A PREACHER friend (whom we will call John) had "one of those weeks" in which there was every sort of diversionary distraction. When Saturday night came, he not only did not have a sermon prepared; he did not even know what he could preach about. After some blood and sweat, if not tears, he suddenly came upon an electrifying idea. Quickly he began to write down notes while the Spirit was speaking so clearly. In the midst of this, he was interrupted by a parishioner. The man came in and John, the preacher, said: "Just listen for a moment to what I am going to preach about in the morning." He began enthusiastically pouring out the ideas. As he did, his friend looked more and more puzzled. Finally he broke in: "But John, that's what you preached about last Sunday." Sure enough, it was simply the old sermon emerging from out of the subconscious.
This is what we may call the "sufficient-unto-the-day" system of sermon planning. Surely Jesus had no thought that His words, "Be not anxious for the morrow," would ever be applied to the matter of sermon preparation. To look no further ahead than one sermon at a time—and that often late in the week—is one reason "ministers break down." Sermon anxieties alone are enough to drive them to despair.
Now let us grant that this is the extreme case, and that most preaching is planned a week, a month, or three months in advance. In any case, the planning of a sermon schedule is important to effective preaching. If planning and organization are important to the strength of the individual sermon, then planning and organization must be as important to the schedule of sermons.
From the extreme of planning one sermon at a time, I want to go to the other extreme and present the case for planning one year of sermons at a time.
For the past several years, while on my summer holiday, I have planned my preaching for the year to follow. This is a refreshing experience. It brings a kind of mental and spiritual stimulation not possible amid the pressures of the rest of the year. Instead, therefore, of robbing precious moments from the summer's recreation, such study and reading can have a spiritually re-creating effect. It makes for a fine balance with the usual physical activities of vacation.
The sermons are not finally written until just before preaching them. Nevertheless I have the Scriptures selected and the basic ideas and titles, perhaps even the sermon outline, in readiness. As the year progresses, further ideas, illustrations, and materials appear and are filed with the sermon. Thus the homiletic eye is kept open, causing the sermon to grow and develop. In the week or so before preaching the sermon the final manuscript is prepared.
It goes without saying that a sermon schedule is like a railroad schedule; that is, "subject to change without notice." Thus I always feel at liberty to change any topic if a more important one appears. This happens two or three times in the year, and serves to bring particular publicity to the "special" sermon.
Consider some of the important advantages of long-range planning of sermons.
For one thing, it saves time. To be able to go to the study at the beginning of the week knowing what the sermon topic is to be is a great time saver. There is no need to spend agonizing hours or even days trying to decide which of several pressing topics to choose. Nor is it necessary to stop two or three times a year to lay out the preaching for the next month or more.
It emphasizes the teaching aspect of the pulpit. The early New England minister was called to his church as "pastor and teacher." This teaching function of the pulpit has increased rather than decreased as the years have gone by. Today the average Protestant adult receives no Christian education on a mature level except through the pulpit. And he receives no significant instruction from the pulpit if the preaching is hit or miss, hand to mouth. It would be well if, after preaching for five years to a congregation, the preacher were able to measure the progress of theological thought and Biblical understanding that has come to the congregation through his preaching. Is he carrying out effectively his role as teacher?
Planned preaching encourages the scholarship of the preacher. It gives direction to his reading just as planned reading may give direction to his preaching. He may find it necessary to include in his sermon schedule several subjects that will require careful study and research. If he is conscientious, he will often find it necessary to preach on some subjects about which he may not want to preach. Further, he dares not preach without accuracy. He knows well in advance the areas where he will need to do careful reading and so present the subject with accurate scholarship.
Planned preaching adds the dimension of information. It is true that the sermon must be inspiring. That is, it ought to touch the emotions and will of the hearer so that he will feel the necessity of making a decision and acting upon that decision. This response to the sermon will, however, be strengthened if the sermon contains information—accurate, scholarly information, and not simply an emotion-packed voice and a touching anecdote.
Planned preaching avoids "one-string preaching." Often the work of the pulpit may be symbolized by the painting of Watts showing a figure with blindfold sitting atop the world plucking at a harp with only one string. Without careful planning the preaching may pluck at only one string, following the hobby or whimsy of the preacher. The Gospel has many strings that must be played if the preaching is to have breadth and freshness, and comprehend its full richness.
The strongest argument for preaching that is carefully planned is that it give the quality of comprehensiveness. This is the very opposite of "one-string" preaching. Here the preacher can step back and take a long look at his total sermonic output. He can see not only the areas that are receiving too much time, but also those important ones inadvertently omitted. He can see to it that every element of the total Gospel has a place in his preaching for the year.
So much for the reasons for long-term planning. What about the procedures for setting up such a plan?
A quick analysis reveals seven or eight basic areas toward which our preaching ought to be directed. (Another preacher might arrive at a somewhat different analysis. The basic results, however, will be the same.)
First: theological concerns. Every sermon has a theological foundation upon which it is constructed, but in the teaching ministry there are at least a half-dozen sermons a year that ought to be centered about a specific theological concern—e.g. "The Person of Christ," "The Meaning of Grace," "The Doctrine of the Trinity."
Second: biblical study. Again, our preaching has biblical background and origin regardless of the subject, but several sermons each year ought to be concerned with specific Bible education. There may be sermons from certain books to acquaint the congregation with the message, exegetical sermons from great chapters, and now and then sermons taking a long look at large sections of the Bible.
Third: churchmanship. The modern Christian needs continuing education on the meaning of the church and his responsibilities as a churchman. We have an institution that must be kept alive and strong, must be guided and corrected by preaching. The Body of Christ at work in the world has many responsibilities. Its members must be carefully trained to carry these responsibilities. Important things are to be said in this regard. "Reformation Sunday," "Every-Member Canvass," and other sermons should educate in churchmanship.
Fourth: personal problems. Although we become critical at times of the peace-of-mind cult, we ought not to overlook the very real needs that gave rise to it. We are preaching to people with serious personal problems. A selected few of our sermons each year ought to treat these problems from the standpoint of Christian faith. How can there be genuine relief from anxiety without understanding justification by faith?
Fifth: Christian ethics and social problems. Here are the great areas that call to us from every newspaper, the pressing controversial social and political problems of our time. Of course, we must deal with these. Because they are controversial, and because controversy is exciting, this field can tempt us to spend all our time here. In fact, it can either be omitted by the timid preacher or used by another ta disguise shallow preaching. Let us remember two important guides to preaching on controversy. To be effective the congregation ought to know the preacher and believe him to be fair-minded even in controversy. And the preacher must know his facts.
Sixth: devotional subjects. Here is education in the meaning of worship and how to worship. It may include the meditations of Communion Sundays.
Seventh: preaching on Christian living. It is noteworthy that while Saint Paul dealt with the great basic issues of Christian faith, there were times when he had to spell out this faith as it applied directly to daily life. Some sermons rightfully omit the "strong meat" and deal with the daily living of the Christian in the home, neighborhood, and office.
Eighth: the world mission of the church. This we dare not leave out. In fact, it is an area that more and more the modern pulpit, in this time of global concerns, must bring within the concern of Christians.
With these basic concerns as a guide, we come to the next step of preparing the sermon schedule.
I take the sermon topics that I have accumulated and classify them according to one of these eight basic concerns. There may be two or three hundred such topics collected over a long period of time from biblical study, general reading, observation, or any of the other ways the Spirit speaks. Then the topics are selected that seem most imperative to preach on. Some areas may demand more time than others, but generally speaking there ought to be relative balance, and certainly all areas ought to be included in the schedule.
These selected topics are then worked into the year's schedule, at the same time giving consideration to the Church Year. At a minimum the Church Year will include Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter. In liturgical churches the Church Year may be followed more completely. Even then the season of Trinity allows for considerable variety in preaching.
So far as the secular year is concerned, it has sparing use such as Mother's Day (used to emphasize spiritual life of home and family) and Race Relations Sunday. There is danger that the secular year may so invade preaching as to dictate a special emphasis for every Sunday, thereby systematically squeezing out the Gospel.
The Advent and Lenten seasons lend themselves to series of sermons, or at least sermons closely related. I have had increased indication that the congregation I preach to likes series of sermons. Thus I may also have one or two brief sermon series at other periods of the year. This is contrary to what I was taught in seminary, where students were advised to do little with series of sermons. I am confident now that some of the most important preaching I do, provoking the greatest interest, is done in series.
In all of this it is clearly recognized that the planning and preparation of sermons is a highly individualistic procedure. Each preacher develops his own habits of work. A preacher friend, discussing long-term sermon planning, told me that to proceed as I do would be for him completely impossible. That is doubtless true. Yet we have one common objective and that is to strengthen the pulpits of our churches.
Whether or not there is a revival of religion today, there are certainly more people listening to see what the Christian church has to say. This presents both opportunity and responsibility. The modern preacher must declare the Gospel with effectiveness. He cannot do this without careful planning.
As Pasteur once said to his laboratory assistants: "Plan it any way you wish so long as you do it well."
Reprinted by permission from the April, 1960, issue of Pulpit Digest; copyright 1960 by the Pulpit Digest Publishing Company.