A while ago the Lord convicted me that I do a great job at preparing sermons without His help. Sure, I use the Bible as my main source of influence and focus. Sure, I think about the welfare of His people. And of course I create an outline filled with Scripture, some Greek words, and of course, the pastor jokes! However, I did all of this without much prayer (if any), and without humbling myself before the Lord.
You may be a more holy sermon preparer than I am, but if I were to be honest, I was not seeking the Lord. I was just trying to deliver a great message. Yet, isn’t this my main job as a pastor? In Acts 6:4 the apostles went as far to say that they shouldn’t even serve tables because they needed to “devote [themselves] to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” When Moses would receive a word from the Lord and deliver it to his people, he would always “purify himself” and “meet the Lord face to face” first (i.e. Ex. 3:2-6, 19:10-25, 33:11-23). This is actually the norm rather than the exception in Scripture. You purify yourself, meet with God, and then tell His people what He says.
In light of this I made a simple but difficult resolution. Every time I deliver a sermon, I pray for at least 3 hours, specifically about and for the sermon I am preparing—not my own personal time with God or my prayer for the members of The Well. If you are a pastor or you are delivering the Word of God, I would encourage you to do the same. You may have your own form as to how you pray and what you pray, but you need to “prayer prep” before you “sermon prep.” Your tongue is violently wicked and you are held accountable for what you say (Jas. 3:1, 5-8). We do not want to be getting up and saying false or impure things due to not listening to the Lord or humbling ourselves before him.
Since writing this originally a few things have changed that have helped me be more consistent in this, and I have felt lead to pray different things throughout my prep. I hope this helps you prepare for what you are doing for the Lord.
Vertical Prayer Prep (1 Hour Minimum):
Before we tell other people what to do, we need to make sure our heart is right. Just as the priests in the OT would need to purify themselves before offering purification for the people, we need to take a similar approach (Ex. 30:17-21). This process of prayer prep is very simple. There are two things I do during this process:
1.) Confess my sin (Am I right with God? What is hindering our relationship?)
2.) Ask to be in His presence, see His glory, and worship Him for who He is
How much more powerful would our sermons be if during this time, we felt purified and cleansed by the Lord’s forgiveness, and then we were graced with recognizing His presence? Don’t you long for this? I think so many pastors experience burnout because they have lost their relationship with the Lord. It has become vocation rather than heart desire for them. Vertical prep draws us into His presence.
Diagonal Prayer Prep (1 Hour Minimum):
This is now bringing our prep from the “vertical” position (us and God) to the “horizontal” position (us and men), and connecting the two. I pray through and ask very simple questions during this process:
1.) Asking God to give me power in my speech (1 Pet. 4:11)
2.) Asking God to literally speak through me (Acts 6:8-15)
3.) Asking God what He wants His people to hear (We are under-shepherds, not the Chief Shepherd. God loves His people much more than we do, and we need to make sure we are constantly asking for Him to lead them.)
4.) Asking the Spirit to illuminate my eyes to the Word, and prayerfully reading the passages I will be teaching from (not in a “study” or “prep” form—simply praying through the main pieces of Scripture and asking God to highlight things) (Ps. 119:18, 27, 34, 36, etc.)
5.) Asking God to help me understand this passage, and how it highlights the glory of God, the gospel, and the beauty of Christ (2 Tim. 3:16)
6.) Asking God to give me a heart for His people, that I would love them, and want them to deeply know the Lord (1 Sam. 12:23)
After praying through this, I usually spend a significant amount of time “prepping.” This is when I pull out commentaries, listen to other sermons, outline a sermon, etc. I know that everyone’s actual preparation for a sermon is different, so whatever is comfortable to you, do this.
Horizontal Prayer Prep (1 Hour Minimum):
Finally I ask God to really meet with His people and to help me love on and relate to them. Obviously the Lord has a deep desire for His people to know Him (1 Tim. 2:4), so affirming that through prayer is always a great thing. These prayers are the ones I pray after most of my sermon is prepared and ready to be delivered. I ask God for a few things during this time:
1.) Am I saying the right things, the things you would want them to hear?
2.) Please use this to draw everyone who is around closer to you.
3.) Is there anything else you would have me say or have me remove?
4.) Please prepare their hearts to hear, receive, and apply this teaching.
5.) Let your presence be clearly felt in our time of worship today.
6.) Help people to interact with you in new, fresh, real ways.
Prayer is hard work. This is why Paul would urge people to “labor” with and “strive” with him in prayer (Rom. 15:30, Eph. 6:18-20). But everyone would say that they know prayer is powerful, important, and works. So then why don’t we pray when we are doing one of the most important things in preaching the Word of God? I know for me it was sheer laziness and hidden arrogance. I did not want to spend the time it took to pray because it was hard (laziness), and I wanted the glory of looking good on stage and saying cool, good things without taking the time to seek the Lord (arrogance).
Is there arrogance in your heart? Do you want to be on stage for the wrong reason? Do you think other things are more important than people receiving the Word with open hearts and you drawing deeper with the Lord? I hope not. I would encourage you, preacher, spend time “prayer prepping.” I pray that it would change everything about what you say and do from the pulpit! I know it has for me. Remember the simple model of “prayer prepping.”