As a service to our readers, Pittsburgh Seminary continues our sermon writing tips series. This is our second post and we hope you find it helpful. Be sure to look for other tips from faculty, staff, and alums in the months ahead and read our recent post on preaching without notes. Have a tip you’d like to offer or have a sermon issue you’d like help with? Let us know by using the comments option.
The irony is not lost on me that I’m sitting down to write this blog post on sermon writing tips and writer’s block because I’m currently spinning my tires on my actual sermon for this Sunday and I’ve decided the best course of action is to simply avoid it for a while. I’ve done everything I usually do – everything that my homiletics professors and my field education instructor taught me was good practice. I’ve translated the passages ground up from the Hebrew and Greek. I’ve read the commentaries. I’ve thought about it, talked about it, prayed about it. I even came up with a clever title. And here I sit. . . Friday afternoon – late afternoon at that – with about 1200 words of complete drivel. I suppose I should take heart that at least it’s well exegeted drivel with a clever title.
Sermons are elusive like that. Some of them come pouring out onto the page on Tuesday and by Sunday morning are polished and shiny, lovely and poetic, complimented at the narthex door by little old ladies and teenagers alike. “Great story you told, Pastor!” “Reverend, I’ve never understood that passage until today!” “Wow. That really spoke to me.” Other sermons – like the one I’ve just put into time out for a few hours – are a bit more obstinate. They show up on Sunday morning ruffled, dirty, and rough around the edges. Even as I’m delivering these ones on Sunday morning, I’m doing so while subconsciously cringing and thinking of all the edits I should have made.
My sweet, gracious congregation always tells me it was a “Good sermon, Pastor.” even if we all know quite well that it was far from my finest homiletic accomplishment. But every so often, when I have just preached what I’m convinced is a complete stinker, someone will stop me in the hall or come into my office the next day, maybe send me an email, and they will tell me how deeply the message touched them. The only explanation I can come up with for this phenomenon is that God is keeping me humble. “You might think you’re clever, sweet daughter, but remember whose words these really are.” I can just hear God saying, with a kind chuckle.
Before you start thinking that I’m saying we should forget the original languages and ignore the commentaries and just wing it every week, let me state emphatically that I don’t think that at all. In fact, I truly believe that the Holy Spirit works through good planning just as much as the Holy Spirit moves spontaneously. What I’m saying is that the heart of writing sermons, week after week after week, is humility. You can and should plan and read and study. But be prepared for those disciplines to feel empty or fruitless some weeks.
I’ve started to take weeks like this as signs that I’m supposed to do something a little bit different. Maybe more prayer time is just what we need this week. Maybe we’ll take some time to anoint people for healing. Perhaps we’ll lay rocks at the foot of the cross to signify giving Jesus our burdens and sorrows. Whatever it is, it will be a teaching moment for me too. It’s a chance for me to develop my ability to lean on God in the preaching moment. It’s a lesson from the Holy Spirit that I dare not miss or take for granted. I have a feeling that just grunting through this so I have something to say is the wrong approach.
In the spirit of blog posts that are supposed to give some sort of helpful tips about sermon writing, here is my list of sermon writing tips, in the light of my struggles in sermon-land this week:
- Have a rhythm/routine. It’s good to play with the different things that your homiletics teachers taught you in seminary. Figure out what works for you and get into a groove.
- Be prepared for that rhythm to be upset by the Holy Spirit. I find that these upsets tend to happen just when I’m cocky enough to feel comfortable in my sermon writing routine. God leads me (or sometimes drags me kicking and screaming) to try something new and different: a hands on thing, audience participation, a different sermon structure, etc.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. Take the job seriously. Take God seriously. Take Scripture seriously. But you? You’re a mess – just ask Calvin. Be willing to laugh later about how awful that joke you told was. Don’t sweat it if nobody said anything about the sermon this week. When your routine gets bounced around – as I’ve promised it will – roll with it. That stuff is all you and you are just the mouthpiece.
Fun post script: This week’s wacky sermon involving rocks and audience participation was in fact one where it was clear the Holy Spirit was working. Point taken, God.
Charissa Howe graduated with her MDiv from Pittsburgh Seminary in 2014 and is currently working on her ThM. She serves as pastor of Liberty Presbyterian Church in McKeesport, Pa.