Saturday, 22 September 2012

Top Tips for Last-Minute Sermon Preparation

It's a common problem. People assume that Archdruids, clergy, Local Preachers and all the rest enjoy endless leisure for research and preparation for their Sabbath discourses, expository exhortations, homilies, "thoughts" or, to cut a long story short, sermons. They believe we enjoy the perfect sermon preparation weeks, little knowing the real story.

The Perfect Sermon Preparation Week:

Monday: Checking out the lectionary, ensuring it's not a special Saint's day and they're not transferring the Equinox to the Sunday or some other such special occasion.

Tuesday: Reading the passage in nine or ten different English versions. If the preacher is planning to base her/his words on the Old Testament, then also the Hebrew and Septuagint. If the New, then the original Greek and Syriac. Maybe, if discussing Jesus's wife, Coptic.

Wednesday: Day off - allowing the Holy Spirit to pour out her holy wisdom into the situation.

Thursday: Consulting the Authorities. Early Fathers, Wesley, Augustine, Luther, Spurgeon, Tom Wright or David Icke according to theological inclination and traditions.

Friday: Weaving all these diverse threads into a seamless and colourful tapestry of pure theology and down-to-earth wisdom.

Saturday evening: After a brief perusal of the latest Dr Who and a lavender-scented bath, the purveyors of sermons take themselves off to early bedtime, to be vibrant and holy in the morning.

Sunday: Preaching the perfect sermon.

The Real Story:

Of course, this perfect week doesn't happen. If a Local Preacher under 65, the chances are there was a day-job or child-rearing or some such to deal with. If the preacher is a full-time clergy, the chances are the week consisted of a blizzard of visits, appointments, committees and putting-off-the-sermon-preparation.

Either way, come Saturday night they're still looking at a blank computer screen, or a blank piece of paper, with a blank expression. Dr Who and QI XL have failed to bring any inspiration; the children are still running up the walls at 10 o'clock and it is time to face facts. The sermon is going to have to be written now, or you've got a very early morning tomorrow. The options are as follows:
  1. Beg a sermon. Somewhere on Twitter there will be a generous clergy or member of the allied preaching trades with a sermon. They can be induced to email it to you. You have to be a little careful - some people preach quite personal sermons. It's no good talking about your time at King's, Cambridge or how your youngest, Philibert, is doing at his 6-a-side macramé club, unless these things are actually true. If your sermon appears to have created a complete alternative life story, or you have changed race, denomination, faith or gender for the purposes of its delivery, you probably haven't checked it over properly. Similarly, preaching one of John Wesley's sermons will only work if the congregation are fluent in Georgian English and don't think the "Spirit of Bondage" is something to do with "50 Shades of Grey".
  2. Steal a sermon. You know that smug clergy in your Circuit who's always got his sermon written by Tuesday? Break into his house and nick it. Obviously, you'll leave him yours so as to make it technically just an involuntary swap rather than burglary. OK, your sermon will consist of  the words "Jesus is good; Greatest in the Kingdom; Maybe quote "Footprints"?" - but at least he'll have something to work on.
  3. Reincarnate a sermon. Check your files for the last time you preached on the passage. If you're a full-time clergy of more than 3 years' standing, there's a good chance you'll find it exactly three years ago. As with the "begging" option, be careful. References to the Berlin Wall coming down, the latest Human League single or the invention of the '45 rpm single may clue people in to this not being so original.
  4. Trust in God. Just go to bed. In the middle of the night, you will awake with a fully-formed three-point-sermon in your head which you will write on the notepad you keep by your bed. In the morning, you will discover that you have written "1. Jesus is good. 2. Greatest in the Kingdom. 3. Maybe quote "Footprints"?
  5. Consider an alternative approach. If you think quickly on your feet, and your church members are relatively assertive, ask what they think in the morning. Read a poem - "Footprints" is always popular. Or hand everyone a pebble and just play some nice Palestrina.
  6. Blag it. Go into the pulpit, read the passage very slowly from a different translation, then nod sagely and say "I think we can all go home and learn something from this." Then get on with the tea lights, Creed or next hymn, according to tradition.
  7. Preach last week's sermon, and hope everybody falls asleep after the introductory joke.
  8. Ask yourself the all-important question - what would Jesus do? If you find the answer is, "have a row with the forces of authority, upset the chief priests and get nailed to something," ask yourself a different question.
  9. Set the alarm for 5am. Lay awake, tossing and turning and worrying, until 4.45. Then just as you hit that perfect state of R.E.M. sleep, awake to your iPhone displaying its new ability to play songs as an alarm. Ask yourself what on earth you were playing at, choosing Motorhead's "We are the Roadcrew". Go downstairs cursing your lot. Make stupidly strong coffee. Still in a semi-dreamlike state, conjure up something that appears to make perfect sense. Preach it at 8am, 9.30 and 11. On each occasion, receive the comment, "Lovely sermon" from people at the door on their way out. Go home, have a nap, and then read the sermon over. Discover you have exhorted your hearers to pledge allegiance to Lord Squiddy, the King of the Sea-People, have said the Gnostics were small green aliens from the planet Argos and have confused Judas Iscariot with Jude the Obscure. Reflect that it's not the worst you've written.
  10. Just read out "Footprints".


  1. The Beaker School of Theology appears to have more footprints than the Yeti.

    Oh and in your quoted list of Authorities, you completely forgot to mention Yoda.

  2. As they say … it's funny because it's true! With minor modifications, I've done all of those (with the exception of #10. There are limits, you know.) Especially #3, #6 and #9.

    But which of those headings does it come under when you find yourself Googling "proper 20 year b sermon help i'm desperate"? (Like I did half an hour ago?)

  3. ah so you have seen my diary....Footprints it is tomorrow.

  4. Crying with laughter - and sympathy for all preacher folk struggling tonight! This congregant at least will be grateful.

  5. Crying with laughter - and sympathy for all preacher folk struggling tonight! This congregant at least will be grateful.

  6. Never had to write a sermon or homily or even speak in a Godly way to an audience I can't really imagine the hiatus that a sermon causes. However, being a former military man, I can cope with this sort of thing.

    We lived by the motto that PPP led to PPP
    (Poor prior preparation leads to P*** poor performance). CAN'T HAVE THAT CAN WE!!!!

    However, being a former Military Man, I as always prepared to deliver a briefing or set of orders, I was used to preparing using the seven questions for the Combat Estimate. I just wondered if they could be a template for any sermon?

    1. What are the congregation doing and why?
    2. What have I been told to do to the congregation and why?
    3. What actions/effects do I want to have on the congregation?
    4. Where can I best accomplish each action/effect?
    5. What resources do I need to accomplish each action/effect?
    6. When and where do these actions take place in relation to each other?
    7. What control measures do I need to impose?

    So, thinking of a sermons they might just be quite appropriate:

    1. They are coming to have a kip.
    2. I need to shock them out of their sleepiness.
    3. I want to stop them sleeping by shock effects.
    4. I need to use the microphone at full volume.
    5. I need a microphone and a large dustbin lid to drop.
    6. Immediately after the Gospel and before the peace.
    7. I need church wardens as spotters to let me know when they start to nod.

    Having organised all of this, I would deliver any sermon by numbers in short sharp steps, with suitable pauses to allow them to assimilate the information something in the style of:

    ONE, TWO, THREE, "WAIT FOR IT" ONE! If it works for recruits surely it works for congregations.

    Job Done. On with the Peace.

  7. #5 for me! Pebbles and Palestrina every time (works for workshop/quiet day input too). Come to think of it, I've done them all. Except Footprints. As far as I can remember...

    1. Not being able to remember using "Footprints" is not the same as never having used it...

    2. A clergy colleague confessed to not having ever read "Footprints" but when M'learned Archdeacon investigated we found that on the morning concerned he had fallen into a trance as a result of stress, but Jesus had actually read it for him.

  8. I am very taken with UK Viewer's approach here.
    To complete the sermon, I can recommend the method of someone I happen to know who reads out the Reading, then reads out every verse of the Reading and then uses slightly different words, or maybe just a different order of sentence, to tell the congregation what it says.
    People are said to have found it helpful every now and then.

  9. wonderful stuff, wished they'd taught this approach at college, also spending time here is a wonderful distraction from actually writing next weeks' sermon

  10. Go straight from the Gospel to the creed and see if anyone notices?

  11. You left out "Read Mark Sandlin's Facebook for the past week. Then wish that you wrote like him."


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