Prepare to preach: Both heart and mind must be made ready, say SBTS prof/pastors

Communications Staff — August 27, 2009

Danny Akin calls it “Saturday night fever” and prefers to stay away from it, Mark Dever embraces it and the great Charles Haddon Spurgeon became famous by following the strategy: preparing to preach Sunday’s sermon on Saturday.

In his must-read work “Lectures to My Students,” Spurgeon revealed that most of his sermon preparation took place on a tight Saturday night deadline.

“I confess that I frequently sit hour after hour praying and waiting for a subject, and that this is the main part of my study,” he wrote. “Much hard labour have I spent in manipulating topics, ruminating upon points of doctrine…I believe that almost any Saturday in my life I make enough outlines of sermons, if I felt at liberty to preach them, to last me for a month.”

God blessed Spurgeon’s Saturday nights remarkably, but many preachers prefer to assemble the sermon throughout the week.

Preparing to preach

While there are probably as many different approaches to sermon preparation as there are preachers, professor/pastors on faculty at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary demonstrate that there are two attributes common to all solid sermon prep: composing the sermon and readying the preacher.

“Being prepared to preach the Word involves much more than just analyzing the text — although it takes that for sure,” said Bill Cook, professor of New Testament at Southern and pastor of Ninth and O Baptist Church.

“It includes being a man passionate for the Lord Jesus Christ. I think in the preparation of the sermon each preacher needs to find the approach to sermon preparation that best suits him. I think this will vary somewhat from person to person based on one’s abilities and personality. But sermon preparation and delivery involves both the heart and mind from beginning to end.”

Hershael York, professor of preaching at Southern and senior pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky., said he typically assembles a working outline for the upcoming sermon on Monday. York’s goal is to have the sermon completed by Thursday so he can send the final outline to his assistant and media team to be published in the church bulletin.

“That imposes a discipline on me that keeps me from procrastinating,” he said. “I will tweak and finalize illustrations and other elements on Friday and Saturday, but the basic outline is done at least three days before I preach it. That gives me time to digest and ruminate on the text and the message before I stand to preach on Sunday.”

Veteran pastor/scholars such as York, Jim Orrick, Bill Cook and Tom Schreiner have been preparing for Sunday’s sermon for as many decades as they have been studying the Bible.

Orrick has been committed to memorizing extended portions of Scripture for many years and has memorized numerous books of the Bible. He memorizes the biblical text, but also commits every sermon to memory and preaches without any notes, taking two to five hours to arrange and customize his thoughts for the particular congregation he is addressing.

“I preach without notes, and this forces me to be thoroughly prepared and thoroughly textual,” said Orrick, who serves as professor of literature and culture at Boyce College and has been preaching for more than 30 years.

“The possibility of rhetorical disaster is always near at hand when preaching without notes, so I am forced to depend heavily on the Holy Spirit. I nearly always forget something I meant to say, but I nearly always think of something while preaching that I never prepared to say. Often it moves me deeply. I know that if I want my hearers to be deeply moved, I must first be deeply moved myself. God deliver me from being a preacher who fakes it!”

Schreiner typically spends one day per week preparing sermons. He begins by reading and meditating on the passage several times and seeks to understand it deeply so he will be able to offer penetrating, Gospel-centered application.

“I try to soak myself in it,” Schreiner said. “I pray for insight in terms of understanding and application. After I have written a rough draft, which I usually do on Monday, I let it sit a few days, and then I go over it about 10 times on Friday and Saturday and make changes as I meditate on the sermon.”

While serving as a pastor, Billy Graham School Dean Chuck Lawless said he spent up to one-half of a typical week in sermon prep. Like most Southern profs/pastors (and unlike Spurgeon!), Lawless preached book-by-book, verse-by-verse expository sermons and had no need to “divine” topics each week.

For Lawless, as for the others, preparation of his own heart to step behind the pulpit and undertake the solemn task of proclamation is a vital element of preaching.

“Heart preparation is a daily event,” he said. “Getting ready to preach is not about suddenly preparing our hearts for Sunday; it is about walking with God every day so that we hear His Word properly in our study, order our sermon well in our preparation, and apply the truths well in the context of our congregation.”

Russell D. Moore, senior vice president for academic administration and dean of the School of Theology at Southern, and teaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church’s Fegenbush Campus, said he spends much of the week in preparation for the sermon and mulls over the text with friends and colleagues before putting together the final outline in the wee hours Sunday morning.

Moore prays throughout the week both for himself and his congregation. He prays that the Lord will keep both preacher and congregation from being mere hearers of the Word, from trafficking in unlived truth.

“I will think sometimes about specific people in my congregation,” Moore said. “Then, because our flock is so large and I never know who will be with us on any given Sunday morning, I think about people who I’ve known over the years and how they would hear this Word, what might they misunderstand, what might drive them to despair, what might counter the ways the evil one would like to snatch this Word away, and then I ask the Lord to give me clarity, passion, love and the power of the Holy Spirit.”

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