After a substantial investment in college and seminary preparation, a young pastor delivers a well-received sermon to her new congregation. It is the magnum opus of an above-average student, several years in the making. Pastor and people shake hands afterwards; both sides happy it went so well. “This isn’t so bad,” Jenna thinks to herself, “I really can do this preaching thing! People listened and liked it; the Holy Spirit was present. What a thrill and a privilege!”
The glow lingers over a great Sunday lunch. But as the sun goes down, and the morning’s brilliance fades just a bit, a sobering reality settles in Jenna’s mind: “Less than seven days remain before I have to do this all over again. I have to do this every single Sunday for the rest of my professional life!”
The burden of preparing and delivering an inspired sermon every Sunday morning adds up to a prodigious demand on a tight schedule, particularly when you consider the other significant claims on a pastor’s time. Pastors will spend copious amounts of energy trying to pull together “something for Sunday” for every week of every year they serve a congregation. After a few weeks of this adventure, Jenna begins to think, “There has to be a better way,” and there is.
The Long-Range Perspective
Thankfully, many tools are available to the wise preacher, but effectively utilizing these tools requires a fairly simple adjustment in perspective on the preaching calendar. Instead of looking at preaching as a weekly discipline, take a step back and expand your preaching vision. You will deliver many sermons (maybe 1,500-2,000) over a long tenure as a pastor. Considered on this scale, one particular sermon is not of monumental importance. A year from now, very few people will recall the details of this week’s gem, but the cumulative effect of 50 sermons per year will be significant. Think about a congregation listening to your sermons for the next five years: how will they be formed in faith over that time? What will they learn about the Bible, God’s Holy Word? What will they learn about the church, God’s Holy Community? What will they come to believe about their lives? Will they be closer to God? Will they have a more positive effect on their community? Will anyone else come to experience God through their influence? Certainly, preaching is not the only factor that will determine these outcomes; yet, it provides a tremendous weekly opportunity to influence people in many key areas. Since planning can make all the difference, where are we to begin?
Sermon Planning Through the Lectionary
One of the most efficient methods for implementing a larger perspective for your preaching is to consider the wisdom of the collective Body of Christ across the ages. The lectionary is a three-year cycle of biblical readings, which can provide a road map for effective preaching, and it is experiencing a resurgence among evangelical congregations. We are rediscovering the wisdom of trusting that the full council of God is found in the full range of God’s Word. Each Sunday includes a reading from the four Gospels, which often provides the thematic focus for other readings. Yet, a solid sermon could usually arise from any of the four passages incorporated weekly. This approach is not for everyone, but following the lectionary has undeniable advantages.
Foremost, by following the lectionary’s readings, you will be giving your congregation a more balanced biblical diet than your favorite passages could provide. Over the course of three years, you will preach from all the biblical genres. If you utilize all four weekly readings, your congregation will hear the majority of God’s Word read aloud. Surely, this would do something to increase their biblical literacy. In addition, the corresponding passages that are not focused on in the sermon can provide important biblical support to the message. New pastors, like Jenna, will be able to present a more seasoned and mature message than would otherwise be the case. Utilizing the lectionary may also provide a method for connecting with other pastors in your own community who meet regularly to discuss their preaching plans, as the lectionary is followed across denominational boundaries.
Another significant advantage of utilizing the lectionary for weekly sermon preparation is the myriad lectionary- based resources available, such as commentaries and worship planning resources. And many of these resources are free! A sampling of such resources can be found at www.textweek.com, the web address for “The Text this Week.” Rather than pre-packaged sermons to be downloaded Saturday night, this site contains tools and communities to empower long-range preaching vision. Highly-skilled preachers provide links to their notes and impressions from early readings of passages. Discussion links provide a dialogue for ministers to explore connections between the biblical world and our postmodern context. Links to relevant movie scenes and classic works of art are also available. And suggestions for children’s sermons and Bible studies are included as well. Finally, the same information can be accessed based on biblical passages, rather than the weekly calendar. Therefore, even non-lectionary preachers can benefit from the rich resources of this site.
Certain seasons lend themselves especially well to the benefits of the lectionary; the period from Thanksgiving to Pentecost (December-May) provides particularly strong connections. Utilizing just this period of the lectionary would leave summer and fall for more localized planning and sermons that may be more influenced by the secular calendar in your community. For example, in my own planning, I reflect from time-to-time on major heart-cries in my congregation: What questions are people asking? What needs are present? In light of discipleship, what areas need attention in people’s lives? The Psalms and wisdom literature give voice to some of these questions and provide a positive context for addressing them. Since wisdom literature is a bit under-represented in the lectionary, summer can be an optimum time to tap this resource.
Thomas Bandy, a nationally-known church consultant, has developed The Uncommon Lectionary for an alternative plan, when the majority of people in your context have little previous experience with church. He includes an annual cycle for seekers and believers, now available in book form on Amazon.com and in e-book format.
Sermon Planning Through Reflection
Examining our preaching in a larger view also includes considering past messages and asking which parts of the Bible have not received attention in a while. What stages of life are represented in our church and how are these represented in my preaching calendar? The back-to-school period (late August—Mid-October) is a time when people are establishing a rhythm for life. Perhaps Old Testament narratives of faith could provide a holy wind in their sails. And of course, January is a season when many people consider change in their lives. The lectionary will be focused on preparing for outreach, visiting the early stages of Jesus’ ministry. This could work well to prepare congregants for outreach leading up to Easter, or could be an opportunity to step away from the lectionary with messages emphasizing stewardship or spiritual disciplines.
Sermon Planning Through Series
Another method for examining preaching from a larger perspective is to preach in series. This can be done topically or biblically. I recommend series preaching whenever possible, whether you use the lectionary or not, because this methodology can create a sense of expectation. However, topical series preaching should be managed carefully to ensure you’re preaching the whole council of God, from the full range of Scripture. If you keep good records, this isn’t hard to accomplish.
One of the prime benefits of developing an annual or multi-annual preaching plan is the boon to worship planning. Your worship leader will be in a much more effectual position if you provide them with advance topics. While you’re at it, why not include them, along with other creative staff and congregation members, in the process of finalizing sermon and worship experiences? Jenna’s load would be greatly reduced, if she developed a Worship Program Team to help plan each preaching series. The team can break down a large creative vision into manageable tasks, shared among a variety of gifted individuals and groups in the church. With more people comes more creativity. With more people invested in the planning and facilitating of each worship/sermon experience, broader interest and impact will likely result. Of course, the group must be shepherded well, given meaningful assignments, recognized for their work, and encouraged along the way. All the usual elements of team ministry apply, as do the positive outcomes!
Designing and Implementing a Sermon Plan
To begin implementing a long-range preaching plan, schedule two to three days away from the office. Consider a nearby seminary or college library or perhaps a more prayerful spot, like a cottage or prayer retreat center. You might start, as I do, with a large, blank 11x17 chart of all the Sundays of the year to come. Then, get on your face before God and listen with a pen in hand. Remember to bathe the entire process in prayer and maintain that attitude throughout the year. You can easily note and highlight the dates that will be given to a certain focus: Christmas, Easter, special days, denominational emphases, and so on. You may wish to proceed from there with a form of the lectionary or other annual schedule. As you start to fill in your chart, the big picture comes into view. Give a first reading to as many passages as possible and try to identify emerging themes for some days. Continue to prayerfully chip away at each week, and soon you will have a solid, long-range plan.
Some may ask if this method of long-range planning hampers God’s ability to lead weekly or in the moment. First of all, the Holy Spirit can lead us in advance just as well or better than in the moment. But this plan is just that-a plan. God is free to steer your ministry however he sees fit along the way. At our church, we make detailed plans as often as possible, but as I heard someone once say, “Until it’s history, it’s fiction.” Seek God’s will early and often. Revisit the plan at least quarterly. Work with your team four to six weeks in advance. If major, lifealtering events impact your community, consider taking a break from the plan to address these situations. But also consider sticking with the plan, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes, the last thing people need is for the bad news of the week to eclipse the worship experience as well.
The question falls to you: how’s your preaching vision?
As Jenna considers these possibilities, she begins to feel the tension in her shoulders relaxing just a bit. This enlarged vision involves work of its own; yet, she can already sense the benefits of energy applied on this larger scale. As the senior leader, she is given the responsibility for the overall results, but is not shouldered with every task. She has an opportunity to mentor and develop people, while ensuring better services and sermons. As she goes to sleep at night, she no longer feels blinded by the task before her. She sees the big picture of preaching more clearly. Since Jenna is now well on her way, the question falls to you: how’s your preaching vision? Are you stuck in the sevenday loop of filling in the blanks to have “something for Sunday?” Or do you have a larger vision for life-changing ministry through preaching and worship?
TIMOTHY STIDHAM serves as senior pastor of NewHope Community Church of the Nazarene in Dyer, IN, and is also Adjunct Instructor at Olivet Nazarene University
Related Article: 'The Future of Preaching: An Interview with Jay Akkerman'
Related Article: 'The Challenge of Multicultural Preaching: An interview with Gabriel Salguero'
Related Article: 'On Crafting Sermons: An Interview with David Busic'