When a prospective pastor is evaluated, church members wouldn't think about extending a call without first hearing the candidate preach. When church members discuss the strengths and weaknesses of pastors, the typical first criteria is their preaching skill. Preaching is obviously an important part of any pastor's ministry. So, can a pastor become a better preacher? Is there a correlation between time in preparation and quality of presentation?
Good preaching, of course, depends on a number of factors. But I have found that the best of preachers spend a minimum of fifteen hours each week in sermon preparation. There are four broad ingredients in a successful sermon: 1) exegeting the biblical text to determine what God is saying, 2) identifying the topic and the issues that connect with the people in the congregation, 3) organizing the content in a logical way that hearers will understand and remember, and 4) presenting the message in an engaging and persuasive manner.
Taking these things into consideration, as a rule a pastor should spend at least fifteen hours each week in sermon preparation divided over at least two weeks. In the first week the pastor spends about seven to eight hours exegeting the passage(s) of scripture in order to understand it. The big idea or eternal principle is defined, and a tentative outline is laid out. Many pastors will then let the message percolate for a week of prayerful reflection. The following week, an additional seven to eight hours are given to filling out the outline with illustrations, stories, testimonies, and other didactic techniques. Practicing the delivery is also a good idea.
Other factors, of course, affect how a pastor prepares his/her sermon. Experience has a major impact on the time necessary to prepare a sermon, with younger pastors typically taking longer, and more experienced pastors needing less time. The genre being preached affects preparation time. Is the message from a Psalm or a passage in Revelation? Some parts of the Bible are just easier to get a handle on, and thus take less time to develop. But regardless of the topic, time, or context, Paul told the church at Corinth, that while the Jews demanded signs and the Greeks wanted wisdom, “…we preach Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:23).
The steps to put this rule into practice are fairly obvious. First, look back over the last three months and determine how much time you currently put into sermon preparation. If it is more than fifteen hours, you are doing well. However, if it is substantially less than fifteen hours, you may not be doing the best job of which you are capable.
Try splitting your sermon preparation time in two halves. In the first week, spend time just understanding the passage. Do quality exegesis of the passage. Take time to think and pray about how the eternal principles impact the lives of your people. In the second week, refine your outline, add illustrations that connect to your people. Write out the sermon. Practice preaching it at least three times out aloud, so that God is most able to speak to the hearts and minds of your people.