In college, and again in seminary, I, like most everyone else who has attended seminary to prepare for ministry, took one or more courses in sermon preparation. For the most part, these courses, at least at the introductory level, teach students on the mechanics of how to prepare and deliver a sermon. Despite what some church folks might think, sermon preparation requires a great deal of hard work; that is, if the preacher or pastor is doing what she is called to do.
Sermon preparation normally involves a number of steps, some of which are as follows:
1) Selecting a biblical text or texts from which one will preach. For lectionary preachers this is made somewhat easier, although not without its challenges.
2) Reading and interpreting that text, ideally by translating the text from its original Hebrew or Greek and by consulting authoritative commentaries written by biblical scholars.
3) Formulating a working outline of the sermon, along with a specific direction the preacher wants the sermon to go.
4) Writing the sermon manuscript from which the preacher might deliver the sermon either from memory or from reading the manuscript from the pulpit.
There are other steps that preachers may take in this general process and each homilitician will do things differently from others, but most would agree that the above steps are essential to sermon preparation.
One of the challenges that a preacher faces each week, particularly those who are pastors of congregations that expect to hear a word from God week each week, is how to make a sermon applicable. After all, some texts do not easily translate into applications for congregations living in our modern, and very scientific and technological world.
To be honest, I have always hated the concept of drawing an application from every biblical text. As I see it, this process seems, at times, to force something from a text that is not there. Often times the preacher is so pressured into finding an application from an ancient biblical text that matches the needs of his contemporary audience, that the application is at best a stretch.
On a personal note, I recall being criticized for not drawing out an application while leading a Bible study on a particular book of the Bible. The person commented that we need to know what each verse means to us. I replied, somewhat snarky, “Not every word in the Bible has to do with you.”
But still, folks who gather to worship on Sunday mornings gather with expectation that they have not just come to hear a good oration of a biblical text; they have come to hear what God may have to say to them about their lives and their struggles, even though many may disregard the message, particularly if it makes them feel uncomfortable.
But in preparing sermons, I wonder how many of us allow a biblical text to speak to us personally before we start making applications for those who will hear our sermons. Do I read texts with an expectation of what God may be saying to me before I concern myself with what God might want to say to others?
I am not questioning the thought process that preachers go through each week when preparing sermons. I have not talked to enough pastors to determine by any stretch of the imagination what the majority of pastors do with regards to their personal approach and involvement in sermon planning and writing. But, I wonder how many of us preachers write sermons that apply to our congregations, but allow a text’s message to pass us by?
Would we not be more authentic in our preaching if we allowed the text to take stock of our own lives before we presume to say what we think God might want to say to our congregations?
Again, as I told the person who criticized my lack of making application from every verse in Bible, I do not think every word or every verse or every passage has something to say to us. However, I do think that texts can speak to us in different ways, and for the preacher to allow the mechanics of sermon preparation to become the focal point of crafting a sermon in order to jump to how the text applies to his congregation, without first allowing one’s personal encounter with the text to shape one’s thoughts, may miss the treasure that awaits the congregation.
For me, at least for many of my sermons, sermon preparation involves an introspective process in which I read the text and allow the text to penetrate deep inside my mind. Yes, I perform the mechanics of sermon preparation, much like I was taught in that seminary class. But, I also do not treat the text as an object outside of myself. Rather, I try, though not always successfully, to allow the biblical text to become a part of me, and I become a part of it.
This is one reason why I am partial to biblical narratives because I think the narratives, whether those of the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, present plots and characters that resonate with us even though we are separated by a chasm of time and culture. I recall a college professor telling our class that the characters in the Bible were there not for historical purposes, but to help us see who we really are. By that he meant that when we read of the lives of these characters, we often find that we can be very much like them, both when it comes to accomplishments as well as deficiencies. These characters become mirrors in which we can see ourselves.
The biblical narratives complete with their plots and characters give the preacher a gateway into the introspective process of sermon preparation. The preacher thinks not how the text applies to the future audience, but rather she thinks and struggles with how the text infiltrates her own spiritual psyche and how it draws out her own humanity before God.
At least from my own experience, and I am not saying I am very good at this, I believe that such an introspective process of sermon preparation makes for more authentic and more passionate preaching. And, as preachers are inclined to say, “Now, that will preach.”