I live in one of the most over-church areas of the entire world, or so it often seems to me, and yet even here it is absolutely staggering the amount of struggle people have with sin and disconnect from both God and the local church. It creates strange dynamics in ministry. I recently ran into an acquaintance who said they were in between churches presently and cited the reason for looking to move to a new congregation being that their current preacher was pressing through the Gospel of John over the course of the next year.
Hearing that brought up a whole mishmash of thoughts and feelings in me. Part of me thought that was perhaps crossing the line from boldness to foolishness on the preacher's part. Another part of me felt defensive on their behalf over the issue of leaving a congregation over an issue without actually talking to the preacher about it first (probably the most common form of dealing with disagreement in our area). I don't even know who this preacher is, so I'm really in no place to judge this decision. But the conflict here begs the question: how do preachers decide what to preach?
There is a conception, particularly among non-preachers, that those of us who preach regularly simply sit down with our bible sometime during the week, pray, and then open the book to whatever passage God "leads"us. I actually attended a church where the elders took turns doing this during the worship service itself. Wherever the bible opened, that was where they began preaching in an impromptu style. I bet they preached on the Psalms a lot. That was an awesome church that has high expectations not only for pastors, but for regular members as well regarding seeking forgiveness from one another through confession and not compromising their beliefs just to fit in with the world easier.
Most preachers are not that extreme, but there is a notion that God may change your message Saturday night or Sunday morning, which makes it more challenging to get motivated in preparing sermons Mondays and Tuesdays. Why do the work out God's going to change it all at the end? I have legitimately had that happen at least once that I can vividly recall. God asked me to change my first sermon I preached in the first church I was appointed to on the Saturday night before. I have to give Him credit, He let me know He appreciated the work I put into it, but He had a story me He wanted to share instead. After preaching/storytelling, one of the youth told me that was the weirdest sermon they had ever heard. A few weeks later, a woman from a different church asked for a copy of that sermon she had heard about to use at their administrative board meeting. That was the last I heard of that sermon and have no idea why God asked me to change it or what the effects were...I was simply trying to be faithful in serving Him.
I was not preaching on a weekly basis until my second appointment where I discovered it is a lot more stressful to do the Saturday night work up a sermon thing every single week. Some Saturdays are just as difficult to come up with sermon material as Mondays. So I started experimenting with another end of the preaching preparation spectrum: sermon series.
My first sermon series were not topical, they were based on preaching through books of the bible. In fact, my first sermon in my second appointment was on Luke chapter 9 which was the lectionary gospel text for the day. The next week I just went on to the next passage (which followed right along with the lectionary for quite awhile). When I finished one book I would set about looking for a new bible book to preach through and usually checked the lectionary first. Over time I began to see certain topics or themes developing within the texts themselves and began to highlight them, so I guess I was preaching topically and book by books at the same time.
Planning it all out ahead of time freed up my time and lowered my anxiety immensely. My freedom from worrying about God changing it all up on me was reduced by the fact that I was preaching so often, if I messed up once I would get plenty of opportunities to make it right later. The frequency of pressing opportunities may be one of the biggest influences on how a preacher prepares their sermon. But this really is a much more hands on, be-in-control kind of method as well and it has the track potential of pushing God out of the preparation time.
Today I still preach in prepared series of sermons, although sometimes they are more topical and use a variety of scriptures, although they are usually rooted in some particular book or passage. I have come to a place of peace with this presently because of two things I have learned.
1. You can and you need to commit to the scripture text. I learned from Dr. Ellsworth Kallas that you can't preach well if you constantly bounce between texts through the week. All of scripture is God's Word and He can use any of it so just pick your text Monday and commit to it. Let God change your stories and illustrations, but commit to the text.
2. God can lead you to the right message on Monday as well as He can on Saturday night. He can even lead you to the right message 6 months or a year ahead of time if you are truly open to His guidance. Just recently this was affirmed as I had a 6 week series planned out with two breaks for guests speakers preaching in my place. I felt good about all but the last week, which was preaching on the topic of death, and it was scheduled for a day we were going to be celebrating with a lot of guests. It wasn't bad, it just felt awkward. God had other plans though. The first guest preacher, without knowing it, preached on the very next topic in the series, even using some of the same scripture, so that it would have been redundant for me to preach the same sermon again the following week. Therefore, all the weeks were moved back. God affirmed preaching this series He just had someone else in mind to preach that fifth sermon besides me.
God is at work in our planning when we invite Him in. We can hear the rumblings of His movement even from weeks away if we are willing to set aside the time to be still and listen. God connects our days and weeks together in a greater movement and He invites us to see the currents flowing beneath the waves if we are brave enough and committed enough to take the time to swim down deep enough in Him. How is God connecting your days and weeks and what greater movement is He doing in you?
Trying to hear the music in the din of many voices.
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