How do preachers, particularly megachurch pastors, prepare for sermons every week? Where do they get their ideas? Do they ever get nervous? And how do they deal with both criticism and praise?
Those are some of the questions that a group of well-known pastors responded to during a webcast Thursday that was designed to help pastors across the country preach better sermons.
According to Casey Graham, founder of PreachingRocket.com, which led the event, 90 percent of unchurched people choose a church based on the pastor or preaching. And 92 percent of people return to a church because of a sermon.
With that, the preachbettersermons.com event was launched to provide insights into the way some of the country's most influential pastors do what they do and to provide a community in the lonely world of preparing and preaching sermons.
Ideas and Sermon Preparation
NewSpring Church Pastor Perry Noble advised the thousands of pastors watching online to begin with the Word of God and not a VH1 video or popular song.
"Let the text, the Bible drive the sermon. Don't say I saw a video on VH1 and I want to establish a sermon around that," the South Carolina megachurch pastor exhorted. "The Word of God has to be where it starts. I'm so passionate about that."
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Noble, whose church is getting ready to launch its eighth campus, said nearly every idea that he has preached on for the past five years came out of his quiet time. He made it clear, however, that his quiet time with the Lord is not sermon prep time.
"But while I'm reading the Bible to try my best to hear the voice of God, if something pops in my mind, I write it down," he explained.
"A preacher preaches best when he preaches out of the overflow of his heart. I really want to try my best to communicate that idea that God set my heart on fire with."
Already, he has enough thoughts written down that he can create sermons for the next year and a half, he said.
For Charles Stanley, who has been preaching for 55 years, his ideas come from asking "What's the need of the people who are going to be listening?"
The veteran pastor, whose sermons are broadcast around the world through In Touch Ministries, developed a little saying that some, including his son Andy Stanley, cite: "Until a preacher has as burden for the message, he's not ready to preach."
"I realized I needed to have on my shoulder – spiritually – the weight of what God has in mind. What does He want to accomplish in this message? ... I'm preaching for an impact, not to impress anybody but just impact. I want to see their life change," he explained.
Essentially, the feeling a pastor should have is: "I must preach this message, I have to preach it, I can't wait to preach it," he described.
While Stanley typically begins preparing for his sermon a week ahead and makes sure that is the only thing on his mind between Saturday and Sunday, Noble likes to plan much farther ahead – by several months.
With his sermons consisting not only of preaching but also of videos, illustrations and other elements, Noble likes to give his Creative Team time to prepare.
"One of the things I've discovered about preaching is ... preaching is relatively easy if all I've got to do is read a text and apply it. But today ... there's so many creative elements around it," he said during the "Preach Better Sermons" webcast.
"We all serve each other. The way I serve our Creative Team, Worship Team, and Video Team, is try my best to plan as far ahead as possible ... Then everybody can give their best effort possible. They don't serve me, we serve each other."
Andy Stanley, lead pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., also chooses to prepare his sermons more than a week in advance.
"I can't live that way," he said of last-minute preparations.
Do Megachurch Pastors Get Nervous?
When it comes to getting up in front of thousands of people on a large stage every week, Stanley of North Point doesn't believe nerves should be in play.
"When a preacher or teacher is nervous, it's all about them," he stated. "I can't be concerned about me ... and be concerned about them. I'm going to walk out there concerned about that group ... or about me. [It] can't be both."
"If you're nervous ... you're really not ready," he stressed.
Rather than evaluating success based on how well the congregation applies what is preached, the pastor who is concerned and nervous ends up basing success on how well he or she did, Stanley noted.
"Don't get up there so you can feel like you did a good job ... don't just cover the material," he advised. "Walk out there with that person in mind."
That person may be a teen who's giving church a try one last time or (for Stanley) a middle-aged man who was dragged to church by his wife.
"Make sure it's about them and not about you," he exhorted.
The elder Stanley, Charles, also said he never gets nervous on Sunday morning. Rather, he's more excited to preach what God wants him to say.
Dealing With Criticism
Citing Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll, Noble said pastors have many foes, fans and then very few friends.
"He said you've got people that think you're worse than you really are, [those who think] you're better than you really are, and some people who will tell you the truth."
Noble chooses not to listen to the "foes."
He also doesn't listen to the "fans" – who will always tell the pastor "great job."
Instead, he listens to friends – who love Jesus first, the church second and the pastor third.
"They're willing to speak the truth to you so ... ultimately it'll edify the church," he noted.
Other speakers featured in the webcast included Louie Giglio of the Passion movement, Judd Wilhite of Central Christian Church in Las Vegas, Dan Cathy, president and COO of Chick-fil-A, and Pastor Vanable H. Moody II of The Worship Center Christian Church in Birmingham, Ala.