Seven Benefits of a Slow-Burn Project

A lot of ministry happens on fairly short notice. The weekly rhythm keeps ticking like a metronome, and it tends to get interrupted by emergencies. Church emergencies, outside ministry requests, family issues, as well as things going wrong in the house, etc., there is always something pressing. This is why sermon preparation tends to fit into the few days before Sunday. And sometimes it is like a game of Tetris making it fit!

If you don’t already have one, consider adding one more thing to your load. A slow-burn, no-pressure, long-term project. Something that motivates you biblically and theologically.

Here are seven benefits of this kind of approach:

  1. Redeem the time without stress. When people talk about redeeming the time, it sometimes becomes a frantic multi-tasking that ends up costing us sanity and productivity. Having a slow-burn project allows you to use ten minutes here and there in a way that feels enriching rather than annoying.
  2. Read different materials. I don’t tend to have the time to read journal articles when I am preparing a sermon. But with a slow-burn project I can accumulate and gradually engage with different types of materials.
  3. Get assistance in your research. It is rarely helpful to ask around for a resource when sermon prep is pressing (other than going to that friend who has a good commentary to borrow, of course). But with this kind of project I find that I ask more random people if anything comes to mind and sometimes get some very helpful things in return.
  4. Dig deeper into the text. When Sunday is coming, the sermon has to come sooner. But with a long-term project there is room to analyse the biblical text more thoroughly. If you have enough Greek or Hebrew you can really dig in and dwell in the text. You can become really familiar with a passage, its parsing, its logic, its nuances, its uniqueness. No pressure. No rush. (And if you are probing something theological or historical, you can probe so much deeper there too.)
  5. Find schedule-shifting motivation. When there isn’t a deadline pressing you on a project, there will be times when that project lies almost dormant. And other times when you feel that spark that motivates you to move other things out of the way in order to make progress on the project. That is always the best kind of pressure, the kind that builds up inside your soul to give attention to something that is motivating you.
  6. There may be a surprising ministry outcome. Don’t rush this part, but a slow project can yield surprising fruit. Obviously there may be a sermon or a series to be had, but don’t rush into that. Could there be a seminar or workshop that would help others? It could also be a magazine, or journal, article. Maybe it will move you into an academic season and become a thesis or dissertation. Perhaps a book.
  7. There will be a welcome personal outcome. Whether or not your slow-burn project yields an outcome in terms of specific ministry, it will yield all the great fruits of long-term pondering on and dwelling in God’s Word. It may be that it sparks an interest in another aspect of Scripture, or a writer from church history, or an aspect of theology, that becomes heart food for a future season of life and ministry. The slow-burn project may yield an outcome of real value for others, but it will almost certainly do something even deeper in you.

What slow-burn long-term project have you found has had a big impact in your life and ministry?

Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make – pt 4

Slip2This is a series of big adjustments rather than fine tweaks.  We’ve thought about content and audience, but here is another big issue:

Mistake 4 – Starting Too Late

There is all sorts of mythology around about the hundreds of hours some preachers invest into a single sermon, and even about some who only prepare minimally.  Perhaps the bigger issue is not simply the total time invested, but the spread of the time invested.  Here is a simple and healthy guideline:

Before God, give as many hours as you can, over as long a period as you can, to prepare the best sermon you can.

1. Before God … that is, you answer to Him.  Don’t make decisions based on what others think (although people telling you your sermon seemed unprepared is a red flag to take onboard!)  Our ministry is ultimately a stewardship and God knows the balance that makes sense for us.  I could sacrifice the health of my marriage, my family, and other aspects of church life, as well as personal health and hygiene in order to give every conceivable moment to preparing a sermon.  I doubt God would be impressed.  It is before God that we make the value judgments on time.  Equally, if emergencies crowd lots of allotted preparation time, or if we step in at the last minute, then God knows that.  So before God…

2. Give as many hours as you can … that is, it takes time to do the work of preparing to preach.  It takes time to study a passage.  It takes time to properly pray for the people.  It takes time to wrestle with the wording of the main idea.  It takes time to thrash out the best sermon strategy.  It takes time to work out the best support material.  It takes time to get past logjams in our preparation.  It takes time to preach a message through out loud and make adjustments.  It takes time.  Wider reading, targeted reading, related research.  It takes time.  Don’t try to impress people by minimalist preparation.  And don’t appease your own conscience in some twisted way by giving minimal time and then saying you did the best you could.

3. Over as long a period as you can … here is the crux of the matter for this post.  If you start on Friday or Saturday, you might be able to technically do what is necessary, but only just, and probably not at all.  That is, only just in terms of reading, study and research.  Having longer allows you to stew on research, ask others and develop ideas in conversation, read commentaries and articles in a more considered way.  And secondly, you probably can’t do what is necessary at all in the sense of letting the passage do its work in your heart and life.  Deep appreciation of a biblical passage on a Saturday night may lead to a special moment of worship, but it doesn’t forge true conviction in the inner matrix of your heart and soul.

There are benefits to planning series months ahead to allow for drip feed study, prayer and research.  There are benefits to starting 10 days before a Sunday, rather than 5 days before on the Tuesday.  Starting unnecessarily late may be undermining the potential for God to work in you, and through you.

The Preacher’s Clock: Procrastination?

clock2Haddon Robinson was on target when he suggested the weekly cycle of sermon preparation is too short.  Starting on Tuesday for the following Sunday is not soon enough and can messages under-cooked and preachers without the time for the message to be working authenticity into their experience.  Robinson suggests putting in some preparation the Thursday of the week before.  I think he is on target.

But what about when things go the other way and preparation gets squeezed?

I have a personal principle on this issue.  If I genuinely have had unforeseen delays and have to prepare at the last minute, then I ask God for help and know that He understands.  But then there is a second part to it too – if I have procrastinated and end up preparing at the last minute, then I confess that, ask for forgiveness and still ask God for help.

The first part of the principle has been forged in the relatively gentle furnace of family life and missions organization participation, and in recent years by the busy schedule created by combining ministry roles.  Sometimes life happens and there is no way to prepare as you would like.  God understands this.  Last minute preparation is not ideal, but it is possible and it is still better to prepare as much as you can, rather than not prepare at all.

The second part of the principle is because I am human.  I admire people with perfect track records in the area of self-discipline (but I also doubt them!)  Rather than make up excuses and try to convince myself that I genuinely could not prepare fully due to life circumstances, I would rather be honest and admit when I have allowed other things, often very good things, to distract me from what was needed as a ministry deadline loomed.  I may have lacked self-discipline, I may even have succumbed to some tempting distraction, but I don’t want to succumb to another temptation and seek to justify my procrastination.  Hence, I sometimes have to repent and ask for forgiveness and then prepare at the last minute.

Let’s all be marked by the last fruit of the Spirit in our ministry preparation, making the most of every opportunity to preach the Word as good stewards of the privilege.  And let’s be real with God and ourselves when we fail.  Let us neither abuse grace, nor reject it.

With the Time You Have

As I wander through Preach the Word, I am taking advantage of little nuggets here and there to prompt posts.  Today I’m influenced by Wayne Grudem’s article on “Right and Wrong Interpretation of the Bible.”  He makes a point that I have probably made before, but it bears repeating.

Grudem writes, “It is possible to do a short or long study of any passage.  Do what you can with the time you have, and don’t be discouraged about all that you cannot do.”

Study time is not prescribed. I’m often asked how long sermon preparation should take.  A standard question, to which I give a probably standard answer – “as long as you have.”  It doesn’t help to feel bound to a ten-hour minimum study phase if you simply don’t have ten hours to study the passage.  Grudem gives the example of having to give a devotional talk with ten minutes warning.  Can it be done?  Of course.  He doesn’t suggest it is a good idea to prepare for ten minutes, but it can be done.  On the other hand, the same passage might be studied for twenty hours in anticipation of a Sunday sermon, for two or three hundred hours in the preparation of an academic article, or for a full year or more for the sake of a PhD.

Don’t be discouraged by time you don’t have. Seems obvious, but it’s so easy to get discouraged when we think of all that we have not done in our preparation.  Resources not checked, words not fully studied, verbs unparsed, syntax not diagrammed, cross-references not referenced, etc.  If you didn’t have time, God knows that, and we need to know that too.

Don’t be disqualified by time you didn’t use. I would add this to the mix.  Often there is not enough time.  But sometimes we fail to use the time we have.  Obviously that is not good.  Often it is inexcusable.  Who was it that referred to time-wasting as the greatest sin of the younger generation?  Anyway, when you know your time is running out and you can’t honestly say you used every moment as you should have, what should you do?  You shouldn’t carry a weight of guilt and self-recrimination that steals your heart away from the privilege of knowing God and preaching His Word.  It is important to do what you preach – keep a short account with God, confess, repent, accept forgiveness.  We don’t sin so that grace may increase, but praise the Lord that there is plenty of grace in His character . . . we need it!

Apologetics for Homiletics – Part 3 continued

So does homiletical methodology impose a strait jacket on the preacher?  Yesterday we noted that methodology recognizes the progression from text to sermon, it does not rigidly enforce it.  Description of logical order, as opposed to prescription of illogical order.  But there is more to be added:

2. Good methodology only feels like a structure initially. It is like riding a bicycle.  At first there is a lot to remember and try to keep straight, but once it becomes natural, it is natural.  A person first learning to ride a bicycle needs to learn all the necessary elements, even if it feels overwhelming.  It doesn’t help to ignore the handlebars initially and simply let the arms hang limp.  The initial “structured” feel soon fades with practice.

3. Good methodology is a guide, not a machine that “guarantees” results. You cannot feed a text into a machine and produce a good message.  The methodology found in homiletics books and courses is a guide, not a machine.  Any promise to guarantee a great message is a false promise – whether that be a sermon methodology, a published collection of outlines, a website, or whatever.

4. Good methodology does not force the text into a sermon shape. There are methodologies that do this.  This is a strait jacket.  As I’ve written before – sermon form is a choice for the preacher to make in light of the text, the listeners, the occasion and the preacher’s own strengths and skill.  Good sermon preparation methodology is a guide, not a shoe-horn that will squeeze any text into a specific sermon mold.

So homiletics instruction in book or course form is not intended to be a strait jacket, but a guide.  Many testify to the freedom that comes from a sense of structure in the preparation process.  For many, it is the absence of any guidance at all that brings on feelings of insanity, not the “strait jacket” of a sensible thought-through methodology.

Apologetics for Homiletics – Part 3

So the critical matter of the role of the Spirit raised issues concerning evaluation of past “fruit,” and more importantly, the dynamic tension between good stewardship and self-reliance.  Now another objection:

Doesn’t homiletics create a methodological strait jacket? People with years of experience in reading a passage, soaking in it and then coming up with something to say may resist a more “formulaic” approach.  After all, “soak then say” preaching methodology seems a lot more flexible than Haddon Robinson’s 10 stages, or Mead’s 8, or Ramesh Richard’s 7, or Bryan Chappell’s 14, etc.  Here are a couple of thoughts to consider:

1. Good methodology recognizes the natural progression from text to sermon, it does not impose a rigid process. When I teach homiletics I follow the order of the stages, but I regularly recognize that thoughts may come for any part of the process at any time.  Hence it is good to work on loose sheets of paper so insights and ideas can be noted in the appropriate place, before returning to the current stage in the progression.  While thoughts may come randomly at times, there is reason for the order.  One cannot and should not be forming the message before understanding the passage.  In the first four stages one cannot determine the passage idea before studying the passage’s content and intent (intent becoming evident primarily from content), etc.  In the last four stages, there has to be a message before there can truly be an introduction or conclusion, and the message structure cannot precede determination of the idea, etc.  The order is logical, not arbitrary, it recognizes the progression, it doesn’t impose restriction.

Again, there is more to say, but I will defer that to the next post.

True Liberty in Preaching

Along the same lines as the subject of yesterday’s post, how do we find true liberty in our preaching?  This is Phillips Brooks in his 1877 Lectures on Preaching:

In the desire to make a sermon seem free and spontaneous there is a prevalent dislike to giving it its necessary formal structure and organism. . . . True liberty in writing comes by law, and the more thoroughly the outlines of your work are laid out, the more freely your work will flow, like an unwasted stream between its well-built banks.

I’d prefer to use terms like order and structure rather than law, but the point is well made.  It’s a common thought that non-preparation will allow the freedom of a flowing message.  In reality the result is likely to be higher levels of incoherence, blabbering, circling, and stress.  The more work we put in to structuring and planning the sermon, the more freedom we have during delivery to adjust if necessary, and to flow freely.  Let’s seek to be unwasted streams of well-prepared communication of God’s Word.

Is Preparation Spiritual?

Periodically I come across people who think it is wrong to study preaching, or to prepare in any specific way for a sermon.  Perhaps there are more, but they don’t make themselves known to me – quite possible.  I like this succinct paragraph from Wayne McDill’s 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching (p219):

Some preachers are lazy.  Others do not know what to do.  Some rationalize their poor preparation with pious talk about “inspiration” and “just letting the Spirit speak.”  The fact is that God has decided to use preachers.  Our laziness does not help the Holy Spirit; it hinders him.  There is nothing particularly spiritual about poor sermon preparation.

McDill goes on to challenge the reader to work at their sermon preparation in direct proportion to their estimate of the value of preaching.  I like that.  While it may be possible to over-professionalize preaching, leave the Spirit out of our study and lean wholly on our own understanding, there is also real danger in the opposite extreme.  Preparation is not automatically spiritual, neither is it automatically unspiritual.  So let’s be careful to pursue our preparation both diligently and spiritually – all to the glory of God.