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You Never Finish a Sermon

While driving in our SUV on a Saturday morning, my wife asked, “How’s your sermon coming along?” I was set to preach the next Lord’s Day. “It’s about 95% done,” I said, although I spent a better part of 10 hours or so working on it. In truth, 95% done means . . . I’m completely done — because I never finish a sermon.

You never finish a sermon

When R.C. Sproul spoke about total depravity, he distinguished it from “utter” depravity. Total depravity means sin hurts the entirety of the individual. But as bad as this is, it could be worse. We are sinful but not as sinful as we could be: there is always more evil that can be done. Similarly, when I say “you never finish a sermon,” I’m not saying preachers cannot preach a prepared sermon on Sunday morning. Instead, what I’m saying is that your sermons are never as prepared as they could be. There is always more sermon preparation that could be done.

If there is always more sermon prep that can be done, should you do it? No.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about why some people make it big and others don’t. Gladwell says talent, GPA, and good test scores only go so far. You need these things to be successful. You can’t get into Harvard with a 2.5. But after you get a 3.8, your grades don’t matter much. The difference between a 3.9 GPA and a 3.95 GPA is obsolete. Instead of trying to be the absolute best at everything you do, according to Gladwell, there is a certain “threshold” (that’s the keyword) that needs to be met. After you meet the threshold, your success or failure will be determined by other factors, most of which you cannot control, such as genetics, personal upbringing, where you live, who you know, etc.

This same concept, I think, can be applied to sermon prep. After you reach a certain threshold (only you can determine what your threshold is and if you have met it), your sermon is done. That’s it. It’s over. Stop looking at it. If you absolutely must work on it some more, spend more time in prayer and content consumption, but put the laptop away. Tweaking a paragraph or two in your sermon after you have reached your threshold will not make your sermon noticeably better.

Not for a second am I saying that preachers should cut corners while crafting sermons. Preaching is the most important job responsibility for the pastor. The man who regularly preaches unprepared sermons is likely not fit for ministry. But there is a real danger in turning writing the perfect sermon into an idol, especially if you are motivated by fear of man rather than love for God.

Perfectionism seems spiritual, but it’s actually a form of self-absorption. In his book, Reset, for example, David Murray tells about one of his former students who battled perfectionism with his sermons: “A fellow seminarian of mine wouldn’t spend less than thirty hours on a sermon, polishing and polishing it until it was ‘perfect.’” Murray continues, “Not surprisingly, he burned out and left the ministry within a year” (49).

Once I was speaking with a respectable New Testament scholar about his forthcoming commentary on an Epistle. I asked him when the commentary would be done. He said that a commentary is never done. He just gets to the point where, after years of study and writing, he submits it to the publisher to meet a looming deadline, despite living within the nagging feeling of knowing more could have been done to write a better commentary.

This is a similar experience that preachers feel. There comes a point during the sermon prep process, usually on Thursday afternoon or Saturday morning, where the preacher says, “I’m done. I’m tired of looking at this. I can honestly say I have not cut corners in the prep, and what I have is enough. I read voraciously, prayed often, look at the original languages, developed a sold structure, lived in the text, and put meat on my structure. And now I’m done. I’m going to preach the best I know how, knowing my efforts will feel weak and pitiful, but I will trust God with the results.”

We never preach perfectly penned sermons. We, instead, as Dan Doriani says, preach sermons in a mild state of panic. Being overly prepared, particularly being unusually concerned about every word on your manuscript, usually leads to stale, boring sermons. Your extra effort can backfire. More effort doesn’t always lead to better results. Having a heart full of content and prayer is better than perfecting your notes.

So, preacher, be encouraged. There will never be a time in your ministry where you will finish writing a sermon because there is always more work that can be done. We work until we meet our threshold. After we do, we try not to think about the sermon on Saturday while spending time with family. We rise early on Sunday for prayer, Bible reading, and one more glance. We drive to church, and before we step into the pulpit, we submit our offering to the Lord, asking Him to bless what we have more than we could ever on our own, sort of like the boy who gave Jesus five barley loaves and two pieces of fish.

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