The art of writing a sermon fascinates me. How does a speaker move from a good idea to a great message? Others much more qualified than me have written on this subject (e.g. Andy Stanley’s Communicating for a Change), but I wanted to throw out a couple of thoughts.
Most of us have experienced the five stages of writing a sermon:
Denial: I don’t have to study for this message. I’m just going to read the text and let ‘er rip. Driscoll doesn’t need notes, neither do I.
Anger: If I have to study I’m going to make it count. I’m cleaning house this weekend; kicking butt and taking names. Deacon Jones better be there, it’s time for some wrath of God upside his head.
Bargaining: I’ve read the text 500 times, every commentator who’s ever written and listened to everything Piper, Chandler and Warren ever preached and I’ve got nothing. God, please help me write this message. I need something, anything. I promise to be nice. I’ll even stop praying for Deacon Jones to meet an untimely demise; just give me a nugget to preach on.
Depression: I can’t write. I can’t preach. I don’t even think I’m a Christian. This will be the weekend when everyone realizes I’m a fraud. I wonder if I could get a job selling insurance?
Acceptance: Well, it’s done. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. It might even be pretty good. If God shows up and I can remember how to speak English on Sunday lives could be changed. Thank you God for another shot at it.
Now we have a message. We are so relieved to have something for the weekend that we want to put away the manuscript until Sunday. But I think this is where we have a chance to take a good message and possibly make it great. I think the key to improving any kind of writing at this point is to look for what can be cut.
Where is the fluff that might get in the way of the message? I usually look for three types of material:
1) Interesting but irrelevant
These are the great jokes, fascinating statistics and amusing personal stories that don’t really go anywhere. I have shoehorned them in because they make me smile or they intrigue me, but in the end they’ve got to go. Hopefully I can file them away and use them in another message, but this weekend they wind up on the cutting room floor.
2) Relevant but not interesting
This is the long excerpt from the article by Keller that really nails down the concept of rational faith, the statistics from Barna that detail the American exodus from church, or the passage from Jeremiah detailing God’s condemnation of Edom. While these speak directly to the point I am trying to make, if the audience checks out while I am reading to them it doesn’t matter. A message not heard is a message not delivered. How can I paraphrase, condense, illustrate? Most people are over being read to by about the 4th grade.
3) Deep but not wide
Writing a great message requires a massive amount of background work. I have studied every relevant passage of scripture I can find; I have researched historical, contextual and critical analysis on the subject; I have Googled it, Wikapediaed it and Sermon Centraled it. I now have deep knowledge on this very narrow subject, and almost all of that knowledge should stay in the background. It is like applying a coat of primer when I paint; it is absolutely vital and always invisible. A full day’s research on 1st century Rabbis may be condensed into the phrase “which was a common practice among Rabbis of Jesus’ day.” The same is true of most of the scripture I have read in preparation. People can only comprehend so much in a 30-40 minute sermon and the more scripture I throw at them the more diluted my message becomes.
In preaching hundreds of sermons and listening to thousands of others I think it is this final 10% of cutting that makes the difference between, “Good sermon, Pastor” and “That message rocked my world”.