen to at least three sermons a month by other preachers; Preaching Today audio is a great resource. Also many preachers have their sermons online in a downloadable format. So do I. I listen to my own sermons, too. Sometimes I cringe and sometimes I smile but always I learn how to improve.

I read books on sermons: Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching (absolutely essential; that’s where the ‘big idea’ terminology came from), Andy Stanley’s Communicating for a Change (practical, easy-to-read advice that I wished I’d known a long time ago), Charles Koller’s Preaching Without Notes (I rarely preach without notes but I can if I want to). These are just the tip of the iceberg of resources available to pastor-teachers. Why all this effort?

I’m a musician. I play guitar and bang on the piano. I know that practice is essential. You can’t maintain your current skill level without practice. And skill development is preferable to just maintaining the status quo. The best way to develop your skill is to learn from someone who has skills you don’t.

Why is teaching the word of God any different? To me, it’s not.

I look at it like this: each person sitting there on Sunday morning is expecting to hear from God. And I’m the one they’re expecting to hear from God from. Bad grammar, yes. But true nonetheless.

So the better I am at the mechanics of sermon preparation, sermon form, and delivery, the less they will notice me and the more they will receive from the words I speak. Piquing curiosity, using stories and illustrations to engage imagination, evoking emotions from laughter to tears... the elements that cause a novel or a film to be memorable are the same elements that enable a pastor-teacher to help his listeners understand the truth and power of God's Word. 

Of course, I also count on the Holy Spirit to be involved, to see to it that each person hears what they need to hear. That’s my ace-in-the-hole, if you will, the wild card that trumps the verbal gaffes, the (too often) weak humor and the (occasional) insipid imagery.

And as long as I realize it’s the Holy Spirit making it all work, I can relax just a little, knowing that I just need to do what I do best, give the glory to the Lord and let the rhema – the living word – do it’s thing.

How long does it take to write a sermon? A lifetime…

11:56 pm pdt 

Saturday, October 13, 2007

How long does it take to write a sermon?

Last Sunday a varied group gathered after church at Chile’s for lunch. In the course of casual conversation I was asked by one of the women, “Pastor, how long does it take you to write a sermon?”

My impulse was to make a joke, something like “too long” or “You think I write them? I just make them up at as I go along.” But instead I replied, “About twenty-five hours, if things go well.”

“I thought it only took you an hour or two.” It was obvious she was struggling to decide whether or not I was teasing her.

I spent a few minutes explaining about planning the message, doing research, putting it all together, letting some time pass and then ruthlessly editing (something I learned from my sister-in-law, Nicole) until the last minute. Knowing that what was fascinating to me was probably not as much so to her, I kept it brief.

But her question stayed with me through the week and led to this piece you’re now reading. It is true: I find the whole process of creating and delivering a sermon absolutely fascinating. So I’m going to share my thoughts with you. Not all at once. Blogs aren’t conducive to long discourse. And if you’re observant you’ll notice I haven’t been a frequent blogger. Hopefully that will change but writing my sermons is my first priority. Blogging comes in a distant second.

As for sermon preparation… it’s a lot of things: study, research, inspiration, craft, rehearsal. But what it’s not is easy. In fact it’s everything that isn’t easy.

I’m over fifty years old and I’ve worked a variety of jobs since I was twelve: picking apples, digging septic tank leech lines, working in an open pit mine in the Nevada desert, flipping burgers at McDonalds, cooking for the post-bar rush at a 24-hour diner, running a corporate purchasing department, field sales for hi-tech semiconductors, special projects for business process improvement, partner in a private post-secondary school, and selling speech recognition software. And pastoring a small start-up church.

Some of the work has been stressful, or physically demanding, or has kept me away from home when my kids were growing up. But nothing has been as difficult as ministering the word of God every Sunday. And nothing has been as rewarding, frustrating, exciting, headache-producing, exhilarating and tiring. I love it!

I don’t think of myself as a preacher, at least not in the clichéd “yell-and-say-yea-ah-thus-says-the-Lord” sense. I’m a pastor-teacher, hyphenated, no conjunction. Teaching is my gift and my joy.

My job is simple: every week for 30-45 minutes I stand in a front of an expectant group of followers of Christ and say fascinating new stuff about God, claiming it to be inspired and true. Some of them know little about the word, others know more than I do – a lot more. Some are really interested in hearing from God’s word; others are counting the seconds until lunch. Individually counting the seconds (I can see it in their eyes). And all I aim to do is relate the truth to them in a way they can understand, while keeping them completely engaged, and never, never, never misrepresent God’s word.

I'll be back with more. I just need to finish my sermon...

10:46 pm pdt 

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