Guarding Against the Saturday Night Scramble
By Warren D. Bullock
Every minister knows about the Saturday night scramble: Tomorrow’s Sunday, and you’re not prepared to preach. The spiritual cupboard is bare. No ideas. Little creativity. Even less inspiration. No message.
Your library is crammed with lexicons, commentaries, and source books. Bible study software is as near as your computer, but on Saturday night you are convinced there is not a sermon to be found in any of these tools. You are probably right. Even the best tools rarely help in the tardy formation of a word from the Lord.
Obviously the preacher must discover and develop other tools, which will be employed long before Saturday night. Such tools do not solve the problem of procrastination, but when used on an ongoing basis they will guard against scrambling for sermons and provide a strong foundation for building the preaching calendar.
Preparation By Induction
Inductive Bible study is time-consuming, hard work. If you have waited until Saturday night to do it, you are in trouble. But if you have consistently studied the biblical text, examined the context, reviewed its historical and cultural setting, outlined the thought structure, and completed key word studies, you have begun to form the bases for many messages.
The topical sermon is often easier to construct than the expository message. It does not offer the constraints of keeping to the text of Scripture but allows development of an idea in a form that is less limiting than adherence to what the text itself suggests. The core idea should be biblical and supported by a variety of key verses of Scripture. Certainly, preachers must be more creative in presentation since they do not have the benefit of using the creativity of Scripture verse by verse.
However, continued reliance on topical preaching may result in a ministry that has become biblically barren. It does not “feed the church of God” (Acts 20:28), nor is it a well-balanced diet that would cause the flock to become spiritually healthy. Because it lacks continuity, the preacher must start new each week, which in turn contributes to the Saturday night scramble.
Inductive Bible study, on the other hand, allows the text to speak for itself. Preachers dare not impose their presuppositions on the Scriptures but must submit to the clear meaning of the text. They do not seek to use Scripture to prove their own ideas or pet theories but allow the Word to deliver its own message. Sermons taken directly from the text are filled with nourishing spiritual food that brings satisfaction to the hungry hearer.
Adherence to the text allows the minister to deal with subject matter which could be offensive if it were addressed topically. For instance, a message from 1 Corinthians 7:3,4 on the topic of “rendering due benevolence” may be so pointed as to be inappropriate but could be treated with dignity and reverence in the wider, general context of this passage on marital fidelity.
The minister who uses the inductive method of Bible study will uncover a limitless supply of spiritual food for the congregation. In the process the weekly preparation for Sunday ministry becomes less stressful and more joyful.
Presentation With Imagination
Translating the results of our study into interesting and relevant sermons is a challenge. Brilliant scholars do not always make great preachers because they do not package truth so that people want to listen. The pastor who speaks to the same congregation week after week must guard against monotony. Creativity and variety are essential.
That the Holy Spirit is infinitely creative can be readily seen in the Scripture itself, but the Spirit can also stir the preacher’s imagination to new and unique presentations of God’s Word. In addition, we can check the imagination level by asking questions such as these:
Is my sermon title intriguing? Does it match the sermon?
Do I tend to use the same approach in introducing the message? Do I always start with an illustration? Do I discuss the historical aspects of the text too much? Does my first sentence arrest my people’s attention?
Do my main points come from the text? Are they presented in a creative way? Will people be able to remember them? Are they adequately illustrated for understanding?
Am I clear in what response is expected from the people? Have I thought through my conclusion so as to elicit response?
Is my heart preparation such that the Spirit can speak to me while I am preaching? Am I willing to move beyond my sermon notes, as prompted by the Spirit, to make creative application to the needs of those present?
Preachers dare not be boring. We have the most important, exciting, life-changing message to declare. It cries out for a presentation that awakens hearers, fires their souls, and prompts their response.
Practical Application Through Illustration
Biblical truth and practical human need meet in application. If that truth is presented only in terms of Hebrew/Greek analysis, cultural perspectives, or theological minutiae, the people in the pew are left feeling that the Bible has no answers for what they are presently experiencing. The preacher must constantly ask himself, “Am I answering questions no one is asking? Am I offering irrelevant platitudes? Am I failing to help the person in great need?” The right illustration at key points in the message can help the preacher to answer “No” to these questions.
Illustrations reveal to hearers how a biblical principle works. Seeing and knowing how that principle works allows the listener to make it relevant to life. Illustrations may come from the Scripture, the morning’s newspaper, an international event, or the preacher’s own experience. Daily life offers a wide menu of illustrative material. But always it must link a principle of Scripture to the life of the listener.
Illustrations provide an added benefit. They spice the sermon with interest and variety. The illustration may be remembered long after the sermon is forgotten. With that remembrance the Holy Spirit can make application of the illustrated principle long after the message is delivered.
Persuasion in the Invitation
The preacher’s final goal is that the listener would not only know but act. A positive response is expected. Faith anticipates the people hearing the Word will also be doers of that Word (James 1:22). Pentecostal preaching in particular has the altar call as the practical culmination of the preached Word.
When sermon preparation first begins, the desired response must be in view. The thesis statement will often reflect that response, and the development of the message will maintain focus on it. The conclusion will lead to an immediate response via the altar call. The entire message will point toward living the Christian life in harmony with that which has been preached.
Persuasive preaching should not be confused with the conviction of the Holy Spirit. It is not the preacher’s task to convict but faithfully to preach the Word. Spirit-anointed preaching links the Word and the Spirit to “convict…of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8, NIV). When the preacher tries to convict, condemnation is usually the result. When the Spirit convicts, the believer and unbeliever both are required to come to grips with the demands of the Word. Even if the initial response is negative, the seed of the Word has been planted and will eventually bear positive fruit.
The preacher must be especially careful not to allow the personal desire or need for a response to push the power of persuasion into manipulation. Experienced pulpiteers have learned it is possible to elicit audience response and to control the crowd’s emotions through methods that are less than spiritual. Internal expectations or the expectations of others may steer them into using such methods. But in doing so they erode their own integrity, encourage counterfeit response, deny the power of the Spirit and the Word, and devalue the altar call.
However, such specious methods are unnecessary. The Holy Spirit can be trusted to help the preacher give a persuasive, effective altar call and to create the desired response in the heart of the hearer. Then the altar call will result in “fruit that will last” (John 15:16, NIV).
Computer technology has allowed the minister to tap into an unlimited array of tools for sermon preparation. Resources for preaching are almost numberless, but the primary tools discussed above remain the same. The enhancement of these tools through technological advances is important. Yet the preacher—sharpened and empowered by the Spirit—will always be one of God’s finest tools.
Warren D. Bullock is pastor, Northwest Family Church of the Assemblies of God, Auburn, Washington.