Here are a few practical things that you can do to take your preaching to the next level, with minimal effort.
1. Do a two-minute warning.
My biggest problem in sermon writing is what people call “analysis paralysis” – I get so involved studying for a sermon that, eventually, the more I study, the worse it becomes.
To cure this I started implementing something I call my “two-minute warning.” I stole it from my high school head football coach. Our high school football team went to the state championship (mostly due to our incredible coach and not so much because of the talent on the team). Every Thursday at the very end of practice, the night before the big game, we would do what he would call the “2-minute drill.” He would line us up on our own ten-yard line and then say, “Guys, you have two minutes to put the ball in the end-zone.” As the quarterback everything came rushing together – all the adrenaline, everything we had practiced, all the tips and ideas from our coaching staff – it all collided at that moment and forced me to quickly deduce what I needed to do to put the ball in the end zone.
I do a similar thing when I study for a message. I study for 6-10 hours, then grab a piece of paper and say, “Okay, I’m walking to the pulpit (does anyone say “pulpit anymore”?) in two minutes and I can’t take anything with me but an outline. Okay, Brian, you have two minutes to write down your message in outline form. GO!”
And then I force myself to cut through all the random ideas, all the clutter and get down to the heart of what I should talk about. 9.5 times out of 10 that outline becomes the actual outline I use for the message, and for the rest of the week, usually an additional 6-10 hours max, I spend crafting what I decided to preach on in that two-minute drill. I’ve always encouraged the Senior Pastors I coach to do the same thing.
2. Remember that the greatest enemy to keeping our butts in the seat and writing great sermons is NOT lack of discipline, but our next best spiritual gift.
Every pastor I know, especially me, acknowledges that the reason we don’t consistently preach great sermons is that we can’t keep our butts in the seat long enough to hear from God and think deeply.
All my homiletics professors told me this would be the case, and that to combat this we needed to develop high levels of discipline. I think they were wrong. My biggest problem isn’t that I lack discipline; it’s that God has gifted me with a few other spiritual gifts that I like using on a regular basis. I have three spiritual gifts – leadership, teaching, and evangelism. When I can’t stay glued to the seat it’s usually because I’m drawn into leadership or evangelistic activities, not because I’m binge-watching shows on Netflix.
All of this underscores why I think preaching classes should be taught by pastors who are actually preaching, who have to deal with all the demands of an actual church. If this were the case I think many preaching profs would cut back on the amount of unrealistic, guilt-producing advice they dispense to college kids and start dealing with real, practical, sustainable direction that works.
Therefore, one of my keys to writing and preaching good stuff is to purposely NOT spend too much time writing sermons and block out large amounts of time for my other gifts. I’ve figured out that 8-16 hours a week is just about all I can do before I start climbing the walls. That gives me a good 20 hours a week for leadership, a good 10 for evangelism stuff, and another 20 for miscellaneous stuff we all deal with.
3. Begin well, end well, and tell two good stories in between.
When I was a freshman in Bible college a family friend and mentor took me out to dinner one night at Pizza Hut. During dinner, he leaned over and asked me a question that shaped how I view my preaching task. He asked, “Brian, do you know what all great preachers have in common?” I looked at him with a blank stare. “They can all tell a story. Learn how to tell stories Brian and you’ll never have a problem keeping the Good News fresh and exciting.”
Like you, over the years I’ve read all the books I was told to read on how to preach a great sermon. “Try this technique. Try this outline. Do this unique thing.” Nothing has helped me more than John Samples’ simple advice. Open with a great story. Close with a great story. Tell two great stories in between.