The Waste & Redundancy of Sermon Prep

Right about now, some 300,000 preachers are preparing 300,000 different sermons for church services around the country. Stop and think about that for a moment. Does this make sense?

I have three questions:
1. Does the country possess 300,000 excellent writers who are capable of writing 52 outstanding scripts every year? (That’s over 15 million new literary pieces per year.)
2. Are the 300,000 congregations so different that they require a customized sermon that is entirely different from every other congregation?
3. If we started over today with a network of churches from coast to coast, would we deem it necessary to craft a different sermon for all 300,000 locations every week?

Imagine if the movie business operated in a similar fashion. What if every local movie theater felt the need to write and produce its own original films every week? Does every neighborhood possess excellent screenwriters capable of turning out 52 great scripts per year?

Sometimes people say, “But only our preacher knows how to preach to the unique needs of our congregation.” Would that type of we-are-totally-unique thinking also hold true for your community’s tastes for movies, books, television and thousands of other products?

Every week 300,000 preachers spend an average of 20 hours per week preparing original manuscripts. What if we found a more efficient use for those 6 million hours of labor per week? What if most of those preachers used the scripts of gifted writers, and redeployed their 6 million hours to direct face-to-face ministry? Imagine how God might use those reclaimed hours to touch lives.

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19 Responses to “The Waste & Redundancy of Sermon Prep”

  1. Hi Thom!
    Good points, but one big problem is that each of those 300,000 preachers has a different idea about what his or her congregation needs to hear. And delivery can be a big problem. The greatest sermon written by the greatest writer would fall flat without a good delivery. Now if you’re talking about showing videos of Andy Stanley or Craig Groeschel in every church, that might work!

  2. Thom,
    I agree with you on one point: I don’t think that all those pastors (that’s actually the term that should be used) are preachers. For gifted preachers I don’t think this is a waste of time at all. But far too many pastors aren’t willing to admit that they aren’t good at communicating and are, quite frankly, lousy at preaching. I see where you are going with this, and I do think that there might be some benefit for churches with pastors who can’t really preach very well to have resources to use to become better or to have a sermon that is coherent and interesting. The downside is that I think that unless someone is extraordinarily gifted at reading sermons in such a way that they are still engaging, it shouldn’t be done. Show me a church where the pastor reads his or her sermon every Sunday and I will show you a church that is probably declining if not already dead.

  3. Are you nuts? If a pastor can’t minister to his congregation on a regular basis, he is not a pastor. And quite frankly, that’s a big part of the problem. Too many wanna be’s who aren’t actually called. Everyone has a purpose in the kingdom of God, but all are not pastors. We don’t need canned sermons, churches are dead enough already. We need committed ministers who’s passion is serving God as HE directs. Try a real church and you’ll see what I mean.

  4. Interesting thought. 20hrs a week does seem like a lot of time. I don’t spend anywhere near that!
    Thoughts I have on this are:
    1. I don’t think you can deliver something which ministers to people’s heart and spirit unless it comes from your own heart, and
    2. Your words may not be effective and carry authority. Although you can use someone else’s sermon you can’t use their authority!

    We can listen to other teaching and draw on it though. But to properly prepare and adapt an existing sermon I think takes more time not less.

    What about the pastor recognising a preaching gift in others and releasing them to preach? Good pastor doesn’t equal gifted preacher always and that’s OK. Anointing and fresh bread from God I feel are key in church life.
    Blessings to you all as we unite to advance the kingdom together.. despite our different opinions.

  5. I couldn’t imagine not spending that time thinking through, pondering, studying, and chewing on the text for my own personal growth, not to mention the growth of the congregation. The church used to be filled with thinkers, ponderers, those who spent long hours pouring the text and praying over their flock. Today, we want it fast and easy, let us slow down, take time to draw it all in, and maybe God might use it. Let us not liken the church to a movie theater, let us liken it to a feast filled with all kinds of delicacies and aromas. Although I like McDonalds when I need a quick bite for a dollar, I will take time over the stove preparing a feast, especially if I know the King is coming over for dinner. Blessings.

  6. I think Thom has something here to consider. I think his point is not that we shouldn’t be meeting our people’s needs, but how we can spend our time more efficiently in ministry. I for one do not spend that much time on sermon prep and I am willing to borrow stories and information from better speakers. As a result, my associates and I are able to spend more time in the trenches. I am able to develop relationships beyond the church community, and ultimately spend time in more refreshing activities alone, with family, or with friends.
    Let’s keep it simple. I for one would consider this venue, but I would probably prefer the ability to select from multiple options rather than be locked in to one message. Likewise, I would like to insert my own personal stories within the body of the sermon.

  7. With all respect Thom, I don’t think you understand the nature and dynamic of preaching and the unique power of the preached word. The neglect of the preached word today is one of the greatest reasons for the dreadful state of the church of our day.

  8. I have thought about this myself. There’s nothing new under the sun. Nothing is truly original. The New Testament has been around almost 2000 years now. If I do say something that hasn’t already been said about a passage, chances are I am saying something incorrect.

    My concern is who controls the message, if not the pastor? If there were some new alternative to sermon prep hours and individualized sermons, who would serve as the gatekeeper?

    I think the post raises valid questions. I don’t think a full-blown sermon for all 300,000 churches is the answer. I think pooling resources for study, illustrations, and outlines makes a lot of sense.

  9. Thom,

    Thank you for your excellent blog. I do think we should reconsider the emphasis that today’s church culture places on preaching. Our teaching needs to be like that of Jesus – by example. I do think that churches have many similarities and many uniquenesses. Just like we have many businesses with many different managers those managers need to act accordingly to their people and tasks. Those that are in church leadership positions are called to be stewards, shepherds, and servants. We must be better followers not more flashy presenters. Effective leading must come from a passion that is from the Holy Spirit, not just a 30-minute instant sermon. Who ever determined that we need a sermon once a week anyway. Sometimes we may just be rambling because we like to hear ourselves talk. And, I may be guilty of typing this response just because I feel like it as well. It may or may not be needed.

    Thanks for taking the time to read this posting.

  10. I like Chris’ response! I should mention that a year ago, my congregation and I did a survey of our ministry together. Of the 30-40 or so people who filled out the questionnaire, it was unanimous: they all hated my preaching. I spent about 20 hours a week researching and writing those things, and NO ONE liked them. The week after getting this feedback, I completely changed my preaching style. I think they are getting more out of the sermon now. However, there are (sadly) other problems in our life together. My point is this: they would not have minded my sermon style if the relationship was sound. They would not have minded if they felt they were being fed in other ways. Although I will not shoulder all of the responsibility for our relationship as pastor and congregation, I feel fortunate that they have wanted to work on it together, and that we have made some progress this year. Was it enough? God knows. A new survey is being conducted even as I write this. So we’ll see.

  11. Thom – Your thoughts evoke a couple of responses. First, I find that the intensive time I spend in sermon preparation each week feeds me in ways that keep me enthusiastic about my entire ministry and grow me as a theologian. The payoff is far greater than just the sermon itself. Second,I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit gives me the message for my congregation each week. I certainly have to dig it out, but the effort almost always takes me places I wouldn’t have known I was going at the start of the process. I don’t resent the time it takes, and feel I’ve short-changed myself and my flock if I can’t give it as much time in a given week as it takes.

  12. Thom, I see it as 300,000 different message from God. We are there to give the flock the words which God has laid on our heart to deliver. I do not care for pastors who preach a canned sermon. Many time I will script out a message when only days before delivery God wakes me up and has me toss it out and prepare His message that he wants. I have even seen this done right from the pulpit when a pastor closes his notes, sits on his stool and literally shares from his heart what God is telling him to share. Very authentic and heart felt. That’s the message I want to hear. Fast forward and I am now seeing micro-churches opening being lead by internet web-feeds from a mega church web-casting live to 2-10 churches at a time. Is that wrong or real? Not my call. It works for them I guess.

  13. I think many of us educated in the art of preaching would be threatened by this. It reminds me of when I was a new pastor and I had a meeting with another pastor from a larger church in the area. He asked me where I got my material for my sermons. I wasn’t sure what he was asking so I just blurted out ìFrom the Bible? He laughed and said, ìYeah but what websites? You know they have great sermons already out there. And then he started naming sites. I personally like wrestling with the text because then it feels more authentic during worship I do get your point, though. The movie theater analogy really hit me. Still thinking

  14. Thom,
    Thank you for posting this. I am a youth pastor in a small community and we average 90+ youth a week in our service. I don’t have enough time in my life let alone one week to be able to Shepard and prepare messages. I have been using other peoples messages for over a year and God has been moving in our lives like never before. I make sure and pick series that deals with issues my students are facing and pray that God will reveal Himself to us through out the different messages. My average prep time before using other messages was around 8-10hrs a week, now I spend around 2-3hrs a week on message prep and have been able to add more hours in the schools, meeting with parents and training my adult sponsors. And that to me is the way it was intended. No one cares what I know or what I preach until they know that I care for them personally. Thanks again.

  15. So, you’re equating preaching to Hollywood movies? You’ve really missed the boat on this one. If the intent is entertaining a crowd, then we probably don’t do it well. But you miss the mark in this simple fact: when you assume that every neighborhood needs to have excellent screenwriters who turn out 52 great scripts per year you neglect that we have the Holy Spirit who has the power to do even more than that.

  16. Love this post, but differ with your conclusions/application.

    One viewpoint that hasn’t been raised so far in the comments: let’s take a look at the ìmileage we’re getting from these twenty hours. Part of my twenty hours is hanging out with and chopping it up with unbelievers, pre-believers and church-dropouts. Actually having them interact with what I’m saying is part of my time spent.

    Another point: I’ve changed my preparation technique that draws on years of preaching experience and that reduces the stress and ìplannerly part of sermon prep and maximizes my engagement in prayer and listening to God speak in His Word.

    Finally, whatever approach a pastor takes on his sermon preparation, the fundamental call is to speak God’s truth to a specific congregation as a shepherd feeding his flock, giving them both the yeses of God and the nos, the easy truths, and the hard, not withholding anything but night and day proclaiming the full counsel of God.

    That proclamation can have its seed-birth in another man’s heart but each pastor must lead his own church family in his own voice: my sheep hear my voice has implications for under shepherds, too, I think.

    PS pastors who plagiarize have a whole nother problem.

  17. You are missing the whole point of what a sermon is about. If a sermon is just a message from one person, the pastor, to no one in particular, then we should just find the best preacher in the world and videotape him or her preaching and present that every Sunday. But a sermon is communication between God, the pastor, and a particular local body of Christ. What would we miss if we had the best preacher in the world preaching a sermon on video? Context, context, context. God has a particular message to deliver every Sunday to every local body of believers. It may be similar to the message that He is delivering to other churches on that same Sunday. But it won’t be exactly the same. That is why the Pastor has to seek to find the message that God wants to speak to us both as a Pastor and to his or her congregation.
    Secondly, the best preacher in the world would not have the same respect that a local pastor should have with his or her congregation. Why? Because that speaker, no matter how good, has no relationship with those to whom he or she is ministering. I guess this is the case in a lot of the mega-churches. I don’t know how these mega-church pastors can develop a real pastoral relationship with any but a few of their congregation. But for the vast majority of pastors, they can develop a pastoral relationship with the people of their church.
    When I speak to the church, they listen, I hope, because they know that I love them.
    Thirdly, preaching is still the primary way in which people come to know Jesus as Savior. It’s easy to disregard a talking head. It’s a lot harder to disregard the message, when it is coming from the person who greeted you at the door and is going to speak with you after the service, and who will be there when you need his or her support.


  18. Nicely done Thom. What ever happened to the priesthood of all believers? The constant, monotonous week after week of a sermon presentation without the chance to expand on the ideas and make them applicable leaves something to be desired.

    A number of the comments above use the age old axiom that each pastor tailor makes each discourse for the congregants of his particular church. The question I have is if the Pastor does NOT take this suggestion to build community and relationship with the people of the church how can he really know how to form this message in a fashion best suited to their needs?

  19. According to this post, I suspect that Acts 6:4 in your Bible must read “But we will NOT devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

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