Being bi-vocational, I have in the last 3 years had a few conversations with friends and mentors alike about sermon prep and how to manage my time. What I found interesting about these conversations is my mentors and I spoke mostly about time management and the importance of making time to prepare to preach a priority. With other people, the question about resources I might use to study and write sermons came up more often.
With that, I think the best way to organize my thoughts and opinions was to present this in a Q and A format.
What do you think is the most important part of sermon preparation?
To me, the most important part of sermon preparation is scheduling time each week for it. With that said, I have to clarify the role of prayer in the life of a preacher. Many religiously minded people will insist that prayer is the most important part of sermon preparation. The truth is that prayer should be an integral part of the daily life of anyone who has a relationship with God. After all, it is how we communicate with Him.
While there is always room for growth and more time that we can and should give to prayer, the biggest stress factor that we pastors state as an obstacle in sermon preparation is lack of time needed to prepare to preach. But, the truth is there is not a lack of time, only a lack of discipline on the part of a pastor to schedule time for study.
For me, the only way to overcome this is to schedule time for study and preparation and stick to it. Being bi-vocational for now means that my sermon prep time might be from 9:00pm to midnight on a few nights during the week, but thankfully, I can catch up on sleep on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
What resources do you use?
I preach using the New American Standard Bible (1995 Update) which is what I use as my primary study Bible. I also use several exegetical commentaries to give me a better understanding of the linguistic and cultural context the passage I am preaching from.
The best resource I have is something I had to purchase for seminary. It is a software program called Logos. When I purchased it, I picked up the premium package, which expanded my library to over 1000 books. For sermon preparation, Logos provided several exegetical commentary series to choose from as well as language resources that allow me to look up any passage of scripture in the Hebrew Old Testament or Koine Greek New Testament. This has proven very valuable to me in that my vocabulary in both languages is very small. I know just enough of each language to look up a verse or passage and recognize certain grammar rules, but my vocabulary recall is very limited. With Logos, I can move back and forth from the text and a lexicon pretty quickly to do what I call a “rookie’s translation” to get a better understanding of how a verse or passage was rendered in the original language. Of course, I also check my “rookie’s translation” against how experts have translated a passage.
Also, using logos, I can line up several English translations like my NASB along side of the original language text and other translations like ESV, NIV, and the NET. In this way I can do a “parallel” examination of any passage without exhausting all my study time in any week.
I’ve heard other pastors say any good bible study requires looking at several translations. Why is that?
The reason for this is the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written in Koine Greek. When translators render a word a phrase the way they do in any translation, the translator or team are going with the best choices with their knowledge of both English and the original languages. In some cases, a word has multiple meanings depending on the context in which it is used. Sometimes a phrase is actually an idiom that if translated word for word, would make no sense in any English culture. So, translators for one English translation may choose to render a verse in one way, but another translation renders it a different way because there may be a better English word or phrase to communicate the original meaning of the text.
Why not just stick with the KJV Bible? Isn’t that the most accurate English translation?
The answer to this is simply no. The KJV was never the most accurate English Bible. It is like the NIV, NASB, ESV, HCSB, and NET translations in that it is a reliable translation.
Are there any books or commentaries that you would not use?
I think there are some very important books in certain subjects. My second major in college was History, so my knowledge of other disciplines like psychology and medicine is very limited and generally only historical in nature. For example, I am confident in my knowledge of Louis Pasteur, the history of antibiotics, and the history of vaccines in the United States and Europe. But, any technical information in this as well as in the field of psychology, I have to rely on sound and qualified experts to inform me even if all I do with the information is use it to illustrate a point in a sermon.
With that, I do not trust the Christian publishing industry at all when it comes to my field of study. Anytime I find out that a particular historian is popular among fellow pastors, I wait until the reviews from scholars come out before I read it. Most often, I find that historians who write for the “Christian Market” are not historians at all. On the other hand, there are a few scholars and writers that are popular among pastors like Victor Davis Hansen that have a long and proven track record as historians.
Unfortunately, there is also an anti-psychology and alternative medicine market in Christian publishing. Some are written by pastors and others written by people claiming to be experts. Sadly, I have to admit that some of these were on my bookshelf about 10-15 years ago. I believed them and formed my opinions at the time on some very unscientific and wrong information. I am just thankful I discovered how horribly wrong they were before I ever gave advice or council to someone based on them.
I read an article in Christianity Today about a group called Docent Research group. This group provides research assistance for pastors. Considering everything that a pastor has to do in ministry, would you hire a research assistant or use services like Docent’s?
I will never use the services of Docent or any group like it. When a pastor uses Docent services or a research assistant, they are paying someone else to do what is fundamentally the job of a pastor. 20-30 years ago, if your church found out that you were paying someone else to study and write your sermons for you, you were removed from pastoral ministry.
You really have that low of an opinion of Docent and the pastors that use their services?
Yes, I do. When a friend asked me to check out the Docent site last year, I looked through all the testimonials. Each pastor, especially in the video testimonials, made it clear that Docent does not do their study or “write their sermons for them.” But, when you look at Docent’s website, it says their services include what it calls research briefs, theological insights, and exegetical analysis of the passage. This is doing your study for you.
What is the most difficult thing about sermon prep and preaching?
The most difficult thing that comes up is how to apply some parts of scripture to the modern world. There are some parts of the Bible that are commandments from God that should be taken literally. There are also moral values that the Bible makes very clear. Those commandments and moral values are the easy ones to teach. But there are many things found in both the Old and New Testament that simply outline principles that we are supposed to follow. The difficulty here is when I have had sharp disagreements when church people insist we can only take a literal interpretation of scripture. I actually had a conversation with one guy who held to this literal interpretation point so much that he thought slavery was OK because there is no direct commandment against it in the Bible.
I guess what I am saying is the most difficult thing about studying and preaching from the Bible is many church people listening may already have opinions about the Bible, God, and about people in general that go against where the text actually leads us. If having the right illustration on any given point of doctrine or life application were all that was needed to overcome this, then preaching would be easy.
What is the most rewarding part of sermon preparation and preaching?
The most rewarding part of sermon prep and preaching is the fact that most people in church want to seek the truth, correctly interpret scripture, and learn to apply it to their lives. This, I think is most evident in what happens when anyone approaches me after a church service and says, “Great sermon, but I don’t think I agreed with you on this point.” When this happens, the followup conversations are the most exciting, especially when the person who brought it up makes a good point or shows me where I made a mistake.
I know it sounds strange to say that I like it when someone disagrees with me. Sometimes, it’s an illustration that made sense to me even in the sermon, but turned out to be terrible and inaccurate. Other times, though, the disagreement is over a direct interpretation of a key verse or the whole passage.
When this happens, it becomes an opportunity to sit with a friend over coffee and have an “aha”moment. If I was correct, this “aha” moment is pretty cool as I watch the look of understanding take place in a friend. But, when I am proven to be mistaken, incorrect, or just wrong, the “aha” moment is mine.
It’s not that I do not want to prove my interpretation is correct. I do hope I do not make a mistake, but when a friend corrects something I missed, that “aha” moment is something like when your ears pop after a drive through the mountains. It also leaves me a little dizzy, but thrilled.