Peace if possible. Truth at all costs. ~ Martin Luther

The Preacher and Writer’s Block

writers blockI’ve been in the trenches as a lead pastor for over 20 years now.  Over that period I’ve preached 2 to 3 times each week to the congregations I’ve served, plus some other engagements I’ve been invited to from time to time, plus weddings and funerals. That means that, based on an average of 150 speaking occasions each year, I estimate I’ve preached somewhere in the region of 3000 times. A Sunday morning manuscript alone will typically be 12 pages long, or 3000 words.

If you think about it, teaching pastors write more words in any given year than many professional writers do. They have more public speaking engagements than most politicians.

Someone asked me recently, “Do you ever get writer’s block?”

My answer? Only about once a week!

Preachers get two kinds of “block”. “Text selection block” and plain ol’ “writer’s block”.

Text Selection Block

This is the paralysis that sets in when you can’t decide what to preach about next. The hunt for that text that “bites”, or as Spurgeon put it, “… a verse gives your mind a hearty grip, from which you cannot release yourself”  (“Lectures to My Students”, p.85)  That hunt can be long and the prey illusive at times.

There’s two things I’ve learned about this from bitter experience:

1. The task of deciding on a text to preach becomes infinitely harder the more you try to “look for a sermon”.

My counsel to younger preachers is to stop reading the Bible to find “message fodder”. Instead, just read your Bible to allow it to speak to you. Forget about “Sunday’s coming”, and just read to feed your own soul and for the sheer love of God’s Word. When you’re not looking for a sermon outline, they will jump out at you from everywhere.

2. The best way to circumvent the whole problem of text selection block is to preach systematically through books or portions of Scripture.

If I’m preaching verse by verse through Romans, for instance, I avoid the whole problem of having to select a text at all. Monday morning I’ll hit my desk and just start preparing from the place that I left off preaching the day before. There’s still lots of work to be done, and decisions to be made within that preparation, but at least I’m past that awful point of selection paralysis.

Then there’s that more general block.

Plain ‘ol Writer’s Block

I know what I’m going to be preaching on. I’ve studied the passage up and down. I just can’t seem to get started with writing the actual flow of the message.

Like most preachers, I compile material for a message over days (even longer in some situations), but I’m a firm believer in the advice Andrew Blackwood gave his students about writing the final sermon flow in one sitting. As he said, “… pour out the message from beginning to end, preferably without rising from the chair.” (“The Preparation of Sermons”,  p.190)

The sermon, however long it may be, should be a single unit of thought, not a conglomeration of loosely associated ideas. It has a flow, a rhythm. It will be delivered in one session, so it should be prepared that way.

This is where the preacher can find himself “blocked”. Most often it happens right out of the gate. The first paragraph is inevitably the hardest to write.

So how do you bust out of the block? I’ve found there’s only one way. Start writing.

You can always come back and rewrite bits to improve it, but you have to get the flow of thought going.

  1. Put down as many major points as you have on the page in front of you, even if they don’t seem completely coherent yet.
  2. Start making notes under each point.
  3. When something begins to really grab you, write everything that you can about it.

As you do this – as you “just start writing” – there’ll come a moment when you suddenly realize (with great relief), “I’m not blocked anymore.” In fact, the flow can begin moving so quickly that you feel you can’t get the words down on the page quickly enough; you’re afraid you’ll forget some of the ideas flying at you.

What have you done? You’ve written yourself out of writer’s block. After a while you’ll know that you can do this quite reliably, and the fear of block will go away.

One final tip, while we’re talking about the nitty-gritty practicalities of writing messages for public speaking. Although I personally type all my messages on a laptop, and take a printed copy into the pulpit with me, NEVERTHELESS my first sermon draft is usually written with a smooth flowing pen on a yellow legal pad. Handwritten from beginning to end. I type it out later.

Why? Because the act of hand-eye co-ordination that occurs when a person writes with a pen is unique. It’s not the same as typing. Forming the shape of the letters, the words and the sentences with a pen lodges them in the memory. I become familiar with the message in a way that I don’t otherwise.