In the late seventies and occasionally in the eighties, I worked as an investigator, around Glendale, California. Mostly I investigated accidents, though I did serve subpoenas, looked for missing persons a bit, and worked on one very complicated case involving a bizarre cult.
My boss (under whose license I worked) was very appreciative of my work, but knew that I was training to be a pastor. That didn't bother him much. He still had hopes of taking me on as a partner.
"I can't wait until you get your own church," Neal used to enthuse. "Then you can work for me full-time!
"After all," he added, "how hard can it be to get up and talk for fifteen minutes, once a week?"
Well, such was his experience, based on infrequent visits to a Methodist church.
For my part, I recently read something that captures my notions of responsible sermon-prep far better. It was in Curtis C. Thomas' Practical Wisdom for Pastors (Crossway: 2001). Thomas says:
One pastor described it accurately in this way. When asked by his deacons what he did with his time, he explained that for one thing, he prepared three sermons each week that could be compared to having to prepare three college term papers every week (p. 114, emphases added).That's much more like what it is for me. I bury myself in the Hebrew or Greek text, investigate the lexicography, chew and puzzle over the grammar, start plundering my way through the commentaries and theologies, amass striking quotations (of which I'll use maybe one or two), then start trying to peck out an outline. I'll go on walks, and roll the text around in my mind, pray it over, pray it through. I'll wrestle with it, and let it wrestle with me until it wins. I preach practice sermons in my mind. (Sometimes I've fretted that the ones I preached on my walks had much more fire than what I ended up taking to the pulpit.)
And then, OTOH, there's... The Man himself. Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Oh my, his method will leave a lesser man in despair.
If you don't already know, do you want me to tell you what Spurgeon did, how he prepared his sermons? Are you sure you want it? Do you want to know how CHS came up with sermons bursting with Christ, in such soaring eloquence, such riveting and probing appeals, such vivid word-portraits and witty turns of phrase, that his sermons still fall with full impact and life, a century and a half later?
Wellsir, here's how CHS did it. He picked Sunday's text on Saturday. In the morning, if he was blessed. And then he worked them over.
That was for the morning service on the next day. The other sermons, Spurgeon composed shortly before delivering them, perhaps as he walked to church.
Incredible, you say? I won't argue with you. But hear the man himself:
I am always sure to have the most happy day when I get a good text in the morning from my Master. [No doubt! —DJP] When I have had to preach two or three sermons in a day, I have asked Him for the morning subject, and preached from it; and I have asked Him for the afternoon’s topic or the evening’s portion, and preached from it, after meditating on it for my own soul’s comfort, — not in the professional style of a regular sermon-maker, but feasting upon it for myself. Such simple food has done the people far more good than if I had been a week in manufacturing a sermon, for it has come warm from the heart just after it has been received in my own soul; and therefore it has been well spoken, because well known, well tasted, and well felt. (From his autobiography, The Early Years)And there you have it.
Sometimes they came quite easily; but even so, he did a good deal of wrestling — on Saturday, before preaching to thousands of people in a crowded chapel the next day.
I confess that I frequently sit hour after hour praying and waiting for a subject, and that this is the main part of my study; much hard labour have I spent in manipulating topics, ruminating upon points of doctrine, making skeletons out of verses, and then burying every bone of them in the catacombs of oblivion, drifting on and on over leagues of broken water, till I see the red lights, and make sail direct to the desired haven. I believe that, almost any Saturday in my life, I prepare enough outlines of Sermons, if I felt at liberty to preach them, to last me for a month, but I no more dare to use them than an honest mariner would run to shore a cargo of contraband goods (ibid).Now, brother, before you give a cry of joy, heave over your lexicons and grammars and commentaries, and set yourself to a course of fishing and bowling and watching TV all week, consider well. Spurgeon was an exceptional man, whatever he may occasionally say of himself. Born of a line of preachers, Spurgeon was easily reading books in his early teens that you and I would have to sweat through as grown seminary grads. His vocabulary was staggering, as was his recall of Scripture. Spurgeon had a firmer grasp of sound doctrine within a year of his conversion than most of us mere mortals amass in a decade or more.
So, before you adopt Spurgeon's method, you had better be Spurgeon.
It's as I told a preacher-friend once, decades ago. He preached long, loooong rambling sermons, largely extemporaneously, "as God led" him. He'd justify their ponderous length by pointing to the example of Paul, who preached until midnight in Acts 20.
"Perhaps so," I answered. "But in that case, you'd better be ready to raise poor Eutychus from the dead."
And if we dim bulbs set ourselves to prepare sermons as Spurgeon did... we'd better be Spurgeon.
Which — let's face it — we're so not.