Yesterday, I mentioned this article which has provoked the latest cycle of sermon length controversy. Now, as I said yesterday, a sermon takes as long as it takes. Some of us might actually need to give a bit longer to our sermons and some of us probably could do with shaving 10 minutes off!
However, with apologies and due respect to the article author, I’ve got a bigger concern here which is that actually the method he suggests is a terrible way of preparing to preach or to write. Why do I say this? Well, I want to suggest a helpful maxim. Don’t edit down, build up. What we so often are tempted to do, is to write out everything we feel we have to say on a matter. Then we realise that we’ve gone over the word count or we’ve written a manuscript that will take longer to read than we have. Then we start taking words and paragraphs out until we get where we want to be. That’s a pretty awful way of doing things. It leaves you feeling gutted and deflated at the end of the process and often creates unevenness in talks, articles and books.
A better way to do it is to build up by starting by saying what you want to say in one sentence. A lot of sermon preparation methodologies do get this bit by encouraging the preacher to identify the big idea. However, they tend to jump from the sentence to the full script. What you might want to try next is to build up the sentence into a paragraph, the paragraph into three paragraphs and each paragraph into a section.
Now, here’s the challenge. A lot of us will still have far more content from our study than we include in our sermon and that’s where my main point comes in. Don’t write your sermon too soon. Rory Shiner suggests that we should edit out the less pertinent content after writing our sermons. I think that too often we go too quickly from study and research to writing the talk and so all of that interesting but non-essential stuff gets included in the content. So, it isn’t just a case of surgically removing it. The unnecessary material is intertwined with the saliant points. What is more, it has affected the structure and style of your essay/sermon. I’ve often found that when I’ve written something that is too long that the best thing to do has not been to edit it but to throw it away and start again with a much clearer and sharper sense of where things need to go.
The point is this. We do well to hold off writing the final draft until we know exactly what it is that we need to say. In sermon preparation this might mean that you do all your exegetical work with sentence flows and commentary checking, then you take a break, then you come back and think about what the main point is in one sentence. After this you might think about all the possible illustrations are that you could use. At that point, put the writing pad down or switch off the computer. Go for a walk, chat about the passage with a friend, do a pastoral visit, spend time in prayer. Then and only then start writing.