So, now that you know what a sermon is, and now that you know that a sermon has to hit on both Law and Gospel, let’s answer another common question: how in the world does a pastor decide what to preach on, every single week of the year, every year of his ministry? It essentially boils down to two approaches:
- Using the Lectionary
- Developing a Sermon Series
The Lectionary Approach
Following the Jewish custom of reading from the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, the early Christians began reading sections of Scripture at meetings. As the church became more organized, an organized system of readings was created, with the goal of having the church read gradually through Scripture. This became known as the lectionary (from the Latin ‘chosen reading’), or pericope system. There are some variations between denominations, but the lectionary still exists as a means of walking a congregation through the Bible over the course of 1-3 years.
The lectionary consists of a weekly reading from the Psalms, the Old Testament, the Epistles and the Gospels (the latter two being in the New Testament). The preacher, then, has the option of preaching on any of the ‘assigned’ readings, or he may choose a ‘free text,’ also suggested by the lectionary.
Advantages of using the lectionary include uniformity and unity between churches of a denomination. If you are traveling, for example, you may walk into church knowing that you did not miss the readings for those weeks, because the church you’re visiting is using them, too. Another advantage is that the preacher is forced to preach from the text itself, guarding against the temptation to do eisegesis. And of course, it theoretically walks the church through all of Scripture, rather than excluding entire portions of the Bible that may otherwise never be read.
Disadvantages include the fact that the readings do not always go together. Sometimes, the hearer may be confused about the Old Testament passage, which has nothing to do with the sermon and is not otherwise addressed by the pastor, either. And, in spite of the intention to work through all of Scripture, some content is left out of the lectionary. Another disadvantage is that, after a certain amount of time, the pastor will be repeating readings, with the temptation to reuse an old sermon, rather than diving deeper into the text to see if he may find new insights.
The Sermon Series Approach
In this case, the pastor elects not to use the lectionary – possibly for one or more of the above reasons, maybe just to do something different, or perhaps to cover something timely for his congregation, like during times of transition or because of a need to focus on service to the community. For this, the pastor will choose an overarching theme for the series, and then individually themed focuses for each service during the series. He may use a book as a guide, he may walk through a book of the Bible, or he may come up with his own idea. The key, however, is that each sermon still needs to follow the above criteria for sermons. He may be preaching through a book by C.S. Lewis, but he’s ultimately preaching God’s Word with Lewis’ help – the sermon series is a modern vehicle for the God’s timeless Truth.
Advantages to the sermon series approach include a greater sense of cohesion to weekly messages, where the readings and sermons are more clearly seen to flow into one another. Another advantage is the pastor’s ability to flex his creative muscles, particularly if he is gifted in this area. It also works with the pastor’s unique knowledge and understanding of his congregation, as he knows better than anyone which areas of Scripture they particularly need to hear and focus on at a given time. A sermon series approach may also lend itself to outreach. Because the focus on Scripture is solidly there but not so overt in a sermon series, it can make it seem more ‘interesting’ to people who think the Bible is boring or confusing.* Someone who is outside the church may not be interested in coming to hear a sermon on the book of Daniel, but might be willing to come and hear a message about lion-taming – even though it’s actually the same sermon!
Disadvantages include the temptation to use proof-texting or eisegesis to back up the pastor’s opinion, as well as a tendency to over-focus on the scriptures he particularly likes to preach from. He may also over-focus on themes he particularly likes (such as grace or love), rather than the many themes he could preach on (like generosity or repentance). It also becomes a frustration for those who are unable to come to church every single week and might feel as though they missed part of the story, though the ability to podcast and listen or watch online have helped a great deal to eliminate this problem. And, of course, there is the lack of consistency from church to church.
Each approach has its fair shares of advantages and disadvantages, and different people may put different values on each. As a result, there are a number of opinions about which approach is better or more faithful, and as with any issue, those who disagree may become quite passionate and even self-righteous in their opinions. But in reality, a pastor may use either approach – or even a mix of both. It’s really up to him (or his leadership team), but it should take into account his ministry context with regard not only to the people who are hearing the sermon, but also those who are not hearing – yet!
From there, it’s a matter of researching his chosen text (in both English and the original language, so as not to miss textual nuances). He then uses some system of outlining his points, writing out the sermon in his preferred form (e.g. bullet points, full manuscript, etc.), and practicing his delivery.
Preparing, writing and preaching a sermon is a monumental task, and he does this on a weekly basis! Sometimes, like during Lent and Advent, he writes 2-4 per week! Throw in funerals and weddings, and you can safely assume that your pastor is writing a combination of a research paper, creative essay and persuasive speech, anywhere from 50-70 times per year! Now imagine how he feels when someone says to him, “Don’t you only work one day a week?”
Preaching is a task that nearly every pastor loves doing – and is also utterly exhausted by. So please be careful what feedback you give to your pastor, as he is doing his best to be faithful. Consider these tips:
- If you normally complain that his sermons are too long, first ask yourself if you should maybe be focused more on listening and less on clock-watching.
- If you enjoy his preaching, don’t just leave it at, “Good sermon, pastor”; tell him a particular part that spoke to you personally.
- If you do have specific feedback to give him, pray about it first to make sure it is coming from the right place (rather than just personal preference or emotional response). Then, schedule a time where you can discuss it one-on-one. Giving him a critique after service is not very helpful, partly because he is being pulled in so many directions, but mostly because we should all be exiting worship in the mindset of serving God and loving our neighbor, rather than critiquing the service.
- And please – no matter how true it may be – never, ever tell him you got more out of his children’s sermon than the regular sermon. It may even seem funny to you, but it’s not to him. Remember how much time he put into the sermon? Imagine being told someone enjoyed the iced tea a whole lot more than the dinner you spent all day preparing – or that your tie was more entertaining than your presentation. Put yourself in his shoes, and encourage him in a loving way.
The most important component in sermon preparation and preaching is prayer. Prayer for guidance and wisdom and clarity. Prayer for the Holy Spirit to speak in and through him, to bring out what needs to be preached and to hold back what does not. Because the preacher, no matter how talented, charismatic or dynamic, is an imperfect vessel. So pray for your pastor(s), and thank God for his willingness to preach the Word of God to you in its fullness, even and especially if it cuts you to the core and convicts you in its Truth – just as it proclaims to you the free gifts of grace, mercy and everlasting life in Christ Jesus, Amen.
PS: During my time in ministry, I have followed almost exclusively a sermon series approach. I have made that determination based on the context of the churches I have served, as well as fits my particular strengths in preaching. This does not mean it is the ‘right’ or ‘best’ approach, it has just been the one I have chosen to use.
*I once used the movie series Star Wars as the vehicle for a sermon series during Advent. It built excitement in fans of that franchise who enjoyed the tie-ins, but it also (as I reminded those who were not Star Wars fans…) told the story of Jesus, not Luke Skywalker!