Ultimately, if the preacher’s words are to become the Word of life, they must be presented in a way that creates a world for listeners to inhabit. This has to do with delivery, but there is more. To truly understand performance requires a theological understanding of human responsibility in the equation of incarnation.

It also means accepting that the call to preach demands submission and humility. Preaching is always about God; preachers must keep it from being about anything else, especially about them. (Leadership Journal)

l may have written this post before … at least it rings a bell. But it’s good to revisit the process from time to time, not least to ensure it is still done with a sense of calling rather than simply as a task to be done to keep the church ticking over.

Not that it’s ever been simply a task to be done … while DH can process a sermon while he’s ‘offline’ so that when he writes it’s as if it comes to him almost instantly, I have to sit and focus and look at a blank page for quite a while before anything ‘comes’ to me. Of course I don’t preach as often … once a month supposedly, although with time off for school holidays and church seasons it’s usually 8 or 9 times a year. But I’m not convinced it’s simply a matter of practice making perfect.

I try and prepare a little the week before sermon writing week … reading through the passages, talking to DH (who also writes the preaching programme) to see what he had in mind when he chose the reading and title (sometimes as long as 6 months earlier), making sure I’m familiar with the context. I may even gain an idea of a particular point I want to make, or see something that stands out as important to use as a focal point or punch line.

Then on Monday morning I try to set all my usual tasks aside to create sufficient ‘thinking time’ so that I’m not too hassled or stressed to concentrate (the older I get, the harder it seems to be to concentrate effectively, or at least on what I’m supposed to be thinking about!). But of course, the washing still needs to be done, the chickens still need to be fed, the kitchen needs tidying and the washing up is staring back at me from the sink. DH offers to help, even to cook, but since I know a) he can’t see the mess (he simply doesn’t have the same perspective on these things) and b) it will take him far longer to do, it displaces rather than removes the distraction of daily life. Don’t misunderstand me … I am grateful for his consideration, but the pressures of sermon writing are just not the same for us both!

So I sit at my desk and fidget … and wriggle … and sigh. And pray, of course! The passage is in front of me, I’ve read the brief commentary (see below) but I just can’t find a starting point. If you read books on preaching, they will often talk about writing an outline, perhaps even starting with the conclusion, before fleshing it out with more words. But I can’t seem to work like that … I need a starting point, an illustration or even simply an idea, before I can write anything.

In the end, still staring at a blank page, I decide I need to write something, anything, to remove the sermon writer’s block. So I take a pile of scrap paper, clear my desk and write … the title, the date, the readings, anything simply to get going. I move onto to background, context, significant verses …

Eventually, I get frustrated with writing and start to type instead. My scribbled thoughts don’t translate easily to the digital page, it’s too tidy a format to cope with my scrawl, so I try to make sense of it (if I can read it in the first place) as I type. And sooner or later, it will start to happen, something begins to come together, and at that point, when I have a sense of direction, I can stop for a while … because next time I come to write, I will have something to say. I might have 500 words, or just 50, I may have an opening illustration or a whole outline, but it’s enough to get me going again. It may not be long before I once again hit a blank wall and have to start the whole process off all over again, but it’s a start … or rather, it’s ‘fits and starts’, but it seems to work for me!

If I use (find) an opening illustration, I have to be careful that I don’t let it shape the rest of the sermon … I need to keep checking that I am still in touch with the bible passage, that what I’m writing is still grounded, rooted in the word of God. So occasionally I may have to jettison a paragraph or a page, which is frustrating. But nothing is wasted, and often I can reuse those words elsewhere, or the content is fine and all it needs is restructuring. I have never yet written a whole sermon and then had to start again from scratch … but never say never.

I have once written a whole sermon in 10 minutes.

Truly! I had a very busy week ahead and was desperate to free up some time somehow … as always, I prayed before starting to write, perhaps more earnestly than usual if I’m honest (!), and within ten minutes had both an outline and the peace of heart to preach from it without the need to write it out in full. It wasn’t a bad sermon, not the best, but good enough for the circumstances, and I am confident, God-given. Sadly, it hasn’t ever happened since!

I do usually write everything out in full. And preach from a full script. It seems to offend some, as if the Holy Spirit is only present in the extemporary word and not in the prepared word. Some preachers preach from notes, but I am more of a teacher than a preacher and have to craft my words carefully to make sure they mean what I want them to mean. I can happily lead a bible study or discussion group from notes or off the top of my head, because that is sharing information and responding to ongoing feedback as the discussion passes back and forth. Preaching is different. Preaching is about seeking a response, a reaction, when you are not in control of the congregation’s perception of what they think you are saying (if you see what I mean!). I am constantly surprised when people thank me for saying something I didn’t intend to say … either they weren’t listening, or if they are sincere in their thanks, then I take it that God has been at work. Preaching is never a two way discussion, there is always the third dimension of God’s involvement.

Preaching is not merely the art of textual exegesis, contextual analysis, and creative writing—though it involves all of these. Performance lies at the heart of proclamation. (Leadership Journal)

I hope I am still speaking naturally when I preach from a full script …. preaching is, in any case, always something of a performance (see this article from Leadership Journal) … I fear I may become imprecise, repetitive, even incoherent if I speak from an unfinished outline. The good preachers I know who preach from an outline have, in most cases, written the thing out in full first … it certainly helps to reveal the structure of a sermon to do it that way, but I worry that I may lose clarity if I don’t use those carefully crafted words I struggled so long to write!

So today is Monday, and I spent a couple of hours this morning writing a page of background information for this coming Sunday. I may even use it as an introduction (though it’s not at all humorous … not every sermon has to start with a funny story!), but I won’t write again until tomorrow morning … I need to give it time to let it brew in the subconscious mind. But I’ll keep praying.

Re commentaries … the best advice I’ve heard is to read the passage, pray and write something before even consulting the commentaries, so that you are already sufficiently familiar with the passage to know which direction to take your sermon for your particular context/congregation. If you read the commentaries first, it’s easy to get carried away with the exegetical difficulties of the original languages … !

Having said that, I have an old NIV Bible programme from Zondervan (I’ve just checked, it’s from 1998 … that’s nearly 20 years ago!) that I use all the time. The commentary (known as NIVBC) is excellent and I often read it alongside the passage. Sadly, it’s not available online.

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Just one more thing … I have read a few books on preaching (and heard not a few lectures on the art) … but the one book I would recommend is Preaching? Simple teaching on simply preaching by Alec Motyer. Written for preachers, it will inspire anyone seeking to read and share the word of God with it’s clear conviction that God speaks through his word.