Experience (the right kind of experience) is always a good thing. We have all known what it is to try something for the first time and to feel like you’re all thumbs. Then, with a little practice, whatever it was that seemed so difficult becomes second nature to us.
Is it like that with sermon preparation? Can I expect that the longer I preach, and the more times that I prepare sermons, the easier it will become to be ready by Sunday?
I would answer yes, and no.
On the yes side is the fact that with every year of life spent in the Bible our knowledge base grows. We not only know more of the Bible, we have also broadened our knowledge base from books that help us know the Bible. In addition, through constant repetition and practice, we find it easier to spot the pericope boundaries, and the hard work of outlining, and diagramming (if you do this) becomes more instinctive. By instinctive, I don’t mean that we shortcut the hard work; I mean that we find our initial impressions are proven right in an increasing way after we do that hard work. In other words, we begin to see that we are “getting it.”
Another improvement that we will probably see, after years in the ministry, is the shift from a focus on getting a sermon “out” to getting a sermon “in.” By “getting the sermon out,” I mean the nuts and bolts of sermon prep, and a focus on sermon delivery. By “getting the sermon in,” I mean the thinking we do about the people who will hear the sermon and how best to convey the truth we’ve learned to the hearts of those people. Often, the inexperienced preacher labors right up to the moment of preaching in the pursuit of getting a good handle on the information to be conveyed in the sermon. He works to the very end on understanding the structure of the passage he will preach, how best to organize what he finds for presentation, thinking about the doctrine that he finds, maybe some thought about illustrating the material, and a few implications or applications that immediately suggest themselves to him during study. What he misses are the insights that often come after that hard work is done and the preacher has time to meditate over the finished product. It is the post-exegesis work that is often neglected in our younger years.
Another point of progress with time, as strange as it may sound (or convicting it may feel), is that we learn to rely on the Lord more throughout our preparation for preaching. Prayer becomes more needful and precious to us. We are more aware that unless the Lord does the work all our labor will prove fruitless. This is a good thing (pretty obvious), because prayer is a means by which God has chosen to communicate His help to us. How often has a text sat before us, in a sense inaccessible to us, until the Holy Spirit of God helped us through the hard work of exegetical study, and the clouds lifted? What a glorious thing this is to experience, and the longer you serve in ministry the more you will realize your need for that help.
However, there is a sense in which the work gets more difficult with time spent in ministry. With an increased knowledge and conviction of the personal shepherding responsibilities of the pastorate, and the prioritizing of making room in our schedules for that work, we may find our study time squeezed. As noted earlier, some of this is offset by growth in knowledge, but we will be students for the rest of our lives.
That leads to another observation. The more we learn, the more we become aware of what we don’t know. I’ve found that I don’t study less, now that I’m in my third decade of ministry; I study more. There is a growing sense of the preciousness of the text. The Word of God is what we preach, and the gravity of handling God’s Word is increasingly impressed upon us.
We are equally impressed with a growing sense of the preciousness of souls. The people who sit before us are one heartbeat away from eternity. As Paul exclaimed in 2 Corinthians 2:16, “Who is sufficient for these things?” This results in an ever-increasing carefulness in our sermon preparation. That takes more time.
In addition, we realize that preaching is not just about the message to be delivered, or even the people to whom it is delivered, it is also about the man who delivers it. There is much heart-work to be done before Sunday arrives. We cannot preach a text well that sits on the surface of our own heart like seed ready to be stolen as soon as we have done our duty and filed away another Sunday. We don’t have the text until the text has us. We must be objects of our own sermons before we can become good mediators of them. And so, every week’s preparation time must become a worship time. Every week’s preparation time must become a wrestling time. It’s a time of wrestling with truth so that the truth triumphs over us before it can triumph through us.
My own experience with preaching finds me spending more time than I ever have trying to make sure that I “get it right.” There will never come a day when you aren’t examining everything about your work as a preacher. You will examine everything from where it begins (devotional life), to where it ends (a dependent act of proclamation), and you will find yourself more of your own critic than ever before.
What I write isn’t meant to discourage. If God called you to pastor through preaching, then you were made for this. But if you’re a real preacher, you count such a great privilege and responsibility to be a call to a rigorous work. That rigorous work is fueled by an ambition. We desire to please the one who enlisted us. We desire to handle God’s Word in a way that we don’t have to be ashamed. We desire to be found faithful. To whom much is given, much is required. That means you never ease off the gas; you strive to be better and better with the strength God supplies.