In my 27 years as a pastor, I am fairly sure that I never came up with any distinctively new approaches to sermonizing. However, somewhere along the way I developed one practice that, as often as I used it, always served me well. Before I describe it, I should say that it rests upon two assumptions.
1) You don’t know at the first of the week what you’ll need at the end of the week.
2) The things you’re going to need are all around you every day.
Unstated underneath that is the assumption that you know what you plan to preach next Sunday and that you have a basic method for doing sermon preparation–study of the text, forming a theme, developing an outline, and so on. My idea doesn’t fit into those categories. It really has to do with the broad category of sermon illustration. By that I don’t simply mean stories or poems or quotes, although they are all included. I’m talking about the things you work into the sermon that give it life, clarity, relevance and passion. Sometimes just one sentence well-spoken can transform an entire sermon. It might be an allusion or an apt contemporary quotation or it might be a fragment from a conversation or a statistic that drives a point home. It could be anything at all that takes the truth of the Word and illuminates it for your hearers.
As with all other parts of sermon preparation, you generally can’t wait until Saturday night to start illustrating and illuminating. The time is too short, the pressure is too great, you’ve got too much on your mind, and most of all, you can’t quite remember that amazing thing you heard Bill O’Reilly (or was it Britney Spears, though you wouldn’t think you’d get them confused) say the other night. So you need a way to keep track of the insights you run across during the week.
Here’s my solution. Take a yellow legal pad and put it on your desk. Write the title and text of next Sunday’s sermon at the top. Put the date of the sermon next to it. Now you’ve got the rest of the page to work with. What do you put on that page? Anything that comes to your mind. Anything you see, hear, overhear, watch, observe, anything that happens to you or is said to you, any interesting event, comment, quote, song, poem, anything at all. That sounds a little broad, doesn’t it? Well, it is broad, as broad as life itself. Each day–at least once a day, but sometime several times a day–you write down what has been on your mind or what has been happening. Jot down a phrase that helps you remember. This is not a journal or a diary. It’s a way to recall the passing parade of life. When I did this, I didn’t try to categorize things. I just jotted them down as they happened or came to me. And I tried to write down at least ten things every day. That gave me 60-75 items by the end of the week.
But note this. You don’t write down only those things that you think will relate to your sermon. Remember, you don’t know on Monday what you will need on Sunday so it’s all fair game. And the list is for your eyes only.
So if I were doing it this week, my list would look something like this:
Josh and Leah–China!
Hot and Hotter.
Nancy’s chemo–”I know where I am going.”
Deepak Chopra–”We’re all on death row.”
Barry Bonds & Hank Aaron.
Time to get out of the stock market–maybe???
Jephthe and Voodoo in Haiti.
That quote from Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
Ice Road Truckers and snow banks.
Line of cars stretched from the church to the Hilton Hotel.
Walking in the neighborhood with Dudley and Gary.
“I’m angry at my father.”
John Piper and Rabbi Kushner
Have you told your parents yet?
Hundreds of tiny earthquakes every day in California.
Letter to the guy in the Hong Kong prison.
Tracey in New Zealand–”Why are you waiting?”
Trapped in the elevator.
“We got the medicine.”
Utah coal mine.
The Bourne Ultimatum.
“D’oh” now in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Bart Simpson: “This is the worst day of my life.” Homer Simpson: “The worst day of your life so far.”
Nick starts grad school.
Music isn’t preparation for spiritual warfare. It is spiritual warfare.
My conversation with Jeff.
That list comes from the last couple of days. Most of it makes sense only to me. A list like this serves as a memory aid later in the week. When I am making this list, I will jot it down in two columns. Sometimes I will underline something or highlight it or I will draw lines connecting various items.
The goal is to come to the end of the week with 60-75 items. If I have 15, that’s not enough. If I have 200, that’s too many. As I’m putting my sermon in final form, I’ll glance over the list of 60-75 items. Invariably I will find ways to use 6-8 items in my sermon. I might use as many as 10 but probably not more than that. Remember, these aren’t always full-blown illustrations but they could be. It depends on my sermon, the other material I have prepared, and the need of the moment. By definition most of what I write down won’t be used. But the part that I use wouldn’t have come to me without this list.
When I was using this system every week, I usually ended up with a page or two of brief notes. After Sunday, I would put the list in a big pile and start all over again. I would only carry over particularly good quotes or stories that stayed in my mind. That way the list becomes new every week. If I were to go back and look at the lists that I made five years ago, most of it wouldn’t make sense to me. It’s not meant to be a long-term thing. Those little phrases are meant to jog my mind this week as I prepare the sermon for this Sunday.
Why does this work? It works because in the providence of God, he supplies around us every day the things we’re going to need later in the week.
If only we had eyes to see them.
If only we wrote them down.
Try this idea for a few weeks and see if it doesn’t add some freshness to your preaching.