Rethinking Sermon Preparation

The area I’ve worked on the hardest in the past year is sermon preparation. It’s always a struggle to make time to prepare sermons because it’s hard work and there are plenty of other things to do!

As I wrote in my post, Preaching Requires Investment, Bill Hybels has been quoted to say …

Preaching has been the single most vexing activity that I am engaged in, in Christian work. Nothing beats me up or puts me on my knees for longer periods of time, frustrates me more, or creates a greater feeling of dependency on God than preaching and teaching.

I’ve written posts in the past about my attempts to improve sermon preparation, including The 4 Ss of Sermon Preparation, which was a revision The 5 Stages of Sermon Preparation. The 4 Ss (Soak, Study, Shape, and Simmer) still describe my general process for sermon preparation, but I will always be looking for ways to improve the day-to-day process!

But lately, I’ve been thinking about the nature of sermon preparation. Sermon prep really isn’t about writing, or putting together, a great sermon. Rather, sermon prep is about God forming his message in the preacher so the preacher can communicate it to people!

Sermon prep is about experiencing God’s Word personally and taking a journey with God, and then taking the congregation on a journey through the sermon. That’s not easy to do. It’s easier to focus on the task of putting a sermon together. Tasks are easier to complete. Journeys are much more difficult and unpredictable!

Nancy Duarte, author of Resonate talks about the communicator as the mentor (rather than the hero). Duarte says, “You’re simply the voice helping them get unstuck in their journey” (20). To be a good mentor, “place the audience at the center of the action, and make them feel that the presentation is addressing them personally” (20). (I’ve written a lot about Resonate; start with “Resonate”: Bringing It All Together).

Thinking of the people in the audience as heroes changes the nature of communication. The goal isn’t to impress people with profound knowledge or great communication skills. It’s to help people on their journey. Duarte writes …

As mentor, your role is to give the hero guidance, confidence, insight, training, or magical gifts so he can overcome his initial fears and enter the new journey with you. (20)

Similar to the idea of a mentor, I like to think of the communicator (and the leader) as an Adventure Guide. Different from a Travel Agent, who sends people on journeys they may not have taken themselves, an Adventure Guide takes the journey, too!

We can only help people on their journey if we are taking the journey ourselves!

My favorite image for this is a funnel, which I heard Louie Giglio talk about last year during the free online event, Preach Better Sermons. I mentioned it in my post, 5 Takeaways from Preach Better Sermons. Giglio used a funnel to illustrate how God’s Word should pour into us and work on us so that a meaningful, focused message comes out. God must do a work in the preacher through the text during the process of preparing to preach!

I certainly haven’t mastered it, but here are three ways I’m trying to prepare to preach

  1. Maintain a strong devotional life. I read through the Bible unrelated to sermon prep. Prayer is also vital (see Preacher & Prayer).
  2. Soak in the text, preferably more than a week before delivery (the further ahead, the better). See Sermon Prep With iAnnotate to read about my process for soaking in the text.
  3. Constantly ask, “What does God want me to say?” and “What is God saying to me?” It can’t just be what I want to say to “them”!

It’s hard work. But it’s necessary because sermon preparation is about God forming his message in us so we can communicate it to people!

How do you invite and allow God to work on you during sermon preparation?

Prayers for the Church: Patience & Persistence

The Church needs patience and persistence!

I invite you to pray with me for the Church as I continue my way through a series of prayer posts. See links to previous prayers below.

The Church needs patience because it usually takes time to experience transformation. It takes time to lead transformation and to shape (or reshape) a biblically-focused, missional culture!

The Church needs persistence as it engages in challenging ministry in an uncertain and difficult world.

O God, thank you for entrusting us with the awesome task of being the hands and feet of Jesus in a dark and broken world. Thank you for calling us to be a voice of hope!

Sometimes transformation happens quickly. But even overnight transformation is usually preceded by lots of prayer and seed-planting. Often the work is painstakingly slow. Please help us to be patient, trusting you to work in and through us. Help us trust that you are always at work, even if behind-the-scenes!

Whenever we encounter difficulty along the way, help us to be persistent, and to keep moving forward!

Encourage us to keep planting lots and lots of seeds and “not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up” (Galatians 6.9, CEB).

Thank you for your work among us. And thank you for inviting us to participate in what you are doing in the world! Amen.

(Previous prayers include: awakening, transformational leaders, urgency, hope, health, compassion, action, unity, power, favor, endurance, trust, discipline, courage, vision, provision, and humble & hungry).

“Training Camp”

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading some books by Jon Gordon. I’ve enjoyed them all, but I think my favorite so far is Training Camp. I read it awhile back, but it’s especially appropriate now as NFL teams begin training camps this week!

Training Camp is an inspirational fable that follows the story of Martin Jones, an un-drafted rookie trying to make it in the NFL. Along the way, he encounters adversity through an ankle injury during preseason. With the help of a coach named Ken, Jones learns eleven life-changing lessons. The lessons, which are based on Gordon’s work with great teams and organizations, are valuable and applicable no matter your vocation in life!

Here are some of my favorite takeaways

After Martin’s injury following a great performance in his first preseason game, a trainer named Gus tries to convince Martin there’s an upside to injuries. He says, “they slow you down mentally so you can think more clearly.” He talks to Martin about the importance of mental toughness. He says …

… it’s not ability that separates those who make it from those who don’t. It’s sustainability. And sustainability has as much to do with mental preparation as it does physical.

As Martin rehabilitates his ankle, a coach named Ken becomes his mentor. He begins by talking about greatness. Greatness, he says, takes more than desire. He says, “everyone says they want to be great, but very few are willing to pay the price.”

And it takes more than talent.

People think it’s all about talent. But talent isn’t enough anymore. Everyone here has talent. It’s about infusing talent with heart, soul, spirit, and passion.

One of Ken’s lessons is, “The best want it more. ” He tells Martin, “The best don’t just think about their desire for greatness, they act on it. … The best are never satisfied with where they are.”

On a similar note, another lesson is, “The best are always striving to get better.”

The best are always looking for ways to learn, apply, improve, and grow. They are humble and hungry. They are lifelong learners. … You are either getting better or worse but never staying the same.

As you might expect, the coach is big on preparation. He talks about the “Game-Day Principle” …

Five percent of a person’s life is made up of our performance on game day, while 95 percent is made up of the time we are preparing, practicing, and waiting to perform. … The fact is, how we practice and prepare with 95 percent of our time determines how we perform on game day.

When it comes to preparation, “Success is all about the little things.” Ken notes, using a baseball analogy, “the difference between a 250 batter and a 350 batter is only 1.7 hits per week. It’s the little things that separate the best from the rest.”

Toward the end of training camp, Coach Ken talks to young Martin about the importance of leaving a legacy. He tells Martin …

You were made for a purpose and you were created to strive for greatness. But remember that you were made to become great in order to benefit the greater good, not yourself. God blesses us not for our own good but because God blesses through us to bless others. … The success you create now is temporary, but the legacy you leave is eternal.

I appreciate this addition. You could interpret some of the earlier lessons about being the best to mean being better than others. Coach Ken now recasts greatness. He says …

… being the best really wasn’t about being better than anyone else but about striving to be the best you could be and bringing out the best in others.

I found Training Camp to be a quick, enjoyable read. It probably helps if you like football, but either way, the lessons apply!

(Edited to say that I actually blogged about this book previously. Oops).

Prayers for the Church: Humble & Hungry

The Church needs to stay humble and hungry!

I’m in the midst of a long series, posting prayers for the Church (see links to previous prayers below). I’m not sure when this series will end, but in the meantime, I invite you to pray with me for the Church!

A couple of months ago, Mark Batterson, author of The Circle Maker, which I’ve blogged about (see the last post here), tweeted …

Shortly after that, I came across a similar statement in Jon Gordon’s book, Training Camp (which I’ll blog about soon!). Gordon also wrote a blog post: Humble and Hungry.

Ever since then, this phrase has been at the forefront of my prayers. It’s so critical that we stay humble and hungry!

One thing Michael Quicke said in the interview I wrote about yesterday is that one of the dangers in the church today is “self-importance.” He says …

It absolutely ruins churches. Whenever people get self-important, clearly they’re in great danger of missing the whole point of serving and glorifying him.

It’s something we must continually guard against. It’s one of the reasons Jesus constantly reminded his disciples to stay alert!

We must keep a right attitude–God is good, we’re undeserving; God is at work in our lives, doing something in us and through us; we get to be part of what God is doing in the world; and, it’s all for the glory of God!

The Apostle Paul wrote …

Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me—so that I would not become arrogant.

God will help us to stay humble, if necessary (it usually is). May God help us to stay humble and hungry!

O God, thank you so much for your love, mercy, and grace! Thank you for rescuing us, and for using us in your rescue mission to save the world!

You use us not because we are good or gifted, but because you are a great and mighty and merciful God. Please help us to always remember how desperate we are for your help and power in our lives and ministries!

Help us to stay humble, knowing that we need you and can do nothing of eternal significance apart from you. And, help us to stay hungry. Let us never settle for good enough, but help us to keep moving forward in our walk with you and in the mission you’ve given us for the world you love so much! Amen.

(Previous prayers include: awakening, transformational leaders, urgency, hope, health, compassion, action, unity, power, favor, endurance, trust, discipline, courage, vision, and provision).

Michael Quicke on Preaching

Seedbed posted an interview of Michael Quicke, who teaches at Northern Seminary. The interview is broken into three parts: one, two, and three.

Quicke has written a couple of books on preaching that are actually still on my reading pile: 360-Degree Preaching: Hearing, Speaking, and Living the Word (paperback) and 360-Degree Leadership: Preaching to Transform Congregations (Kindle). After listening to the video interviews, these books may rise a little higher on the pile!

Quicke outlines four models of preaching: Herald Preaching (proclaiming), Teacher Preaching (the trap is explaining Scripture rather than teaching/proclaiming Scripture), Inductive Preaching (responding to needs), and Narrative Preaching (living within God’s story and seeing our stories within in it). He focuses on narrative preaching, noting that it’s not simply about telling a lot of stories. “No, you engage with the story of the text.”

Quicke advises looking “for the trouble in the text” because it’s going to be trouble for us and will point to what we need help on. He says …

The narrative preacher dwells in the story and understands that there’s a plot and a movement, and then in sermon form … you’re within a story which frames where you’re going.

When Quicke listens to preachers (including students), he’s wondering …

  • Has the preacher got something that God is saying in the text … about what God is doing in the text?
  • Has the preacher been immersed in the text?

When the preacher has been immersed in the text, “this Scripture means something to them and it’s come alive for them and it’s coming alive to me.” When the sermon is properly structured, Quicke says you get a “sense of the journey that the preacher’s been on, which is what preaching is all about.”

I love Quicke’s suggestion of immersing yourself in the text before consulting commentaries (my post, The 4 Ss of Sermon Preparation begins with “soaking,” and comes before “study”). Quicke argues, “pastors go to commentaries too quickly” (usually because they’re busy!). He adds, “What really matters is that we spend time with the text before we consult commentaries and that time is spent prayerfully.” He suggests reading the text out loud slowly and prayerfully so that you can hear the text. “Living in the text is a spiritual thing … a discipline.”

As you read the text, pray …

Lord, speak to me through this, help me through this … you’re dealing with me first so that I can deal with the people.

Asked about the role of the Holy Spirit in preaching, Quicke made the case for 360° preaching. He says the old model was 180° preaching where you have the Bible on one side and the hearers on one side and the preacher makes the connection. In that model, “a lot of the work depends on the preacher.”

In 360° preaching …

God speaks and the preacher is responsible for listening. Jesus is at the center; he’s the preacher; it’s his church. The bottom of the circle is the delivery and the rest of the circle is the response because it’s what happens afterward that really counts.

In this understanding, the Father, Son, and Spirit are all involved. He says, “we can’t do it without them.”

Quicke adds …

It’s a way of looking at preaching as participating in the trinity. It’s a big idea in terms of shaping it instead of me doing something, me participating with God, because of what he wants to do through me. It’s very humbling, but it’s very encouraging … because it means when you’re exhausted … you say, if the Lord’s calling me to this, he’s actually in the whole process.

Quicke responded to a question about preachers telling personal stories. He noted that the culture now expects preachers to be authentic, to show how they’re not immune to trouble. He says …

For preachers to be authentic, we expect some exposure … but it’s a delicate balance. You’ve got the keep the balance and remember that Jesus is preeminent.

Quoting John the Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” he argues this is “vital for preachers.” He warns …

If you’re taking any glory for yourself, it comes at the expense of Jesus. … You can’t magnify yourself and magnify Jesus at the same time. You tell a funny story about yourself, you’re going to have to work really hard to get back to the Lord.”

Quicke says you have to be careful how much of your allotted time you “use up on yourself.” He says, “make sure that ‘he must increase’ and that means not too much of myself, though enough of myself, and especially if it’s an evangelistic sermon, where you want people to know ‘I’ve met Jesus.'”

I personally found this interview helpful and challenging. I hope it’s helpful for you, too!

The Call to Ministry is a Call to Suffer

Recently, I was preparing a sermon about Ananias and Barnabas, those unsung heroes who played a major role in the Apostle Paul’s life (he was Saul, at the time). I was particularly struck by Jesus’ description of Paul’s call to ministry.

God sent Ananias to search for Saul, the persecutor of the Church, who was praying, at the time. Ananias protested, of course, but the Lord insisted, saying …

Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name. (Acts 9.15-16, CEB)

While this is a statement specifically about Paul’s ministry, Scripture seems pretty clear that ministry is challenging. There’s certainly no indication in Scripture that ministry is easy!

It’s not easy for any of Jesus’ followers. Jesus said …

All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. (Mark 8.34-35, CEB)

Jesus is talking about self-denial, taking up your cross, and losing your life. That’s pretty intense!

We know from Paul’s story that he certainly suffered. In a letter to the Corinthian Church, he described it this way …

I’ve been imprisoned much more often. I’ve been beaten more times than I can count. I’ve faced death many times. I received the ‘forty lashes minus one’ from the Jews five times. I was beaten with rods three times. I was stoned once. I was shipwrecked three times. I spent a day and a night on the open sea. I’ve been on many journeys. I faced dangers from rivers, robbers, my people, and Gentiles. I faced dangers in the city, in the desert, on the sea, and from false brothers and sisters. I faced these dangers with hard work and heavy labor, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, and in the cold without enough clothes. (2 Corinthians 11.23-27, CEB)

The call to ministry is a call to suffer!

I love what Paul says elsewhere in the same letter …

7 But we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us. 8 We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. 9 We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out.

10 We always carry Jesus’ death around in our bodies so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies. 11 We who are alive are always being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies that are dying. 12 So death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

16 So we aren’t depressed. But even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day. 17 Our temporary minor problems are producing an eternal stockpile of glory for us that is beyond all comparison. (2 Corinthians 4.7-12, 16-17, CEB)

The call to ministry is a call to suffer. It’s important to remember, though, that Paul describes what he and other leaders endure as “temporary minor problems” compared to what is accomplished!

Well, in many cultures around the world, Jesus followers experience the kind of suffering Paul describes, and even worse. But in present-day North American culture, the Church enjoys a much more culturally-friendly status.

But even in this culture, the Church needs to be counter-cultural. And, when churches more counter-cultural, Jesus followers, and especially leaders, will encounter hardship (both inside and outside the church)!

What do you think?

Prayers for the Church: Provision

The Church needs provision for the vision!

I’m nearing the end of a series of posts, offering prayers for the Church on different topics (see links below). I invite you to pray with me for the Church for the sake of the world God loves so much!

God has given the Church its mission–to make disciples of Jesus Christ. And, thankfully, God provides the resources the Church needs to accomplish God’s mission!

O God, thank you for rescuing us, and for making us part of your rescue mission to save the world!

Your rescue mission to save the world is a huge undertaking, and it requires a lot of resources–people, gifts, and money. Thank you for your promise to provide the resources your Church needs to fulfill its God-given mission in the world!

Thank you for fully-devoted followers of Jesus who faithfully honor you with their finances, “lay up treasures in heaven,” and invest in what you are doing in the world!

Please pour out your richest blessings on the Church–through your Spirit and through the obedience of your people!

Empower and equip your Church to be good stewards of your resources. Give us wisdom so that we may utilize your gifts and resources in the most effective and fruitful ways possible!

Help us to truly be people of faith. Instead of asking what can we afford, help us to ask what are you calling us to do. And then help us to follow your lead, trusting you to provide!

Most off all, help us to honor you in all we do! Amen.

(Previous prayers include: awakening, transformational leaders, urgency, hope, health, compassion, action, unity, power, favor, endurance, trust, discipline, courage, and vision.)

“What the Most Successful People Do at Work”

Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours, has written a series of short books focusing on “what the most successful people do.” This week, I’ve written about the first book (What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast) and the second book (What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend). The final book in the series is What the Most Successful People Do at Work.

The book is built on the premise that, “If you make certain choices in your work … if you develop certain disciplines and invest your time instead of squandering it, you can do more with the time you have.”

Vanderkam suggests keeping a time log, at least for a week or two. She says, “writing down how you spend your time keeps you accountable for the hours that pass, whether or not you’re conscious of them.” She compares it to the benefits you receive from writing down what you eat.

To-do lists play an essential role. Vanderkam writes …

Successful people tend to view their primary to-do lists a bit differently than others do. They aren’t just lists. They’re more like contracts. Whatever is on the list will get done, often as a matter of pride. This is true even if your deadlines turn out to be squishy.

To see what I use, see my post on the 2do app.

Vanderkam also advises focusing on fewer tasks. She says, “Successful people know that small things done repeatedly have great power.”

Taking breaks is an important part of one’s workday. She writes, “plenty of people who’ve tried scheduling regular breaks have found that the time ‘lost’ is more than made up for with renewed focus.”

Personal growth is also important in making you more productive at work. Vanderkam writes …

And you … would take your career to a new level if you spent time every day trying to improve at the tasks associated with your job. Practice is, simply, performing or working at something repeatedly to become proficient.

At the end of the book, Vanderkam discusses the role of joy in one’s work. She says, “Productivty … is a function of joy.” She continues, “The daily discipline of seeking joy makes astonishing productivity possible, because then work no longer feels like work.”

So, if you’re interested in how successful people use their time at work, check out What the Most Successful People Do at Work!

“What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend”

Laura Vanderkam has written a series of short books focusing on “what the most successful people do.” Yesterday, I wrote about the first book in the series (“What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast”). The second book focuses on non-workdays: What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend.

Now, weekends in our home are certainly not the traditional Saturday and Sunday weekend many people have. Since Joleen and I are both pastors, our weekends tend to be Friday, for the most part.

Vanderkam suggests that “you have to commit to taking time off–to keep a Sabbath of sorts, and carve out space for rest in a frenetic world.”

While the book isn’t specifically a religious book, the concept of Sabbath certainly fits well with Vanderkam’s approach to the weekend. According to the book of Genesis, God created the world in six days, then rested on the seventh, thus engaging in a day of rest.

Vanderkam argues that using the weekend well helps make the workweek more productive. She writes …

Success in a competitive world requires hitting Monday refreshed and ready to go. The only way to do that is to create weekends that rejuvenate you rather than exhaust or disappoint you.

But, rejuvenating weekends don’t just happen on their own, Vanderkam says. You have to be intentional.

Learning to create restorative weekends requires thinking about weekends differently that we’re used to … We need to be strategic with these hours.

Vanderkam offers two suggestions to improve your weekends: choose labors of a different sort and embrace anticipation.

Choosing labors of a different sort is like cross-training, she says. It “helps you avoid boredom and burnout and keeps up your zest for training.”

To help with anticipation, Vanderkam says …

Planning a few anchor events for a weekend guarantees you pleasure because–even if all goes wrong in the moment–you still will have derived some pleasure from the anticipation.

Vanderkam suggests minimizing the “have-to-dos” such as chores, children’s activities, and work that follows you home. She also encourages readers to keep a “tech Sabbath.” At the end of the weekend, Vanderkam encourages readers to “carve out at least a few minutes to plan the week ahead.”

Joleen and I have always tried to be intentional about taking a day off, though it’s not always easy. It’s taken us a while to feel less guilty about taking time off. Part of that may be due to the nature of our work (we’re always “on call”), and part of it may have been pressure from people who don’t see a need for pastors to take time off.

Having kids forces us to be even more intentional about taking time off, though. We simply have to carve out time to spend time together as a family. But clearly, this will always be a challenge for us!

Vanderkam wraps up the book, saying …

By treating the weekend part of one’s 168 hours as different and precious, you can recharge the batteries and hit Monday ready to go.

So, if you need help making the most of your weekends, What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend is worth a look!

“What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast”

Laura Vanderkam has written a series of short books focusing on “what the most successful people do.” The first book in the series is What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast.

Mornings have always been important to me. So, right after I read this book a few months ago, I wrote What The Most Powerful Preachers Do Before Breakfast.

Vanderkam argues that “learning to use mornings well is, in our distracted world, what separates achievement from madness.” She notes that mornings are the time when people generally have the most control. She writes …

Successful people have priorities they want to tackle, or things they like to do with their lives, and early mornings are the time when they have the most control of their schedules.

Vanderkam also believes “tasks that require self-discipline are simply easier to do while the day is young.”

Perhaps the statement that resonates with me the most is …

The best morning rituals are activities that, when practiced regularly, result in long-term benefits.

My morning routine is the part of my day that I’ve worked the hardest the develop and have been the most intentional to maintain. I try to get up early and include time with God, exercise, and reading. On exercise, Vanderkam points out that “people who work out first thing in the morning doze off faster and have less disrupted sleep than those who exercise at other times.”

The book concludes with this statement: “When you make over your mornings, you can make over your life. That is what the most successful people know.”

If you need help developing your morning routine, you might want to read What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast.

What is your morning routine?