No matter how conscientious a pastor may be in making sick calls, pastoral calls, and mission calls, no matter how effective he may be in counseling, the payoff is in the pulpit. A minister may bring comfort and cheer to the sickbed; he may be concerned about the spiritual welfare of his parishioners, aggressive in missionary activity, zealous in sharing the Gospel; but if he does not “produce” in the pulpit, his other work will leave much to be desired. If he does not arrest attention with his sermon introduction; if he preaches over the heads of the people in the pew; if his sermons do not relate current events to his subject as much as possible, and conclude with a telling application; if he does not properly distinguish between the Law and the Gospel—then his pulpit preparation has been virtually “love’s labor lost.”
Preaching is a very difficult assignment. Seated before the pulpit are the child who must be fed on the “milk of the Word,” the inquiring teen-ager and college student, the person with several academic degrees, the widow or widower, the harried homemaker, the middle-ager in a busy, productive life. There are the aged, some of whom feel that death is imminent. There are the ailing, who need the strength from the Word to endure. There are the burdened, who want to find God’s solution to their problems. There are the defeated, the depressed, the disappointed, the bereaved, the lonely. All of these sit before the speaker and wait eagerly for the Word to apply to their particular situation.
And there are more: those who doubt that the Word could have meaning for them; those who feel that the teachings of Jesus Christ are not practical for a hurry-scurry world; those who are asking, “What must I do to be saved?” And there are the indifferent, the self-righteous, the complacent, all of whom must be aroused to their spiritual poverty. So the list goes on. And the preacher, by the Spirit’s guidance, must try to reach the hearts of all. He cannot, of course, in one sermon cover the topics most important to all the various listeners; but in his pulpit program for the season he should endeavor to do so.
This takes preparation. And, as I see it, the first step in preparation is prayer. No preacher dare attempt to be God’s mouthpiece without first recognizing the high and holy privilege that is his and then in humility asking for the Holy Spirit’s help in delivering God’s message.
He is now ready to begin. He needs a systematic preaching course in order to bring a coordinated, unified thought to his people. An excellent way to accomplish this is to follow one of the many series of suggested texts for the church year as an aid in declaring “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). In my preaching I find myself partial to using free texts, because this enables me to give recognition to special occasions.
Having chosen the text, I proceed with the following steps:
1. Study the text in the original. Obviously, this is basic in sermon preparation. Sometimes the translations do not convey the exact meaning of a word in the original language, or the intent of a phrase as it refers to or hinges upon what comes before or after it. The Hebrew and Greek versions of Scripture bring the meaning into focus.
2. Find the central thought. What does the verse of Scripture say? Is the central thought one of comfort, of admonition, or of direction for life? The central thought or theme of the sermon ought to summarize the scriptural text.
3. Develop an outline. To present a coordinated, unified sermon that develops the text and reaches a goal, one needs an outline. Otherwise the sermon may degenerate into an off-the-cuff recital of platitudes that start nowhere and end in the same place. As I work on the outline, I keep in mind four questions: (a) What does the text say? (b) What does the text say to me? (c) How do I apply it to myself? (d) How do I apply it to the hearers?
4. Read. When the outline is completed, I usually lay it aside for several hours or a day. Then I begin a reading program—commentaries and other Bible helps, the context of the text and parallel Scripture passages, illustrative aids, sometimes a sermon or two on the text, and a concordance.
5. Write the sermon. I usually like to do this in one sitting, as the inspiration comes. If there are no interruptions, this is a pleasant task. When the hour seems right, the telephone does not ring, and psychological forces are in my favor, words come rapidly. Unfortunately, it does not always happen this way.
6. Lay the sermon aside. After the first draft is finished, I give it time to undergo what I call the “simmering process.” I know that new thoughts and improvements will suggest themselves as I go about my other pastoral duties.
7. Review, refine, revise, polish. This sometimes takes longer than the first writing. At this stage I try to keep a number of questions in mind: Have I developed the text? Have I kept in mind the needs of the people who will be listening? Is there something in the sermon that can be an aid to spiritual growth among all age groups? Have I kept in mind the delivery? Have I chosen words that clarify the central thought? Do I need an anecdote to clarify a point? Do I need to rewrite a paragraph to provide an emotional appeal to sustain the interest? Are any words unnecessary?
8. Commit the sermon to memory. If the background was well laid and the writing done carefully, memorizing is no great problem. But I do spend time at it, so that while preaching I will not stray away from the theme.
9. Deliver the sermon. Before I enter the pulpit, I turn again to God in prayer, asking that the Holy Spirit use me to present what he wants said clearly and effectively. I feel I must be personally involved while I preach. The worshiper may not always be aware of all the theological and homiletical niceties that have gone into a sermon, but he knows whether or not the preacher is getting through to him. I avoid using the pronoun “you” and use instead “we.” I, too, am a sinner “standing in the need of grace”; a holier-than-thou attitude has no place in the pulpit.
10. Pray with thanksgiving. When the sermon is concluded and I return to the clergy pew, I thank God for having used me and plead that the message will work effectively in the hearts of those who have heard it.
This, then, is my preaching practice. I am certain that I have brought few if any new thoughts to the readers of this column; but if I have helped a bit to strengthen any of my brethren in their approach to their sermonic duties, I shall be grateful.—
THE REV. PAUL G. STEPHAN,
Trinity Lutheran Church,
Des Moines, Iowa.
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