Reasons Not to Write Sermons from Scratch

August 24th, 2012

I typically enjoy teaching more than preaching, but occasionally I do get asked to speak at worship services or other events. On those occasions, I’ve generally logged many hours studying my selected scripture text from every angle, doing word studies, reading commentaries, and writing the actual sermon. If you also consider the time I spend editing and practicing the message, it’s no wonder that I’m usually tightly wound by the time I stand up to deliver it. I can’t imagine why pastors would put themselves through such an ordeal week after week.

Recently I was part of a team at work that had the opportunity to put together our monthly employee worship service. I was asked to deliver the sermon. The group decided early on that we’d put together the service using elements from the This Sunday section of Ministry Matters.

Before I proceed further, I need to make a confession. I help assemble the This Sunday elements for Ministry Matters week after week, but until we began putting together this worship service, I had never really considered using someone else’s sermon to help me write mine. (There was that one time I reworked an old George Whitefield sermon, but that was more a novelty than anything else.)

I’ve usually insisted on writing my own stuff from scratch. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you preach, right?

So I pulled a sermon from Ministry Matters and reworked it a little, leaving the main points intact, but abbreviating it to fit the time allocated for my message. Then I replaced the original author’s stories with some of my own, and tweaked the message here and there. I created a bullet point outline and ran over it a couple of times so I’d be able to deliver my message without having to look down at my notes too often. I didn’t invest a ridiculous amount of time preparing—which was actually something I found to be quite refreshing.

In short, it went well. I was much more relaxed than usual, and people seemed to notice. It was such a positive experience for me that I resolved to use a similar approach with future sermons and speeches. I had spent a fraction of the time I normally spend on sermons, and the return on my investment seemed to be greater than usual.

Here are a few things I learned from my experience of using a sermon that I didn’t create from scratch:

There are better ways for pastors to spend their time than starting with a blank sermon canvas week after week. I learned this lesson with curriculum as a youth minister and now it’s finally sinking in for me with preaching. Starting with someone else’s sermon and making it your own simply gives you more bang for your buck and frees up time to do more important things. Like hanging out with your family, visiting parishioners, praying, or counseling. The uncomfortable truth is, many pastors just aren’t gifted writers or preachers. So why do churches put pressure on them to try to be both?

I’m a writer by trade. It’s what I do and I’m fairly good at it. I’m not nearly as good at speaking in public. But here’s what I discovered. When I allow myself to spend less time obsessing over creating the perfect sermon, I’m able to spend more time working on improving my delivery. And when I invest less time on my message, the fate of the planet doesn’t seem to be riding on how the message goes. That means I’m able to relax and have more fun with it. Listeners notice things like that.

Starting with someone else’s sermon really helps get your ego out of the way. Writers and preachers are really artists and performers, two groups of people that are notorious for having fragile egos. The problem is, when we spend so much time crafting the perfect sermon—if it doesn’t set the house on fire—it’s easy to take things personally. That’s probably not such a temptation when we build on someone else’s work. When you’re not so attached to something, it’s easier to see the big picture.

Some pastors are cautious about using other people’s sermons as building blocks because of concerns about plagiarism. But that doesn’t have to be an issue. In the same way we credit worship songs to their composers, we can give credit to the authors of sermons. An acknowledgement of original sources in the sermon itself, in the church bulletin, or as part of the message’s on-screen graphics package are sufficient to let your listeners know you didn't do everything on your own.

If you think about it, it’s kind of silly for the hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of pastors worldwide to reinvent the wheel and write their sermons from scratch week after week. In reality, most sermons probably aren’t as good as their preacher thinks they are. Can you imagine what the quality of music would be like in your church if your choir director or worship leader had to write all the songs your congregation sings every week?

With today’s technology, the best writers and preachers worldwide could easily share their sermons and collaborate with pastors, who could then mold and tweak those sermons for use in their particular setting. Not only would it be another way for the body of Christ to work together, we'd all be much more efficient in the process!

If you sampled some of the desserts at your last church potluck, you may have noticed that everyone doesn’t have a gift for baking cakes from scratch. Some cooks would be better off using cake mix, and others would do better to simply buy their desserts ready-made at the bakery. It’s the same with preaching, although most of us have a hard time admitting it. Some of us need to just face the fact that building a sermon based on someone else’s sermon often produces a better finished product than what we could come up with all by ourselves. And it’s a lot less stressful.

There's much more to pastoring than preaching, although in today's Christian culture, you wouldn't think so. Preaching is probably the most high profile thing most lead pastors do. But with the rise of satellite churches and other trends, plus the economic need for churches to do more with less, many pastors are finding that spending half their work week or more writing a message just isn't practical anymore. More and more of them are looking for help with the process, and one way they find that help is through using sermons that others have already put together to provide inspiration.

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