Seven sermon tools I wouldn't trade

Practical suggestions for composing material for sermons

Maylan Schurch has pastured the Bellevue, Washington, Seventh-day Adventist church since 1991.

To help our Adventist high school in a personnel pinch, I'd been teaching a one-semester journalism class, and this was the end-of-term, correct-the-papers, figure-the-grades week. But by that weekend I also needed a well-muscled 4,000-word sermon on dealing with a particular Bible book.

Desperately I scavenged through past sermons and finally dredged one up from 1985, early in my ministry. I dusted it off, typed it into the computer, hurriedly rehearsed it, and preached it... and bombed.

Even as I stood in the pulpit, I knew I was not gripping my flock. That miserable mes sage had almost no illustrations or practical applications, and, besides that, its logic was flabby. Nobody even mentioned it on the way out, and when I questioned my wife Shelley whose opinion I value above anyone else's she gently agreed that it was indeed a youthful, well-meaning, and fabulously forgettable effort!

We all grow, of course. Gradually we assemble sermon-preparation kits to help us weed out the weary and the weird, and haul our messages down to where the Goodyear meets the gravel. And as we look back in pity on our earliest congregations, we wish we'd found those tools a lot earlier.

I'd like to share my own particular set. I didn't invent them they've come from my teaching background, from books on writing and speaking, and from observing what other communicators do. I've used each of these tools for a minimum of five years, most for much longer. And even though they haven't yet morphed me into Max Lucado II, they've made my 4,000 weekly words a lot easier to prepare. So maybe you can find some of these ideas helpful.

Tools . . .

The vertical illustration file. You won't find this tool in the preaching books, because it flies in the face of all those detailed filing systems we're supposed to be docketing our stories into. My vertical illustration file is simply one long Microsoft Word document filled with sermon illustrations I've collected, with the most recent on top.

The reason I form it this way is because of a sermon I heard pastor and wordsmith Floyd Bresee preach many years ago. To make a point, he told his congregation about a trip he'd taken to a grocery store that very week. I was still a layperson then, but two things electrified me as I listened to his dew-fresh stories:

  • how carefully he observed real life around him, and
  • how different his illustrations were from the moldy and probably apocryphal tales most other pastors regaled us with.

So these days, as I drive around, I listen to news radio and National Public Radio. I watch bumper stickers and billboards and people. When I go on my morning walk, when I stop to buy gas, when I walk through hardware stores, I'm always on the lookout for some thing or someone out of the ordinary to add to the top of the pile in the Word document. Very importantly, I try to record what I saw or heard without immediately locking the illustration into a hard-and-fast category, because I've found that what I see might have multiple uses for different settings.

Then when I get to work on my sermon, I simply page through the top few screens of the document. It's rare that I won't find some thing that fits, but if not, I keep paging down until I do (my vertical illustration file is 42 pages long so far). "Hey, wait," somebody says. "How do you capture those illustrations on the fly?" That's the second tool:

The digital voice recorder. I got this idea almost 20 years ago from fellow pastor Dr. Roger Ferris. Actually, his recorder used a tiny-tape cassette, but once I saw it, I immediately bought one small enough to fit in my shirt pocket. And as soon as digital recorders came out, I switched over, thus ending fears of tape-tangle at crucial moments.

If you decide to get a digital recorder, spend a bit more cash and make sure you get one like my Olympus DS-330 that interfaces easily with your computer. That way you can download your on-the-fly comments and listen to them on your computer's speakers.

Now if I see something intriguing while driving, or hear an interesting radio interview, or suddenly come up with a personal insight, I merely turn on the Olympus and record as many details as possible.

I also use it to take down directions to someone's house. I mutter to-do items into it. I flick it on at church when someone's playing a new song I'd like to learn. This device's uses are almost endless.

Obviously, what I've mentioned above aren't the only ways to get good sermon illustrations. Another immensely valuable source is

Tools . . .

Your childhood. There's gold in those long lost growing-up years. I'm talking about much more than the story of how the Lord protected you when chased by a bear at summer camp, or the naughty things you did that received their just consequences. I'm talking about what it was like to grow up in your town, the worries that kept you awake at night, the interesting people you knew, the toys and the pets you had, what your schoolteachers were like, the games you played at recess, what your Main Street or city dump looked like, what your parents argued over, why other kids liked to come over to your house rather than play at their own.

You'll naturally want to disguise names and other clear identifiers, especially if you post your sermons on your church Web site as I do. But dig deep into your childhood over and over.

Obviously one shouldn't overdo using childhood stories, but I put at least one childhood or youthful reminiscence in almost every sermon I write. People have told me they appreciate these and can identify with them. They make a pastor more of a real person and less of a card board cutout.

"Just a minute," I can hear some one say. "Using childhood material is all very well if you have a memory like an elephant. But I remember hardly anything about my childhood." I don't have elephantine recall either.

To mine my childhood I simply use the next tool one of the most fantastic I've discovered. And as you'll see, it's useful in other ways as well.

Clustering. It's also called mind mapping or bubble mapping or spoking. These are different names for a new and very freeing method for out lining and idea-generating. However, don't rush out and buy a lot of expensive books on this.

A number of enlightened school districts are teaching this skill to our kids so ask them to explain it at sup per tonight. The principle is simple, and the more you use it the more you'll like it. I'll explain it below, but if you like you can go to the library and check out The Mind Map Book by Tony Buzan or Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Rico.

Here's how I cluster: I get a sheet of copier paper (I avoid lined notebook paper because it tends to make me think I'm hunched over an elementary school desk, not a good mental posture for free-form idea generating). I adjust the paper horizontally on my desk, because again, placing it vertically makes me think "school" and tightens me up.

Let's say as I did last week I'm trying to think of an incident from my childhood to illustrate the idea of "surprise." I draw a small circle in the center of the sheet and write "surprise" inside it. Then I start drawing spokes out from the circle.

At the end of one spoke I write the name of the town I lived in as a child. At the end of another spoke I write "houses," and coming off "houses" I draw three other spokes, each representing one of the houses my family lived in.

Off each house I'll draw a "back yard" spoke, a "my bedroom" spoke, a "kitchen" spoke, and so on.

You can get as detailed as you want, but you probably won't have to. Because suddenly the magic hap pens not supernatural magic but the true magic of your God-created brain.

Something will spark, and you'll suddenly remember some event or person that is perfect for your illustrative needs. I once spent 20 unsuccessful minutes trying to think of an illustration with the usual scratch-my-head-and-stare-into-space method. Then I suddenly remembered clustering and grabbed a sheet of paper and started drawing circles. And in less than 30 seconds, I had exactly the illustration I needed.

There's really no mystery about what's happening. You're simply freeing your brain to work efficiently. By simply writing down concepts or places (or whatever) on a sheet of paper and drawing spokes (the spoking simply allows space around each new concept so you can add more details if you want to), you're allowing your brain to relax and examine each option at its leisure.

And clustering isn't merely an illustration generator. Use it to come up with ideas for sermon series, talks, articles, books. Use it with other people to plan your next church outreach project, or to help generate ideas for any other situation in which you need creative ideas immediately.

As a writer and pastor, I consider clustering the most valuable tool I've discovered in the past ten years.

. . . And more tools!

Another tool which works just as delightfully is--

Freewriting. Again, as with clustering, there's no need to spend tons of money or go to night school to learn this. Freewriting (which is also being taught to your kids and if it isn't, find out why not) is simply putting pen to paper (or fingertip to key board) and writing your way through a mental block.

Here's how I do it and I do it nearly every week, not only for sermons but for books and articles and other things I need to think through:

Let's say it's getting to be the time of year when I need to decide on next year's sermon preaching plan. I'll take out a smooth-flowing pen and open a little notebook, and I'll write some thing like this: "OK. What do I preach on next year? This year I'm preaching through the Bible, last year was Bible faith heroes and then a series on David's life, and the year before it was chapter-by-chapter through Luke and then a series on the Psalms. What should the folks in the pews hear next? Come on, Maylan. You're 54 years old, but you can't be that braindead. Lord, help me know how to feed Your flock..."

And on and on, something like that. Not deathless prose, you'll notice, nothing to save for the memoirs. Just pen-pushing, idea-pushing, talking to myself and to God. Yet time and time again I've found that even murky, clogged sermon-segments start to come into focus once I lay down a series of sentences one after the other.

Which brings us naturally to the subject of Notebooks. OK, maybe you're a child of the electronic age and feel easier with a keyboard under your fingernails. Fine go for it. I'm a notebook man myself, and I always carry a pocket-sized one with me (which you can't always do with a laptop or even a PDA).

There are several varieties, but I prefer one I get at Barnes & Noble, called Moleskine, whose advertising claims that it's an exact replica of notebooks used by Hemingway and other eminent creators. I've filled 12 of these tough little 192-page lined treasures, and I've hoarded another 120, which ought to last me for the rest of my natural life.

As I start each Moleskine, I number the pages (odd numbers on the right-hand page only, to make it easier). Then I start a little table of contents in the front. I use this notebook for taking general notes on a preaching passage (98 percent of my sermons are expository), doing the first rough outline, freewriting through foggy spots, even some tiny clustering, and for making notes on other projects and ideas I'm thinking about.

I can't close this article without talking about--

Reference books. In addition to my Bible reference books and a good big dictionary here are a couple of other books I use constantly. The Synonym Finder by J. I. Rodale is prob ably the quickest place to find good synonyms (I consulted it three times while writing this article).

In addition, I keep nearby one of those little spelling dictionaries, the kind with only words and no definitions. That way if I get the irresistible alliterative urge to start all my sermon points with the letter "T," for example, I can have a whole lot of "T" words right there under my eyes.

There you have it my seven favorite tools. God be with you as you add them to your own toolbox, and may His reputation be enhanced by their use.


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Maylan Schurch has pastured the Bellevue, Washington, Seventh-day Adventist church since 1991.

April 2005

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