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The Challenges of Writing a Sermon — And Tips For Sermon Preparation

The Challenges of Writing a Sermon — And Tips For Sermon Preparation Insights into Religion News Lilly Foundation

The abundance of resources available on the Web requires a new level of discipline.  After nearly 30 years in the ministry, the Rev. G. Lee Ramsey Jr. knows writing sermons week after week isn’t easy. It’s not so much writers’ block, he says. The hard part is creating a focused sermon that gives the congregation something to chew on.

“The challenge is not what to include in sermons, it’s what to leave out,” Ramsey says, adding that preachers have only a few minutes to grab the congregation’s attention. “I have an active reading life, keep my eyes open, and try to be alert to what’s going on around me and in the life of the church. All that feeds into the sermon process.”

Ramsey, who writes for Faith & Leadership, and teaches theology and homiletics at Memphis Theological Seminary, says movies, current events and Christian magazines are also good sermon sources.

And the Web, he adds, has become a crucial tool for ministers. Each week he uses the Internet to review Krista Tippet’s On Being, Washington Post’s On Faith and Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. Websites such as reallivepreacher.com, textweek.com, workingpreacher.org, goodpreacher.com and gbod.org are also a wellspring of ideas, Ramsey says.

“I don’t know if it’s a blessing or curse,” he says. “With all this stuff out there so quickly at our fingertips … it can lead to a less disciplined pastor or one that lacks accountability.”

He’s seen pastors take shortcuts using the Web, and even plagiarize entire sermons.

“I think the pluses outweigh the minuses, it just requires more thoughtfulness for a pastor preaching on a regular basis,” he says.

Of course, printed materials such as hymnals and lectionaries are also important instruments for preachers – particularly preachers who need to couple music with their sermon. Twenty years ago, those were the only tools Ramsey had and he says he still finds them useful today.

Some lectionaries, like the African American Lectionary, have made their way to the Web.

The Rev. Martha Simmons, who created the online African American Lectionary, says the free Website provides pastors with commentaries, cultural resources, sermon illustrations, videos and music selections.

The site has drawn millions of visitors since it was created in 2007.

“There are no other resources online or in writing that provide the entire African American faith community sermon aids that are non-denominational,” she says.

The African American Lectionary has more than 4,000 pages of materials and in 2011 will begin offering online seminars.

James Nieman, President of the Lutheran School of Theology and a homiletics professor, says writing a sermon is a spiritual exercise he’s been practicing for more than two decades.

“The church has called you to speak a word to them, that’s why the discipline of engaging in the text should be taken seriously,” he says. “That process is not just sitting in solitude and studying, but also dragging it with you…You carry it with you when you visit people in the hospital, when you’re at the grocery store, when you’re at a council meeting, when you’re reading the newspaper.”

Nieman says doing this helps a pastor internalize the scriptures and create a message that applies directly to the congregation.

Though many preachers follow a lectionary, Nieman says others, including many megachurches pastors, create sermon series.

“People use the series device for a lot of good reasons…It’s like a bible study with commentary. It’s a fairly easy way to preach. You’re totally in control as a preacher walking people through verse-by-verse,” he says.

Nieman adds that research is required whether a minister uses a lectionary or sermon series.

But Ramsey suggests pastors limit how much information they sift through each week, so that their sermons don’t lose focus.

On Thursdays, Ramsey closes his books, logs off of the computer and forces himself to trust the creative process.

“I have to trust the Holy Spirit to guide me in understanding of how best to interpret the Word and scriptures,” he says. “The same thing applies to turning off the Internet. As much inspiration as it provides…it short circuits my own creative process.”

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