Preparing Quality Sermons in a Time-Crunched World
By Dr. Jeff Cockrell
Each day, God credits every man, woman, and child with 86,400 seconds of time. At midnight, the day is lost, and we can never capture it again. No matter how productive we are, we are always losing time. Time carries no balances and allows no overdrafts. Solomon teaches in Ecclesiastes 3:2-8 that as a farmer understands the necessity of cooperating with the seasons of weather, we too must cooperate with the seasons of life given by God.
Producing a quality sermon requires a certain amount of time. In addition, as someone who spent years in pastoral ministry, I also realize that unspent time is something pastors do not have. In addition, some weeks are busier than others, and you wonder how you will manage to produce a quality sermon that speaks to your congregation and has the blessing of God. Here are a few suggestions I found helpful to make the most out of limited sermon preparation time.
Planning is perhaps the best friend a pastor can have when time is short. We know God has order and a plan, and we must develop a plan too. As a pastor responsible for feeding the flock, take time to plan your sermon schedule. This plan may range from a few weeks to months in advance. Some pastors spend time at the beginning of each year planning their preaching schedule. A few minutes in planning can save hours in wasted time when you are trying to decide your course of action.
Planning is most helpful during a busy week filled with hospital visitation, funerals, and other unexpected responsibilities. In these times, you do not want to waste two hours trying to determine what to preach on Sunday. Nothing proves more nerve wrecking than approaching Saturday after a busy week of pastoring, with no idea of what to preach on Sunday and no clue where to begin.
Take a few days—or even a few weeks—in prayer and preparation. Consider the needs of your church members and observe significant events on the calendar. Pray and ask God to guide you in preparing your sermon schedule. Perhaps certain books in the Bible especially speak to the needs of your church. Ecclesiastes shows the importance of trusting in God as the source of fulfillment. Galatians speaks of freedom in Christ. Philippians teaches how to have joy in all circumstances.
In the fall, you may want to spend a few weeks preaching about thankfulness and the meaning of Christmas. In the spring, perhaps you will devote several weeks to the life,
crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. Sunday and Wed-nesday nights are wonderful times to devote to Free Will Baptist doctrine, church history, or another special topic.
Read & Observe
Once you know where you are going in your sermon schedule, begin reading and observing the biblical passage. Charles Spurgeon encouraged preachers, “Soak yourself in the text.” If you have a current series, with a clear plan for weeks in advance, a particularly busy week does not have to be so stressful. For instance, if you plan an Easter series, read ahead on the various resurrection appearances and make notes. Planning and reading allows appropriate time to meditate on the text.
When reading and observing, look for the “big idea.” This requires close examination. Look for repeated words and phrases (for example: the repetition of world in 1 John 2:15-17). Look for deliberate contrasts. For instance: death is contrasted with life in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ.” Look for comparisons like the ones common in the book of Proverbs. Look for causes and consequences. Jesus explains in John 3:16 that the reason He came was to provide salvation: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Look for the author’s flow of thought. Examine the individual words. Notice conjunctions like and, but, and for. Notice the verbs and individuals performing the action. Read carefully and determine the primary emphasis in the passage.
After you soak yourself in the text, read a few quality commentaries. Since preparation time is limited, consult one or two technical volumes and one or two that are devotional in nature. The Randall House Bible Commentary series is a valuable tool because it is a hybrid, offering verse-by-verse commentary followed by points of practical application or devotional thoughts at the end of each passage.
After you have read and observed the passage, reflect on how it relates to the life of your church. The process of understanding the Bible is not complete until it leads to application. After you have exegeted (interpreted) the text, you want to exegete the congregation. John Stott described this as “bridging the gap.” A good sermon follows the author’s flow in the passage and connects the author’s intent to the congregation.
Apply the Bible to the life of your church. Therefore, as you reflect on the meaning of the text for the biblical audience, take time to reflect on the people in your church. Determine the theological principles that apply to both groups. Focus on the big idea the author is communicating. List the questions your church people might have about the passage. Ponder how the passage might apply to their current situation. Determine if a particular action is required. Consider situations in your church that parallel those in Scripture.
Rely on the Spirit
As you pray, plan, read, observe, and reflect on the biblical text, rely on God to speak through you. Preaching is all about God, and not about you. Preaching is worship as it communicates God’s word to people. Preparing a sermon is not only a mental exercise but also a spiritual exercise. As the Holy Spirit inspired human authors to compile the words of God, the Holy Spirit can illuminate your mind to understand the meaning of the Bible. Depend on God and allow his Holy Spirit to work in and through you. Remember God is sovereign. He knew the kind of week you would have. Find hope, confidence, and assurance in the care of God.
As a pastor, you may desire many hours for sermon preparation, but some days or weeks, this is simply impossible. However, if you follow these simple steps, you can prepare a quality sermon in a short time: plan, read, and observe; reflect; and rely upon the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
For me, preaching has a quality of mystery to it. I often feel ill equipped to deliver God’s Word, yet I am frequently reminded that God speaks through the lips of imperfect, over-worked, and often exhausted men of God to transform their listeners into His likeness.
About the Writer: Dr. Jeff Cockrell holds degrees from Liberty University (B.S., M.A.) Gordon-Conwell Seminary (M.A.) and the University of Wales (Ph.D.). Jeff joined the Welch College faculty in 2016 after three decades in pastoral ministry to coordinate the newly formed M.A. in Theology and Ministry program. He recently accepted an administrative position at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology. Dr. Cockrell is a member of the Free Will Baptist Historical Commission.
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