Writer’s block is a famous challenge, but I suspect preacher’s block is an equally frequent occurrence. The time ticks by and Sunday’s deadline keeps approaching. What should you do if you feel stuck? Here are eight suggestions.
Seems obvious, but I need to make this overt. Pray. And pray honestly. Stop praying nice little “Lord, I commit this process to you for your blessing and glory” prayers. Start praying really honestly. “God, I am really struggling here! I don’t know what the problem is, and I am scared that I won’t be ready in time ...” —or whatever is on your heart.
Sometimes praying something through out loud means that it is not only God hearing your heart but you hearing your heart. Maybe you’ll end up praying about some sin struggle, or about some fear, or a false motivation driving you, or whatever. Pray as if God is able to take an honest statement or two—the Psalms and Job and Jeremiah suggest that He is.
Sometimes the best thing to do when stuck is to stop trying to move forward. Go for a walk, run an errand, read a book unrelated to the message, do some mindless sorting of the admin that has been piling up. You could say that any break is worth it, but maybe not. Five minutes on social media could expand to fill the next hour, watching a YouTube clip can be dangerous to your ability to focus, and beware that there is a difference between taking a break and becoming distracted in aimless—or purposeful—procrastination. A genuine break can really help.
Who turned preaching into such a solitary pursuit? Sometimes the very best thing to do is talk to someone about your message. Either what they say or what you say will be helpful to regenerate momentum. It could be your spouse, a friend, another preacher, a mentor. Sometimes talking about the message, the challenge you feel and what still needs to come together will break open the logjam and help you start moving forward again.
Sometimes you just need a fresh perspective. Maybe another commentary on a key section. Perhaps check some biblical studies books to see if the text appears in the scripture index. Maybe try a lighter commentary for how they handle this section. But beware, sometimes the last thing you need is more information. This is an option, but it may be the wrong option. If your block is from a massive input of data and no clarity on how to let the right stuff out, then maybe steer clear of the books at this stage.
Sometimes I get stuck on an outline or a certain part of a message. Switching to writing may be helpful. Perhaps you are struggling with the big picture of the message and need to switch to working out wording. This may free you up to keep making progress on the message rather than staying stuck on an aspect of it.
We are a bit obsessed with “writing” our messages. Whether it is outlines or manuscripts, we can easily lose sight of the orality of preaching. The goal is not to write a sermon but to preach one. So sometimes the best thing to do is to step away from the keyboard or pen and start talking out loud. If you were up now, what would you say? Things that seem so clear on paper sometimes can’t come out of your mouth.
Paper is only one step better than in your head. (Who hasn’t had clarity in their minds that simply won’t get onto the page?) Spoken communication is a step beyond that. You can feel clear on paper but still not be able to express what you intend. Once you hear yourself getting stuck, you know you have issues on paper. And once you are trying to say it, sometimes you can find a quick detour that makes for an effective message! (Then go write it down.)
Sometimes when you are stuck, you can be tempted to work late and miss sleep. Don’t. Get good sleep, and then work productively tomorrow. We are designed to need sleep. It can be a real step of faith to leave an issue like this with God and curl up in His arms for the night. Sadly, too many preachers seem to think God is impressed by sugar- and caffeine-fueled fatigue that results in a vicious cycle of tiredness and inability to concentrate. We don’t get medals for staying up late and preaching poorly as a result. Don’t turn the chance to preach into an opportunity to play a mini-martyr.
Sometimes preacher’s block is really the fruit of indiscipline, inappropriate distraction, laziness or some other sin. I don’t want to come up with a pseudo-solution to avoid facing that. If you have sinned and become aware of it, then deal with it. Confess it to God, come back to the cross, repent and lean into His care for you again. This isn’t some sort of mystical purging ritual. It is healthy relationship. You need to walk through the preparation and preaching with God close, so if you don’t feel close due to sin, then get it sorted. Any short-cut or detour that tries to hide distance in this sense will be an unwise path to take.
What would you add to the list? What do you do when you get stuck?