Early on in my pastoral ministry career, I found myself discipling five young men eager to learn more about preaching. I learned some valuable lessons that I hope will help you to make the most of your time in sermon prep.
We met early on Tuesday mornings. At first, this meant more work for me. I usually took Mondays off to spend time with family (and lick my wounds from Sunday). This meant on Tuesdays I got up early to prepare what I would teach that morning.
An accidental idea
One Tuesday I arrived at the church office late, forgoing my usual prep time. So, I asked the group if they wanted to learn how to block diagram a passage of Scripture. They agreed, so I took out a whiteboard. I started to diagram, in English, the passage I was planning to preach on Sunday. Before long, we had a working outline of the sermon I was planning to preach.
The purpose of block diagramming is to become familiar with each word in a passage and to get an idea of its structure. We found the exercise so helpful, we started block diagramming at most of our Tuesday morning meetings. Each week we would review the previous week’s sermon and begin working on an outline for the next Sunday’s message.
As we worked together I discovered I was benefitting just as much as they were, if not more. When I pointed out a clause and its position within the text (whether it was a main clause or a subordinate clause), the men asked questions about the passage. Many of the things they brought up I may not have thought of on my own.
Four birds, one stone
So a lot was accomplished in those Tuesday morning meetings. First, discussing God’s Word with all its implications made for a rich time of discipleship and, to my benefit, it required minimal prep work. Second, the group learned some basics of sermon preparation. Furthermore, I gained a greater curiosity for the passage that drove my personal exegetical study throughout the week–their questions drove me to be more inquisitive about the meaning of the text. Finally, I was getting a jump start on my sermon, and it was only Tuesday! It was like killing four birds with one stone.
Balancing your schedule
Prior to this, I wasn’t even close to starting my sermon preparation on Tuesday mornings. Tuesdays were often filled with administrative work in the church office. I taught on Wednesday evenings too, so my Wednesdays were eaten up working on that. Very often I didn’t start working on my Sunday morning sermon until Thursday. Not to mention the Sunday evening sermon I needed to prepare.
So if something else came up like counseling, a conference, or a hospital visit, I would struggle to put in the time I needed for my Sunday sermons. Saturdays were catch-up days–and they were grueling.
After I began discipling the men on Tuesday mornings, there were still some grueling Saturdays. But for the most part, my weeks were much more balanced. Not only that, but I believe my preaching improved as a result of trying to teach other men how to preach.
A word of caution
There are some homiletics professors who would discourage the idea of developing an outline from the English text prior to doing serious exegetical work in the original languages. And I agree that the process could be dangerous. Sometimes the structure of the English text reads differently than the structure of the Greek or Hebrew text.
For example, in Matthew 28:19, the word “go” in English appears to be a verb. One might use the verbs “go” and “make disciples” as the two main points for their sermon if they only diagrammed the passage in English. However, in Greek, it becomes clear that the only verb in Matthew 28:19 is “μαθητεύσατε” which means “make disciples.” The emphasis of the passage is not to “go.” In fact, the word “go” in Matthew 28:19 is actually a passive participle and could be translated “as you are going.” Jesus was not commanding his disciples to “go,” rather He was commanding them to “make disciples” as they were going. Furthermore, the other participles that describe how they were to make disciples are “baptizing” and “teaching.”
Therefore, the danger of working with only the English text is that you could easily find yourself majoring on minor points. But if you keep in mind that English diagramming is only “whiteboard work,” I believe it can be an extremely beneficial part of sermon preparation.
After hearing Sunday’s sermon, the men from our group would often ask why my outline changed from what we laid out on Tuesday. That gave me a great opportunity to talk them through my exegetical study. Often highlighting the weaknesses in our original whiteboard outline.
Don’t be afraid to model your sermon preparation
Some years later, I was asked to teach a homiletics course at a local Bible college. The class of around thirty men met on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I often continued my tradition of “whiteboard work” with these men on Tuesday mornings, block diagraming Sunday’s passage. If you are not afraid to be vulnerable and model your process before others, it can help you to make the most of your time in sermon prep. The benefits for you and for those you are discipling are numerous.
One resource I found to be helpful in teaching about block diagramming is Expository Studying, a free eBook by Joel James. There is one chapter on hermeneutics, but he spends the rest of the book discussing grammar, clauses, phrases, block diagramming, outlining, and developing a propositional statement. There are practice exercises as well.