Q & R: A pastor asks about preaching

Here’s the Q:

I’m taking a sabbatical and thinking about how to improve my preaching. Would you answer these five questions for me?

Here’s the R:
You’re a wise man to take a sabbatical. I’ll reply to your questions below.

1) How do you decide what you are going to preach on? Do you use the lectionary? If not, how do you decide on individual sermons or series and how do you keep a good balance of various scripture and topics?
I was a preacher for 24 years and did not use the lectionary. (More on that in a minute.) Back then, I preached sermons in series, based on my sense of where the congregation needed help. That sense would often come from pastoral counseling sessions or just hanging out with people, hearing where their points of pain were.
In general, we focused spring and fall on outreach (“seeker oriented” series) and summer and winter on discipleship (more oriented to deeper Christian formation). We would devote summers to more exegetical series … i.e. Colossians or the Sermon on the Mount or the minor prophets, etc.
If I were preaching now, I would use a lectionary. I actually developed an alternative lectionary for my book We Make the Road by Walking. You can find information about it here –

2) What commentaries/books/resources/authors do you turn to most often for your exegesis, ideas, illustrations, etc.
By far, the most important commentary I can recommend is this:
I think Paul Nuechterlein is brilliant, and the Girardian approach has great power. What a resource!

3) How much time do you take creating each sermon and what is your weekly method/discipline/schedule for creating your sermon? What does the creative process look like for you?
I would plan series as a whole, i.e. take a day or two and roughly sketch out all the sermons maybe 6-12 months in advance. That would allow me to let sermons “simmer” and collect relevant songs, movie clips, articles, etc. Then each week, I’d spend most of a day on the sermon early in the week and fine tune it later in the week, usually getting up at 5 am on Sunday for finishing touches.

4) What are some of the best insights/tips/tricks of the trade you’ve discovered through the years when it comes both to planning and writing, then delivering your talks/sermons?
One of my mentors suggested that I write out my sermons and then practice them so I could deliver them either from a manuscript or from notes. He said that since many people write better than they speak, this would lift my speech closer to the level of my writing. The truth was that both my writing and speaking improved from this practice. Writing for the ear made me a better writer, and speaking after writing a complete manuscript made me a better speaker. (It also made me more brief … and when I would depart from this practice, my sermons invariably got way too long.)
Another of my mentors told me that by and large, “white men can’t preach,” so I as a white guy should listen to all the great black preachers that I could … learning from their focus on narrative, their word-play, their musicality, and their physicality. (On a related note, someone told me that I should use my body as one of my most important teaching tools – acting things out, etc. On another related note, I also preached better when I used props, giving people something to look at. Jesus did this, I think, when he pointed to “the lilies of the field” or “the birds of the air.”)
Another of my mentors said that I should always have some behavior or action in mind that I’m driving for. In other words, not to focus on teaching an idea, in hopes that it will lead to practice, to but focus on practice and present the idea(s) as a reason to go there.
Finally, I picked up somewhere that people are changed more by a feeling than an idea. As a fairly heady guy, that reminded me that if there were no moments in the sermon where people welled up with tears, burst out laughing, felt shocked or surprised, or in some other way connected with a deep emotion, I needed to go back to the drawing board. Most often, those emotional beats came through a story that I crafted less as a sermon-giver and more as a story-teller or performance artist.
Those four pieces of advice served me pretty well. I only wish following them consistently back then was as easy as writing them down right now!
If I could add one more (this is a central theme in my new book, The Great Spiritual Migration), it would be this: if the greatest commandment is love, and if the greatest thing is love, I should see all preaching as an act of love (motivated by love) to help other people catch an incurable case of love for neighbor, stranger, other, outsider, outcast, and enemy; for myself; for all creation, and naturally, for God. In other words, I’d ask the questions, “What love am I modeling in this sermon, and what love do I want others to imitate as a result of it?” before, during, and after every sermon. It’s all about love … not impressing him, not avoiding offending her, not convincing them, not consolidating power for me, etc., etc.