Keep It Fresh
Improving your sermons, from prep to delivery
Pastors and preachers, I have a question for you: How do you plan on improving in the new year? I hope you have a plan. It can be far-reaching or just fine-tuning. Self-improvement should be at the top of every minister’s list in December.
I want to suggest one area you shouldn’t overlook. Make it a goal to stay fresh in your preaching during the coming year. Becoming a better preacher can increase your audience’s retention, which also means greater spiritual growth and improved biblical literacy. It can also help your church attract more people, including the lost in your community.
Where to Begin?
Staying fresh in your preaching will take more than just adding a few more illustrations, getting better graphics or changing up the staging. It will mean taking inventory of your past sermons, practicing your current sermons, and efficiently planning your future sermons.
You can’t do all of that in a weekend. You need to commit to the process. So, where does the process start? Begin by reviewing your past sermons. Pick a beginning and end date, preferably the last calendar year. But you may want to go back even further. Look at it this way: If you feel like there was a time when your sermons felt fresher than they do now, figure out when that transition happened, and work from there.
When you take an inventory of past sermons, what are you looking for? The first thing you want to do is see how often you repeat the same ideas. Are you always talking to the same audience? Does it seem like you use the same Scriptures each week? If so, that may indicate a rut forming in your preaching.
Another thing to look for is how you prepared those sermons in the past. Maybe that old folder is a lot thicker than your current crop of sermons. Take that into account as you decide how to freshen up your preaching.
Finally, compare your preaching to the church’s health — not just attendance but also salvations and baptisms. Are you seeing a dip in discipleship alongside some lagging sermons? Look for the opposite, too, times when your sermons seemed to lead to a greater response in the church.
Working On It
Now that you’ve got a framework for what’s worked in the past and what’s not working now, get to work on improving it. And even if you feel you aren’t in need of improvement, these same ideas are great for maintaining your current high level of preaching. Don’t sit on your laurels. If your sermons are fresh, keep them that way.
Following are three areas of improvement for every preacher. This list is basically in chronological order, from start to finish for each sermon and beyond. But you can choose to work on them in any order.
Make it a goal to stay fresh in your preaching during the coming year.
1. Sermon prep. If you find yourself relying on the same biblical texts, the same research, or the same stories and illustrations, that probably means your sermon prep is lagging. When you don’t devote the proper time and attention to getting ready, your preaching can suffer.
Staying fresh with sermon prep requires you to keep learning. And the best way to do that is to read more. Make a weekly or monthly goal for your reading. Try to increase it to a daily mark. And vary the types of things you read.
Sermon prep should also include digging deeper into each text. Paul encouraged Timothy to study the Scriptures (2 Timothy 2:15). That advice still stands. This new year, maybe you should look into getting an advanced degree in biblical studies. Or perhaps you could teach yourself Greek or Hebrew. Those are just a couple of ideas.
Another great idea for keeping fresh in sermon prep is to ask for help. Find someone on staff or in your church who has a knack for it and would love to help. Building a sermon prep team is a great step toward keeping your preaching fresh.
Outlining and writing. Going from research to sermon can be tricky. Most preachers sort of do it by habit. They gather notes as they go and then put them all together. When and how you do it will determine whether your sermons are fresh or stale.
If you think your sermons need to be a little fresher, try mixing up how you write them. Do you usually use an outline? Try writing out a manuscript next time. Even if you do it only once, this can really help you hear and see how you put words together and improve your presentation.
Changing when and where you write your sermons can help too. If you usually get your notes together on Wednesday, think about shifting things to Thursday instead. If you mostly write in your office, consider using a coffee shop next time. Those small changes can make a big difference.
Delivery and response. Now that you feel better prepared, let’s get into the delivery. How do you prepare for the actual preaching of your messages? Do you practice delivering it? If not, perhaps you should start.
Practice makes perfect. You can find mistakes, sound out the lines for better wording, improve your storytelling, and, especially, work out the timing. How might it improve your sermons if you knew beforehand how long or how short each one would be? You could spend more time on the most important parts or cut those that take up too much time.
In addition, practicing gives you a chance to improve your delivery. Record yourself preaching a practice sermon, even if on your smartphone, and then replay it later. What do you see? Are there any tics or verbal pauses you need to eliminate? How can you be more engaging with your delivery? Without this step, you may never know because you’re only able to rely on uneven feedback.
Improvement is at the top of most people’s resolutions each year. Why shouldn’t your goals include improving your preaching? Get over the awkwardness you may feel from practicing, the time constraints needed for longer writing, and the habits you’ve built that keep you from doing your best sermon prep. And get into keeping your preaching fresh.