How to Plan a Program for the Church Year

The important role of planning and preparation to preaching.

JOHN W. OSBORN, President, Netv Jersey Conference

There are times when a pastor leaves his pul­pit on a Sabbath morn­ing thoroughly ashamed of his failure in preaching the Word. The sheep looked up with eager expectancy to be fed, but all they received was chaff. He is keenly aware that he has failed, and the awareness often casts a shadow over his entire day.

Often this is due to inadequate prepara­tion, which in turn is due to poor plan­ning. The pressure of the week has crowded his sermon preparation to the edge of the Sabbath. It is then he decides on what he will preach, and attempts to assimilate hastily digested material. He preaches with discomfort and uneasiness, and the pew de­tects his unpreparedness.

Unfortunately this pattern often becomes habitual. The minister develops medioc­rity, and the congregation continues to suffer in silence, hoping that there will be a change in pastors. Worse yet is the fact that the Lord is ashamed of that type of workmanship.

Consequently Paul cautions the minister in this language: "Concentrate on winning God's approval, on being workmen with nothing to be ashamed of, who know how to use the word of truth to the best advan­tage. 2 Tim. 2:15."—J. B. PHILLIPS, Letters to Young Churches. A workman that needs not to be ashamed is a workman who studies. A workman who studies is a workman who plans a program conducive to study.

Planning a sermon schedule as long as a year in advance gives direction to the pas­tor's study habits. Advance knowledge of the next week's sermon topic is conducive to early and adequate preparation. Pas­tors who are a power in the pulpit week after week are usually men who devote long and arduous toil to the task. They are men who plan their sermons months in advance. The noted contemporary Presbyterian minister, Clarence 1VIacartney, in his book Preaching Without Notes, page 90, makes this observation: "It is highly important that a preacher should plan his work well ahead."

Henry Sloan Coffin, who was chosen to give the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale a few years ago, followed the same pattern: "I mapped out, so far as one could, as much of the year's preaching as one might predict. . . . I made myself begin one of my sermons [he spoke twice on Sunday] on Tuesday morning. This was to prevent a huddle of work at the end of the week."—In Here Is My Method, McLeod, ed., pp. 53, 54.

When to Plan the Sermon Year

How shall a sermon year be planned? It might be pointed out, in passing, that a sermon year is best planned during the summer months. In most instances the lightest period of the year for a pastor is vacation time. If summer is a busy time, the pastor should choose the lightest season of the year for this planning, considering that period the beginning of his pastoral year.

The first step is to plot a work sheet. This may be done in one of two ways. Take a letter-size sheet and rule it vertically with five equal columns. Rule it horizontally with eleven equally spaced lines. This will result in 55 boxes, sufficient for the 52 Sabbaths of the year. In each box place the month and date of the Sabbath in the upper left corner. The rest of the space may be used for the sermon subject. The entire year's plan can be seen at a glance once the boxes have been filled with the sermon subjects.

The work sheet may also be prepared in the following way: The months of the first quarter may be typed in column fash­ion, with the date of each Sabbath listed under the respective months, triple spaced. There is room on a letter-size sheet for the first and second quarters of the year, in two columns. A second sheet may be prepared in the same way for the last two quarters. Opposite each date the subjects may be filled in as desired.

Let us now consider seven factors that may be helpful in planning a sermon year.

1.   Denominational calendar.—The de­nominational calendar, often spoken of as the Church Missionary Calendar, contains certain musts. There are special days that require special sermons, such as Religious Liberty, Educational, and Temperance days. in addition there are two Sabbaths for the Week of Prayer and four Sabbaths for Communion services. These automati­cally find places in the sermon year sched­ule.

2.   Secular calendar.—A calendar which indicates national holidays and events will also give suggestions for sermon topics. The Easter season, while not officially celebrated by us as a people, is a fine time to speak on the resurrection and kindred subjects. Mother's Day gives opportunity for a ser­mon on some phase of home relations. Thanksgiving is an occasion that should have sermonic recognition annually. Christ­mas gives opportunity for a sermon on the incarnation, or the like.

3.   Special groups.—In planning a ser­mon year the pastor must be mindful of the needs of the younger members of his congregation. In larger churches a day may be set aside for young married couples, with an appropriate message. This is most timely and helpful in view of the alarm­ing number of marriage collapses. There are the youth, who need special sermons prepared for them. Sermons planned for the youth of the congregation should be given on the Sabbaths set aside for the MV Week of Prayer. Then there are the needs of the children. For years I followed the plan of having a twenty-five-minute junior sermon once each quarter during the church service. This may not be feasible in the largest churches, but it is highly rec­ommended for most congregations. Churches that are large enough may pro­vide a regular junior church service for the children once a month or oftener, separate from the morning worship hour.
4.   Congregational problems.—Sermons should be planned to meet the specific needs of the individual congregation. There are two ways by which a pastor can discover these needs. In his pastoral visit­ing he will discover special problems that are common to a large share of his member­ship. Scheduling sermons to meet this need will make his ministry far more prac­tical and effective. There is one caution that must be noted at this point: Under no circumstances should a pastor, in his ser­mon or anywhere else, betray the confi­dences of a member. This is unethical and inexcusable.

Another method of ascertaining special needs of the congregation is through a sur­vey sheet. Periodically, perhaps annually, the pastor may have a survey sheet mimeo­graphed, listing for checking suggested sub­jects he may feel to be of interest. He will encourage each member to place on the sheet the subject he personally feels should be presented by the pastor at a subse­quent date.

5.   Spiritual reinforcement subjects.—There are certain topics that should ap­pear annually on the pastor's sermon cal­endar. Many pastors agree that no year should pass without at least one sermon on each of the following topics: Spirit of prophecy, stewardship, second coming of Christ, soul winning.

6.   Sermon series.—Congregational inter­est in the Sabbath service is enhanced by the sermon series. If a pastor desires, he may present as many as three short series in a year. It is generally believed that the in­terest is not usually sustained longer than six to eight Sabbaths, except in rare in­stances.

A pastor who knows a year in advance where he is going sermonically has ample time to prepare these series. The themes for sermon series are endless. A biographi­cal series may be given. Perhaps a series on the life of Christ, on Bible doctrines, on a book of the Bible, might be chosen.

7.   Spirit of prophecy suggestions.—Fi­nally, as one systematically reads the Spirit of prophecy he will run across statements the servant of the Lord makes regarding subject matter that should be presented to our people. As an example, in Gospel Workers, pages 147-160, will be found a number of these references. I quote: "Some ministers think that it is not necessary to preach repentance and faith. . . . But many people are sadly ignorant in regard to the plan of salvation; they need more instruc­tion upon this all-important subject than upon any other."—Page 158.

By following this plan a pastor need never wonder about what he will preach. From the suggestions listed above there are possibilities for forty-four sermons. Two more are cared for by the annual camp meeting. The pastor will be absent on two other Sabbaths for his vacation. This makes a total of forty-eight. There are guest speaker appointments in the course of the year that will take care of the remaining four, which give a total of fifty-two.

A planned program such as this may be projected into other phases of ministerial responsibility. The evangelistic endeav­ors may be carefully thought out along a similar pattern months in advance. Per­sonal evangelism and lay activity, if out­lined in this manner, will be less haphazard and more effective.

The results of this manner of planning will be most gratifying. From the pastoral viewpoint it encourages earlier and better preparation of sermons. It will enable the pastor to make of public worship an in­tegral unit, with hymns, prayers, Scripture all fitting into the theme of the sermon. It will make possible advance publicity in the church bulletin and newspapers. It will help him to grow homiletically. It will lift him out of mediocrity.

The members of his congregation will be happier because they are better fed. It will be an additional inducement for them to attend on Sabbath. It will take away the nervous uncertainty that some members have regarding the pastor's coming sermon. They are never quite sure what kind of ser­mon will be preached, and therefore hesi­tate to bring friends not of our faith.

Room for the Spirit to Work

Some may feel that this plan leaves no room for the Holy Spirit to impress the minister as to his message on a given Sabbath. It is true that some event in pas­toral experience or some significant world happening may arise necessitating a change in the sermon calendar. Therefore any sermon year, like a railroad timetable, should be "subject to change without no­tice.- With this allowable flexibility, ample provision will be made for guidance of the Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, the Holy Spirit is not limited to impressing one only in a time of crisis. He can influence a man in prepara­tion for his flock's needs a year in advance as well as a week in advance.

There is a school of thought which teaches that no arduous preparation is ever needed, that the Holy Spirit will give a message in the same hour. This is true to a degree. A sermon must never be so carefully planned that the Holy Spirit cannot find entrance. Sermon planning must not circumscribe His work. However, if the Holy Spirit is present in the preparation of the sermon it is not likely that He will be ab­sent in its delivery. He will create flashes of insight. He will develop spontaneity. He will add that mysterious something that drives the message home like an arrow to the heart.

Perhaps it can be best illustrated by a story which Martin Niemoller enjoys tell­ing about Dr. Klaus Harms, the noted re­vivalist of northern Germany. Dr. Harms was visiting a conference of ministers. One younger member of the group said, "I per­sonally never prepare my sermons, because I am totally sure of my Lord and Saviour, and of the Holy Spirit, and I know that the words will be given me according to the promise." To this Dr. Harms replied, "I am seventy-five years old and have preached for fifty years, but I must confess that all the time I stood in the pulpit not on one single occasion has the Holy Spirit spoken to me a single word. That is, except once. But he spoke to me often as I left the pulpit, and what he said was this, 'Klaus, you have been lazy.' "—The Pulpit Di­gest, December, 1952, p. 22.

A planned sermon year leaves sufficient room for inspiration of the Spirit while it makes arrangements for perspiration. Inspiration without perspiration is gener­ally "without form, and void." Perspiration without inspiration is lifeless. Like the bodies of Ezekiel's dry-bone valley, there is no breath in it. But the two united produce a spiritual diet that will give life and vigor to any spiritual body. Perspiration provides the material. Inspiration sets it on fire.

The conclusion of the whole matter is this: Planning your sermon year will help you develop into a workman who wins God's approval, "a workman with nothing to be ashamed of, and who knows how to use the word of truth to the best advan­tage."

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JOHN W. OSBORN, President, Netv Jersey Conference

June 1956

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