I write out my sermons in full. I never take the manuscript with me into the pulpit, but I find this to be a good way of organizing my thoughts, making sure that I say everything clearly and concisely. The process of writing the sermon is the most time-consuming thing I do all week. Often it’s exciting; the words are flowing from my mind to my keyboard, and I can’t wait until Sunday to preach it. Unfortunately, there are other times. Those are the days I sit, staring at the computer screen, waiting for the words to come. An hour passes, and to my disgust I see that I have only written a single paragraph (and I’ve already highlighted that paragraph, my finger poised over the “delete” button). I’m in the awful grip of sermon-block. If writers have writer’s block, then we preachers have sermon block.
Most of you are not full-time preachers (although if you are one, I hope this post is useful to you). But many of you teach Bible studies. Others will occasionally fill-in for your regular teacher. Still others might occasionally be asked to offer a devotional at the ladies’ retreat or deacons’ meeting, or to “write a little something” for the church newsletter. In those situations, you want to offer the people something valuable, something that draws them closer to God. So, rather than simply winging it, you put some thought and preparation into what you will say. Bravo! But all the good intentions in the world won’t stop the dreaded sermon-block. When it hits—and it will—here are some things that have helped me get “un-stuck.”
Pray. I know, DUH. But it still needs to be said. When you feel lost, ask God for help. Just say what you are feeling: “Lord, I know that Romans 12:2 tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. But how can I explain that truth in a way that will bless people and not bore them? Show me what they need to hear.” While you’re at it, pray for peace in your own heart. Remember, God won’t love you any more if you knock this baby out of the park, and He won’t love you any less if you put everyone to sleep.
Say it in a sentence. Actually, I have found that I need to take these first two steps every time I start preparing a message, not just after sermon block has hit. Here’s what I mean by “say it in a sentence.” As you look at your passage, ask yourself, “What is the central truth that God is expressing through the biblical writer here?” For example, in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4, the Lord says a lot of very memorable things, but the central truth He was expressing to her was that He was the Messiah they had been looking for, the answer to their prayers and the water of life that would quench her spiritual thirst. Take that central truth and see how you can express it in a way that applies to the people you’ll be speaking to. For instance, you might say it this way: “We all think we’re thirsty for different things, but in reality, we’re all thirsty for Jesus.” Make it short enough to put into a twitter post (140 characters or less). Then expand out from that. What thoughts does that sentence provoke in you? What stories or analogies can you use to illustrate it? (Example: a housewife buying soda at the grocery store, wishing everyone liked the same kind so she could buy one 2 liter bottle instead of five different six packs…Jesus is the only drink that satisfies everyone) What questions might it raise in people’s minds? (Does this mean all my other desires are wrong? How do I get this water of life?)
Talk it over with a friend. Sit down with a friend and read him or her your passage and your thoughts on it so far. Something your friend says in response might spark a new thought and jump-start your creative process. Or if not, at least you’ll have another person praying for you!
Google it. Just type your Scripture reference into your search engine, and you’ll be flooded with sermons and Bible studies from all over. Reading how other people have handled this verse is much like talking it over with a friend; it can get your mind headed in a new direction, helping you get un-stuck. But a few disclaimers on this one: First, don’t steal. If you DO decide to use what you find on the internet, don’t claim it as your own. Tell them, “A lot of what I will share with you today comes from a devotional I read on Max Lucado’s website.” Second, be careful. There’s a lot of great stuff on the ‘net, and there’s some nutty stuff, too. If what you are reading says stuff about the Bible that you’ve never heard before, it’s probably because it ain’t true. Third, don’t get distracted. You can spend so much time reading other people’s thoughts, you never get back to preparing your message. Browse for a few minutes, then get back to work.
Approach it from a different angle. Sometimes when I’m stuck, I think of specific people who I expect to be there when I preach. How are they likely to respond to the truth of this message? How can I say it in a way that will be meaningful for them? Another tried and true method is to approach the whole thing in the way a skeptic would. If I’m preaching on Jesus as the way, the truth and the life, I might structure my whole message around the objections a skeptic might have, and what the Bible has to say to those objections.
Walk away from it (for a while). Occasionally, I know I am getting nowhere in my sermon writing. Continuing to sit in front of the computer is just a waste of time. So I will move on to something else, promising that I will come back to the sermon tomorrow (this is one of many reasons why it’s best to start preparing days in advance). Often, I will get a breakthrough while I am doing something completely unrelated: Driving, mowing my lawn, working out. Perhaps the increased blood to my brain from physical activity is what makes the difference. Who knows? I just know there comes a time to set your message aside and do something else. Try to leave your mind blank—don’t put on the earbuds—and just see what happens.
Keep it simple. Sometimes I realize that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. The biblical truth is clear and simple, and in trying to be witty and profound, I’m making it more complicated than it has to be. God’s Word won’t return to Him void. As long as we are faithful to express it in a clear, unadulterated way, we’ve done something beautiful. So start with three questions: 1) “What?” What does the passage mean? 2) “So what?” What difference does this make in real life? 3) “Now what?” What are some specific things we need to do in response to this truth? Answer those three questions, and you’ve done your job.