Plan Well: How Sermon Planning Helps the Pastor and the Church at Worship
I can remember with anguish the early days of pastoral ministry when I had no clear plans on my preaching. Scrambling for a text to study and prepare when there are hundreds to choose from seemed overly daunting for a young pastor! Knowing that I juggled seminary studies, work, family, and preaching twice on Sundays built pressure as the weekend neared. How I wish that I had taken the time to do some sermon planning! It would have relieved a lot of stress, improved my preaching, and better served the congregation that probably tolerated much more from me than I realized.
Even after committing myself to preach through books of the Bible, I lacked clear planning for the weeks and months ahead. I knew that I would be in a particular book (or books) of the Bible but had no clue from week to week where I would be or how much text I would consider the following Sunday.
When Jim Carnes came to serve as our music minister at South Woods Baptist Church about seventeen years ago, he asked me to give him a heads-up on my preaching by providing a two-three month sermon schedule. Although I considered it a bit of trouble at the time, I soon realized that the time investment in sermon planning began to make a major difference in not only my preaching but also the worship services. Rather than preaching on, for instance, the work of redemption and having the Scripture readings and music for worship on completely different themes, everything that we did in worship focused on the major theme of the text to be expounded in a service. Wow! What a difference that made in developing continuity between pulpit and pew so that we contemplated together a similar focus as we joined to worship our Lord.
Since that time, I have made it a practice to plan my preaching at least three to six months out, knowing that there will likely be a few things that will change along the way due to unexpected events, opportunities for special guests to preach, or even unexpected illness or surgery that throws the schedule off. Those kinds of things can be adjusted more easily when a clear plan for preaching has been established. How do you go about planning preaching?
(1) Decide on which book or books of the Bible you will be preaching through in each service. That comes through prayer, meditation, consideration of the needs of the congregation, where you sense the Lord is prompting you, etc.
(2) Begin to familiarize yourself with the book(s) to be exposited. Read through the book, perhaps several times, in order to get a grasp of its primary themes, literary units, theological issues, and pastoral implications. Taking the time to do some background reading on the book(s) will make this process go more smoothly.
(3) Consider how you will approach the book(s). The genre of Scripture will determine your approach in many cases, e.g. OT narratives will take larger portions of the text while epistles will normally take a paragraph. You might decide to do a thematic approach through a book or a character study in a historical narrative or the mission implications in a book.
(4) Think about the biblical text, your congregation, your resources for preaching, your stage in ministry, and your aim with the expositional series as you plan. Each of these will have bearing on the portion of text that you select for a given Sunday. If you are new to a church, especially one that is not accustomed to biblical exposition, then steer away from taking a year through a book. Instead, preach ten to fifteen sermons through a book as you begin to teach your congregation how to listen to biblical expositions. The goal is not to wear the congregation out by our detailed work in one book but rather to teach them that book and make gospel applications in their lives.
(5) Observe detailed exegetical outlines in commentaries and the approach that other pastors have taken in breaking down the particular book(s) that you are considering. I normally see if John Piper or Ligon Duncan, among others, has preached through the book and check to see the portions of the biblical text they have adopted for preaching. My approach may vary but I find a lot of help in thinking about where I will head by reading others.
(6) Plan for three to six months ahead or longer, if you are inclined. Realize that there will likely be a few changes along the way, as mentioned above. Sometimes you realize that you did not allow enough time in a particular chapter, so you make adjustment along the way. Other times you realize that you need to take a bit more text to effectively preach to the church.
(7) Pass along your preaching plans to all of those involved in preparing for and planning for worship. Your preaching schedule will become the centerpiece for discussing themes for each worship service.
(8) As an added benefit for reaching out, put together a “view card” or add a website schedule that will show the preaching plan for the next quarter. The view card can be used for guests or for your members inviting others to join them in worship.
Plan well so that you might prepare and preach more effectively, and so that your congregation might join together in contemplating the richness of God’s Word as they worship.