Of all the things that pastors do, how important is the sermon?

A recent poll released by Gallup (http://www.gallup.com/poll/208529/sermon-content-appeals-churchgoers.aspx ) gave results that should give every one responsible for crafting a meaningful preaching message something to think about.  Eighty-three percent of Protestant Christians who attend worship at least monthly said “sermons that teach about scripture” were a major factor in why they attended worship. Eighty percent listed “sermons that help connect religion to life” as a reason for attending worship.

Of less importance were “spiritual programs for children/teens” (68 percent), “community outreach and volunteer opportunities” (61 percent), “dynamic religious leaders” (53 percent), “social activities”  (49 percent), and “choir or other spiritual music”  (44 percent).

So while there are many ways for pastors to spend their time during the week (meetings, pastoral care, conference responsibilities, teaching, managing staff), they still have a tremendous opportunity to shape the spiritual lives of individuals and of the congregation.

In the business world, the 20/80 rule is often cited: Twenty percent of what a person does generally produces eighty percent of the results.  The 20/80 rule rings true in congregations as well. Pastors who effectively lead congregations learn to protect that twenty percent and use that time to craft their messages each week.

When you think about it, preaching is almost an impossible task.  The profession that most closely resembles preaching is that of the comedian.  One of my favorite shows is Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” In each episode, Jerry talks with comedians like Will Farrell or Tina Fey about comedy.  Invariably, they will talk about how they create a routine.  They usually go to some obscure comedy club to try out jokes to see which ones work.  Eventually these jokes become a routine that they can take to larger audiences.  In other words, they do it over and over again until they get it right before they go into prime time.

Preachers have no such luxury.  Prime time happens every Sunday during the worship service. Sure, they can try out their message on a family member or friend, but the reality is, preachers have to produce something every week.  What a challenging assignment!

So what is a preacher to do?  Here are some friendly suggestions for making the most of your twenty percent.

  1. Do a self-assessment on how much time you devote to sermon preparation. If you work a forty-hour week (yes, I know, then twenty percent comes to eight ) If you are doing four hours of sermon preparation, then you are giving ten percent of your time to this vital task;  two hours, five percent.  Find an amount that makes sense to you and start scheduling it on your calendar.
  2. Establish a protected time early in the week when everyone knows (staff, family, laity) you are working on your message. You can even ask people to pray for you during that time. Of course, it’s not going to get done in that one block of time, but it should be enough to get you started to immerse yourself in the Scripture for that week, to focus on a theme, and to create an outline.
  3. Naturally discover real life examples.  Once you have a theme and an outline, you will discover something quite remarkable. Real-life examples and stories will begin to emerge.  Why does this happen?  Think about the last time you bought a car (unless you use Uber or bicycle).  As you focused on the make and model (a red Ford Pinto or yellow Beatle), suddenly you became aware of all the Pintos and the Beatles that were around you.Somehow, when our brain focuses on a particular thought or item, we become much more aware of that particular thought or item.  As you do the next run-through of your message, you can interweave these real-life examples (unless it’s an embarrassing story about your teenager for which you will never be forgiven) or stories from the news or the world around you that enhance your theme.
  4. Read books. Yes, its much more fun to binge-watch the latest series, but there is something to be said for that old=fashioned practice of reading books. And not just stuff on the Christian bookshelf.  Look for the top fiction and non-fiction bestsellers.  As you do so, you will train your mind to think in stories.  And good preaching is based on telling the most important stories of all time, the stories found throughout the Bible that still have the power to mold our understanding of our faith today.
  5. Reflect on Scripture outside of your sermon preparation time. If you pay attention only to the Scriptures of the week, you will miss the depth and the scope of the whole gospel story.
  6. It’s okay to laugh and give yourself some slack. People who participate in your worship services aren’t looking for perfection.  They are looking for authenticity.  Along the same lines, find breaks in the 52-week cycle to give others an opportunity to preach.  Find a reasonable pace for the year that allows you time to breathe, reflect, and recover.
  1. Don’t go it alone. Gather a team to work with you to create at least a quarterly plan for worship that lays out the Scriptures, themes, and focus points for each week.  As you work with others, they will help spark your imagination and give you ongoing support that fuels your work.

 

 Additional Resources

Preaching Resources on the Discipleship Ministries Website
https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/preaching

Learning to Preach Without Notes–Recorded Webinar
https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/learning-to-preach-without-notes

Original Air Date: April 28, 2017
Presenters/Hosts: Rhoda Preston and Dawn Chesser

Preaching Prophetically for Such a Time as This Webinar
https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/preaching-prophetically-for-such-a-time-as-this
Date: May 8, 2017, 10:00 a.m., CDT
Presenters Dawn Chesser and Wes Allen