Tip #4: Spend Less Time on Sermon Prep

[for context, see the original post Ten Tips for Becoming a Better Pastor]

The fourth tip for becoming a better pastor is to spend less time on sermon prep.

Admittedly, I am making a number of assumptions here. I realize there are men out there who call themselves “pastors,” but might more suitably be called “motivational speakers.” They spend about as much time prepping their sermons as a coach spends prepping his locker room speech. They are much more interested in “running a church” than in handling the word of God accurately. The slick design of their latest marketing promo is more interesting to them than the spiritual formation of their flock. These are not the men I’m speaking to. They have their reward in full.

Rather, I address this tip to the legion of good and godly pastors who view themselves as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1). These men have a sense of the weightiness and majesty and authority of the word of God – and especially the preached word. They take their calling seriously. They labor to present themselves to God as faithful workers (2 Timothy 2:15). They study and pray and prepare because they know that preaching is God speaking – that the Holy Spirit mysteriously uses the preached word to bring conviction, challenge, and change.

If these men are honest, they know that Sunday mornings are very often a subtle form of pastoral self-justification. People show up expecting something. They want to meet with God. They want to hear God. They want to learn. The better the sermon is, the more likely that the congregation will approve of the preacher and his work. They will honor him and appreciate him and revere him. They will feel like he’s worth the money they pay him.

Can a pastor spend 30 hours a week on sermon prep out of a deep, unadulterated, pure-hearted love for God and his word? Certainly. I have no doubt that some men do. I also have no doubt that many men lie to themselves about this. Chances are, you are devoting so much time to your sermon because you crave the approval of your people. Or because you want to live up to your own standard of “hard work.” Or because hours spent in study are quantifiable and give you a feeling of achievement.

You need to confront this self-justification, repent, and believe the gospel.

You also need to deal with the facts. Tim Keller insists (and I agree with him) that your first 100 sermons are going to be lame no matter what. Leadership expert Malcolm Gladwell asserts that it takes 10,000 hours to become proficient in a performance-based field. Bottom line: your sermons are going to suck for a long time. Investing more time isn’t necessarily going to make them better. If 20 hours gets you a mediocre sermon, and 30 hours gets you a slightly-better-than-mediocre sermon… go with the 20 hours. Spend the remaining time in prayer, reflection, missional engagement, or pastoral counseling (more on that in a future post). These things will all make your sermons better anyway.

If you doubt this is possible, try an experiment: take one day a month of complete solitude – no people, no technology, no interruptions. Use that day to pray and study and plan for preaching for the next 8-12 weeks. If you do this consistently, you’ll find your weekly time in sermon prep much more productive. You can prepare a rich, deep, substantive sermon in 10-20 hours a week, freeing you to spend much more time in mission, community, and discipleship.

Maybe you are the exception to the rule. But chances are, you’re not. So if you want to become a better pastor, spend less time on sermon prep.

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