So many pastors get caught in the week-to-week grind, frantically finding themselves at the end of a week trying to conjure something to say for Sunday. Early in my ministry I found myself in this place. I thought crafting a message would be energizing. Even fun. But each week the urgent overshadowed the important and message prep was sacrificed on the altar of “too much to do.”
It was my student ministry director who clued me in to a process by which I rarely feel under such pressure anymore, and have too much to say instead of too little.
In part one of this process, we shared how to develop 18-24 months of Sunday morning sermons. This step-by-step approach starts with the encouragement to plan time away from your typical daily rhythms and ends with a complete layout of upcoming Sundays, summaries for each week, and shared documents for you and your team. If you haven’t read part one, click here to check it out.
Here in part two, we’re going to show you how to take all that prep work and build it into a series-to-series and week-to-week rhythm for you and your team. There are three main timelines we’ll work with: one month out, eleven days away, and the final week.
One Month Out: Plan the next series.
Do this: Review your notes.
About 4-5 weeks before a new series begins (or church season, if you’re a lectionary preacher) review the calendar and summaries you previously prepared, along with any other notes you made for all the messages in the series ahead.
Then do this: Schedule a creative meeting.
Bring together the people who help turn your Sunday sermon into a Sunday experience. Your worship director, choir director, technical director, marketing person or. . . maybe your NextGen Director or head of hospitality is involved. If your children or student ministry mirrors your Sunday theme or elements of your worship environment can further accentuate a message, those leaders should be at the table. Note: this isn’t for every volunteer. Only invite the people who lead and develop the supporting ministries. Share your content, invite creative input, and they’ll equip their teams as needed.
Why this meeting?
The goal is to get everyone on the same page. It also gives a chance for course-correction. Most of all, it takes the pressure off of you to be creative (or the sole creative). You’ll find your team has all kinds of ideas for the series that you’ve never thought of and this meeting mobilizes them to start developing the supporting pieces that make a series memorable.
Why this far in advance?
It gives your team time. Your worship or choral director might want to develop special music. Your marketing team or secretary can develop graphics and other publications. Your production team can think through staging, video, and the like. It gives them space so they can be creative. It gets ideas marinating for you, too. Depending on the complexity of your services, you might want to schedule this further ahead. Tailor it to your team and what works for you.
Eleven Days Away: Focus on a specific Sunday
Do this: Draft a quick outline for the Sunday after the upcoming Sunday.
Carve out a time early that week. (I block out Tuesday morning.) Don’t check your email. Don’t go into the office if people pester you. (Or if you do, lock your door and put up a big sign with skull & crossbones that reads, “Do not Enter.”) Look at your executive summary for the week of focus, along with other notes. Then, as quickly as you can, chart out a few (3-8) major moves that bring your central point to fruition.
I prefer an outline. We’re not writing a word-for-word manuscript. Just chart major moves – how you think you can get folks from start to finish – and the talking points that stand out. Add a detailed explanation if there’s an idea you really want to mine or an important hinge phrase. Bullet point any illustrations, examples, or creative bits that strike you. Organize your outline with some kind of flow. And tap your passion. Don’t try to guess what “people” need to hear. Share what’s impacting you. John Ortberg once said it like this, “What’s most personal is often most universal.”
If you get stuck, review a couple commentaries or favorite resources. Bible Project, YouVersion, and RightNow Media have a wealth of material. Look for what they highlight, how they move through the material, and notice what excites you. We’re just trying to get our minds jogged and juices flowing.
A note on commentaries: Prior to this point in preparation, when you’re developing the 18-24 month calendar, it’s helpful to peruse several commentaries. But eleven days away from delivery, I reference a single favorite, maybe two.
Besides the refocus, I’m picking up my past highlights and margin notes. I also prefer lay commentaries. Some of you may balk, so just to be clear, I’ve taught at the seminary level, thrive on academia, and think sermons need to be theologically and intellectually robust. But I also know time is limited. Good lay commentaries have a knack for boiling things down quickly. Something like NT Wright’s New Testament for Everyone series, Grant Osborne’s Verse by Verse, or the God’s Word for You series are great. Even the older William Barclay New Testament series will still amaze. You’ll find your own favorites. The goal right now is not a mile deep. It’s the lay of the land. Lay commentaries are good at that. As DA Carson says in one of his commentaries (ironically, an academic one):
“The best of Western seminaries and theological colleges [and I would add, commentaries] reinforce the cultural bent toward the abstract, and fill students’ heads with the importance of grammatical, lexicographical exegesis. Such exegesis is, of course, of enormous importance. But in students who do not have a feel for literature, it can have the unwitting effect of so focusing on the tree, indeed on the third knot of the fourth branch from the bottom of the sixth tree from the left, that the entire forest remains unseen, except perhaps as a vague and ominous challenge” (DA Carson, “The Gospel According to John,” Pillar New Testament Commentary, p.100).
Good lay commentaries focus on the forest, not the third knot on the sixth tree. Tap the critical commentaries as part of your 18-24 month prep and lay commentaries for outlining a Sunday.
Then do this: Share your outline.
Gather a team again and share your message outline. This could be the same creative team from the one month mark or a smaller group. Here’s why I like to do this:
- It forces me to produce. When I’m only accountable to myself, I can easily push off self-imposed deadlines. Having to share my outline with my team forces me to get it done. It’s peer pressure at its best.
- It invests my team. They’re now part of the message that will define the Sunday experience.
- It motivates finishing. If there are “last minute” details you want to implement – videos, promotional write-ups, other experiential elements – the team can incorporate these strategically rather than feel rushed to make happen.
- I get feedback!
I put this eleven days out. Why? My team is able to meet on Wednesdays. Yours might be different. It might be a Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday. Who cares? The point is to prep at least two Sundays ahead and share it with a team instead of rushing solo to get ready for the upcoming Sunday.
When I work two Sundays out, something psychologically shifts for me, too. I’m no longer just trying to get it done to meet a Sunday deadline. Instead I’m free to pace myself and play with ideas creatively.
A note on this team: Find people who have your best interest at heart, understand your target demographic, and are honest enough to give you constructive feedback. (If you’re looking for a job description for this role, here’s your start.) A smaller group, maybe 2-4 at most, works best. It can be all the same people you met with for series planning, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s also easier when they’re on staff. Trying to schedule this around a volunteer’s availability is tough and often inconsistent. This isn’t your elected board of Elders. You select the people who will be the best help.
Be prepared. It’s going to get ugly.
This team will break your heart and infuriate you. You’re giving them your baby and inviting them to call it ugly. You can ask for general feedback, but I like to ask specific questions that get applicable responses:
- How can I make this concrete?
- What engaged you? What brought you into the story?
- Where did I lose you?
- What do you wish I’d said?
- How would you preach it?
- What’s your take-away?
- What’s this about?
(I, personally, don’t think the point of a message is to be reductionistic. At the same time, if you can’t simply describe what it’s about, you might not be focused enough.)
Remember that your worst critics can sometimes provide the best insights. You don’t have to use whatever people say, but try not to be defensive. Pick up on things that will make your message better.
Also remember that you’ve been doing this a long time and have an experienced understanding of what needs to happen. This team will have suggestions, but you don’t have to take them. At the end of the day it’s your message. To quote Master Yoda, “My own counsel will I keep.” The goal is to make your material interesting, riveting, clear, and engaging.
At this point you’ve now set a rhythm of meeting every week, but always for two Sundays ahead.
The Final Week: Eat the Scroll
You’ve charted the big picture. You’ve set up a series. You’ve shared a sermon draft with your team. Now for one final move: “Eat the scroll,” as the prophets would say.
Do this: Early that week, pull out your outline.
Tighten things up, fill things out, and get it all into a revised form. It’s now in you, digesting. As things strike you later that week, tinker.
Then do this: Jump forward to the night before.
Look over your teaching again on Saturday before you go to bed. This is a quick read-through. You’re just giving it room to percolate all night. (If you have a Saturday night service, try doing this Friday instead of making the Saturday service your “dress rehearsal.”)
The next morning, do a shower run-through. When you’re in the shower getting ready, run the message through in your mind.
About 15-20 minutes before services start, seclude yourself from all the church hellos. You can catch people afterwards. Now is a time to review the main moves and pray. You’ve done the heavy lifting. Trust what you know. Trust what God will do. Be fully present and share that message which is now a part of you.
And if you have multiple services, remember that no two messages are the same. Edit in between. Let each find its own legs.
A Few Final Thoughts…
You might ask, “Isn’t this a lot of work?”
Yes, it is.
But pacing your prep in methodical, bite-sized chunks takes less energy than the low-grade anxiety that builds from sermon avoidance and the “crisis work” that happens as we scramble to pull something together in the final hour. Food tastes better when it’s marinated. Sermons do, too. Less stressful. More fruitful. More peace for you. Better prepared for them.
If we can help you set up a preaching rhythm or coach you through this process, let us know. In a future article, we’ll share with you some easy techniques to step away from manuscript preaching to preaching confidently and joyfully without notes.