The Making Of A Mega Message
By Chris Birke
There’s more to sermon preparation than meets the eyes and ears of most churchgoers. And for one nearly 20,000-member megachurch, Southeast Christian, in Louisville, Ky., getting ready for weekend talks begins long before the weekend.
Each 25-30 minute message there represents several hours of praying, brainstorming, research, creative meetings and critique sessions. It’s a process that’s often riddled with nail-biting deadlines that are downright grueling at times.
Southeast preachers Dave Stone and Kyle Idleman agree that the source of the pressure comes from understanding what’s at stake—people’s eternity.
“Plus, anytime you have the opportunity to teach God’s Word, you want to do your best with it,” Idleman said. “It’s a heavy responsibility.”
The making of sermons at Southeast begins with prayer. It also involves preacher’s sensitivity to the needs of the church. Stone, who is the senior minister, keeps a finger on the pulse of the congregation to help determine what should be taught from the pulpit. While sermon series often are planned months in advance, he remains flexible because changes in direction sometimes are needed.
“I pay attention to comments people make and to letters I receive,” Stone said. “Sometimes a pattern will emerge, and I’ll see that we really need to preach on a particular subject.”
A few sermon series are a given. For instance, every year there is a series on stewardship because, Stone said, “Jesus talked about that issue more than any other.”
The preaching team also does an annual series on family, and typically does one on the life of Christ.
“In the weeks leading up to Easter, we want people to get to know Jesus better as we prepare for that celebration,” Stone said.
The team also strives every year to do at least two “expository” series in which they teach verse by verse through a book of the Bible. At least once every two years Stone and Idleman preach on how to be a Christian in the workplace, on parenting and about proof that the Bible is accurate.
While Stone and Idleman do most of their own research, they receive some help from Preaching Intern Phillip Holland and from Dave Kennedy, Pastoral Care ministry leader. Holland assists by offering insights on key scriptures from Bible commentaries, and Kennedy sometimes researches particular questions, such as: How much did the average man earn back when Jesus walked on the Earth?
But 90 percent of the finished product is from the preacher, which is the way it should be, according to Stone. “The power of preaching is that it’s what God lays on the heart of the preacher,” he said. “Otherwise, I think we miss it.”
A few weeks before a sermon series begins, a creative team of about six brainstorm ideas that support the preaching. The team includes the preaching team, along with Cary Meyer, the church’s director of communications and creative arts, and Brian Sites, worship team leader. It’s in these meetings that video concepts are discussed, and props and scenery are considered. For the recent 10/10/80 series on financial stewardship the creative team decided stickers would be passed out to the congregation to reinforce the message.
Sites said Southeast has a worship staff of about a dozen people who “put hands and feet” to the ideas that come from the creative meeting.
“We leave those meetings with the direction we should go,” he said. “The end goal is to have a cohesive look and feel around the sermon series that supports its message.”
All the while, Stone and Idleman write their sermons up until the week they are delivered. Idleman sometimes begins writing by putting names of people at the top of the first page; the sermon is a letter to them. “I try to keep those people in mind, thinking about what they need to hear as I write,” he said.
On Thursday afternoons, a team meets to critique the sermon for the coming weekend. Rusty Russell, pastor of the Indiana campus, Kevin Russell, multi-site team leader (and no relation to Rusty), Dave Kennedy and the preaching intern pour over the manuscript and make suggestions. The team also helps identify redundancies or deficiencies.
“There’s a paragraph of text I would insert here,” said Rusty during a recent meeting. “Do you want to read it now?”
“No, just e-mail it to me,” Stone replied.
After the session with the team, Stone works on his sermon a few hours on Friday, his day off, and picks it back up late Saturday morning to fine-tune it. By early afternoon, he prints off his “final” version and heads to a local restaurant to give it a final polish. He eats by himself while using a rainbow of highlighters to color code the text. Pink signals a joke, scripture is highlighted in blue and other keywords are noted in orange.
Stone said the highlighting helps him see at a glance if he’s short on scripture or if he needs to add humor. “I like to keep a balance,” he said, “and if I’ve gone through five pages without humor, I’ll know the congregation needs something to keep them listening.”
After leaving the restaurant, Stone reads the 12- to 13-page manuscript aloud.
“There’s no right or wrong way to prepare for a sermon,” Stone said. “God has wired preachers differently, and each of us has to do what works best for us.”
Idleman said that during the creation of a sermon, it’s also important to consider how to imprint the message on the minds of those in the congregation. He recently used an apple pie to illustrate the biblical principles of giving, saving and spending.
“Sometimes there’s a fine line between an illustration that’s memorable and one that’s gimmicky,” he said. “In the end, I ask myself, ‘Does this illustration add to the message or detract from it?'”
During the delivery of a sermon, Stone said he knows he’s struck a chord with the congregation when there’s silence. “In a sanctuary of thousands, you know the Holy Spirit is at work when there is complete silence,” he said. “It’s in those moments that I know God is speaking to people and that they are listening. That’s as good as it gets.”
No matter how much Stone and Idleman give of themselves to create a sermon, they both realize there always is room for improvement, so feedback is a part of the process. A tradition of critiquing sermons after they’ve been delivered goes back to the days of Bob Russell, who retired as senior minister in 2006.
After the sermon is preached for the first time on Saturday night, the one who didn’t preach calls the one who did and makes suggestions. “Dave has created an environment in which feedback is appreciated and expected,” said Idleman, who notes that most critiques contain positive comments and constructive criticism.
After a Saturday night, it’s more typical than not that the sermon is tweaked. “The changes usually aren’t significant but there typically are changes,” Idleman said.
Besides getting feedback from each other, Idleman and Stone both watch video of themselves preaching, an experience they both call “painful.”
“I hate it,” Idleman said. “I see every little mistake.” But, they say, watching the footage is valuable.
One of the things Stone watches for is “the flow” of the message. “We strive to have moments that are touching, challenging and convicting, along with times of humor,” he said. “I look for a balance to ensure that I’m engaging the congregation’s intellect and emotions.”
A final critique of the entire weekend worship service takes place on Monday mornings in a meeting with staff from both preaching and worship. “For me, the feedback has been extremely valuable,” Idleman said. “When we seek to improve the delivery of a sermon, I believe we’re holding God’s Word in high esteem.”
Seven Best Sermon Help Sites On The Web
Save this list to your favorites file on your web browser and you’ll never be without a clue come sermon preparation time. Especially in the weeks preceding a holiday or special weekend, the panic of going blank can hit even the best of preachers. Church Central has researched the best sermon helps on the Web for church leaders:
1. Sermon Search – Salem Web Network provides 17,000 sermons by well-known pastors and speakers for reading and downloading. Sermons go for $3.50 each or $22 to $40 per month for subscriptions. Contributors also receive royalties for each download of their work.
2. Preaching Today Sermons – For $5 you can click over to this Christianity Today International Web site and find more well-known speakers hocking their words. This site also offers tips on using other people’s sermons with proper credit.
3. Sermon Writer – For Lectionary preaching this site offers a $50/year subscription email with Scripture, exegesis, sermons, illustrations, jokes, quotes and songs. This site follows the Revised Common Lectionary.
4. Sermon Spice – More than 8,000 videos available for sermon illustrations and worship backgrounds are available here. These short clips range in price from free to $20 each. An easily searchable selection with free previews makes this site a winner.
5. Sermon Central – This site boasts the largest collection of messages (140,000 free sermons, illustrations, dramas and Powerpoints), the most contributors (6,000), and the most users (4.5 million worldwide). As a part of Outreach Inc., this site offers free resources rated by users and searchable by multiple ways and with coordinating media.
6. Sermons – More famous preacher’s sermons are available with subscription from this searchable database of messages, illustrations, eulogies, PowerPoints, biblical archaeology, children’s sermons and more. Yearly rates range from $65 to $100.
7. Preaching – Another great resource site from Salem Publishing, this site was first a magazine by the same name. Free sermons, articles, illustrations, show this site is still focused primarily on the written word—but the quality of the texts offered proves this focus worthy of a look. The site also offers a few free video, audio and podcast sermons. The print magazine subscription is $40.
This article “Seven Best Sermon Help Sites On The Web” by Chris Birke is excerpted from Church Central web site: www.churchcentral.com June 2008.