11 December 2008

Sermon preparation of lesser and greater luminaries

by Dan Phillips

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.

Dan Phillips's signature


Truth Unites... and Divides said...

I heard/read something similar about G.K. Chesterton: He wrote his books and essays (which are treasured classics) without revising.

One draft. Done!

beencalled said...

At first when describing your way of preparing a sermon, i felt a little lazy. Most of the time, the Lord gives me something at the last minute, but i usually don't give much prep time. Then you explained how Spurgeon did it and it made me feel a little bit better. Until you said, "So, before you adopt Spurgeon's method, you had better be Spurgeon."

Ouch, that cut me right to the heart. I am no where near being like that, so your post has really encouraged me to get with the program. Thanks.

DJP said...

I'm very grateful if these thoughts have that use.

Here, perhaps, is a useful analogy. I could read what Michael Phelps often ate for breakfast. I could think, "Gosh, he ate that much, and was in that great shape? Dude, I'm going to eat the same way!"

Which — yeah, great. But then you'd better work out like Michael Phelps.

FX Turk said...

I am always amazed at how much better the second draft of anything is, and how much the third draft starts to destroy a thing wholesale.

Eddie Eddings said...

I have thought about legally changing my name to Charles Haddon Spurgeon...but, I don't think that would improve my preaching or teaching at all.

Chris H said...

I wrote a sermon a week in advance. As I tweaked the wording and got used to the speaking of it, I became less and less interested in it. At 3am the morning I was to preach, I scrapped the whole thing almost entirely and wrote a new one.

I got up there, not having rehearsed more than twice, and simply prayed that I would not do Christ any dishonour. I say, admitting that it was the Holy Spirit who led that latter sermon, that it was the far better choice.

DJP said...

By contrast, I have a pastor-friend who also felt strongly moved to scrap his sermon at the last minute and preach another. It was in a church that was probably just about to "call" him as its pastor.

It was absolutely horrible.

I think he only barely dared to glance at his wife's face during the sermon, and she had this look of horror....

The car was very quiet afterwards, for a good while. Then finally, his wife said, "What possessed you to...?"

It had a happy ending, though. The church didn't call him, because of that miserable wreck of a sermon. And he now thinks that's a very good thing.

James Scott Bell said...

One of the things I appreciate about your sermons, Dan, is the obvious prep work, down to the very careful wording you use to explicate doctrine or text. Something I can't stand about so much emergent-type preaching is the "off the cuff" tangential style that is supposed to make us think, Gee, what a cool, unpretentious guy!

In reality, it is an abdication of the preacher's duty to the flock.

Us said...


Jerry said...

As a bi-vocational pastor with limited "study" time I have found that it is best for me to preach expositionally through whole books, and to keep ahead of my text in my studies.

As a result, if things get backed up one week I can fall back on the reserve of prior preparation. Additionally, I can let my text percolate through my life as I meditate on it even while engaged in secular work.

James David Beebe, Jr. said...

People like to read quotes like these, grab out of them what they want to hear, ignore the rest, and run with it: "Spurgeon didn't spend much time preparing sermons!"

Phooey. Two things:

1. "I frequently sit hour after hour praying..." not bowling and tv, and I don't think he was exaggerating about the time spent. Like the saying goes, we pray 10 minutes, preach an hour, and a few might get saved -- they prayed for days in the upper room before Pentacost, Peter preached 10 minutes and thousands got saved.

2. Spurgeon had already spent years studying, starting early in life, and thus had a grasp of scripture to use as source material, like a composer or lyricist who has notebooks full of themes and ideas to pull from when the need arises. An athelete warms up for 10 minutes and then runs a marathon ... wow, he only had to prepare for 10 minutes? No, years and many miles went before.

Oh, and of course 3. we ain't Spurgeon

James David Beebe, Jr. said...

... It's like when people say, "Paul didn't go to seminary!" No, he studied for 3 years under CHRIST HIMSELF IN PERSON, studied scripture for years before that (albeit without enlightenment) ... and we ain't Paul.

Tom Chantry said...

This reminds me of an anecdote from my ordination council.

A Welsh Presbyterian minister was present, and he asked me the following question: "It is the beginning of the week and you have six days in which to prepare your sermon; what do you do?"

I responded with something not dissimilar to Dan's list - careful study of the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of the passage, the drawing up of an initial outline, investigation of particular consultation of best commentaries, prayer over the text with the congregation in mind, the formation of a sermon outline, consideration of illustrations and interesting introductions, a final outline - the whole routine growing out of a seminary education.

He listened with no apparent reaction, and then posed his next question: "Alright then, it is ten o'clock Sunday morning and the visiting minister has just come down sick. You have fifteen minutes to prepare a sermon. Which, of all the things you just mentioned, do you now do?"

I was entirely unprepared for the question, but I could imagine the situation. I knew how frightened I would have been, and I didn't know how to answer. I began by saying, "Well, I would pray..."

I had been speaking half in jest and to cover for the inevitable pause while I worked out just what I would do, but he interrupted, "Exactly! Prayer is the indispensable part of preparation. It is good to do everything else you just said, but you absolutely must pray, or you cannot preach!"

That was the most notable moment of that day.

When I hear of Spurgeon's preparation, I am stunned. Occasionally I even suspect that it shows in some of his sermons. On the whole, though, one would never guess. I think that Phil said something in another context about Spurgeon's constant immersion in the best books, and that is no doubt a great part of the explanation, but I also suspect that he spent more time in intense prayer over his sermons than many who prepare more thoroughly.

For myself, I'm no Spurgeon. I'll stick to my seminary method. But I suspect that the divide between some of the great preaching masters of the ages and that of journeymen such as myself is not in preparation, nor even in talent, so much as in the effectiveness of their prayers.

Unknown said...

This post needs to be balanced with the understanding that Spurgeon spent his entire week, indeed his entire life, in the Word. It's not just his prior education and exceptional intellectual abilities that enabled him to put a sermon together on Saturday, it was his habit of being nourished by the Word throughout the week. In fact, in his book "Lectures To My Students" he says this: "If a man would speak without any present study, he must usually study much" (Ch.10 - The Faculty of Impromptu Speech). He then goes on to use an illustration of a flour mill worker who, Spurgeoun says, must always keep his flour bin full if he expects to feed his customers. He concludes by saying, "Take it as a rule without exception, that to be able to overflow spontaneously, you must be full." The key to a good sermon isn't "preparing a sermon all week"; it's being in the Word all week. So, to say that Spurgeon just put his sermons together on Saturday is a bit misleading. Spurgeon, like Edwards, like MacArthur, and like Piper, laboured throughout the week as "a laborer worth his wages".

I find that many guys who talk about speaking spontaneously in the Spirit are often times just rationalizing their own laziness. You don't have to be Spurgeon in order to start your sermon on Saturday, you just have to be in the Word throughout the week.

Tom Chantry said...

JDB Jr. - I was composing when your comments posted - great quote from Spurgeon on prayer. Exactly what I always suspected!

Chris H said...

Oh, absolutely. I was called to prepare a Bible study for my small group. I had made (emphasis on that word) no time for it, believing I could simply wing it.

Colossal and monumental failure on my part. I was unprepared, unfamiliar with the text (Isaiah is not my strong suit), and my "insights" were awful. Were it not for the grace and participation of the others in that group, I would have simply sat there in stunned disbelief at what I had done. Instead, I sat in stunned disbelief at what God did despite my absolute uselessness.

Maybe there's a sermon illustration in there...

DJP said...

Right. Now, I do relish (in a way_)those opportunities in which, through no fault of my own, I have no time to prepare. Then you get to see what's in the pantry, in a manner of speaking.

Like the time I was in a very tense business meeting, not as the pastor, and was called on to lead in the Word right then, with no notice, picking my text as I walked to the pulpit.

Or the time my pastor took ill and called me with 45 minutes' notice.

Or the time at Talbot when I was asked to bring the Chapel message with ten minutes to "prepare."

Tom Chantry said...

My father has always said that if you find yourself in such a situation, as you say, "through no fault of your own," then it is not uncommon for the Holy Spirit to bless your preaching in an uncommon way. But be careful - if you then think, "I don't need to work so hard, the Spirit will work through me," then you will step into the pulpit, and He will not be there.

donsands said...

Thanks for sharing how you prepare. And of the "prince of preachers" extraordinariness.

I wish more pastors would dig into the Greek and Hebrew.
My last pastor had little knowledge of the original languages.

Nt that it's essential. But overall it brings forth the truth with more authority and the sermons usually have a greater depth to them, and so get deep down into our ears, and change the heart a bit more.

There is a famine for pastors who like to work hard and study the Word, and so the Body of Christ is spiritually malnourished, though we may sem to be healthy.

Keep on doing what your doing Dan. Your sermons will be meat for the hungry spirit, and shall nourish the soul, through the Spirit's embedding.

Tom Chantry said...

Here's a question:

In I Timothy 4:15, in the context of telling Timothy to "devote [himself] to the public reading of Scripture, to teaching, to exhortation," Paul writes, "Practice these things, immerse yourself in them..."

Is it legalism to call on God's ministers to obey that command?

DJP said...

LOL; troublemaker.

Tom Chantry said...

Hey, don't be nasty! You don't want War Duck coming in here and really making trouble!

SolaMommy said...

I find it interesting that Beth Moore's claim to fame is using this very method of NOT preparing before her conferences and just winging it "by the Spirit", so to speak. At the conference I went to, she clarified that she does just that, and then proceeded to give 3 disjointed, unbiblical, name-it-and-claim-it "sessions" that weekend. And HOW MANY women in evanjellybeanical churches are following her from conference to conference to hear more? That was my first and last Beth Moore conference.

I'm glad you men are humble enough to realize you're not Spurgeon!

Daniel said...

Dan, in reading this post, I am reminded of the conversation that followed your post on "Nomicophobia"; for just as your emphasis on human effort was construed by some to be an endorsement of obedience in one's own strength, so too I think some might construe your post here as suggesting that good sermons come primarily by human effort.

I realize, of course, that no matter what you write someone is going to miss the boat, and trying to anticipate and answer for every contingency is simply impractical, yet I think if you had balanced this post (and possibly the previous one?) with some deeper thoughts about how the Holy Spirit works in and through this process - where the harmony and synergy are found - it would probably be more edifying to the little ones IYKWIM. (If you know what I mean.)

Just my thoughts, ... not meant as a criticism. ;)

Solameanie said...

As I read this, I can't help but think of an excellent object lesson on how NOT to prepare and deliver a sermon.

Watch TBN. As long as you can stand it. Take some Vicodin beforehand, or at least a good nerve pill.

After you are completely aghast at what you've watched, thank the Lord on bended knee for great men of God like Charles Spurgeon, who have left such a wonderful legacy.

Terry Rayburn said...


"I'll wrestle with it, and let it wrestle with me until it wins."

I love that.

What I don't love are those pre-done sermon books I see at Lifeway. 3 points outline, ready-made illustrations, Chef Boyardee Italian gourmet banquet.

You mentioned one BIG "secret" Spurgeon had:

"...bursting with Christ"

That goes a long way toward improving any sermon.

Here's a story Spurgeon told in his sermon "Christ Precious To Believers", March 13, 1859.

Tom Chantry said...

What I don't love are those pre-done sermon books I see at Lifeway. 3 points outline, ready-made illustrations, Chef Boyardee Italian gourmet banquet.


I once told my secretary in my previous church that I was going to order two books: 501 Sermon Outlines, and 1001 Sermon Illustrations. She could insert the proper illustrations into an outline each week and leave my notes on my desk by Friday afternoon. Meanwhile I would work on my golf swing.

The sad part of the story is that those weren't made-up titles - promotional literature for both books arrived at my office in the same week from different publishers.

The happy part of the story is that the books weren't ordered, my golf swing never improved, and I eventually gave up the game altogether.

DJP said...

Totally agree, Terry.

Once I was having a hard time with a sermon, and found that Spurgeon had preached on it.

But this time, I decided deliberately not to look at it until I felt I had a better grasp of the text myself. I didn't want to risk trying to go out with Saul's armor; IOW, being so overwhelmed by the great man's "take," that I wasn't able to see past or beyond it.

DJP said...

Daniel...no matter what you write someone is going to miss the boat, and trying to anticipate and answer for every contingency is simply impractical....

1. Bingo. And...
2. Not only that, but it makes for very long posts.

In fact, I'd just wildly guess that probably 20%-40% of any given post is given to anticipating and heading off misunderstandings, unintentional and otherwise.

That's why perhaps my biggest pet peeve is when someone glances at the title and maybe a word or two, spurts off some nonsense, and demands that I defend my position — which, had he actually read the post, he'd see that I already had done.

One day, someone will comment, "You know, I was going to say ___, but then I remembered that you always try to word your posts very carefully; so I re-read, and found you had already answered my objection."

Whereupon I will clutch at my chest, and readers can extend their sympathies to the Widow Phillips.

Rachael Starke said...

I just returned from two days of an intense class on executive presentation skills. One point that was made in passing was that, in any speaking situation, you must practice your entire presentation, aloud, at least three times, to eliminate distracting habits and make sure you're emphasising your most important points, but no more than five, or you run the risk of becoming robotic and leaving no room for the audience to interact and make what you say even better.

What struck me was that each of these people's companies had spent approximately $2500 each to have their people learn all these skills to do everything from sell air conditioning systems or wireless routers, or to convince their Wachovia bank managers to keep making their numbers and not quit (ha!).

Not exactly anything of eternal consequence.

What was also telling was how obvious it was that technique can only help so much. If you don't have any substance to offer, no amount of gesturing and cute visual aids are going to help. You have to know your content.

If your content just happens to be the living Word of God, how much more important is it to invest as much as possible to make sure that people truly receive and appropriate what you're saying?

And if you (I) happen to be on the receiving end, how much more important is it to pray for the pastor during the week and before and during the sermon?? He has a far better Coach, who has promised to help and bless. If we ask.

David Regier said...

Being a church musician and not a preacher, I find that I'm best prepared to lead singing if I've been immersed in God's word all week. My pastor lets me know the passage he's preaching, and maybe a main point, but I choose music based on my own interaction with the passage.

We have a responsibility to prepare ourselves for every element of our ministry, especially with regard to the word, but also with regard to public speaking, and for me, music. Maybe even PowerPoint (ack!). But the same Spirit who is able to lead spontaneously on Sunday morning is able to lead during preparations on Tuesday. And for most of us, that gives us more freedom for spontaneity on Sunday morning.

SolaMommy said...

Rachael - And if you (I) happen to be on the receiving end, how much more important is it to pray for the pastor during the week and before and during the sermon??

Amen, sister!

I recently read that every Sunday during the sermon, Spurgeon had hundreds of men praying for him downstairs.

Stefan Ewing said...

As other commenters here have noted, Spurgeon probably spent most of his week immersed in the Word and in prayer.

Rachael and SolaMommy: Amen to praying for our pastors, and for our services. Well, to prayer in general, and especially in relation to the life and health of our churches, for we are always entirely at the mercy of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who is after all the Head of our Church.

Stefan Ewing said...


Speaking of going to the Greek and Hebrew, there have been times when our senior pastor has had to really wrestle even with a single word, especially in cases the meaning seems clear in the English translation, but the meaning of the underlying text is not so clear cut, and the main translations reflect interpretive conclusions reached by translation committees.

pastorharold said...

An old country preacher once told me "always be ready to preach on a moments notice, and to die without any notice".

DJP said...

The version I heard in seminary was "Be ready to preach, pray or die at a moment's notice" — but your version makes a good point!

John said...

With a full-time secular job, I spend most of my free time in preparation when I am preaching AM and PM services on Sunday. I say, "In preparation," but that includes sitting there trying to find a topic--or daydreaming.

I have listened to lots of those sermons that "were given" to the preacher at the last minute. I can tell you, I'll take the prepared ones.

Tom Chantry said...

I knew a man who heard the same slogan at Bible College. When he came home on break, his preacher/father told him he was going to preach the evening service - with less than an hour's notice. He got up in front of the people and said, "They tell us at Tecoa that we're supposed to be ready to preach, pray, or die at a moment's notice, and I'm about to do all three!"

W. Ian Hall said...

Thanks for the post.I don't know about other pastors and sermon preparers but Spurgeon's method produces in me a strange combination of awe at the gifts that the man had and cold sweat at the thought of seeking a text on a Saturday night for a Sunday morning service - SCARY.

DJP said...

...and not having a clue about the next 1-2 services on that day. Yep, scary!

In me, however, it would be not only scary, but irresponsible and faithless. But I guess that's why God made a Spurgeon, and then, later on, from lesser materials, a Phillips. Rather than two Spurgeons.

CR said...

Just a real stunning and surprising account of how Spurgeon prepared for his sermons. Exceptional indeed but also a man who suffered physically very much. It really makes you wonder the suffering of great preachers in our midst but don't show it much.

The Lord uses extraordinary means so that the devil who prowls like a lion doesn't devour the shepherds. Amazing...

James Scott Bell said...

I use a wide margin Bible, making my notes there, and thus can be ready to preach at a moment's notice if need be. Torrey did a similar thing, but put his notes/outline on single pages in a small, leather bound "preaching book" he carried with him, so he could preach at any time. (I actually got to hold this in my hands at the Torrey archives at Wheaton). He was never "without text" to preach on.

Gilbert said...

I preached my first sermon "The most important thing/the last sermon", as if it was my dying one, several weeks ago. That took a full month to prepare. One thing I've taken from that was thatthe Holy Spirit will lead you, if you are *prepared and willing to be led*.

I'm not saying you have to memorize every verse in the Bible, but you do need to know God's heart. And Spurgeon did. So he was prepared whenever the Holy Spirit gave him guidance. He was confident in the Word, thus not confident in the flesh, and was brilliant by earthly standards.

None of us will ever be a Spurgeon, but I don't think that's the point.The question is, will we, and more directly, will I ever know God so much that his wisdom flows like a fountain from me? For Mr. Spuregon, it wasn't a fountain; it was much more like a fire hose.

Thankfully, as you can see from Dan's blog, he had no critics and was widely hailed for his great Biblical wisdom at the time. ;-)

Gilbert said...

Frank: When I used to be a video director for a large church, we would have midweek services which, occasionally, had slow-paced worship songs/hymns and a technically "easy" service. If I rehearsed more than twice, the third time I would try to do too much, the camera operators would get off track, thinking those not used weren't good enough or something (and that habit extends to me).

We always had a day before rehearsal. I placed a proposal before the staff to cancel (for video) the day-before rehearsal and just have one "run through" before the service. They tried it, and it worked beautifully.

Now, if the service was complicated, forget it; two or three run-throughs were needed. But I learned through that experience that God's glory is all that matters, and not artistic and camera shot perfection. If you know how to say or do something, don't go overboard on getting things "just perfect". It's pride, which will blow up your efforts more often than not when you seek man-made perfection instead of Christ.

That said, I know, I know, I can definitely use another "draft" before I post sometimes...