There are many reasons why a preacher may struggle to prepare a message that is really fresh and vital. Here are three to be aware of and guard against:
1. Schedule pressure – The reality for most of us is that there are not enough hours in the week. With the best intentions to give time to the sermon preparation, life continues to happen. Crises occur in the church and in the family, other tasks take more time than expected, and so on. When the walls of time are pressing in, the preacher naturally will move to “just getting a message” rather than fully preparing a message from that particular text for those people on that Sunday. Just a passing comment – if there is never enough time any week (perhaps because you are preaching five times a week), then perhaps something needs to be changed.
2. Text familiarity – After years of formal and personal Bible study, it is inevitable that the text can take on a certain level of familiarity. The temptation is to move on to hunt sermon detail material such as illustrations, rather than taking the time to study the passage again. There may be a temptation to jump from the text to a doctrine that seems both pertinent and important. The challenge is to first take the opportunity to study the text again. Often I find that my understanding at the level of doctrine may not change too much, but the literary structure of a passage usually becomes clearer each time I return. Focus on the literary structure and features of the text, look for turns in the plot, points of tension in the narrative, significant movements in the flow of thought.
3. Spiritual staleness – Being in ministry can be a lonely place. Everyone has expectations of us, many place demands on us and few understand the unique battles of the ministry on every level, not least spiritually. With high levels of output, and potentially very little input other than that which we pursue for ourselves, spiritual dryness can easily set in. There are numerous elements in a solution to this, but mention must be made of our relationship with God and our relationships with other people. Both need transparency, both need constancy. There is much more, but there can’t be less than this.
Under pressure to produce it is easy to slip into a pattern of merely creative sermon making. But as Van Harn suggests, the minister is not called first of all to be creative, but to be a faithful listener to the text. (Preacher, Can You Hear Us Listening?, 19)