When a pastor friend confessed that he frets before preaching a series in another church—"Should I preach this? Or that? Or the other?"—I smiled in memory of doing the same. I must have given myself ulcers from the anxiety of those days.
What cured me? Prayer. I'm not in the least implying my friend does not pray sufficiently; I'm only confessing that prayer changed everything for me. Once I know what the Lord is telling me to preach, I do not ask again but get on with the preparation.
Second is doing the Bible study. Let me illustrate from a real-life example of preparing a message from Romans 12. I already had the basic outline: this chapter, I am fully convinced, is a well-rounded description of a healthy church. The first two verses—"present your bodies a living sacrifice"—deal with the most basic of considerations, the personal commitment of every person to Jesus Christ. Verses 3-8 describe a congregation in which the members all have spiritual gifts, know what they are, and are exercising them well. And verses 9-21 present the various kinds of relationships among the members. I aimed to intertwine and interrelate these themes so the listener could easily see how God's people are to be related to Him and to one another.
Clearly, just the Bible study portion of this sermon could easily take an hour. However, a pastor simply cannot tell everything he knows about a text in a single sermon. Otherwise, the pastor's preparation will extend beyond reckoning, and the actual sermon will extend into Sunday afternoon.
As I reflected on the Romans 12 text each morning during that sermon's preparation, it occurred to me that I am the product of a healthy church, which was the role model for the seven churches I've served over nearly a half-century of pastoral ministry. What's more—and this was the insight which made me realize it was from God—I was present the night that church began to self-destruct. I actually witnessed my home church beginning to die, and even today, the memory of the experience saddens my heart.
Telling these two stories in a sermon could take 15 minutes each, easily. And I did plan to tell them. These two experiences were crucial in the formation of my heart's burden about this message—and that's often something that does not appear through the fog of my brain until a couple of weeks into the preparation. Only with this realization could I settle on the message's focus of helping the congregation treasure, work for, and protect the health of their internal relationships.
I should interject here that this was not the only message I was working on at the time, nor do I usually work on only one sermon at a time. Each morning after working on the Romans 12 sermon, I would move on to other messages, all of them in various stages of preparedness.
Finally, on the Thursday before the Sunday I preached the sermon, the Lord showed me the outline for the sermon. (I am not saying loosely or casually that "the Lord showed me." I believe He is in charge of every detail of a sermon, if the preacher will lean on Him sufficiently.) He gave me three points to illustrate the themes from Romans 12: Foundation, Framework, and Finishing. I organized the supporting statements from the passage for each of the points, and only then did I begin to craft the actual text of the sermon.
Now, was the sermon ready to be preached? Not even close. If I had stood at that moment and preached the sermon as it existed in my head and heart, it would have easily taken two hours. I was a long way from preaching it.
At this point in the process, I typically take some walks or a drive—solitude in the car is a great time to go over a sermon—and preach through the message several times. Each time, I get a better feel for what needs to be included, emphasized, or omitted in the sermon. I also comb the books in my study looking for supporting insights, in this case on church health. Some were helpful, but most were not. This research does not comprise a great deal of time; it is frequently done in spare moments when I am taking a break from something else. This last portion of the preparation—practicing and refining the message—is just as Holy Spirit-dependent as any other part. "Unless the Lord build the house"—and that's what I was trying to do in this message with the Foundation, Framework, and Finishing—"they labor in vain who build it." (Psalm 127:1)
Suffice to say, preaching is hard work and not for sissies. It's definitely not for the faint of heart or couch potatoes. Now you see why we keep encouraging churches to pray for their pastor!