Improve Your Sermon Preparation
Bible teachers and preachers are a gift to the body of Christ, but they have also received a gift and a calling from the Lord, one they must steward well for the glory of God. I don’t personally know of any communicator of God’s word who feels they have no room to improve. Every pastor or teacher I know wants to grow in their gifting. We want to cultivate it well. What follows are some simple tips which have helped me grow as a bible teacher.
1. Pray Over the Teaching
Sometimes prayer is pushed to the fringes of Bible teaching. We all agree we should be prayerful in our handling of God’s word, but often we have no space to cry out to God over the text and teaching. It is good for us to pause our reading and reflection at various junctures of sermon preparation and ask God to fill our minds and hearts with his message. The two main ways I practice prayer over the teachings I give is during my early morning devotional time with God, but in between my research and the actual sermon creation. I find that once my research work is complete, but before I’ve decided what angle the message will take, it is good for me to ask God for guidance. I just grab my Bible and go for a short walk and talk with him about the text.
2. Think About Individuals
Think about a handful of people you know personally who will listen to the teaching as you prepare. Sometimes I will write down the names of ten or so people who will be present when I deliver the sermon. This practice enables my mind to unlock and think through some of the implications of my teaching for their lives. Rather than focus on the entire group, thinking through the individuals who comprise the group can help a pastor or teacher impart valuable insights to the congregation.
3. Give Yourself Space
I like to have my teachings prepared a few days before I need to deliver them. For me, this is the sweet spot, close enough that it will be fresh, but far enough away that I have time to ponder and pray and shift as needed. I do not like doing major Sunday sermon prep on Saturday, for instance. As the teaching date approaches, changes and insights are bound to come, for that is the nature of preaching, but I prefer having the bulk of my work done ahead of time (by Thursday for Sunday messages).
4. Teach It Before You Teach It
I will admit that I often preach the messages I’m going to give in advance of the live teaching. I know some men and women who will deliver their messages into the air, practicing the teaching with all its gestures and jokes and inflections in advance. I don’t go that far, but I will often record a studio version of my teaching before I give a live version. Another way to teach it in advance is to talk about the message with others. I have often shared my entire teaching outline with a running buddy, a group of pastors, or Christina in advance of my teaching. I know some pastors who have a preaching group they share their messages with in advance so they can get feedback and help. Others share their notes or outline or manuscript with a few trusted elders for input. However we do this, speaking our message out loud before we climb behind a pulpit will help us find greater clarity and focus.
5. Eliminate Distractions
My brain is a crazy place. It is capable of creating distractions where there are none, so it is important for me to do my part in creating an atmosphere where the least amount of distractions can occur. I prefer studying in the same space at the same times. It is also a must for me to have the internet disabled on all my devices. Rather than use my willpower to keep airplane mode on, I use apps called Freedom (Mac, Apple, Microsoft devices) and Offtime (Android devices) to shut down the internet, text messages, emails, Basecamp, and other potentially distracting apps and programs. Doing this enables me to use my willpower for study and thought. If I wanted to hop online for a bit, even if only to get a little additional work done, I couldn’t.
6. Go to Bed Earlier
That extra episode on Netflix is tempting at night, but we often pay for it the day (or week) following. Teaching is brain work, and a rested brain will produce better than a fatigued one. We all function better and think more clearly when well rested. I am not the exception. For me, I try to get 7-8 hours a night. I sometimes nap for 10-20 minutes, and always get a 20-minute nap on Sunday afternoons (before our evening service). I also try to avoid cutting my sleep short during the workweek with hopes of "catching up" on the weekend. I don't think that method works.
7. Read Broadly
I know, I know, Solomon said, "Of making many books there is no end" (Ecclesiastes 12:12). Personally, I don't bemoan that but celebrate it. Even a lousy book helps me clarify my thoughts and sharpen my communication skills. Like most pastors, I enjoy digging into various commentaries while preparing for a sermon, but I also usually have three other books I'm reading during other pockets of my day and week. First, I read a spiritually edifying book. Often heady, often not, sometimes a classic, sometimes a new release, these books edify my inner man. Second, I read a personal growth book. Sometimes a book like this overlaps with the first type, but often it does not. I like reading about how to improve my writing style, be better organized, parent, husband, lead, etc. I also enjoy reading self-help books I disagree with, to see how people are thinking through life. Third, I read fiction. Because I enjoy hearing someone tell a story, sometimes I read fluffy modern fiction, like a cheesy detective novel, sometimes I read old classics, and sometimes I read trippy, artsy fiction.
8. Break It Up
My brain cannot study for a sermon for 6-hours straight, at least not regularly. If I'm in a pinch, I can devote a full day to research and teaching prep, but my normal limit is right around 4 hours. It took me a while to stretch out to that length. After the fourth hour, returns diminish, and I find I'm mostly wasting time. For this reason, I have to prepare teachings over the course of a few days. Additionally, I've discovered the further out I start preparations, the less time I need. In other words, if I begin the bulk of prep on Monday, I will need considerably less time than if I began on Thursday. By starting sooner, breaking up the process, my mind is free to work during the spare moments of the week. While grocery shopping, running through the forest, or talking with Christina thoughts regarding the next sermon might come into greater focus.
9. Apply It to Yourself
I like to think through what this teaching or text has meant for my life. Sometimes I will even peruse old journals in search of my devotional thoughts regarding a passage. I often join this portion of sermon prep up with my prayer time, asking God to do in me what I want the text and teaching to do for the congregation.
10. Look Them in the Eye
When I began as the lead-pastor at our church, I was not quite thirty years old. I was not one of those bravado-filled young guys, either, but was rather nervous. I know I delivered many teachings where my focus was mostly upon my notes, not the people. Over the years, however, I've found looking people in the eye is essential for gospel and Scripture transmission. The eyes say so much if you really look into them. Hurts, agreements, objections, questions, amens, longings, and pains can often be read in someone's eyes, so I like to pause, take a breath, look into people's eyes, and love on them with the Word of God.
Whoever you are, and wherever you deliver the word, I hope this brief list of reflections helps you as you sharpen your work for Christ. You are needed. You are a gift. Get after it.