Keep a Sermon Garden Growing

If you get up to speak, you should never tell your audience that you’re unprepared. If you are, within minutes they’ll know. I want to share a method that works for anyone who has to prepare and present lessons. Though I’m writing here especially about preaching and teaching, I think this approach is applicable anywhere.

Writing a sermon is something like growing a plant. Occasionally, one might spring up easily and unexpectedly. But normally, you have to do a lot of work over a long period of time preparing the soil, watering, pruning, and later selecting the produce to serve to your listeners.

Several years ago, I began using an approach I heard attributed to Dr. Dave Bland of the Harding School of Theology. I would call the approach “growing a sermon garden.”

Here’s the thing: In ministry, you never have any idea what your week will be like.

Some weeks you have abundant time for research, reflection, composition, and revision. Other weeks you have an incessant flow of people knocking on your door, tugging you in 25 different directions, and you are walking in on Friday hoping you might get to begin some of the things you had intended to accomplish on Monday. The problem is that if this has been the case, it will generally be unknown to your audience. Their expectation of a Biblically-informed, engaging, relevant sermon will be as consistent as clockwork, regardless of how your week has gone.

If you only create your lessons in the week that you’re going to deliver them, you run the risk of having the quality of your lessons seriously affected by the shape of your week.

On the other hand, if you develop each lesson over a series of weeks, even if this week is a crazy week, you have your previous work to support you and to help create a consistency in your content.

Giving Your Lessons Room To Grow

Here are some steps I take to prepare what I’ll preach.

Have a Master Plan Spreadsheet

I use Google Docs so that my spreadsheet is cloud-based. For each year, I make a spreadsheet where I make a row for every week of the year. In the left column, I put all the dates. From there, I fill in several other columns by category. Here are some standard ones for me:

  • Date
  • Person Preaching (If I’m going to be out of town, I try to plan well in advance and make note)
  • Series Title (I am a series guy. I like to go deep into a broader book or subject)
  • Lesson Title
  • Public Scripture Reading
  • Lesson Scripture Focus (Usually larger or maybe a different passage than the public reading)
  • One or two sentence summary of what the lesson may be about. (Subject to change, obviously)
  • Holidays and Events (Google a US Holidays Calendar as well as a local school calendar. If you have a church calendar, include that, too. What are significant dates you should take into consideration? Write them down so you won’t have to depend on your memory.)
  • Suggested songs for the worship leader

I don’t attempt to fill in all of this at the beginning of the year. I tend to move one series at a time. So I might be filling in between 3-12 rows at a time. Doing this helps you be sure that you aren’t getting too repetitive, or if you have a study with areas of potential overlap, you can already set yourself up to go different directions on different weeks and make note of this.

I also send all the information to my secretaries, co-ministers, elders, and worship leaders so that if they want to know what I’m preparing to talk about, they can adjust and even enhance what they do to help my sermons be more meaningful.

Have A Folder/Notepad System To Let You Work On Your Next Four Lessons

This number could be different, but I find that in working roughly one month ahead, it keeps things manageable. I have a small file box in which I have several folders. Primarily, they are for the sermons I will be preaching this week, next week, in two weeks, and in three weeks.

I also keep a couple of folders in the back where I put sermon ideas and brainstorming for future series. But I don’t use those nearly as often.

In each of these folders, I have a notepad. At the top of the notepad I write down the information for the specific sermon, mostly copied from my spreadsheet. The intended title, the date I’ll preach it, the Scripture it’s based on, etc.

Each week I try to do sermon reading, research, and brainstorming early in the week. But when I do, I attempt to do it for my next four sermons. I often set a timer for say 15-30 minutes so that over 1-2 hours, I will spend equal time on each of my next four sermons.

Because I just preached on Sunday, the “This Week” folder should be empty on Monday, so the first step is moving all of the notepads forward by one folder, and then creating a new notepad entry for the back folder. I guess you could call this a sort of first-in-first-out inventory approach.

A lot of times I will use a single commentary, and go ahead and make notes for each of the next four weeks from that commentary, using a different commentary the following week. Also, because it’s a folder, you can always print off or throw in any other sort of items or ideas that you might want to include in the lesson.

Make A Fresh Attempt Each Week

One thing that has helped me a lot is that each week when I pick up the notepads one by one to work on them I don’t look at anything I had written down in previous weeks. I note the Scripture or general topic I’m researching, but beyond that, I try to brainstorm from scratch as I engage with the text, and write down a variety of ideas.

Your situation in life each week can have a huge effect on what you brainstorm. I try to approach each week fresh so that by the time I go to compose the sermon, I have a variety of approaches in hand for the same text.

Over a period of doing this for four weeks, I end up having:

  • A good overall idea of where I’m trying to go based on the spreadsheet contents.
  • Notes from each of the books or commentaries I am using for the series
  • Four fresh attempts at how I might approach preaching from this passage

The Cream of the Crop

At the time I sit down to outline and compose my sermon, I have all of the above in hand. Obviously, you can’t take every possible angle or include every bit of information you find. But now you are looking through multiple options to find the best of what you’ve come up with. You select contents that are the ideal fit for the flow of the sermon and to enhance the point you are trying to make.

And if it’s a terrible week where you get nothing done, you are drawing from the work of a time when you weren’t so drained. Even if you only got to put in 2 or 3 weeks of good preparation for a specific sermon, that’s way better than a single crunch session on a Friday or Saturday.

Tend to your sermons like a garden, and give them the time and resources to grow into something healthy.

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