When is it Enough in Sermon Preparation?
That simple refrain evokes one of two responses depending on who hears it. If you grew up in the church or are an active member of a believing community, you may recall these words around Easter as providing hope of the resurrection on the heels of the cross.
But there’s an entire group of people who hear something different.
We call them preachers.
And every Monday they face the reality that no matter what happened the day before, Sunday is coming.
I have worked in ministry in various capacities ever since I became a Christian as a freshman in college. For the last eight years, I have worked the majority of my weeks given to regular teaching and preaching.
I know this second sense of hearing that refrain all too well. It filled me with both great joy as well as great weightiness when I considered the task I had before me. I was to preach God’s Word to God’s people in ways that are faithful to the text and fruitful in the lives of the church.
It’s the title that I am convinced is asking the wrong question. And yet, it is the question we as preachers spend too much time focusing on.
How much time should I give to sermon preparation?
Textbooks on preaching suggest anywhere from 6 to 20 hours a week. Others might suggest our full and only attention, or 40 hours is standard. My personal experience was that while preaching was my main task, as a church planter and at times solo Lead Pastor, I had to balance my time in both personal study and interpersonal ministry. This looked like a few hours one week, and several more the next (and vice versa).
Instead of feeling a sense of guilt over failing to hit an arbitrary allotment of hours (how much time?), I settled on different benchmarks.
First, do I understand the passage in light of the author’s main concern to his first audience?
Second, have I identified the questions I still have about the text and have I discovered reasonable answers along the way?
If I had a sense of God-given confidence about these two questions, then I would switch gears from studying the passage to preparing to preach the passage. This is the switch from exegesis to homiletics; from the text to the people. Both are equally important.
It’s critical to keep this in mind. There will always be more in any given text or topic than we can cover in any given week. Your task as a preacher is to immerse yourself in Scripture and understand the passage as best you can. But even then our job is only half-done. We then have to take what we have received from God through study and prayer, then prepare to deliver that message to a particular people.
We as preachers need to study the text in such a way that we seek as much clarity as possible to the questions the passage provokes. But our call is also to be invested in the lives of our people to such a degree that we can apply the passage and the grace of God in Christ to their lives.
We study and preach God’s Word to God’s people for the sake of God’s world.
There are tools and services to help with that task. An example might be using software to organize your notes (like Logos, Accordance for Bible Study, or Evernote for articles and your own notes), or even a sermon research assistant to complement our own personal study. (This is a service I provide. Let me know if you want to explore this option).
But more important than any tool, service, and more important than the amount of time we are able to give to it, is the presence and power of God bringing His Word to life in our hearts, illuminating our minds, and impacting the lives of others. God is with you preacher in the study, across the table, and behind the pulpit.
Go into His Word and out into His world with Him in all that you do.
Preacher, I pray that you would meet God in your study of His Word and lead you to a greater understanding of Him through His Word. I pray that God would open your eyes to your own need for His grace in the text. I pray that God would lead you to an even greater understanding of your people’s need for God’s grace in the text as it applies to their particular circumstances. I pray that the Holy Spirit would empower you to preach powerful, fruitful sermons that transform lives. And I pray that through you and your work, the kingdom of darkness would continue to fall and the kingdom of God continue to spread to the ends of the Earth.