I’ve been preaching for 30 years.
Thirty years of creating new content every week for 45-50 weeks of the year. For the first 15 years I was preaching or teaching three times a week—on Sunday morning, Sunday night and a mid-week Bible study.
It all adds up to over 3,000 preaching/teaching events in 30 years. An average of two per week.
At some point I have to run out of things to say, don’t I? Actually, at hundreds of points I have run out of things to say.
If you’re the preaching/teaching pastor of a local church, you know the feeling. The Saturday night dread. The “what am I going to say this week that they haven’t all heard 100 times before?” panic.
It still happens to me. I guess I’m a slow learner.
The good news is, it doesn’t happen to me nearly as much as it used to, because over the last three decades I’ve learned a few tricks—what computer geeks would call hacks, but we’ll just call tools—that reduce the pressure and make Preacher’s Block a little less frequent.
What to Talk About?
The #1 issue in Preacher’s Block is the same as it is for Writer’s Block. Coming up with a subject. An idea valid enough to be worth saying, but fresh enough to keep people’s interest.
That’s easy when the audience is new. I’m discovering that in recent months as I’m travelling to speak at conferences and seminars about Small Church issues. I have a go-to set of principles that I shuffle up to fit every group, but I’m not creating new content each time—that’s the fun part of speaking.
But when you’re a pastor and you’ve been at the same church for years, even decades, you can’t just say what you’ve said before—even (especially) if you’re reinforcing the same foundational Bible principles you’ve taught dozens of times.
Over the decades I’ve discovered a handful of tools that help in this task. They’re not the “right” way to preach and/or prepare. They’re just some of the tools that work for me. I present them today in case some of them might work for you, too.
1. Preach a Series
Yeah, I know. This is not exactly a new idea. But of all the ways I know to reduce the “what am I going to preach about?” panic, this is the best one, by far.
By preaching a series, I reduce the number of times I need to decide what I’m going to preach on from 50 per year to 12 or fewer per year. Even I can come up with 12 ideas a year!
Plus, people like knowing where things are going. The congregation can follow my train-of-thought better when I lay down principle-after-principle over several weeks, instead of jumping from subject-to-subject every Sunday.
Preaching in series also gives me the chance to plan longer in advance. As I’m preaching my current series I can be studying for the next series and brainstorming ideas for the series after that.
2. Prayerfully Go Where the Passage Takes Me
I’ve learned to trust God’s Word over the last few decades. Oh, I know we’re all supposed to do that. But it turns out I wasn’t trusting it as much as I thought I was. After all, if I can’t trust it for sermon material, how can I trust it for my life?
Here’s what I mean. For too many years, I’d go to the passage I planned to preach/teach on with a pre-set idea of what I wanted to say based on it. I was deciding in advance what I wanted it to mean. Then I’d study to find supporting passages for that premise. Mypremise. Not necessarily the passage’s premise.
I try not to do that anymore. Now what I do is to take the next passage in the series and sit with it for a while. I read it, pray over it, study it, meditate on it … and I write down everything that I find in it.
This method accomplishes two goals. First, it puts God’s Word back in charge of the process, not me. Second, it takes the pressure off me to create something new. I’m a discoverer, not an inventor. Finding what’s already there is so much easier (and better for everyone) than trying to make the passage say what I want it to say.
The best teachers are good learners. This process helps me be better at both.
3. Pre-announce Next Week’s Passage or Title
Every week for over 25 years I’ve supplied two things for the bulletin—the title for this Sunday’s message and the title or passage for the following Sunday’s message.
This does two things. First, it forces me to think at least a week in advance about the message. This reduces the Saturday night panic significantly. Second, it gives the congregation a sense of place. It tells them where we’re heading, so they can follow along better.
No, they don’t all read the passage in advance with me. But some do. And those who do come better prepared. Sometimes they email me with questions about the upcoming passage, giving me the chance to provide information on Sunday that I know will help them.
4. Keep an Active Devotional Life
I talked about this in a previous (and surprisingly controversial) post, "Why I Don’t Go to the Bible to Find a Text to Preach On." That post has been re-posted and commented on in several other blogs, so I won’t go over the details again. But the essence of it is this.
As pastors, we need to resist the temptation to treat the Bible only as sermon material. It must always remain God’s Word to our own souls first. If we do that, God will speak to us through it. And when he does, we can take what he has said to us and reflect it out to those whom he has given us to minister to.
This keeps us growing in our faith, passionate about God’s Word and—coincidentally—we’ll never run out of great ideas to share with others.
5. Don’t Worry About Rhyming or Alliterating Sermon Points
This was the subject of another previous, and also somewhat controversial blog post that has also been reposted in several other places. So I won’t go into detail on this one either, since you can read all about it in, "Why I Don’t Trust Sermon Notes That Rhyme—and What I Do Instead."
But it is a helpful tool, so this list would be incomplete without it.
Rhyming or alliterating sermon points has two downsides: First, it doesn’t feel honest to younger generations; it feels fake. Second, it takes a lot of time and energy to come with the rhyme or alliteration—time and energy that would be better spent producing great, real-life-applicable content.
Think about it. How many times has a major part of our Preacher’s Block been trying to come up with the right word that starts with the letter “E,” so the sermon points will spell out G.R.A.C.E.?
And would this post be any better if I’d made these six points spell P.R.E.A.C.H.?
Use rhymes or alliterations if they work and they don’t add extra time and pressure to your preaching/teaching prep. But most of the time you can drop this unnecessary brick from your load. You’ll feel better. And you’ll probably preach better, too.
6. Know and Follow My Body Clock
Everyone has physical rhythms of life that work for us. There are times of the day, the week, the month and the year when we are at our best—and other times when we’re at our lowest.
As ministers, we owe it to ourselves and others to know what those times are. To keep ourselves spiritually, emotionally and physically fit. And to put time in God’s Word during the seasons when our mental, emotional and spiritual lives are best-suited for it.
I don’t think well when I’m tired. So I do most of my writing and studying early in the day. But I’m hungry to be replenished at the end of the day, so I do most of my reading then.
Your body clock isn’t the same as mine. Get to know and follow the rhythms of life that work best for you.
Those are preaching/teaching tools that work well for me. If any of them work for you, take what works and leave the rest.