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If you preach regularly, you’ll resonate with this quip about sermon preparation, “Somebody’s gonna suffer. Either you do before, or they do during.” — Howard Hendricks

Sermon preparation is not an easy task. It takes great patience and the ability to stick through even when inspiration and creativity are lacking.

This is why I have written a lot of articles on sermon prep:

I know that sermon preparation can be vexing, and I want to help in any way I can. I also know how important it is to put in the necessary hard work and deliver a sermon that is worthy of a listen.

I get interesting feedback when I write about the importance of working hard at sermon preparation. Well-meaning people respond with misplaced piety when the subject of preaching is brought up. It is their desire to protect the purity of the process and not tarnish it with technique. They see preaching as this otherworldly exercise that the Holy Spirit superintends.

In their view, the work of the Holy Spirit is thwarted when the preacher makes an effort to improve his preaching. I want to deal with some of these bits of feedback and explain why I believe they are misguided.

Comments I’ve received in response to my articles on sermon prep:

“No need for preaching technique. All that matters is #prayer & #biblestudy #always”

This one seems almost saintly. All we should do as pastors is pray and study the Bible. The purity and simplicity of this approach seems unassailable. I mean, how could you argue with prayer and Bible study? I’ve received this kind of feedback dozens of times.

If you preach without praying and studying the Bible, then stop preaching. Prayer and Bible study are assumed practices for every preacher. Nothing in my writing suggests that prayer and Bible study are unnecessary. What I suggest is to add to prayer and Bible study by improving your communication skills, becoming a better presenter, sharpening your storytelling abilities, and lots of other things to become better at getting your message across. None of these are in place of prayer and Bible study but in addition.

“Jesus didn’t ask for feedback from His disciples. He didn’t need to. He just told the truth. Start with that and see how a congregation responds. Some listen, some don’t.”

This was in response to an article I published on how to get more helpful feedback on your sermons. One of the best things you can do to help prepare for the next sermon is to receive meaningful feedback on your last sermon. Maybe Jesus didn’t need to ask for feedback. He is perfect, and he is God. His sermons didn’t need any help, but the rest of our sermons do.

As a preacher who is serious about connecting with people and making an impact, I am not satisfied with a “some listen, some don’t” approach. I will always do everything I can to be as effective as possible. This is the same attitude Paul had when he said, “…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22-23).

Paul was willing to learn, grow and adjust in order to reach those far from God. So am I. And so is any committed preacher who takes their calling seriously.

“Seriously? This does make me wish I was dead. I see nothing from The Holy Spirit here, donkey.”

The Holy Spirit argument is made a lot in the preaching context. It usually goes something like this: “The Holy Spirit only works in sermons where the preacher is not prepared.”  As if the Holy Spirit cannot work in your preparation. He can only work the moment you stand up and begin speaking.

This particular comment was in response to the article on getting helpful sermon feedback. The book of Proverbs has much to say about seeking counsel from others. “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). When I seek feedback from my congregation it is a form of seeking counsel. This is a Holy Spirit-guided process.

“Gauging and polling how relevant a part of the message is to a demographic seems a little weak sauce. God is captivating. We are people called to usher in the King of Glory.”

This comment refers to a post that says nothing about polling or gauging people for relevance. It was actually about preparing sermons with a team. The idea was that you will begin to draw from the same well if you consistently prepare in isolation. My suggestion was to speak with many different kinds of people to broaden the potential impact of your message.

It’s also a bit presumptuous to assert that for God to come through as captivating, you have to prepare the sermon alone. This puts the emphasis on you as the mouthpiece of God and less on his glory.

There is no disconnect between the Holy Spirit’s power and rigorous sermon prep.

Great preachers understand fully that the work they do is a work of God. They also understand their own responsibility to do all they can to bring their best to every sermon every time. Paul says it this way in Colossians 1:28-29: "Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me."

Does the Holy Spirit ONLY work when preachers are NOT prepared? No. Of course not. He works best in us when we prepare most. God works within us as we work in his strength. God honors diligent labor in sermon preparation. This is why I will continue to provide resources to help with sermon prep. This is why I will never settle for anything less than the best I can do every time I preach. This is why you’ll strive to do the best you can as well.

Why do you think people struggle with the idea of working hard on communication skills as a preacher? Do you see this as an affront to the Holy Spirit? Why or why not?



Lane Sebring is a teaching pastor, speaker and author. He leads The Current, a worship gathering of young adults, in Northern Virginia. He created PreachingDonkey.com, a site to help preachers communicate better.  He has a B.A. in Communication from the University of Central Oklahoma and a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from Liberty Theological Seminary. He lives in the Northern Virginia / DC area with his wife Rachel and their daughter, Olive. You can connect with him at twitter.com/PreachingDonkey and facebook.com/PreachingDonkey

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Fernando Saravi

commented on Jan 5, 2015

I fully agree with Lane. There are times where you have to speak without any specific preparation, and it's fine that then you rely completely on the Holy Spirit. But when preaching a scheduled sermon, it is simply irresponsible to skip the best preparation you can achieve, under the guidance of the very same Holy Spirit!

Troy Heald

commented on Jan 5, 2015

Ditto here, agree 100. If you arrive at the pulpit with nothing prepared you must fall back onto what you have studied, prayed about (not necessarily in preparation for the opportunity to speak but in your own private study and prayer) and let the Holy Spirit guide you. All 3 work on concert with each other (the Holy Spirit has worked in study and prayer too leading up to the time in the pulpit.) However, most times (dare I say 95) we should be entering the pulpit with what the Holy Spirit has brought us to in preparation. Something likely we have studied, prayed about and prepared for the specific purpose of standing in the pulpit and delivering. The Holy Spirit works in those times, convicting, directing, revealing, and molding, both us individually, our text, and our message. For me this happens throughout the week and specifically the hours spent in putting thoughts to paper (or computer in my case) for each message not just when I step in the pulpit. Trust me, the Holy Spirit guides there too (if not I need to step down.) Thanks Lane.

Ronald Johnson

commented on Jan 5, 2015

I could not agree more. I have heard too many sermons from preachers that see preparation as a bad thing. They are usually very long, very rambling, and often incoherent. It reminds me of an exchange John Wesley had with a woman who said, "God does not need your education." Wesley's response was, "Neither does He need your ignorance." I have always found that the Holy Spirit speaks to me most clearly when I am quiet and calm. (Actually I probably have that a little backwards. I am able to hear the Spirit most clearly...) Sunday morning is often far from quiet and calm.

Suresh Manoharan

commented on Jan 5, 2015

In cases of scheduled preaching, the Heavenly Father will send the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon the preacher, only when he has done his homework sincerely before going into the pulpit. Oh how true is the saying "He who fails to prepare, prepares to fail."

Brad Brucker

commented on Jan 5, 2015

The only way I can preach spontaneously is to be prepared! I have a number of sermons in my preaching bible with outlines and notes on sticky notes. I travel to Africa and the culture there is to invite a preacher to preach in a moments notice. So, to honor their requests I'm prepared! And I, after many years of preaching and many hours of preparation on many sermons still approach preaching any particular message with fear and trembling. Not preparing is preaching malpractice plain and simple! ,

R. Pearce

commented on Jan 5, 2015

I recently returned from a mission in Africa where I went village to village while Muslim terrorists were trying to find me. There was amazing preaching going on because there was very little time to prep and complete reliance on the Holy Spirit to provide an appropriate message for each location. To do so, I needed to know my bible and have a relationship with God ensure that preaching was entirely of Him. I need to tell you God taught me as I preached so I too grew in the process. I think the Holy Spirit will use you whether you prepare a message or not, but only if our relationship with Jesus is deep in the first place so we can hear Him speak to us first! Otherwise, we are just a resounding gong wasting everyone's time.

Ray Smith

commented on Jan 5, 2015

There is a saying by the armed forces here in the UK "Fail to prepare, prepare to fail" when we preach we are in a spiritual battle against the enemy. When we prepare it is the the Holy Spirit who helps us in that preparation and when we come to preach God takes that preparation and breathes the Holy Spirit through the words we speak. A standup comedian will spend hours crafting his act, preparing in front of a mirror etc, how many of us as preachers, preach our sermon to ourselves in preparation for Sunday mornings. We need to prepare and let the Holy Spirit guide us as we pray through our text or theme. Yes there are times when God has clearly told me to leave my script alone. I can remember on one occasion when my sermon blew off the lectern and I had a voice saying leave it on the floor and preach through the passage. I had done the prep and my sermon was different and it spoke to two couples directly. This was one occasion when God spoke through me, but it was because of the prep that I was able to do this.

Jerod Dewey

commented on Jan 5, 2015

I have to say that I have seen people who have been given a chance to speak from the pulpit and it was a mess. He was unprepared and kept saying the same thing over and over. He went no where with his message, because he failed to prepare. As for the Holy Spirit, Jesus told the Disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to Baptize them. Reference to this from the words of John the Baptist Matthew 3:11 and Acts 1:4-5. I believe this means that those who preach need this Baptism of the Holy Spirit as described in these two passages. This doesn't give preachers a license to not prepare. I find the best preachers make an outline and don't write a thesis of what they want to say. They study all scriptures about their subject write an outline with key words reminding them of things the Holy Spirit gave them during their study. Also the Holy Spirit will give you things only at the time of the sermon, being aware to test them that they really are from the Holy Spirit. Bunny trails can be destructive to the message. With a outline bunny trails that will confuse the congregation are more likely to be avoided.

Henry C. Jaegers

commented on Jan 5, 2015

Well stated. I am appalled by so Called preachers who get most their sermons from everyone else. I had one colegue called me up one Saturday night to ask me what I was preaching. This same pastor used to brag about the pasror's annuals he bought that took care of all of his semon ideas for the year. The last time that I saw him, he was at his third church and confessed that his criteria for the call was the Generosity of the church. That was over 30 years ago. Hopefully the church caught on to him and he has given them all a break by retiring,

Ptr Dewi

commented on Jan 5, 2015

I would reject the 'either or' scenario. I do not take the line that the length of sermon preparation time is a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand I believe that a person who has prepared long and hard, encouraged and empowered by the Spirit would be willing to lay it all aside, if as he stands up to preach, the Spirit gives him something else.

Pastor Cameron Donovan Enns

commented on Jan 7, 2015

II Tim. 2:15 exhorts us to study to show ourselves approved handling accurately the Word; my soul is overnourished and overbearing unless I purposefully expose myself to depend solely on the Holy Spirit. I really enjoy preparing my sermon outline of Scripture but purposefully leave out the introduction and illustrations so that, after twenty years on the mission field, as I step up to the pulpit filled with Holy Spirit having fulfilled the command of 2 Tim 2:15 I am conscious of a total dependency on the Holy Spirit. No this is not how they taught us to prepare sermons in seminary yet nonetheless I am able to distinguish between the role of my soul and my spirit in preaching and have literally had a conversation between the two during one particular illustration when my clueless soul asked my inspired spirit "Where are you going with this?!!!" right before the Holy Spirit astonished me with a home run application from a spontaneous illustration. The point being that a healthy balance between our role in studying to show ourselves approved and walking in the Spirit, by faith and relying only on the Spirit not on my over fed intellect, is an approach that reveals who's in control, even as I remain passionate about winning souls and making disciples. Stop entertaining. 2 Cor 12:9.

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