Bob is one of bible.org’s major contributors. We thought it would be instructive to gain some insight into how he prepares for and preaches messages every Sunday. Click on his name above for more details about him. The below information is a sort of “chronological outline” in that it is an overview of his process, in the general order that it happens.
Warning: I don’t fit the classic mold. Many of the most disciplined preachers I know have a very disciplined regimen. They give themselves a certain amount of time to study the text (in English, and possibly in the original text), and to read two or three commentaries. They give themselves a rather firm deadline, at which time they decide upon the interpretation of the text. The remaining time is spend on homiletics – putting the message together. At a fixed point in time, the message is done, a day or more ahead of Sunday. It may even be in manuscript form.
If this is you, God bless you brother. Often this method has tempted me, but I just can’t do it that way. So, I move on to the way I prepare to preach.
Generally I am teaching a book of the Bible so selection of a text to preach is not a problem.
(1 week in advance). This study guide is distributed to the congregation (and to interactive teachers) a week in advance, so that they can prepare for the coming message and interactive discussion sessions that follow the sermon.
This is the “input” side of preaching. Gathering as much information as possible.
(I often look at the original text, and read several translations). With certain difficult or technical texts I try to be able to paraphrase the passage in my own words.
I realize that the word “visualize” is a kind of red herring, but especially when preaching a narrative text I try to put myself into the event, reading the text as though I were there. Sometimes I put myself in the sandals of various members of the audience, to think about how I would feel, what I might say, or ask.
Too many commentaries can be a waste of time, and a source of great frustration. They don’t reduce your interpretive options, they increase them. Worst of all, most commentaries are like wrecking yards – they disassemble the text into many tiny little pieces, but never put it back together. Much analysis, but little synthesis. When commentators are not preachers, their interests may lie in different places than shepherding. This is not a universal truth. The issue is not the presence of scholarship, but the absence of shepherding. I’ve never felt that I spent too much time in the Scriptures. I have regretted spending a disproportionate amount of time in the commentaries. I’ve come to value a few commentators highly, and thus I usually restrict myself to those who scholarship and shepherding sense I respect.
As the years go by, I find that regular reading through the Bible brings texts to mind that are not in the cross references. Often it is Old or New Testament stories that make my best illustrations.
In seminary, we began by making as many observations as possible – far more than we thought possible. As the years have passed, I realize that a few critical observations are worth far more than a large volume of incidental observations. I watch for repetitions (it may not always be the same word, but the same concept), for changes in tense, in number, in subject. When I’ve failed, it is often because I failed to make a critical observation.
This is a major element in my preparation. Often I am troubled by something that is said, not said, etc. I find these to be the source of deepened insight, when I can identify the answer to my question. For example, in preparing to teach on fasting I was studying Isaiah 58. The first 12 verses are clearly about fasting. Then, almost abruptly, the last two verses (13 and 14) the subject is the Sabbath. Why the Sabbath? Why here? And then it comes to me: “The Sabbath is a form of fasting.” Just as fasting is not just doing without food, but providing food for the hungry, so the Sabbath is not just a day of inactivity, but rather a day in which we set aside our pleasures, to pursue God as our highest pleasure. No wonder Jesus felt it was lawful to do good deeds on the Sabbath.
This is also where one’s view of Scripture is crucial. In preaching through the Gospel of Matthew I was troubled by the fact that Matthew’s chronology following the triumphal entry of our Lord contradicted Mark and Luke. Matthew seems to place the cleansing of the temple on the day of the triumphal entry; Mark and Luke have it the next day. As I look more closely, I learn that Matthew isn’t concerned about chronological sequence, but with logical proximity. He wants us to see the connection between the triumphal entry, the cleansing of the temple, and Jesus subsequent acts of authority in the temple. He doesn’t claim to present his material chronologically, but Mark does. The point I am trying to make is that my confidence in the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures causes me to dig deeper into apparent contradictions. Often it is here that I will see something very important to the argument of the passage.
This will sound strange, but sometimes it is a bad job of preaching a particular text that really fires me up. The things that are said that don’t fit the text give me a better sense of what should fit the text. Sometimes it is a poor job of explaining the text in a commentary; at other times it is hearing a bad sermon on the radio or elsewhere. (Don’t think I haven’t motivated others to careful study by some bad sermons of my own.)
I am privileged to be involved in a church that has several doctoral students, lower level seminary students, a number of DTS graduates, and some very bright and thoughtful students who have no seminary training. These folks stimulate and challenge my thinking. Ideally this occurs before I preach the passage, but sometimes it is afterward. There have been times when I’ve had to correct myself the following week, based upon a valid criticism.
One formal time of interaction for me is in our weekly Friday Preaching Seminar breakfasts. I’ve done this now for nearly 30 years. I meet with 5-8 fellows on Friday mornings for breakfast. They may have some comments about my last sermon, or responses to the current message. Usually these men have read the text and have considered the prepared study guide. I share with them where I think I’m going on Sunday. They interact with criticism, points of emphasis, application – the works. They are not shy, and hopefully I am not thin skinned. Honestly, this is a very stimulating time for me. My sermon changes a great deal after breakfast on Friday (sometimes to the surprise of those who attended the breakfast). I cannot emphasize how vital a faithful critic can be to preaching. I would strongly advise every preacher to do something like this. One side benefit is that a number of excellent preachers have emerged from this group (and not all of them seminarians).
In addition to the formal interaction on Friday there are e-mail and phone conversations, along with responses from various folks after the message. Sometimes one of the men who was at the Friday breakfast will have some subsequent thoughts or observations.
As the week presses on (and as Sunday draws ever so near) I move from the casual and relaxed state of exploration and observation to the much more intense state of agony, of wrestling with the text. I can’t just stand up and make observations about the text – I must preach it, with a strong sense of conviction. This is the “labor pain” part of preaching that comes every week. This is the time when I wonder why I ever became a preacher. And no matter how many years I have preached, it hasn’t gotten any easier. In fact, I think it has become more difficult.
The things that trouble me (or just the dread fear that I’ll be preaching soon, and still don’t have a handle on the text) provide the fuel for prayer and meditation. Who better to ask about the interpretation and application of a text than the author?
By this point in time I have many pages of notes in my hands, and some things on the computer. The exploration stage accumulates many pieces of data. The agony stage is the desperate search to find a patter in the pieces. The insight stage is the moment that everything starts to come together. I don’t want to tell you how late in the process this can come. I have gone to bed early Sunday morning, knowing that “insight” had not yet come. Sometimes I may be shaving or in the shower, and suddenly the lights come on and the dots connect. I imagine that the elation is like the joy of delivering a baby, after hours of agonizing labor. In “labor” you wondered why you ever took this job. In the “insight” stage you wonder why they pay you to have such pleasure.
Here is my problem. Until I come to the “insight” phase, I can’t put a message together. And if I did, it would all change after insight comes. It is for this reason that my homiletics are not a model for all to follow, especially the faint of heart. I have literally torn up a message and scratched a few notes on a note pad, an hour or less before preaching.
Once the insight stage has come (if it has come) the ideas usually come thick and fast. I try to take notes and get as much of this down on paper as possible. This becomes the heart and soul of my sermon.
I virtually never use canned illustrations. If they are any good, they’ve already been used too much. I try to use illustrations from my own experience and observations. One Sunday I needed an illustration of making excuses. I couldn’t think of one, so I asked for one in the middle of the message. One father popped up with this story: His son had a physical malady which required a restricted diet. The son always raided the refrigerator, and so the father forbade him to ever get into the refrigerator by himself. One night, the father saw a dim light go on in the kitchen – the light from inside the refrigerator. He got up and went into the kitchen just in time to see him standing before an open refrigerator, with his hand inside it. The father said, “Son, what are you doing in that refrigerator?” With hardly any hesitation the son replied, “I was just cooling my hand.” These are priceless, and they aren’t in any canned illustration file.
First of all I need to feel the heat of the text as it relates to my life. Then I need to seek to apply it to our world, our culture, our church, etc. One thing that I do is to ask myself how someone in my audience might abuse or misuse the text (just as the doctrine of God’s grace can be abused to excuse license – end of Romans 5 and chapter 6). I was teaching on the “sluggard” in Proverbs and I asked myself, “How will this message be misused?” It occurred to me that in my audience there were many “workaholics,” who would be sitting back in their chairs, patting themselves on the back. As I thought about it, I realized that the workaholic is a sluggard. The sluggard is not just a man who does nothing. A sluggard works hard to avoid what he really doesn’t want to do. Many workaholics use their work as a pretext for not going home, not dealing with disobedient children, etc.
Preaching the message is always a venture of faith. I never really know for sure whether or not this message will “clear the ground.” Sometimes you feel “the wind (the Spirit) under your wings”; sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it comes to life somewhere in the midst of the message. And often, my sense of the success of the message is not an accurate measure of its worth.
I feel rather strongly on this point. Most of the references I hear to the “Original Text” are not that profitable. All too often there is a tendency to fall into the “root fallacy” (the mistaken assumption that the meaning in common use is the same as the root meaning of the word anyway.) What troubles me is that this elevates the preacher as the only expert who can study, interpret, and apply the Scriptures. The inference is left that the lowly pew-sitter is simply not qualified to study the Bible seriously. This discourages Bible study, rather than to encourage it. If I must deal with the original text, I try to do so in a way that encourages the audience to do likewise. I would say something like, “When you look this word up in your Strong’s Concordance, you will find that it is used. . . .” This way, the audience concludes, “This is something I could do, something I could see, if I went to the effort.”
I think that the typical system of preaching veils the exegetical process of discerning the meaning of the text. This, too (like persistent references to the “original text”), tends to discourage folks from studying the Scriptures themselves. It is not my goal for folks to leave saying, “I never would have seen that. . . .” My goal is to show folks how I reached my conclusions, and for them to say, “Why didn’t I see that? It’s right there in the text. If I studied that way, I would have seen it too.” You either catch fish for others, or you can teach them how to fish. I prefer to show my audience how I got where I did. (And when my logic is flawed, they will see that, too.)
Attend an interactive teaching class, which discusses the sermon and the text I have just preached.
I almost never come away from preaching feeling that I’ve done a respectable job. My own preaching is humbling to me. I hate to hear myself on tape.
There are many of these. I often get thoughts just before preaching, or even during the sermon. After I’ve preached, further thoughts come to mind. I try to write these down so that I can consider them further, and integrate them into the manuscript.
This is the final step. I virtually never have a completed manuscript before I preach, and if I do, it will change significantly before, during, and after preaching. It takes a good 8 to 10 hours to complete a message in print. Frankly, I’m not doing as well these days as I used to. I’ve got many other items on my plate, I guess.
The one beauty of a manuscript is that it forces you to think yourself clear. Flaws in logic are more apparent to me on paper than in a spoken sermon. And the printed message allows you to correct all the things you felt badly about after preaching the sermon.