If you start to prepare your sermon the moment you are given the subject then you are probably far too late. Preaching is not so much an activity as a discipline. Therefore preparing for a sermon must be preceded by consistent ongoing preparation of the preacher. Of course, given the background preparation it is also vital to prepare for each individual preaching engagement so that the homogeneity of the preparation does not produce monotony in the delivery. The aim of this paper is to consider some of the details of both forms of preparation; especially as expounded by W.E Sangster in his book 'The Craft of Sermon Construction'.
In preparing to be a preacher the first concept to grasp is that the process is ongoing. Whilst aptitude or gift might enable a reasonably favorable first impression to be made much of the art of sermon-craft will only come through practice. It may be possible to learn about techniques from books but it is only in the usage of them that you can discover how the techniques work in your own hands and circumstances. Further, it is only with practice that your own clumsiness will abate to the point where you will be able to see how effective a method is when deployed properly.
Next one must grasp that ultimately one's 'career' as a preacher is going to be a reflection of one's pathway with God. From this it follows that all of one's life events good or bad will ultimately become a part of the pulpit. It should also be noted that bad events will usually not have a made consequence in this regard; we learn and mature through suffering. This does not mean each event need be discussed directly, some may be too personal or distasteful, yet the mark that these happenings leave upon the preacher will ultimately be left upon the sermon. What is true in general is especially true of a preacher's prayer life. Most obviously the depth of prayer achieved during sermon preparation 'proper' will affect the quality of the message; however the general presence of the preacher with God will reflect itself in the preachers presence at the lectern.
The third step, and arguably one which is inseparable from the second, a preachers mind must be enmeshed with the Word of God. The Word is not simply a resource to be plumbed to suit a particular demand; rather it is a reservoir of Truth in which one should immerse fully and often. A preacher will want to explore and understand as much of the Word as he can, because he can and not because he needs to. A preacher will also aim to master the best technical tools he can to know the Word more fully; be this multiple English translations, search tools, interlinear or even original translations. It goes without saying that a preacher must be committed to the inerrancy of the Word and to Its' sufficiency. Sangster states that a preacher will also wish to expend significant effort to absorb apologetics, philosophy of religion, Christian sociology and psychology; there are others, including myself, who would consider these at most optional. Sangster also states that a preacher will want to spend four hours a day on this third step losing sleep if required; again I suspect many of us do not achieve this although I cannot think of any reason to claim he is wrong.
The final step in the general preparation of preaching is that one must think. The Word tells us that the blessed man meditates upon the Word; the effective preacher must do the same. Further he needs to be willing and able to structure, plan and decide and sometimes to discover, reverse and repeat. They must also believe that this abstract and even academic purpose will ultimately bear fruit. Notwithstanding the result of the cogitation should be genuine belief expressed in concrete simplicity with an air of genuine humility; a concoction which only the Spirit can produce.
Moving from general preparation to preach to specific preparation for a given sermon Sangster divides the problem into two distinct cases. The first is where the sermon is one of a series the subjects of which have been declared from the start (such as preaching through a book, or each of the gifts of the Spirit) and those one off messages that the preacher has felt compelled to expound upon. In the former case Sangster envisages the diet having been planned through insight into his congregation, knowledge of what has been preached previously and logic. The latter case is where a given subject suddenly forces itself upon the preacher's mind with sufficient clarity that he feels compelled to preach it. The two cases are handled quite differently:
In Sangster's view the preaching of an expository sermon is straightforward providing one has the resources and application. He considers a good collection of commentaries to be the 'lifeblood' of an expository preacher. He cautions against complete sets but prefers rather that the opinions of others are gathered so as to ascertain the best commentary to follow upon a particular subject. For more topical or biographical preaching he also encourages that one should work from the commentary but adds the note of caution that multiple commentaries may be needed to ensure a full coverage of the subject. For each of the sequences of sermons Sangster envisages the preacher as principally responsible for selection of material and the adaptation of that material to the congregation. He urges that the more complex or abstract the material the more important it is to adapt it both in terms of palatability and digestibility.
Sangster's approach to Spirit driven sermons is equally methodical. Here he recommends a preachers notebook. On a fresh page in this notebook any new idea for a sermon is written. Then at least once a week the entire notebook is read and cogitated upon. During this cogitation any new thoughts, facts or inferences regarding any of the pages is written upon the page. Sangster likens this to growing cuttings within a greenhouse. As part of this process one of these embryonic sermons may be impressed upon the preacher to the extent where it becomes clear that this is the next sermon to be prepared fully. If this is the case then the weekly cogitations should have provided a reasonable start on providing resource material.
Sangster's approach to what he calls 'direct sermon' preparation (actually getting the sermon written) is very similar to the more formal schools of essay writing and therefore I shall adopt the more modern nomenclature in describing his method. He advocates a three step process:
Very few can argue that Sangster's view of the preacher is exemplary. To devote one's life to the steady progression of one's trade, to see every step of one's life as a step towards greater service in preaching, to engross oneself with His Word for hours a day and to have one's mind transformed to think His thoughts has to be the ultimate goal of anyone devoted to speaking for Him.
In contrast his approach to the direct production of a sermon is probably antithetical to the beliefs of many fundamental or evangelical believers. Firstly his reliance upon commentaries early in preparation would surprise many and some would even argue that sola scriptura means Bible only. Secondly his greenhouse concept, whilst interesting, would appear to limit severely limit the spontaneity of the Spirit.
His approach to sermon writing is not, in itself, different from what can be gleaned from a dozen different creative writing courses. The novelty, at least by today's standards, is that his approach to preparing a sermon is not that different to any one of a dozen creative writing courses. The reality is that with the advent of search engines, YouTube and PowerPoint we have grown extremely comfortable delivering and listening to speech which is impromptu, casual and frankly sloppy. It is challenging to wonder what effect a more studied method of speech would produce.