New Book Urges Pastors to Avoid Making Sermon Preparation Solo Act

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

Calvin College Chaplain 235 Calvin College chaplain Rev. Mary Hulst’s book advises pastors to receive sermon pointers from their congregation.Every minister who puzzles over ideas for his or her next sermon shares a common trait: They want their congregations to grasp a nugget of biblical insight that will help them understand God on some deeper level.

And those listening to the sermons will affirm that doesn't always happen.

Rev. Mary S. Hulst's new book, "A Little Handbook for Preachers: Ten Practical Ways to a Better Sermon by Sunday" (InterVarsity Press, 191 pages) intends to bridge that gap so pastors' sermons can spiritually resonate with their parishioners.

Feedback is vital

"When you don't get feedback on Sunday year after year, you think, 'I must be doing fine because nobody is telling me otherwise,'" said Hulst. "Maybe you are, but maybe you're not."

It starts, but isn't limited to, involving members of the church before the preacher stands at the pulpit on the Sabbath, as well as ministers avoiding a tendency to populate their sermons about themselves.

"I say preaching is a team sport," said Hulst, a chaplain at Calvin College since 2009 whose ministerial experiences qualify her to write about how to hone a successful sermon, and define what a successful sermon entails.

Before coming to Calvin College, Hulst spent eight years as the senior pastor at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids before leaving to pursue a doctorate in communication ethics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She also holds a bachelor's degree in classical studies from Calvin College and a master of divinity from Calvin Theological Seminary.

Hulst taught for one year in the Communications Arts and Sciences Department at Calvin College and then for two years at Calvin Theological Seminary as assistant professor of preaching, where she still teaches on occasion.

Shouldn't be solo act

Too often ministers think of sermon preparation as a solo act, according to Hulst.

"We need to create more conversations about preaching rather than just assuming it's up to our employee (pastor) to do as he or she sees fit," she said. "We're trained in seminary about homiletics (art of preaching) and exegesis (interpreting Scripture) and lay people are thinking: Is it interesting? Is it funny? Was it short? And so there's a lack of communication."

What works, what doesn't?

Hulst's salient advice includes pastors working with their congregations in preparing sermons.

"What I encourage is baby steps," said Hulst. "They can be as small as doing a brown bag and Bible on a Tuesday where the pastor sits with six or eight people from the congregation and says, 'This is what I'm preaching on Sunday, tell me what you think?' Then you have six or eight people who are much more invested on Sunday than they were before."

The point of having a handful of church members serve as a focus group is to help ministers personalize their sermons, while still keeping it biblical.

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"Suddenly the congregation realizes this is about us, this is for us," said Hulst. "You want the sermon to be contextual, which is for this congregation on this Sunday. So if there's a baptism, work it into the sermon. If the youth group is back from a mission trip, work it into the sermon. Make it so it would be really hard to take the sermon and preach it somewhere else because it's for these people in this congregation on this Sunday."

She doesn't recommend a minister's spouse critiquing a sermon.

"Your spouse can offer a lot but that's a lot to put on a marriage when you've got other dynamics," said Hulst. "It's best to have somebody who's more objective. I think spouses can play that role, but I wouldn't require it."

Use props, images

Another effective means of preaching is using props and images to support a sermon's theme because people remember better the intended message when they recall something visual.

"It has to be something that draws people in," said Hulst. "We get attached pretty quickly to an image. If you have one image, people will remember that sermon."

Hulst recommends pastors video recording themselves preaching to review their public-speaking habits, or ask for honest feedback from a reliable source.

"Watch yourself on video and ask yourself what do you notice?" said Hulst. "If you don't notice anything, ask your youth group. My students (at Calvin College) can imitate me like nobody's business. If I have a delivery tick, somebody will tell me."

It's vital to include all ages in sermons, too.

"A lot of times we preach to ourselves," said Hulst. "Discussing the problems of middle age people with older children doesn't apply to everybody in your congregation. Are you talking to the singles? Are you talking to the widows? Are you talking to the young parents who are sleep deprived and worried about their marriage because they haven't connected in a long time?

"What about the people who are on the edge or retirement and they're scared because of finances and time and they haven't had to spend this much time together since they were newlyweds? I have some exercises (in the book) on how to walk through your congregation, how to walk through the age groups, the demographics."

A common roadblock

A universal hurdle to writing a good sermon is lack of time to think, pray and prepare.

"One of the roadblocks to good preaching is a lack of dedicated time," said Hulst. "I've got a few hours here, a few hours there, and that doesn't lead to good rhythm. My congregation knew Friday was my sermon (preparation) day. That way they can be prayerful, too. They wake up in the morning and know this is the day my pastor is writing his or her sermon; I will remember that person today. That helps a lot."

What makes for a good sermon?

"A good sermon is biblical which sounds obvious but there are a lot of topical sermons, which I call Christian speeches," said Hulst. "It's got to take a biblical text and open it so that the people sitting in the pews can actually understand God better than when they walked in. A lot of our sermons are about what you can do better as a human being. As someone who believes strongly in grace, I really can't do much for myself to move my salvation forward.

"Then it's not about, 'What are my people suppose to be doing? What am I suppose to be doing?' It's about what is God up to in this passage? That the God who acted in Scripture is the same God who acts in our lives."

Practical book

"This is a really practical book," Hulst said of her book. "If I'm a preacher and I've got 15 minutes I can read one of these chapters and think, 'There are some things I could use that would strengthen my preaching ministry.'"
Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
Author: Paul R. KopenkoskeyWebsite:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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