How Much Time Should a Pastor Spend Preparing a Sermon?

I like to joke that as a pastor I only work one day a week, but the truth is that on average most pastors work 50-60 hours a week. This time is spent managing, planning, corresponding – and of course: studying and preparing a sermon.

Sermon preparation can take a lot of time, especially for a perfectionist. I know that I have often certainly spent an inordinate amount of time preparing my sermons before; partly because I consider it a high and holy calling to preach and teach the Word of God, and also because it is something I enjoy doing and I want to do it well, in a way that truly honors God and impacts peoples’ lives.

So how much time should a preacher spend on preparing a sermon?

I heard one well-known pastor say once at a conference that he only spent about four hours per week preparing his message. He then added that this is because he has a team of people who do all of his research for him, and he takes the material they bring him and organizes it into a message. Most pastors don’t have this luxury, nor would they want someone else doing their studying for them.

A friend of mine who pastors a small church told me that he spends 30 hours per week preparing for his Sunday message. He also has a midweek service, for which he prepares about 15 hours. The result of that is that he doesn’t have time for anything else except sermon preparation. In other words: he doesn’t have any time left over to be a pastor (Greek for “shepherd”) to his congregation. He is only a preacher. Particularly in smaller congregations, it is important that a pastor not only be a preacher, but a shepherd, and he and I both agreed that his time allocation in this area was more of a detriment than a blessing to his congregation.

As for myself, in addition to my regular duties as a pastor, I have a wife and young children who I like spending time with, and in the past few months I have taken on hosting a live radio show once a week and I’m studying for my Masters, which requires about 16 hours of my attention every week. All this means that I need to be good at managing my time well, not only for my own benefit, but for the benefit of my family and my church.

8 Hours or Less: Writing faithful sermons faster by [Huguley, Ryan]

So I was intrigued a few weeks ago when a friend recommended this book: 8 Hours or Less: Writing Faithful Sermons Faster by Ryan Huguley.  It sounded a bit gimmicky to me at first, but after reading it, I think it’s a great resource that I would recommend. Basically, in the book, he outlines a plan for your week, which has you doing certain tasks each day for an hour or two, which help you focus and write better sermons faster. I think that’s really key; it’s not hard to write sermons faster – the question is if they will be good sermons. The system he lays out is intended not only to improve the speed, but also the quality of sermons.

One part which was foreign to me is that on Tuesdays he has you study the text and review your outline with a small group of people. This is probably the part I was most hesitant about, but the part which I have enjoyed the most.

If the end result is better sermons and more time for a pastor to spend pastoring people,  leading the church and preparing for the future, and having more time for their families, that’s a win-win-win. I recommend this book whole-heartedly.

Mission & Mental Health

I recently finished reading Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

It was recommended to me by someone at White Fields, who had read the book and found a surprising correlation between something I had taught at church and the main thesis of the book.

The sermon was one I had taught in our Church Matters series on the topic of “Mission.” (Audio of that message here: “So That They May Have Joy”). My text was John 17:13-19, where Jesus prays over his disciples at the end of the last supper. In that prayer, he says that he was given a mission by the father, and now – in order that his disciples might have his joy in fullness – Jesus is giving them his mission.

The point is: there is a correlation between mission and joy. Mission is a prerequisite for joy. If you want to experience joy, you need to have a mission. Without a mission, you can’t have joy.

This truth can be seen in the fact that children, when they think about what they want to be when they grow up, they think of their future vocation in terms of mission: they dream not of being office workers, they dream of being teachers, police officers, firefighters, missionaries, astronauts, doctors, veterinarians, etc. In other words: jobs full of adventure and serving other people. Why? Because they find joy in that.

And yet, our society encourages us to look out for ourselves, be practical, don’t bother trying to “save the world” – just worry about yourself. And here’s the irony of that: the more that you focus on yourself, the less significant your life is in the big picture, and the less joy you will have.

This same point is made by Sebastian Junger in Tribe. His big idea, which he backs up with evidence throughout the book, is that hardship, rather than being bad for us, is actually good for us – in fact, it’s one of the best things that can possibly happen to a person or a society.

And yet, the whole focus of our society has been to make life more and more comfortable and free of hardship; the result of which has been an incredible rise in mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and even violent crime. Times of crisis, such as terror attacks and natural disasters, indirectly have a positive affect on mental health in a society. The reason for this is that crisis causes people to band together and gives people a mission and a purpose to work towards and fight for, even sacrifice for. Without such a mission, people become unhealthy.

In other words: Junger is stating what the Bible has said for millennia: you need a mission. It’s a basic human requirement.

Here are some quotes from the book:

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. (xvii)

According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as 8 times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities– like the United States– run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders. (p. 20)

[Poorer people experience lower rates of depression.] The reason for this seems to be that poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. (p. 20 – 21)

Modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values (money, possessions, status) over intrinsic ones (sense of purpose, competence, moral/ethical/spiritual conviction), and as a result, mental health issues rise along with growing wealth. (p. 22)

Speaking of the extremely close bonds created by hardship in danger, “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” (p. 94)

The last time United States experienced a significant period of unity was briefly after the terrorist attacks of September 11. There were no rampage shootings for the next two years. The effect was particularly pronounced in New York City, where rates of violent crime, suicide, and psychiatric disturbances dropped immediately in many countries, antisocial behavior is known to decline during wartime. New York suicide rate dropped by about 20% in the six months following the attacks, the murder rate dropped by 40%, and pharmacist saw no increase in the number of first-time patients filling prescriptions for anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication. (p. 115-116)

I agree with Junger’s thesis and much (not all) of his analysis, but – unsurprisingly – he does not give a solution. The only part of Junger’s analysis which I disagree with is that he chalks everything up to human evolution, whereas I, as a Christian, believe that the need for mission is part of God’s design in creating us. That aside, the main idea of the book is absolutely correct – and the Bible has been teaching these things for millennia, AND giving the solution!

In fact, there are so many verses in the Bible which relate to this subject, that I only have space here for a few:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. (1 Timothy 6:9-12)

we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Furthermore, in Christ, we have been given a mission – THE mission – which really matters and is worth living for and dying for and sacrificing for, and all of us are called to play a role in it – no matter what our vocation. It is the only mission which ultimately matters; it is the only mission which will ultimately save the world, and we have full confidence that it will succeed, because we’ve already been told how the story ends…

In order to have joy, you need a mission. Embrace Jesus and get engaged in his mission.

And a final thought: How did Jesus design his mission to be accomplished? Through the church. That’s one of the reasons why church matters… to God, to you, and to the world.

Racism is Not Merely a Matter of Ignorance

We had a great time taking church outside this past Sunday!

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One of the things I heard was that people in the nearby buildings came out and listened to the worship and the sermon from their balconies.

Every Sunday we invite people at White Fields to text or tweet us abut the sermon as a way of interacting. Someone sent this text message in response to this past Sunday’s sermon from the Church Matters series on the topic of the gospel:

Could you please share with me what you said about racism in the sermon today? I had never heard it put that way, and I found it very insightful.

It was during the section where I was talking about what the gospel does, that it gives you a new status before God.

Here’s that text from my notes:

The gospel transforms the way you think about yourself and about other people.
As long as you are still trying to justify yourself, you will always be looking for reasons why you are better than other people. That’s what the first guy in Jesus’ story (Luke 18:9-14) did. He prayed: “Thank you God, that I am not like other people! Thank you that I am better than other people, like this TAX COLLECTOR for example! I’m a much better person than He is!”

That kind of attitude leads to things like racism, prejudice and condescension.

Everyone wants to feel that they have value and worth, and one of the main ways that people try to find value and worth is by looking for ways that they can believe they have an edge up on others — so they can feel better about themselves. What they’re ultimately looking for is justification! And it makes you feel like you have value and worth if you can look at other people and say: I’m better than them!

This is where many people find their identity: in looking at other people and convincing themselves that they are superior for whatever reason.

But when you understand the gospel, you no longer have the need to prove yourself, to justify yourself or try to build an identity or a resume by which to make yourself acceptable. Because the message of the gospel is that God has justified you in Christ, and in Him, He has given you an identity and has accepted you. When you understand that on your own merits, you are completely bankrupt before God, and yet God loves you with a greater love than you could have ever dreamed of — not because you earned it or deserved it, but simply because of who HE is and because HE loves you — and through Jesus, He acted to make you His own, and to transform you into His child!

When you really understand the Gospel, it makes you, on the one hand, incredibly HUMBLE (because you recognize that you aren’t actually any better than anyone else) — and at the same time it makes you incredibly CONFIDENT! (Because you know that you are completely loved and accepted by the one being in the universe whose opinion really matters! Because in Christ, God looks at you and says: You are my child, in whom I am well pleased.

And therefore, the gospel enables you to be incredibly confident — without being the least bit condescending towards others, because you no longer derive your value and worth from being better than other people, but from God’s love for you and the identity He has given you in Christ.

I actually wrote this before the events that took place on Saturday in Charlottesville, VA. I am deeply grieved by what happened there and my heart goes out to the family of Heather Heyer, the woman who died, as well as to the people who were injured and their families.

Here’s the thing we need to understand as Christians: Many people in our culture say that racism is a matter of ignorance. “If people were only less ignorant,” they argue, “then they wouldn’t be racist.” Yet what the Bible teaches is that racism isn’t merely a matter of ignorance, it is a matter of the heart.

We saw this very thing in our recent study of Jonah. Jonah was racist, and he assumed that God shared his views, and he was shocked to find out that God did not. Jonah’s problem was not ignorance; it was a heart issue! He did not share the heart of God, which was love for all people of all nations.

That racism is not merely a matter of ignorance should be clear from the fact that the majority racist movements of the twentieth century (Fascism and Naziism) took place in some of the most highly educated countries in the world. The German Nazis were not ignorant, and yet they were very racist. Racism isn’t merely a matter of ignorance, it’s a matter of the heart.

Racism is a sin which the gospel reveals and heals. Racism, as I said on Sunday, is a means of self-justification. Racism is completely incompatible with Christianity. God loves the world, and so should we. Jesus died to save people of every tribe, tongue and nation and to make them all ONE in Him.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:11)

Why Martin Lloyd-Jones Matters Today

mlj

Recently I have been reading a book about Martin Lloyd-Jones and the influence of his preaching. What I find most interesting is how relevant his approach to preaching is to our day. Here are a excerpts from the book to help you see what I mean:

Martin Lloyd-Jones began his ministry in a time when biblical preaching was considered irrelevant. The common thought of the day was that people are not interested in nor have the ability to handle anything but short “homilies” or “sermonettes”. Churches around the UK were in decline and it was thought that things such as clubs, activities and entertainment were needed to attract people to churches. Martin Lloyd-Jones did not agree with this; he felt that the greatest need in the church was for strong, biblical, doctrinal preaching.

Peter Lewis writes,

“Amidst the spiritual decline in post WWII England, this gifted expositor stood virtually alone in his commitment to biblical preaching.”

Having grown up in church (Calvinist Methodist {I didn’t even know there was such a thing!}), Martin Lloyd-Jones claimed that he was only truly converted at age 25. He later described this turning point in his life:

“For many years I thought I was a Christian, when in fact I was not. It was only later that I came to see that I had no inner Christian, and became one. What I needed was preaching that would convict me of sin, but I never heard this. The preaching we had was always based on the assumption that we were all Christians.”

This experience had a profound impact on the way he preached later on in his ministry; he was always doing the work of an evangelist, because he knew what it was to be in church but not be in Christ.

Martin Lloyd-Jones’ definition of good preaching was: theology coming through a man who is on fire.

Preaching, he believed, was God’s method, the primary means by which scripture is to be made known.

In this way, Lloyd-Jones stood with the Reformers and Puritans who insisted that preaching is the chief means by which the grace of God is administered to the church.

Hughes Olifant Old, one of the foremost experts on the history of preaching, states,

“the greatest impact of Lloyd-Jones on the English-speaking pulpit of today is the recovery of expository preaching.”

The attitudes and trends which characterized the times in which Martin Lloyd-Jones began his ministry seem very similar to those of today. Thus, he stands as an example of a different, and may I say: better way.

Author Steven J. Lawson concludes,

“The hour is upon us for faithful men of God to step into pulpits around the world and preach the Word. The need has never been greater. In a day that clamours for churches to captitulate to the spirit of the age and use entertainment in order to draw crowds, the primacy of biblical preaching must be restored wherever the people of God gather to worship. As it was the need in the time of Lloyd-Jones, so it remains the need today for preachers to herald the Word in the power of the Holy Spirit in order to feed the flock and evangelize.”

See also: Preaching While the Bombs Fell

Preaching While the Bombs Fell

Just a few blocks from Buckingham Palace and a short walk from Big Ben and Westminster Abbey is a building which has been used to influence London and the world greatly.

Westminster Chapel, pastored by G. Campbell Morgan and then by Martin Lloyd-Jones has served as a light to the city of London and to the UK for over 150 years.

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It was G. Campbell Morgan who invited Martin Lloyd-Jones, who had studied to be a medical doctor rather than a minister, to come and serve with him and be his successor at Westminster Chapel.

Lloyd-Jones was from Wales, and had been serving at a small village church there. At the time, doctors were considered the true heroes of society, whereas Christianity was already in steep decline in Britain. To give up a career in medicine to pastor a small church was considered a fools errand by many, but Ll0yd-Jones’ decision to become a pastor rather than work as a medical doctor had been aided by something he had witnessed from one of his mentors as he was studying to be a doctor:

He witnessed a doctor who was at the top of his field, the most respected position in that society, who supposedly “had it all” – and yet he had fallen into despondency, hopelessness and depression because of a failed marriage. Having witnessed this, Lloyd-Jones would later say, helped him to decide that he wanted to help people in a way that went beyond just caring for their physical bodies, he wanted to be a doctor for the soul.

Martin Lloyd-Jones became the pastor of Westminster Chapel in 1939, right before the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. The people of Great Britain knew what was coming: they had seen the aggressiveness of the German military, the how the Luftwaffe had no qualms about bombing highly populated areas. They knew that soon the war would probably come to London, and they were right.

In 1939, Martin Lloyd-Jones preached a series of sermons which prepared his people for the war. He told them that whether the German bombs killed them or not, they should be prepared to stand before God, and he urged them to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ as their hope.

Throughout the war, as people evacuated London, Martin Lloyd-Jones continued to preach to those who gathered at Westminster Chapel. On one occasion, a bomb fell only a few yards from the church during a service, causing the plaster from the roof to fall on the heads of the congregation. When the bomb hit, Lloyd-Jones was praying. He paused for a moment, and then finished his prayer, and went on to preach his entire sermon.

Theologian J.I. Packer sat under Lloyd-Jones’ ministry and called him “the greatest man I ever knew – not just brilliant, but wise.”

Westminster Chapel continues its ministry in its efforts to be “a prophetic voice to London, the UK and the nations.” Their website here.

A documentary was made about Martin Lloyd-Jones’ life and ministry a few years ago called Logic on Fire. Here’s the trailer for it:

Calvary Chapel Ukraine Pastors and Leaders Conference and Calvary Chapel Svitlovodsk

The past few days have flown by in a blur. On Friday Jani and Tünde arrived to Kyiv from Eger and then we headed out the the Calvary Chapel Ukraine Pastors and Leaders conference which was held at a very nice Christian conference center in Irpen, just North-West of Kyiv. There were also pastors in attendance from Belarus and Moldova, almost 40 in total.
Ben Morrison and I taught the conference on the topic of Christocentric preaching, and our focus was on explaining why it's important to preach that way and how to do it. Let's just say, the weekend and the material was nothing short of revolutionary for these pastors, and I can see how God is going to use this approach to shape this movement going forward. It was so good that I plan to make sharing this approach a priority in the US and wherever else I will have the opportunity to do so.
One of the pastors in Ukraine, in the city of Kharkiv, is the nephew of a lady at White Fields, so it was great to connect. Additionally, the pastor who came up from Moldova is an old friend of my wife and I, and it was great to catch up with him and hear what the Lord is doing there.
After the conference, Travis and I drove with Ben and Levi to Svitlovodsk, and this morning I taught at their church service. The people are very open and responsive to the Gospel and I was able to see many of the people I had met on my trip last year.
In the evening we did a men's fellowship at the Banya (Russian sauna) and had a great time.
Tomorrow evening and the following evening Travis and I will be teaching a seminar on Work as Worship, so please pray that goes well.
Here are some photos of the conference and church today:

Me teaching at the CC Ukraine Pastors and Leaders Conference with Victor Fisin translating. Victor is the pastor of Calvary Chapel Kharkov, Ukraine
Ben Morrison teaching at the conference
Teaching the morning at Calvary Chapel Svitlovodsk with Ben translating to Russian
CC Svitlovodsk

 

Worst Sermon Ever

On Saturday night I was struck with a feeling that I have from time to time: that my sermon for Sunday was not good. I was convinced it was one of my worst sermons ever.

As I looked it over I thought: My exegesis and hermeneutics are good, I’m presenting the Gospel and talking about how the Gospel speaks to all of life…  The essential elements were in place, so what was I worried about?

Maybe I was just tired from the long drive back from California, maybe I was just feeling that the final draft wasn’t like the way I originally envisioned the message. But I went to church on Sunday morning asking God more than usual to speak through me, even through this message.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. But here’s the irony: it seems that every time I feel this way, convinced that my sermon – although it has all the right elements – is not my best, God seems to use it in an extra special way.

This Sunday, through this message, I had more than one person respond to my invitation to give their life to Jesus and make a decision for him. Another person told my wife that it was the best sermon I had ever preached. I got several emails and text messages after church about the message from people saying they were encouraged and blessed by it.  Here’s the audio of that message.

On a previous occasion, where I specifically remember telling my wife that my sermon was going to be my worst ever, I preached a message which again someone afterwards told me was my best ever, and now has also become one of my favorite sermons as well. When it recently aired on our radio program on GraceFM, we had several people contact our church asking for copies of it. A newer member of our church ran across that message a week or so ago and shared it on Facebook, and then wrote me that if I preached that message every Sunday, he would come – it was the best sermon he’d ever heard in his life. Here’s the audio of that message.

What should I make of this?

I heard Timothy Keller say once in a lecture to pastors about preaching, that we should always seek to prepare “Good Sermons” – meaning that we should make sure all the essential elements are in there: good exegesis and hermeneutics, good presentation of the Gospel and of Jesus as the answer to all the riddles, that they are “Good”. Our job is to prepare “Good Sermons” – because only God can make a sermon “Great” – and that happens, when the Holy Spirit takes our “Good Sermons” and makes them “Great” in the hearts and minds of our hearers. If we try to make “Great Sermons” we will be trying too hard to do something that only God can do.

When I heard him say that, I agreed in theory that he was right, but more and more I am experiencing the reality myself. God likes to glorify Himself, and it’s less about me that I am inclined to think. Praise God for that.

The Age of Technique

I have been reading Timothy Keller's new book: Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism. Much of the material is familiar to me from lectures I've heard him give, but I am still very much enjoying reading it, and it is presented very well.

Here's one quote from the book which caught my attention:

Our era has been called the “age of technique.” No civilized society has put more emphasis on results, skills, and charisma— or less emphasis on character, reflection, and depth. This is a major reason why so many of the most successful ministers have a moral failure or lapse.

I think he's hit the nail on the head. Oh, that our society as a whole would care more about depth of character than simply pragmatic results – and that especially we who are Christians would be more focused on godly character than we often are.

How to Make a Difference in the World

I love the way John Piper speaks about God.

If there’s one thing you can say for the man – it’s that he is certainly not indifferent about the Gospel or the things of God. I may not always agree with everything he says, but when I hear him speak about God, there is no doubt in my mind that he is a man who loves God.

Here’s some classic John Piper for your listening pleasure:

What Makes for Good Preaching?

What differentiates good preaching from mediocre preaching?

Surely you know it when you hear it, but it can’t be just a subjective thing – there must be some criteria that differentiate good preaching from not-as-good preaching.

I recently heard Timothy Keller differentiate between good preaching and great preaching. He said that “good preaching” is the altar and that “great preaching” is when God brings the fire upon the altar. In other words: preachers shouldn’t strive to preach “great” sermons, but should work to preach “good” sermons – because only God can take a “good” sermon and by the power of the Holy Spirit make it a “great” sermon within the hearer.

So what makes for good preaching?

Here are some thoughts:

  • A good sermon, no matter what text it is preached from, has to preach the Gospel. Just as every town in England has a road which leads from it to London, every text in the Bible has a road from it which leads to Christ. If all the Scriptures ultimately point to Him, a good sermon must preach the Good News of Jesus Christ.
  • Yet, a good sermon must be faithful to the text. It must not manipulate the text to simply be a “proof text” to back up the point that the speaker wants to make; it must be true exegesis, which determines what the author, and God through the author, intended to communicate through that text.
  • Furthermore, good preaching is an art form – it must be informative, it must be touching emotionally, and it must be moving inspirationally.  I heard Timothy Keller say that when you are preaching, people should be taking notes, but when you get to the part of your sermon that is about Jesus, you should seek to portray him as so captivating that people can’t help but stop taking notes when you talk about Him, and when they leave, they should leave wanting to do something because of what they’ve heard.
  • Another friend of mine – and an elder at White Fields Church – put it this way:
    • In our conversation he even put it this way: “A good sermon takes you to a place you’ve never been before, or it takes you to a place that is so intimate that you are emotionally moved”

What do you think?  What are other essential elements of “good” preaching? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.