Church and Leadership:
The Sermon Preparation Revolution
by Ed Vasicek
When I first entered the ministry in 1979, I had been trained to prepare expository sermons as pastors had done for generations. I developed a handwritten outline with illustrations written on topically-numbered index cards. Now my massive card file sits idle with its thousands of illustrations, quotations, and statistics. Like a record player, my file has become an unused vestige from another era.
Some pastors have probably resisted the new technologies, while others, like myself, have jumped in with both feet, while yet others are still testing the waters. I urge readers not to fear technology, but to embrace it, especially when it comes to sermon preparation and delivery.
I compare modern sermon preparation to listening to an old-time radio program over an MP3 player: we are preaching the old vintage story using modern technologies. Let me share my story, one that is typical of the sermon preparation revolution.
Back in the old days, I began sermon preparation with prayer. That hasn't changed! I would pull out some scratch paper and try to develop my main points, leaving big gaps between them so I could later add my subpoints. I would then develop a proposition (theme/central idea), just as I had been taught.
After I filled in the material with subpoints, it was on to the "final copy." That meant time to develop an introduction, neatly align my points, add my illustration numbers (indexed to the cards) and produce a written sermon outline, typically two half-sheets of paper in length. If I decided to make some changes, I would forage in my drawer to locate the Wite-Out. But technology has transformed many of these procedures. Traditional sermon preparation has morphed into a new, but related creature.
I became fluent with word processors over a dozen years ago. (Goodbye, Wite-Out.) More recently, the video projector, CD libraries, and especially high-speed Internet have twined themselves together to form a mighty cable of change! So how does my sermon preparation look now?
Since I take Saturdays off rather than Mondays, I begin my sermon preparation Monday. After prayer and narrowing my text, my first step is to copy and paste the sermon's text on my document. I copy the passage from BibleGateway. Before DSL (or high speed cable service), I used a Bible program on CD; now, rather than hassle with booting up a disk, I click my way to the website. Temporarily pasting the text on my document allows me to see the text as I develop the sermon. When my sermon is completed, I usually remove the text before printing. I may even copy and paste text portions underneath the main points to help keep me on track.
Like vintage sermon preparation, I still must develop my main points. Depending upon the text, I may have to do some research before developing the outline, which I do using the Internet. I subscribe to an inexpensive library that has both classical and contemporary evangelical commentaries, The Bible Centre. I still dust off the books from my own shelves, but many of my best books—and a host of others—are included in the online library. However, most times the outline jumps out at me, but I've been doing this for 27 years!
Then technology strikes again: once I have developed my title, my main idea, my basic outline (main points and first level subpoints), I email a copy of the outline to our video team for PowerPoint preparation, noting the words to be inserted during the presentation by capitalizing them. The next day I develop a corresponding sheet so listeners can "fill in the blank," perhaps also including a few cross-reference Scriptures, thus saving time during the sermon. We insert copies of this sheet into our bulletins.
Not every church has folks with the spiritual gift of "technology geek." But a frequent blessing of high technology is that it often includes members of the body who are quiet or uninvolved in other ways. Some believers glow with joy when seated in front of a laptop!
At this point, I am ready to "layer the sermon." Like an oil painter who cannot leave his work alone, I keep dabbling with my sermon throughout the week. At home, I connect to my office computer and add a thought here or an illustration there. This "layering" has improved my sermons greatly, for the creative juices flow when we are unhurried.
I print off my completed sermon on Friday. Instead of using index cards, I paste my illustrations, quotations, or additional verses within my sermon's text. Because of this, my sermon notes have put on weight. Instead of two half-sheets, I typically scale the pulpit with a five-sheet outline. (Of course, I use 1.5 line spacing so I can easily see my notes and that makes it longer, too.)
Has the technology made a positive difference? Absolutely! With "fill in the blank" sheets, listeners find it easier to pay attention and retain. Projection significantly improves the learning process. With neater and more complete notes, I rarely get tangled up or forget what I meant to say.
Technology is a nuisance to learn, expensive to acquire, and challenges our long-established routines. But the payback is worth it. Technology should never replace the centrality of God's Word; in some circles, unfortunately, it has. To those of us who believe lives are transformed only as minds are renewed in God's Word, technology can bolster our communication of that Word.
It is amazing how the Holy Spirit, coffee, and technology can work together!
Highland Park Church
516 West Sycamore Street
Kokomo, Indiana, USA