Tim Keller Answers: How Much Prep Time for a Sermon?

The following is an email correspondence between Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, and David George Moore. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org

Dear Tim,

I have read several of your books and benefited greatly from each one.  I am also grateful for your willingness to do the Patheos/Jesus Creed interview with me.  Hyperbole and lack of nuance (not two things many associate with you) can be taken literally when the person communicating is well regarded.  I’m afraid that may be the case with the following.  In several places I have seen various iterations of your remarks when it comes to young preachers.  Here is one such example:

I don’t believe you should spend a lot of time preparing your sermon, when you’re a younger minister. I think because we are so desperately want our sermon to be good, that when you’re younger you spend way too much time preparing. And, you know, its scary to say this to the younger ministers… you’re not going to be much better by putting in twenty hours on that sermon–the only way you’re going to be a better preacher is if you preach often. For the first 200 sermons, no matter what you do, your first 200 sermons are going to be terrible. (laughter from the crowd). And, if you put in…fifteen or twenty hours in the sermon you probably won’t preach that many sermons because you won’t last in ministry, because your people will feel neglected.

Similar to Gladwell’s now contested “10,000 hours of practice,” many seem to take the 200 sermons in the most wooden of ways.  I get the point that it may take some five years of preaching to “find one’s voice,” but surely there is a wide variation of gifts and maturity that make the number 200 arbitrary, aren’t there?

Personally, I have heard young preachers whose maturity coupled with a genuine unction of the Spirit made it evident that “they found their voice.”  Conversely, I sadly report hearing some minsters who long ago crossed 200 sermons and still seem in search of their voice.

Sincerely in Christ,
Dave

Hi Dave—

Certainly we can’t take 200 in a wooden way. Of course there are variations. By the way, I doubt I’ve used the number “200″ more than once or twice in off hand remarks.

You are right in drawing out the broader principle. If you preach regularly, say 40-50 times a year, including Sunday preaching and other speaking at weddings, funerals, and conferences, then, yes, I’d say it takes at least three years of full-time preaching before you get even close to being as mature and skillful a preacher as you are capable of becoming.

There are basically three things that go into the “maturing” process: a) the actual preparation of the message, b) life experience—of your own heart, of pastoral work, of prayer, c) practice.

I’d say that younger preachers a) don’t have enough life experience, and b) don’t preach often enough to be growing in preaching as they should. They tend to put all the emphasis on long hours of academic prep.  It would be better if instead of 20 hrs of prep they did 5-6 hrs of prep and spent the rest of the time out involved in people’s lives, and then simply preached and spoke more often.  That is the balance that is needed. And then give it 3-5 years to come up to whatever level God has gifted you.

And, yes, I have heard some young preachers with pretty good spiritual maturity for their age and God’s anointing–be quite good.  Yet compare the sermons of the young Spurgeon (who was a teenage preaching phenom) with the old Spurgeon. The older Spurgeon sermons are far richer, wiser, better.

Tim

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.