Building the Sermon
Two heads may be better than one.
Duane and Carl are preachers. It's Wednesday noon, and they're having lunch together at Burger King. Over a Whopper and a large order of fries they discuss the meat and potatoes they'll be dishing up for their congregations on Sunday.
This lunch is a regular part of their week. If s also a regular and important part of their sermon preparation.
After lunch Duane and Carl will return to their offices. Alone, they will continue structuring the thoughts and choosing the words they will use to proclaim God's word to God's people.
Face to Face
Sermon preparation need not be an exclusive affair. It's true that good preachers jealously guard their time for reading and biblical research: preparing sermons requires some solitude. But exchanging ideas with other people, face to face, can also be a valuable part of sermon preparation.
By mid-week Duane and Carl have selected the passages for Sunday. They've consulted commentaries and started an outline. They use their Wednesday lunches to present the central idea of the sermon to each other. Does it make sense after they've verbalized it to another person? If not, Wednesday is still early enough in the week to make alterations—to change the direction and emphasis of the sermon.
Being forced to put their reading and thinking into words is one benefit of their meeting. But they also profit from the other's reactions, questions, and suggestions. "Are you sure this is the main thrust of the passage?" "Perhaps you should consider this angle on the verse." "What do you mean by this word?" "What about that idea?" "What does this have to do with your congregation?" Questions like these sharpen the thinking of both ministers. "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Prov. 27:17).
Ministers in another city engage in a similar activity. Again, it's usually a weekly luncheon—this time with four to six people around the table.
These ministers use the lection-ary passages for their weekly morning sermons. On Monday they do some reading and thinking about the passages for the coming Sunday. Then on Tuesday, before any of them have made any firm commitments about sermon direction, they meet together and brainstorm ideas. What's going on in the selected Old Testament, gospel, and epistle readings? How does one passage illumine another? What central ideas arise from this combination of passages?
Meanwhile, stories, illustrations, hints, and suggestions are shared. The ministers leave their luncheon with ingredients to make Sunday's offering tasty and nutritious for their congregations.
Sermons You Asked For
Working face to face with other preachers is one way of enriching sermons. But there are other ways. If given the chance, members of the congregation also can provide helpful direction for sermon topics.
One pastor inserts a response form in the bulletin each spring, asking members to suggest sermon topics, questions, or issues they would like to hear discussed during the summer months. Members are asked to give their names (so that the pastor can follow up with additional discussion) and to indicate on which Sundays they will be gone during the summer months (so the pastor can make sure they hear the sermon that results from their request). The minister soon has the makings for a "Sermons You Asked For" series for the summer months.
Another pastor preached a sermon on Song of Songs 2:15, the passage concerning the little foxes that ruin the vineyards. The sermon was an introduction to a series of sermons on marriage. At the end of the sermon the pastor asked the congregation, "What little foxes are eating away at your marriage or the marriages of those you know?" During the next few days the people submitted material for a series on marriage customized to their congregation.
The Reformed tradition has always recognized the elder's responsibility to oversee the proclamation of the Word. The usual understanding is that an elder exercises this responsibility after the sermon, by giving approval or disapproval. But elders can also be involved before the sermon is preached.
One minister occasionally gives the elders a "situation analysis" questionnaire. The questions have to do with their perception of the needs, gifts, problems, and challenges facing the congregation. Included in the questionnaire is an item about future sermons. What issues and emphases do they think the pulpit should address? Elders can check off boxes: doctrinal issues, ethics, relationships, personal struggles, and so on. And there's room for specific suggestions. The completed questionnaires give the pastor direction for planning the preaching schedule.
This pastor has also found that the elders are willing to talk after a sermon—especially since they have discovered mat their pastor's not defensive about his sermons and that he's willing to talk. From time to time an elder comes up after a sermon to express appreciation, to ask if the pastor has ever thought about another dimension of the issue preached about, or to inquire if he has ever considered preaching about a related topic. The dialogue between elder and preacher enriches the preaching experience for everyone.
Some pastors also use sermon feedback to gain insight into their preaching effectiveness and future preparation. Sometimes that feedback comes from a sermon discussion group that follows the morning service. Either the pastor is present at the group meetings, or the leader of the group summarizes the discussion for him.
One pastor receives feedback from a monthly evaluation form distributed to two elders and two members of the congregation. He asks them to evaluate one of the sermons he preaches on the Sunday just before the elders' meeting. The elders discuss the results.
Another pastor uses a similar evaluation form but asks certain people to fill it out for any sermon they wish to evaluate during the coming month.
Which method a given pastor or congregation uses is not important. What is important is recognizing the value of input from others in planning content and direction for preaching. Sermon preparation can be a lonely experience. In some ways it has to be. Most ministers enjoy the solitude that sermon preparation calls for. But the solitude can be balanced with dialogue—dialogue with colleagues, elders, and parishioners that supports and enriches the pastor. The sermon, after all, is a word for the community of God's people. And there are ways in which the community can have its place in searching out and proclaiming that word.