Have you ever asked that question? When I grew up in church I am not sure I stopped to think about it. It just seemed like the preacher knew what to say and do. I never realized how much time and effort a sermon took and how the process even occurred. Now that I preach every week I realize that there are many in the pews who might be wondering what I used to wonder.
So how does the preacher decide what to preach? That depends on who the preacher is. In some traditions the pastor follows the lectionary. The Revised Common Lectionary is a three year cycle of scripture texts that takes one through the bulk of Scripture. This process is used in multiple denominations and works rather well. In some churches many passages are ready from various sections of the Bible throughout the worship service. Some pastors may try and weave all those text together in a sermon but that is hard to do. Most who use the lectionary take one of those passages to focus on in the sermon and then begins to do the hard work to develop a message from that text.
Other pastors don’t follow the lectionary. Some free church traditions such as Baptists have always ignored the lectionary but in recent years more of them are discovering the lectionary. Free church traditions are those that are not as liturgical as other traditions. Liturgical worship is a structured worship style that often follows a prescribed process and uses specific worship books/guides. Baptists and others developed a less formal worship style and typically stayed away from a liturgical style. However this isn’t true for all Baptists! Some have been more open to liturgy and in recent years a revival of liturgy among some churches has occurred just as contemporary worship has grown in other traditions.
As a Baptist I used the lectionary for many years and found it helpful. But I also found it limiting as well. Sometimes the text chosen just wasn’t easy to work with or other texts were not used that I felt needed to be used. I’m not for or against the lectionary. I think it is a great way to guide a pastor but I also believe other ways work. I’ll talk about those in just a minute.
I do keep up with the church year. The church year begins with Advent (four weeks before Christmas). Christmas is followed by Epiphany and then Lent. After Lent is Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time. A liturgical church follows these and some other specific times as well. Other special days that may happen are Trinity Sunday, Reformation Sunday, and other times. I try to pay attention and while I do not use the Lectionary passages for that day I do not ignore where we are in the year. Our church follows Advent and Christmas. We also observe Lent and Easter. I try to pay attention to other times as well. But being a free church we have some flexibility.
So if I don’t use the lectionary how do I figure out what text and what to preach each week? There are a few ways I have done this. One option is to preach a book in the Bible. Sometimes I’ve done this and gone verse by verse but more than often I have used sections of a book. This coming year I’ll do three weeks in Galatians, four weeks in Ecclesiastes, and four in Proverbs. Obviously this is not covering every verse and part of the book but it takes a person through the basic flow of the book. A few years ago I preached verse by verse through the Pastoral Letters. I enjoyed it but it took much of the year. Back in the days when Baptists had Sunday morning and Sunday nights this would have worked best. I could have easily done a book at night and something different in the morning. Since we only have one service a week I have decided it is best to do major sections rather than verse by verse. I am known as a series preacher. I preach sermon series. I like to take a theme and preach anywhere form three to six weeks on a theme. I find that is about the length of one topic a person can really follow. So If I do a book in the Bible I attempt to find a common theme to address in that book for the series. Other times I choose a topic or theme that the Bible can address and build upon that for a series. Sometimes the sermon is very topical and other times it is very much text driven. Even in the topical ones I make sure they are Biblical and not just my opinion. I have preached sermons on marriage, controversial issues, criticisms from culture about faith, famous Bible passages we should know, Sunday School stories we learned as children, and on and on the list goes. The series can be an issue from culture that Scripture can deal with or it can be a theme straight from the Bible (parables, characters from the Bible, books from the Bible, prayer, etc).
This takes work and care must be given. If a preacher isn’t careful they may ignore parts of the Bible that he or she isn’t comfortable or as experienced with. A pastor might stick with New Testament sermons and ignore the Old Testament or vice versa! A pastor might find himself/herself on pet peeves and ignore other needs. So how do we do this and be balanced? One argument is that by following the lectionary you are forced to look at the entire Bible. Yet a preacher can use the lectionary and stick with the gospel texts mainly and ignore Paul.
I brainstorm all the time and when sermon series ideas come to me I keep them in a file. I have a group of preachers I meet with and one thing we do is share what we are dealing with and help one another. We read books together and talk about ministry. From that many ideas often come. I also gain ideas from reading, movies, life, conversations, culture, etc. As they come I write them down. Then I take time to plan out the year and look over the flow of the year. I try to get away from distractions and work on my preaching plan for the next year. As I plan I make sure I don’t ignore the OT or NT or other specifics of the text. I make sure I don’t just do topics and ignore books in the Bible. I try to do a variety. I try to stick with the year but shift it if needs in life change. I am open to changing my plan as I need too. I also purchase books and resources ahead of time to read to be ready when I begin a series.
Above all this must be done with God’s help. I pray and seek what God would have me share with my church and what we need to do. I ask folks about their needs and thoughts. I try to pay attention to what my church is saying and going through. I also think about what they are not thinking about and maybe should be. It isn’t easy and sometimes it works and sometimes maybe not but then again when I think it didn’t work someone always says to me that a particular sermon spoke to their specific struggle.
I don’t speak for all preachers but this is what I do. This is something that maybe church members wonder about. I can’t speak for all preachers but I do love to hear from those in the pews. If someone has a need or question or feedback I love to hear it. I’ll write in a future blog about the purpose of preaching and why we do it.