A Team Approach to Sermon Preparation
It was Tuesday morning—another blank-slate start to preparing next Sunday’s sermon. I hoped to have the message done by Thursday or Friday. Maybe I could even get started on next week’s message before the weekend. But on Friday, I found myself scrambling to construct something resembling a solid outline. Then I lost my entire Saturday to sermon prep.
No harm done, I thought. My family never scheduled any plans with me on Saturdays anyway. They knew better: “Dad is always crabby on Saturday, and it gets worse as the day wears on.” My wife called my over-the-top Saturday anxiety “PMS”: Pre-Message Syndrome.
On Sunday morning, I found myself emotionally drained with little to offer in terms of compassionate interaction with individual congregants. When the time arrived to preach, I once again stepped onto the stage unsure if this sermon would be all it could or should have been.
I had tried to change this exhausting cycle many times before. Speakers at numerous preaching conferences had told me to work ahead. By working on several messages at once over more than a single week, I would supposedly have more time for insights to emerge and ideas to gel. So I tried it … several times. And I failed … every time. I would start out well enough, but inevitably something unscheduled, like a funeral, would come up and my early sermon prep would be sacrificed. Within a couple of weeks, I would be back to my old habits: starting fresh on a message each week, giving up Saturdays with the family, and feeling anxious and exhausted on Sunday mornings.
Building the Team
My decision to change how I prepared my messages was born of pure desperation. After 13 years, I was wearing out. My sermons were suffering. My leadership was suffering. My family was suffering. I needed to try something different.
So I extended personal invitations to about 20 people to join what I clumsily dubbed the “Sermon Prep Bible Study Team.” I focused on people with a passion for studying Scripture and proven gifts as communicators or teachers. I invited men and women of a variety of ages. About a dozen people showed up to the kickoff meeting.
In that first gathering, I walked the group through the pattern I anticipated our weekly discussions to take and my expectations for their personal preparation during the week. I made it clear this was going to require serious study and hard work. After that meeting, some chose not to continue, but seven people agreed to join me in this crazy experiment.
The group began meeting every Thursday evening for two hours. We never made a formal announcement to the congregation. This all happened behind the scenes. During the first few months, our time together included some teaching on homiletics so we could all speak the same language and study the text with preaching in mind. After that break-in period, the agenda fell into a regular pattern following a four-week rolling cycle.
Our Meeting Agenda
Every Thursday, our meeting agenda covers the same four items.
First, we review a draft of the sermon to be preached on the coming Sunday. The group has carteblanche to critic anything in the message. They have gotten to know me and each other well, so they are not shy about sharing their honest reactions and observations. Comments range from suggestions about specific wording to observations about the structure and flow. For example I might hear,
“This story is clever, but it illustrates something obvious, and the message is already too long.”
“You totally lost me in the middle of page 5. I didn’t understand what you were trying to say.”
“This transition seems abrupt. It is not clear how these two ideas connect.”
“It isn’t true that ‘everyone’ experiences this. You should probably say ‘many people.’”
Since we’ve already discussed this message several times before, the comments tend to be about structure and clarity rather than big ideas.
One of the most valuable contributions the group makes at this stage is to point out how certain words or phrases might unintentionally distract from the intention of the message. Sometimes this happens when I touch on a concept that I never resolve. Other times it is a word or phrase that has an unintended connotation.
For example, in one illustration, I recalled how our church had provided funding for our missionaries in Kenya to start raising rabbits. I referred to this operation as a “bunny ranch.” One member of the team politely pointed out, “Um, Chris, where I come from, a ‘bunny ranch’ is another name for a brothel.” Good catch. “Bunny ranch” was changed to “Bunny farm.”
Often the edits at this stage involve eliminating illustrations I think are clever or exegetical insights I think are novel—the hardest part of this process for me. If the team decides they do not support the main idea of the sermon, they are cut. I must be willing to collaborate on something I grew accustomed to doing on my own. That means learning to hold my opinions loosely and to avoid getting defensive when the team decides to cut something I like.
After discussing the draft for Sunday, the second order of business is to review a rough outline of the sermon to be preached two Sundays from now. This outline represents my first stab at communicating the main ideas from the text, along with key illustrations and application suggestions. At this point, everything is pliable and gaps exist in the outline. These serve as our main point of departure for discussion. I might prompt the discussion by asking:
“How do we feel about this as our big idea?”
“I am not sure how to start the message. What kind of story might work here?”
“What might we challenge people to do as a response to this teaching?”
There is no set pattern for this discussion because every message is unique.
The third segment of our time together is spent having a first discussion about the passage of Scripture to be preached three Sundays from now. At this point, team members have spent time studying the passage using commentaries I’ve made available. This discussion is all about exegesis:
“What are the main themes in the text?”
“How does this apply to us today?”
“What is the major point we want to emphasize in this message?”
This discussion is where we lay the foundation for a relatable yet biblically sound message.
The last thing I do, which only takes a few minutes, is to hand out the relevant sections from several commentaries on the passage I will preach four Sundays from now. The team will use this to prepare over the next week for the “first look” exegetical discussion the following Thursday.
Everything Has Changed
Even with the team, I have to go through the same steps as I did in my week-to-week approach. Each week I still exegete a passage, outline a message, write a draft, refine a final version, and rehearse the delivery. It should feel like the same amount of work. But it doesn’t. None of it feels the same.
I still scramble to get things done each week, because there is a lot of work involved. But now the gotta-get-‘er-done flurry of activity happens on Wednesday and Thursday instead of Friday and Saturday. If I am not far enough along, I might have to take some work home on Wednesday evening. But that feels very different from working on an incomplete message at 7 p.m. on a Saturday. The group of people waiting to discuss my progress on three different messages has created the accountability I needed to keep up with the “work ahead” method I had attempted so many times before. I want to honor the team’s work and make the most of their time.
That is not the only thing that feels different. Now when I dive into the biblical text, I do so without the Sunday-is-coming pressure to get it right the first time. I don’t have to worry about missing something or mining every detail because I know others are studying the passage too. Together, we will be able to see the big picture and reach sound conclusions.
After our Thursday meeting, my final edits tend to be minor, but they achieve a level of refinement I could never reach on my own. I never received detailed feedback, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have had the time to implement it. Now, by lunchtime on Friday, my final draft is done, and I am ready to rehearse my delivery.
Saturday has become an actual day off, and when Sunday morning arrives, I have the bandwidth to interact with people before and after worship. Now when I step on stage to preach, it is with a confidence that the message is exegetically sound and communicated in a way that will connect with most people in the congregation. I know it will—because they helped write it.
My team approach to sermon preparation is far from perfect, but to quote my wife as she recently addressed the team, “You people have radically transformed our lives.”
Christopher S. Stephens is senior pastor of Gurnee Community Church in Gurnee, Illinois.