The Gospel Coalition

For those unfamiliar with ministry, the pastor's work week can be mystifying. What is there to do besides visit a few folks in the hospital, talk a few others in your office, and prepare a little talk for Sunday morning? In reality, pastors face many competing demands on their time as they work toward that moment on Sunday when they stand before the congregation with a word from the Lord.

Every pastor's week looks a little different. So I can offer you no foolproof method for effective sermon preparation. Indeed, ministry typically results in a consistently shifting schedule. With those qualifiers in mind, here is a glimpse of what my weekly approach looks like, followed by some suggestions for continual growth in our preaching.

Approach to Sermon Preparation 



One key to my sermon prep is always having an eye toward what is ahead. At any given time, I know the basic structure of what we'll be preaching on for the next 12 to 18 months. This is usually decided in consultation with other pastoral staff members who help to ensure that we are preaching the full counsel of God's Word. We look to maintain a balance between the Testaments and the various genres of the Bible. An example of how this works out can be seen in the preaching schedule at Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston over the last two years or so:

Jan. 2010 to May 2010: 1 Peter


June 2010 to August 2010: OT Narratives


Sept. 2010 to August 2011: Gospel of Luke


Sept. 2011 to May 2012: Encountering God (various genres, mostly OT)


June 2012 to Aug. 2012: Wisdom Literature


Sept. 2012 to May 2013: 2 Corinthians


With a schedule in place, you're never scrambling for a text. You're also letting the Scriptures determine what you're going to preach, rather than returning to your favorite topic or doctrine of interest.

Now that I have my text, how do I go about preparing to preach on it?

Tuesday


For me, sermon prep starts on Tuesday morning when I gather my preaching staff (assistant pastors) for sermon discussions. We meet for about two and a half hours to read the text, talk it over, and pray that it would begin to shape us. During our discussions, we are collectively looking to find two things:

  1. The Main Idea: What is the micro-contextual meaning of this text? What is the authorial intent? How do the various sections of the text hang together?

  2. The Big Idea: How does this text fit into the one-story-plotline of the whole Bible? What redemptive-historical threads are present in the text? This element is essential in helping us find the gospel entry point: where the text intersects with the macro-context of the canon and Christ is seen as the ultimate fulfillment of redemptive-history.


By the end of our discussion, we will have determined a basic outline for the sermon, a general idea of where the sermon is headed.

On Tuesday afternoon, for about four hours, I continue down the micro-contextual route. Here, I'm looking at the original languages, doing discourse analysis, and trying to get a handle on the logical flow of the text. Word studies and grammatical analysis are also useful at determining the main idea of the text. I have not yet gone to any commentaries; they are usually consulted late in my preparation. It is essential that we wrestle with the text as it stands before calling in the "experts." Furthermore, this exegetical work keeps us from missing authorial intent or moving too quickly to application.

Wednesday


Sermon prep is typically on hold Wednesday when meetings, counseling appointments, and other pastoral responsibilities call for my attention. I use this day to sit on the sermon, allowing the Word to affect me personally.

Thursday


For about four hours on Thursday, I take what I've gathered from textual study and begin to look closer at the inter-canonical themes in the text. I've got my eye out for ways in which Christ is the fulfillment, resolution, or completion of the dramatic tensions in the Bible's plotline. A few common inter-canonical themes I might be looking for include kingship, grace and law, creation/fall/redemption/new creation, idolatry, marriage/faithfulness, Sabbath rest, justice/judgment, and so on.

This is also the point when I consult commentaries and other books. Perhaps surprisingly, I don't go to the technical commentaries all that often. Because I've done the exegetical work, I use more popular-level books and commentary series to help me make gospel and application connections. Tyndale, The Bible Speaks Today, and The Gospel According to the OT are all helpful series in this regard. Three to four of these types of commentaries should be on every pastor's shelf. Finding other books and articles that address particular themes in your sermon series is also a great help.

Friday


Friday morning signals a shift toward application. I think about the hearts of individuals in my congregation, consider potential points of application, and continue to pray the text into my own life. What heart idols are being addressed in this text? What are the apologetic issues that will need to be addressed? How can I preach the gospel to the unbelief in the hearts of both Christians and skeptics? A great way to be thinking along these applicational and contextual lines is to keep an eye on publications like The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and your local newspaper. I also find it helpful to keep up with the top four or five non-fiction books creating conversations in these publications. All of this helps me keep my finger on the cultural pulse of the people in my church and leads me to interact with the major ideas shaping our world.

Friday afternoon is the point at which I write up a basic manuscript---not a full narrative, but something more akin to an outline.

Saturday


All day Saturday I spend with my family. Then, on Saturday night, I prayerfully read over the manuscript for about three hours, making small, last-minute adjustments.

Sunday


The final step to my sermon prep is a time of prayer on Sunday morning from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. The goal of all my preparation is to do three things: expound Christ, adore Christ, and apply Christ. With this in mind, I pray Sunday morning that while I am preaching the gospel, I'll be able to exalt and worship Christ who alone can bring about change in the hearts and lives of his people.

Lessons Learned 


1. Connect Your Text to the Whole Bible

Throughout my ministry, I've come to learn the importance of connecting the main idea of the text into the big story of the Bible. When I first started to preach, I was trained to understand expository preaching as simply communicating the main idea of the local context. There are several people who helped me to see that this was not Jesus' hermeneutic (Luke 24; John 5:39, 45-47), and they urged me to see how the meaning of a text ought to fit into the one-story-plotline of the Bible: Meredith Kline, Greg Beale, Edmund Clowney, and Don Carson among others. This realization has moved my preaching, which formerly tended to be moralistic, to become more redemptive-historical and Christo-telic.

2. Connect Your Life to the Lives of Your People

Young preachers often hold high ideals of spending 18 hours in sermon preparation each week. While significant study and preparation is essential, it may be largely unfruitful if you don't know the pains and trials your congregation is facing. If your preaching is to be marked by love and compassion for God's people, you must know them. Understand their lives so that when you preach the gospel, it is affecting them where they are, not where you imagine them to be.

3. Cultivate a Posture of Constant Learning

You can always refine and improve upon your approach to the extremely important responsibility of heralding Christ and the gospel. Here are two suggestions:

4. Consistently Find Your Identity in Christ, Not in Your Preaching

The gospel you preach must define you. You need to taste it to know that it is good. What else will sustain you through your first 100 sermons, which are not likely to be very good?

You must keep preaching the gospel to your own heart so that you do not get your identity from preaching. You cannot rise or fall on evaluations of your performance. If you feel good when people complement your sermons but feel terrible when you think you've dropped the ball, preaching itself may be functioning as an idol.

Ultimately, we need to work towards the goal that Paul speaks about in 1 Timothy 4:10: "For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God"---not on our preaching, sermons, or ministry.


Comments:

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Shepherd Links – 5/26 | Pastoralized

May 26, 2012 at 06:46 AM

[...] Sermon Prep: A Week in One Life Here’s a dude whose schedule proves that preaching is his top priority, but leaves a lot of space open for other ministry tasks, too. [...]

[...] seems there are several pastors putting stuff up about preparing sermons. Here’s a short round up. Stephen Um talks about his sermon prep process over at the Gospel Coalition site. Ray Ortlund talks about [...]

stephen um

May 25, 2012 at 06:53 PM

hi randle. my average weekly sermon prep is about 15-16 hrs. the rest of the time on sat and sun is really for prayer. some men consider this part of their sermon prep and others don't but i think 14-16 hrs is relatively common for many men that i know. again, we need to work w a weekly rhythm that works for you. i was not presuming that everyone should follow my weekly pattern but thanks for your thoughts. i was simply given an assignment to share about what i do, thx-stephen

[...] Sermon Prep: A Week in One Life. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Insights. Bookmark the permalink. ← 15 Characteristics of Great Church Leaders [...]

[...] here for the full article. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

Rob

May 23, 2012 at 05:55 PM

Lol JS Park. No bashing happening here. Just healthy questioning... Sounds like it touched a nerve though.
Thanks for the prep time of popular pastors! The majority are significantly shorter than here. Maybe that's saying something and explaining the resistance.

[...] Murray: In Sermon Prep: A Week in One Life, Stephen Um describes his normal process of preparing a sermon. Although there’s some helpful [...]

Web Crawling | stephenmurray.co.za

May 23, 2012 at 03:55 AM

[...] urban environments. He has a post up on the Gospel Coalition at the moment which outlines his approach to sermon preparation – really helpful thoughts here for [...]

JS Park

May 23, 2012 at 02:09 PM

I noticed some comments here essentially saying, "LULZ dude no way I have that amount of time, I preach X sermons per week!" Pastor-rage, if you will.

First, Pastor Stephen prefaced with qualifiers that everyone's week looks different. He is only sharing his. He is NOT saying this is how you must do yours.

Second, it's a blessing that Pastor Stephen gets the time he does. We should be praising God that He's using influential men who are given more time for sermon-writing; should we wish less time for him? Or are we only exposing our own laziness? Calling his given time "ridiculous" or "amusing" or "overkill" is a bit mean-spirited, if not covetous. I'm sure each of us could also find effective ways to tighten up our schedules regardless of how many sermons we preach.

Third, some pastors take longer than others to prepare. I'm certainly jealous of pastors who only need a few hours every week. Personally I take much longer than the average pastor.

From the Elephant Room DVD:
Matt Chandler: 7-8 hours. Perry Noble: 7-8 hours. David Platt: 20 hours. James MacDonald: 10-12 hours. Greg Laurie: 10-12 hours. Steven Furtick: 8-10 hours. Mark Driscoll: 60-90 minutes.

I'm with Platt here: I take about 20 hours also. I count prayer in there as well.

We should be jealously guarding our time for sermon prep. Even if that doesn't look like Pastor Stephen's schedule, his seriousness is evident and should be an encouragement for us, not an indictment. We could at least look into his philosophy as a spiritual template, not bash it word for word.

John Carpenter

May 22, 2012 at 10:57 AM

Could you prepare basically the same sermon for all three churches?

David Baker

May 22, 2012 at 10:55 AM

Great article - sadly, for those of us in rural English parishes with three churches, the luxury of such a vast amount of time for preparation in this way can only be dreamt of...

Randle

May 22, 2012 at 10:42 PM

I'm wrestling with the amount of time you put in and it seems indulgent to me, but I don't think I can properly assert this without understanding how many hours you work a week?
I find it indulgent partly because I'm jealous you get 20+ hours a week. I work a 50 hour week and the weeks I preach I just find an extra 12 hours on top of this. I set aside a couple of hours at the start of the week (or the week before) to exegete then spend a day writing and also preparing Lifegroup materials (if needed).
But it also could be indulgent if this time was invested to the neglect of other important things (which I'm sure you're not doing) without any real gain in sermon quality.
Either way I think each person needs to faithfully discern what amount of time they need in order to preach a gospel-centred, faithful and appropriately applied sermon.

Steve Martin

May 22, 2012 at 10:42 AM

Very interesting.

Thank you, Pastor.

Randle

May 22, 2012 at 10:09 PM

Do you actually just pray the whole time from 6:00am to 9:00am, or is this also a time of doing a devotional and practising the sermon a final time?

Rod Phillips

May 22, 2012 at 10:08 AM

Thanks Stephen...

In the past, when I was a Sr. Pastor with multiple staff, my schedule was very similar to yours. Now that I am planting a church in the Bay Area, CA, I find that my schedule is so very similar and the demands much the same, i.e. I am pretty much doing the same things but the demands and responsibilities of Sr. Pastor and Church Planter are somewhat different.

I can relate to most of what you are saying. In particular, pretty much everyone in my church family knows that my Saturday Nights are a precious time for me. This is the time when the culmination of my studies in the text are the means of my worship to God. Personal praise and celebration, confession and orientation as well as sermonic and homiletic finalization are taking place then. A part of me has always felt a little guilty as in my pastoral training the "Saturday Night Special" was always condemned. Of course, I know that what I am doing on Saturday Night is not a "Saturday Night Special" but it is good to hear that other pastors use Saturday purposefully as I do.

If you are a pastor like me, you are driving home from Church on Sunday beginning to burn in the next text into your soul. It never stops and it is all I can do to set it aside on my "family day" which is Friday....

Good stuff and lots to think about.

What a great privilege to serve as God's Mouthpiece for His glory week after week. I 'get' to do this!

Rod

Gordon Loop

May 22, 2012 at 10:03 AM

I enjoyed reading the article as well. These are the kind of articles that me as a young pastor (not in age 47) need to read because of the practicality of it. I can relate to Jeff though, because I need to prepare at least two messages per week, so I cannot put that much time into the prep work. I was also wondering when the writer found time to even write this article! I would like for him to address the concern that pastor's like Jeff and myself struggle with, and to see how he goes about putting together a preaching schedule. Thank you so much for the challenge!

Mary Spaulding

May 22, 2012 at 09:38 PM

That sounds like the kind of preaching I would like to hear, but I live in Redding, California. Do you know of any preacher in this area that does that kind of preaching.

Mary Spaulding

John Carpenter

May 22, 2012 at 09:29 AM

Hi,

That's interesting because it is much like my own approach, expect that I move forward the actual sermon preparation to Wednesday, write a full manuscript, which I revise as needed on Thursday and Friday.

For Jeff, frankly I don't see how it is possible to prepare three adequate sermons a week. I know some churches demand this but I think they are not aware of how much work sermon preparation is. For me, we have a Wednesday evening Bible study but it is on the same text of scripture that I'm preaching on the coming Sunday so I don't have to do any additional preparation and some of the things discussed in that Bible study go into the sermon preparation.

The New England Puritans, I believe, were the ones who established the tradition of a mid-week meeting but they also generally had a second "teaching" pastor to take care of that message.

Jeff Jackson

May 22, 2012 at 08:51 AM

I found the article encouraging, but I would love to see an article written by someone who preaches more than just one time each week. Please forgive me if I've misspoke here. I would love to be able to spend as much prep time on one sermon, but my time is split between three sermons, plus counseling, visiting and prayer.

Furthermore, I also think it is wonderful that your prep week begins with a sit-down with your staff. I can't imagine what that is like??? How about an article written by a solo pastor who doesn't have the luxury of working with a team?

John Botkin

May 22, 2012 at 08:38 AM

"The final step to my sermon prep is a time of prayer on Sunday morning from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m."

I needed to hear that. Thanks for the conviction & encouragement, brother.

Kevin Morgan

May 22, 2012 at 08:22 AM

Thanks a lot for this article, Stephen! I'm not a pastor, but a youth worker in the city of Copenhagen. The biggest thing I struggle with is not having an "even" schedule for when I'm speaking... instead of once every Sunday morning (which must be a huge challenge) it could be once on tuesday, then again on thursday, and then a week full of holding short devotions or prayer meetings, and then a few more talks the next week. I find it really hard to plan out my preparation time! Who knows, if I become a pastor someday, maybe the whole "Same time every week" style would be somewhat a relief!

JS Park

May 22, 2012 at 08:00 PM

Thank you for sharing this. I've fallen away from a tight schedule on sermon-writing -- I felt it was not so "Spirit-led" though that feels like an excuse -- and this was encouraging to read. The 6am prayer is also very Korean. Thanks again brother.

John Carpenter

May 22, 2012 at 05:39 PM

If a pastor has to work (bivocational) because his church is too small to support him adequately and there are other faithful evangelical churches in the area, why not simply merge the church with one of the others? Why don't we see more church mergers?

A question is CAN a pastor adequately prepare multiple sermons in a week? And, if he can't, how do we tell the church that? Do we need to do what some New England Puritan churches do, have a second "teaching pastor" for the mid-week "lecture"? Why not turn one of those multiple services during the week into an out-reach program in which the members evangelize (or other-wise minister to) people (perhaps children)? Every service should have a purpose. If a church is running three different services a week, each basically serving the same purpose, why?

[...] Sermon Prep: A Week in One Life [...]

Stephen Um’s Excellent Piece

May 22, 2012 at 03:57 PM

[...] Um has written an outstanding blog post (Sermon Prep: A Week In One Life) in which he explains the pastor’s work to your average church member. Its the kind of thing [...]

[...] Sermon Prep: A Week in One Life, Stephen Um describes his normal process of preparing a sermon. Although there’s some [...]

Mark

May 22, 2012 at 02:55 PM

What a great idea for an article. Unfortunately Stephen's context of ministry is totally different to the vast vast majority of pastors in our world today. Why not have another two articles? One from a single pastor who has to prepare a number of different sermons per week and another one from a Pastor who has to work in a secular job. The three taken together could be very useful.

Adam Tisdale

May 22, 2012 at 01:29 PM

I appreciate the thoughts here, but I had very similar thoughts Jeff. Just a reminder that contexts (and gifts) vary widely.

It would be interesting to see one of these from a solo pastor/small church/multi-prep situation.

[...] to sermon preparation Last month The Gospel Coalition blog posted a fascinating article by Stephen Um, describing how he tackled sermon preparation over the course of a week.  I recommend it to you.  [...]

[...] year The Gospel Coalition blog posted a fascinating article by Stephen Um, describing how he tackled sermon preparation over the course of a week.  I recommend it to you.  [...]