Preaching is at once a privilege and a punishing responsibility of the pastor. The task of preparing one or two sermons each week is prodigious. The echoes of “I enjoyed that” have hardly faded away before the secretary wants to know title, theme, and text for next Sunday. Yet the opportunity to proclaim God’s Word is tremendous. We have truth in abundance, we have the attention of hundreds of persons, and we have the most influential spot in the community, the Protestant pulpit.

Seldom does the minister lift the curtain that screens his preparation of sermons from public view. But The Minister’s Workshop this issue initiates a new series disclosing some hard-won secrets of effective preaching.

The writers areCHRISTIANITY TODAY’Sministerial board members, contributing editors, and correspondents. The initial one-page essay on “One Man’s Way of Working” is from the pen of Dr. C. Ralston Smith, minister of First Presbyterian Church of Oklahoma City. The next essay in the series, written by the Rev. Robert S. Lutz of Corona Presbyterian Church in Denver, will be entitled “Preach the Word.”

The preparation and delivery of effective sermons is an essential element of the Protestant heritage and has its roots in the apostolic ministry. Preachers of long experience develop their own distinctive homiletical practices, and the willingness of some leading evangelical ministers to share their methods with our many thousand ministerial readers is a significant contribution to an era of more compelling evangelical proclamation.—ED.

Preparing sermons that do some good is not easy. The sheer burden of it keeps men from the pastorate and leads them into other fields less demanding in disciplined thought. With the help of the instruction and example of two great evangelicals, Andrew W. Blackwood and Clarence Edward Macartney, twenty-five years of week-after-week preaching have fashioned a method for me. In suggesting it, let me state two convictions about preaching. First, our task is to reveal the relevance of the biblical teaching in our day. The Scriptures are already as relevant to life as our latest breath. Our task is to mine the treasure. Second, sermons are meant primarily for hearing rather than reading. Exceptions are notable, but emphasis should be placed upon live communication. The thrust of “truth through personality” characterizes good preaching.

One very practical help is to plan preaching for several weeks ahead. A good division might be: Labor Day to Thanksgiving: Advent; New Year to Lent; Lent to Easter; Easter to Pentecost; the summer months. The seasons of Advent, Easter, and Pentecost are the only ones to which I give attention in preaching. Get the messages in a framework of weeks. Choose a course or series of sermons. The pious objection is sometimes raised that this precludes our being available for the leading of the Holy Spirit. I think this is groundless. The Holy Spirit is not whimsical. He can operate “when and where he will”—as easily through order and foresight as through impromptu chaos. The “workman who needeth not to be ashamed” is a planner as well as a student.

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A course of sermons can be set in a scriptural context and at the same time directed to a current need. In our nomadic times, a series on “Highways of the Bible” could take one in temptation toward Sodom, in evangelism to Gaza, and in submissive discipleship to the hill called Golgotha. When one outlines a course, he gets it on paper and in his mind. His thinking and reading will be sensitive to the needs of his people in the next few weeks. It is continually amazing how items will leap to one’s attention as being appropriate to some coming theme.

With the general direction plotted, my between-Sundays order of working goes something like this. (As I write, I recognize this as an ideal not always reached.) Usually on Tuesday I get to work. Most of my topics are biblically based, and I begin by reading several versions of the passage I am using. Usually the variations in meaning from one to another are slight, but in some of the contemporary interpretations there are particularly helpful insights. I stay away from linguistic references unless they are dear as crystal (e.g., “bios, life, as we have it in biography or biology”).

I then put headings of an outline on separate sheets. Last Sunday the topic was “The Basis for Blessed Assurance,” based on John 5:24. In addition to the introduction and conclusion there were the headings; “What are the conditions of assurance?,” “Two major contributions to assurance,” and “Assurance is a contemporary trait.” On these sheets I write everything I can think of about the scriptural topic. (I find alliteration helpful to both preacher and hearer.) Next I read everything pertinent I can find in my library. Through the years I have catalogued by text, in an interleaved Bible, every book of sermons I own. These I read, as well as commentaries new and old. I am wary of long quotations and despise the kind of preaching that feels constrained to certify itself by repeated reference to the current high priest of startling scholars. Sec the truth in the Bible as it is needed today. Get all the light from other lamps you can, but when the radiance goes from the pulpit let it be Christ through you!

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Thoughts that come through reading and ruminating are placed on the appropriate sheets. They are then rearranged into some kind of sequence and reviewed again and again. It is usually Friday by this time. I do not write out any sermon in full; with two messages each Sunday—one for duplicate morning services, one for vespers—and a church school lesson for adults (a book-of-the-Bible study), I have neither the time nor the inclination to do this.

Early Sunday morning I go over my full outline at home. Upon arrival at the church I reduce this outline to a few statements under each heading, paying particular attention to whatever quotations, illustrations, and poetry there may be. This I do from memory, without my sheets of notes. Many times I hate this little résumé in my gown pocket, but I take no notes into the pulpit. This “without notes” practice is good for me, though perhaps not for others. Although I recognize there are assets in manuscript preaching, I find few preachers who can communicate well week after week while chained to their papers.

My sermon follows immediately the reading of the Scripture passage on which it is based. In the first service the Scripture is announced for the benefit of the radio audience. The bulletin urges the congregation to follow the passage in the Bibles in the pews. I believe in this close connection of Scripture and sermon in the order of worship. It gives the idea that the Bible is the basis for what I am proclaiming!

Our first service allows less time for the sermon than does the second. The two sermons therefore are somewhat different. In the second service the sermon is recorded on a Gray Audiograph. My secretary transcribes this recording, and I correct, supplement, or delete from this transcription. Then the manuscript is filed with the record and catalogued by cross reference under at least the three T’s: Text, Topic, Title. By this time I am behind in getting to work on the sermons for the next Sunday. The treatment of the vesper sermon is similar but not identical. I try to get this well along first and familiarize myself early with the objective to be sought. In this way I seek to compensate for the physical weariness I invariably bring to that meeting at the close of the Lord’s Day.—

DR. C. RALSTON SMITH, First Presbyterian Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

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