“I don’t believe you should spend a lot of time preparing your sermon, when you’re a younger minister,” advises Tim Keller. The reason? We’ll be tempted to spend too much time in sermon preparation, and our people will feel neglected. “The only way you’re going to be a better preacher is if you preach often,” says Keller “For the first 200 sermons, no matter what you do, your first 200 sermons are going to be terrible.”
It’s the first time that I’d heard a great preacher tell other preachers to reduce the time spent in sermon preparation. Since then, I’ve become convinced that he’s right. This doesn’t apply only to young preachers, either. It applies to church planters and older pastors too.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that we should slap sermons together. I believe in the importance of study, and that we need to invest the time necessary to craft a good sermon. But some of us should be spending less time in our studies, and some of us (like those in bivocational ministry) will have no choice.
Here are some ways this can happen.
Plan ahead. It’s much easier to prepare with less time when we have a plan. Taking a couple of days to plan out a series, and to get a sense of the biblical content, can save hours of preparation time later.
Start early. I find that sermons come together much better when I start the preparation process early in the week. Some of my best thinking takes place when I’m working on other things, or not working at all. I’ll generally prepare a sermon in less time when I start on Monday or Tuesday than if I wait until Thursday or Friday.
Think “less is more.” I try to consult fewer commentaries than I did before, but I try to make them the best commentaries I can find. I try to make fewer points in my sermon, and stick closer to my main point. I try to spend fewer hours on sermon preparation, but try to be as focused as possible during those hours.
Draw on past knowledge. I rarely preach an old sermon again. The best preaching is fresh, and comes out of the preacher’s interaction with the text in the days leading up to the sermon. But it sure helps to develop a greater knowledge of Scripture over time, and to have preached on a passage before.
Don’t aim for perfection. We should aim to be helpful, not to be perfect. I am satisfied if my heart is prepared, and my sermon is helpful but not as polished as I’d like it to be. Getting a sermon to 90% polished is often twice the work that it takes to get it to 80%. It should be clear, biblical, practical, and Christ-centered, but it doesn’t have to be perfect.
Feedback can keep us honest. If trusted people detect that the quality of our preaching has declined, then it’s time to revisit our practices.
I would never want to argue for sloppy sermon preparation, but there’s a place for thinking about how to prepare good sermons in less time.