Maybe you've heard the joke before. The pastor of a rather "cognitive" denomination was really struggling with bringing his preaching to life. Let's call him Pastor C. He read all the books he could, but that really didn't seem to help. His sermons stayed dry and unappealing. He took a continuing education course in homiletics, but that didn't really seem to change anything except the balance in his study leave account. He finally decided that he would talk to the pastor of the church down the block who was known for his flamboyant and exciting preaching style. Let's call him Pastor A. Pastor C was a little hesitant to talk with dynamic Pastor A because he belonged to a rather "exuberant" denomination. But Pastor C was desperate and decided to walk down the block and seek the help.
Pastor A warmly welcomed Pastor C and after much discussion distilled his advice into one simple line: "Pray and wait on the Spirit, Brother, and he will give you a word!" Pastor C was a little taken aback, for the advice went against all his seminary training of exegesis and study. But he decided he would give Pastor A's method a try. After all, nothing else seemed to help.
So that week, instead of spending his time in study, exegesis, and preparation, Pastor C engaged in fervent prayer and "waiting on the Spirit for a word." He prayed all of Monday and Tuesday, did his hospital calling and administrative chores on Wednesday and Thursday, and on Friday returned to his faithful praying. By Saturday he was nervous, for no "word" had yet come, so he called Pastor A and explained his concern. Pastor A just laughed and said to keep on praying. So Pastor C prayed and prayed and prayed. Sunday sunrise came, and he prayed through the first hymn, the announcements, and the special music, right on into the second hymn, and still no word came. Finally, as he was walking to the pulpit, the Lord did speak! A word did come, oh so clearly and succinctly.... The Spirit said, "You should have studied!"
Preplanning Still Rare
We Reformed Christians tend to hold tightly to our cognitive approach. Most of how we function and figure in all our church life stays close to our "decently and in order" heritage. So how is it that too many of us as pastors don't plan very far in advance when it comes to sermon themes?
Rick and Cheryl Van Oss are music directors at First Church. They are fine musicians and faithful music ministers who have a heart for strong, biblical, integrated, and thematic worship. We were in our weekly worship planning meeting when we got a little off track, as we all too often do. I believe I was apologizing for changing a service theme several weeks down the road. They just laughed and said not to worry about it, for they could quickly recoup and find other anthems that would serve them well. They then started saying how much they appreciated all the preplanning I did and how it was such a nice change from the usual church music director's experience.
I was shocked, first because compliments in church work are usually unexpected and refreshingly welcome. Second, I was surprised that Rick and Cheryl felt the normative experience of most choir directors was to plan and rehearse music without ever knowing what the Sunday sermon was about. Before pastoring I spent fifteen years working in church music and was therefore either incredibly sheltered or incredibly lucky in serving churches where services were planned long in advance.
So I did an informal poll of ministers of music and found I was sheltered, lucky and quite naive!
Challenge to Pastors
So now I need to play the Dutch uncle with my fellow pastors and explain a few things as both a pastor and former minister of music. I realize that the readers of this journal probably don't need to hear this and that I'll be "preaching to the choir," but maybe you can pass it on to someone else, or give this to your minister of music or worship committee so they'll appreciate your planning.
- Music and message need to be in harmony. Music can touch where words alone cannot. Use your music ministers and their songs to augment and support the message and theme. Music can be used in a number of ways. It can elaborate the theme, it can drive it home, it can prepare hearts for the message, it can give opportunity for decision or meditation on the theme, or it can even apply the theme.
- But this can only be done with preplanning. Although you prepare a sermon in one week, the average choir takes a good four to six weeks to get a new anthem ready. Perhaps a week will be spent in considering the choices, then a week for ordering the music, and then from two to four rehearsals.
- Preplanning does not eliminate inspiration. God can lead through planning months ahead just as easily as provide inspiration the week before. Plus, preplanning saves time on Monday because you can dig right into the exegesis for the week. And if congregational or societal experiences dictate a change, you are still free to do that anytime!
- Preplanning empowers your ministers of music and choir members. They begin to see themselves as integral to what God wants to do in the worship service. And the praying, singing, and heartfelt offering they bring to Sunday morning will make you a better preacher! Preplanning also sends a message of respect to our musical colleagues and fellow laborers in ministry.
- Preplanning allows others in the congregation to use their gifts. I send my sermon themes and Scriptures to congregational members who have special gifts in certain areas, such as preparing children's moments or dramas. Elders also get copies so they can with integrity review whether the points of the Heidelberg Catechism are covered in yearly rotations; knowing something of the content and focus of an upcoming sermon series can also give them time to work more closely with families who might find their special concerns addressed through a given series.
Some Hints for the Newly Convinced
How does a pastor get started on preplanning?
I jot down sermon ideas daily in a journal kept just for that purpose and number the pages. Three times a year I then escape to a quiet place to pray and plan. Camp Geneva has a room specially set aside for this purpose; it overlooks Lake Michigan and has a wonderful fireplace. I chart out four months at a time. Late July I do September through December; in late November I escape and plan January through June; and in May I finish the summer months. I usually plug the sermons into a date and include title, Scripture, and theme. (Don't forget to record the page number of your journal too so you can go back and look up your original idea with any notes and illustration ideas you may have recorded.)
After my planning session, I type up the completed list and distribute it to those who might build upon the themes. It then stays near my Bible, because sometimes further study uncovers other illustrations or ideas that I can note on the schedule for when that week comes up.
This is not a perfect system, but I believe it helps us worship. We have had increasing comments from members about their appreciation for how "everything ties together so well in the services." They, of course, think that the Holy Spirit plans all these things by sovereign design. Rick, Cheryl, and I agree.
Note: For additional planning helps, including the use of a iectionaiy, see chapters 15-20 in Lift Up Your Hearts (CRC Publications, 1995).