One of the most difficult problems confronting the preacher is the selection of sermon subjects and themes for Sunday morning and Sunday evening, week after week, month after month. This problem may easily consume many hours that could profitably be used for study.
A number of years ago, as I sought the mind of the Lord in this matter, I found the answer for my own pulpit ministry. I started preaching in series and have continued ever since. For example, with the exception of special occasions like Palm Sunday and Easter, I preached every Sunday morning, every Sunday evening, and every Wednesday evening from the first Sunday in January, 1963, through the second Sunday in July, 1963, on the theme “What Baptists Believe.” In this series I dealt with what Baptists have historically believed and taught about the Bible, the plan of salvation, the Church, the ordinances, evangelism, the stewardship of money, the eternal security of the believer, and eschatology. This series not only was spiritually rewarding to me but was used by the Holy Spirit to stir a revival in our church.
More recently I preached a series of forty-two Sunday morning messages based on a study in depth of the Book of James. One of the intriguing aspects of this series was the way in which the messages as they came from the text were relevant to what was occurring in our country. For instance, on the Sunday morning following the infamous Watts riots in the Los Angeles area, the text for the sermon was James 4:1–3:
From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.
It seemed as if God himself had directed the timing of this sermon.
In this connection, I want to point out something I feel is profoundly important. Whenever I find myself with a group of my ministerial colleagues, someone will say, “We must make the message of the Bible relevant to our day.” This in my opinion is sheer nonsense. My task as a minister of the Gospel is not to make God’s Word relevant to our day. It is already relevant; the Almighty has seen to this. My responsibility is to study it, with the aid of the Holy Spirit seek to comprehend it, and then in the power of the Holy Spirit declare it. I find that when I do this, God takes care of the relevancy.
The method I use in preparing a sermon is fairly simple. After deciding on the text, I familiarize myself with all the details of it. This I do in four steps:
First, even though I am not a great Greek scholar, if the text is in the New Testament I make a careful examination of it in the original language, with the aid of a lexicon. Since Greek to a great extent is a picture language, I find this a most profitable intellectual exercise; from it I often gain invaluable spiritual insights not available from any other source.
Second, I read the text carefully in four or five modern translations.
Third, I consult the commentaries. For preaching I have discovered that those that deal with the material in a devotional manner are more helpful than those that present it technically; the value of the latter is that of making sure not too many liberties are taken in interpretation.
Fourth, I read sermons based on the text that other ministers have preached. My library is catalogued so that I can put my hands immediately upon anything I have in it, in periodicals and books, on any verse in the Bible.
After thoroughly familiarizing myself with the meaning of the text, I then begin to study it with a view to outlining it. I try to make the outline clear, concise, and comprehensive. I am convinced that a sermon so organized is much easier for the congregation to remember than one that is presented simply as a running commentary on the Scripture. Occasionally, however, I find a passage that does not lend itself to an outline; to try to superimpose one upon it does violence to the text. When this is so, at the very outset of the sermon I simply state this to the congregation and then deal with the passage either on a word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase basis. Ninety-eight per cent of the time, however, I am able to develop an outline that I definitely follow in presenting the message.
When the outline is complete, I begin to search for illustrations germane to the truths I am going to emphasize. For years I have been using the “Memory-O-Matic” system of filing. I have endeavored to keep it up-to-date, and I now have a secretary who does nothing but this. Usually I can go to this file and find far more material on any point than I can possible use.
When the outline is completed and the illustrations selected, I then begin to write the sermon in longhand. Unless I am going to publish it, I do not complete it in manuscript form; instead I make copious notes covering all the material I plan to use. My deadline each week for completing both the Sunday morning and the Sunday evening sermons in this form is late Thursday afternoon; very seldom do I fail to meet it.
Since I have a deep feeling that the preacher should deliver his sermons without any notes, I spend almost as much time on the oral preparation as I do on the written.
First, on Friday morning I go over my notes on both sermons in a quiet meditative manner five or six times, until I feel that I have saturated myself with the messages. I am not satisfied until I am convinced that the content of the sermons has actually become a part of me; for when I preach, I want to feel that I am sharing myself with the congregation.
Second, on Friday afternoon I preach both sermons aloud three or four times. This I do standing in front of a mirror, in order to make sure that I am not developing any facial contortions that will distract attention from what I am saying. In following this plan for more than a quarter of a century, I have found it necessary to correct myself innumerable times.
Third, on Saturday morning or afternoon I preach each of the messages aloud one more time. Sometimes, I actually go into the sanctuary and deliver the sermons to the empty pews. This is a very satisfying part of the preparation, perhaps because it gives me a special feeling for and sense of the services that are going to take place the next day.
Fourth, on Sunday morning after breakfast I quietly go over my notes for the morning sermon and then spend some time in prayer for the preaching ministry of that day. By doing this I am assured that when I go into the pulpit, I do not go alone; the One who said, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world,” is by my side. On Sunday afternoon I follow the same plan for the evening message.
The Bible teaches in First Corinthians 1:21—and experience verifies the fact—that it pleases God by the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe. In other words, the Almighty’s basic method of communicating the eternal truth of Scripture to man is through the pulpit. From the very inception of Christianity this has been true; it will continue to be true until the Lord returns.
As I examine the current church situations, I find two disturbing trends. First, far too few of our finest young men are dedicating themselves to the Christian ministry. Look magazine put it this way: “Only 1 per cent of our youth is preparing specifically for spiritual leadership of any kind; there are more bartenders than clergymen in the United States.” Second, many if not most of our present seminary students are avoiding the pulpit ministry. They are interested in counseling, teaching, Christian education, and the like, not preaching. While I should be the last person in the world to depreciate the importance of these jobs, I am sure that what we need more than anything else right now is an army of God-called men who are willing to pay the price of preparation and prayer that they may stand behind the pulpits of our churches week after week declaring without compromise the whole counsel of God. My prayer is that thousands of our choice youth throughout the entire world will hear the call of the Holy Spirit and volunteer for this army.—
HAROLD L. FICKETT, JR.,
First Baptist Church of Van Nuys,
Van Nuys, California.
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