Three Preaching Hacks I Learned from Writing My New Book

A few weeks ago I turned in the manuscript for my next book, The Gospel People Don’t Want to Hear: Preaching Challenging Messages (Working Preacher Books, anticipated Spring 2020). While I’m pleased with this first draft, it was much harder to write than I anticipated. What I learned from writing it are at least three hacks that apply to preaching.

How Not to Lose Sleep Over a Sermon—Literally

Writing a sermon, like writing a book, needs dedicated, uninterrupted time.

We need to immerse ourselves in Scripture and commentaries, sort our thoughts, find the message, and put it all together. That kind of deep reflection requires the right time and place to “get off the planet” so we can jump on the Holy Spirit’s train of thought.

The only time I could get on that train was early in the morning. For a year, I got up early to give the book at least a couple of hours of focus. The focus worked—when I was awake enough to make use of it.

I was often so tired because I didn’t get enough sleep that I couldn’t take good advantage of the quiet time. I knew I needed to go to bed earlier, but couldn’t figure out how to adjust my evening schedule to make that happen.

The upshot? I literally lost sleep over writing the book. I got through it but have vowed that my third book is a nonstarter until I can create a healthy, sustainable schedule to give it—and my long-suffering family—my best.

Preaching Hack #1: Quit Train Hopping

That meaningful, soul-filling preaching requires our full attention for extended periods of time isn’t an inherent flaw of the preaching discipline.

The inherent flaw is believing preaching as a discipline can accommodate more than a handful of our additional commitments.

If you’re always behind in your preaching prep, it can frantically feel as if you’re running on the train tracks trying to catch the caboose of the Holy Spirit’s train.

If you’re losing sleep over preaching, accept what preaching is and what it requires. Preaching at our best requires us to quit train hopping. It requires a willingness and vulnerability to walk away from Grand Central Station with so many train choices and so many commitments and so many places to go—and so many ways to feel so important because we’re so busy—to a podunk town with only one train a day.

When that one train comes, get on it. Stay on it.

Divest yourself of at least one of your commitments and devote that time instead to your preaching.

Expect the Unexpected

One reason this book was so much harder to write than anticipated was because it took a major, unexpected turn. I thought I knew what this book would be about and it was all based on material I’d been working on for a long time. I didn’t need to conduct more research or think new thoughts. Just put it all together! Easy-peasy!

But then…one subsection of one chapter kept annoying me, like a train whistle that wouldn’t stop.

So I gave that subsection a more prominent place in the chapter. I thought that would be enough to satisfy it, but the whistle just blew louder.

So I gave it its own chapter. Nuh-uh. Still not good enough. Louder still!

So I gave it the entire book. That annoying whistle? It was the Holy Spirit getting my attention that I had gotten on the wrong train.

Preaching Hack #2: Be Prepared to Board a Different Train

This happens often enough when we start to write a sermon.

We get our flash of inspiration, we think we know where the sermon is headed, we get going on it, and then…? It leads to a dead end. We’re not “feeling” the message. We’re bored by it. We can’t make it come together. It feels like we’re trying to force square pegs through round holes.

Let me repeat: this happens often enough to so many preachers that you’d think we’d know better by now. No matter where we start out or where we think we’re headed, the Holy Spirit may tell us to get on a different train. If we haven’t planned for that possibility by allowing extra time—just in case—then it can be stressful to start over and put it together in a hurry.

The solution? Add a couple of extra hours to your anticipated sermon prep schedule. If it happens, as it most often does, that the Holy Spirit conducts your first train of thought uneventfully all the way to its destination, and those extra couple of hours you added are suddenly available? Is there a problem here?

Can’t Find Your “Voice?” You May Be on the Wrong Track.

As I said, my original book proposal felt like it would be an easy ride.

The train of thought I first boarded was pretty nice—cushy seats, beautiful scenery out the windows, and great coffee served. It was so lovely it was easy to assume the Holy Spirit was the conductor.

Nope. Turns out I was. I had selected the train I wanted to control. Wrong train indeed.

The train the Holy Spirit was conducting? Hard seat benches, stark terrain—but at least there was still great coffee (since I was the one who brewed it!).

I didn’t like the train’s discomfort. I didn’t like the route. I knew the destination was fabulous, and the Holy Spirit was driving this train so I knew it was all good—great, even. I just didn’t like how I had to get there.

And the book’s initial drafts sounded like it. My words reflected the distance I felt, my annoyance, and a bit of fear. I wrote academically, dryly.

Truth be told? I was so bored when I read the first drafts, I was panicking to think of turning that draft in to the publisher in a mere eight weeks.

I couldn’t find my voice. I, who coach preachers year in and year out about how to preach authentically, had taken on a different persona. I had put on a mask. It wasn’t a mask I wanted—it was stifling!—but I couldn’t find the trick to peeling it off and chucking it off the train.

Preaching Hack #3: Surrender

I was stifling myself because I was wishing I was on the other train.

I wanted the cushy seats. I wanted the beautiful view. I wanted a quick, easy book. I didn’t want the bench I had, the view I saw, the discomfort I felt.

In short, no matter how wonderful the destination was, I didn’t want to pay the ticket price. I had to let go of fantasy thinking and see the reality: the Holy Spirit had chosen the one and only train, with its one and only route possible, and this was the only train available.

I gave in. I bought the ticket.

When I did, I wrote. Like me. With my voice.

Eight weeks out to submit the manuscript and I rewrote the entire thing in a flurry of understanding and sharp clarity—and turned it in a week early.

If you’re looking for your voice in a sermon, the first place I suggest you look is in the mirror: what’s that mask you’ve put on to keep the Gospel, the truth, at a distance? What persona does the mask reveal?

In my case, it was Ferris Buehler’s teacher taking attendance to see if I was in the room (“Lisa? Lisa? Lisa Cressman?”). Until I wanted to be there, I wasn’t.

If you can’t find your voice, ask whose voice you’ve adopted and whose mask you’re wearing. Pay the price of vulnerability to stand in front of the mirror. Take off the mask to see only yourself.

This is what we do at Sermon Camp.

You’ll learn to divest yourself of some of your commitments so you can devote your best self to preaching.

You’ll learn to pad in extra time so you have breathing space to accommodate the unexpected.

And you’ll learn how to identify your masks and surrender to the Gospel, so you can better access your voice—no matter where it takes you.

Held online so you can participate from anywhere.

Runs August 5th to September 20th, 2019

Early bird discount available through Weds, 7/24.