Reviewing Your Sermon
I want to give you the best ministry advice I have to offer. And that is reviewing your sermon. Reviewing your sermon affirms what is working, tweaks what is broken and ultimately makes the sermon more engaging. So obviously a sermon review applies to preachers. But you might be watching as a communicator or creative in the church and thinking, I’m not a preacher, this doesn’t apply to me. That is not true. A sermon reviews effects and benefits everyone in the church. It benefits the guests because they have a better experience. But it also benefits the volunteers and staff because they get a weekend. And a weekend helps everyone avoid burnout.
I’ve worked in single site and multisite churches for over 15 years. I’ve seen a lot of things worked. And I’ve seen a lot of things that didn’t work. One of the things that I’ve seen wildly work is the sermon review. That is why I consider it the best advice I have to offer to people in ministry. Now this concept isn’t new, but I’ve seen it incredibly refined at Liquid Church. Pastor Tim Lucas at Liquid has been doing this for over a decade. So I don’t take any credit in coming up with this great idea. I’m just here to communicate it. During this video I’ll describe what, why, and how. What a sermon review is, why to do one and how to do one.
Over the years I’ve heard a lot of reasons why a preacher shouldn’t or couldn’t do a sermon review. And some of those reasons came from myself. At the end, I will bring up those counter arguments and counter them. Let’s jump in and talk about what a sermon review is.
Review On Thursday - The best day to review is Thursday. It is late enough in the week that you should be able to get all the assets - your manuscript, slides, videos and props - ready to practice with. It is also not so late in the week, like a Friday or Saturday, that you don’t have time to make needed corrections. Now your Thursdays might be swamped and you’re thinking its not gonna happen. I understand that. So let me say this. Thursday is a great day. But Wednesday or Friday are still good days. So don’t let a particular day hold you back. A good day is better than no day. Now if you can’t do Wednesday, Thursday or Fridays, let me ask you this, who is leading your church? It is probably you. So led. Make the needed change in your schedule and the work week of your organization and review your message.
Review With Everything - Try to practice with as much as possible. Your manuscript - what you will say. Your slides and videos - what you will show. Your props - what you will hold. Your blocking - where you will move. Your tech - how it all works. Practice with it all. This allows you to identify any gaps in content. If I told a personal story about playing football in high school, maybe we should have a picture of that. If I showed a testimony video that ends with 10 seconds of black, maybe we should edit that out. If I lead people through communion at the end, maybe we should have the elements on stage as I do that. Practice with everything because it will identify any gaps in content.
Feedback On Everything - You want to hear feedback from a panel on every aspect of the message. Every aspect. Here are some of the questions you should be asking. Was that cultural reference a little dated? Was that joke a little sexist? Was that illustration a little played out. Was that political reference a little divisive? Was that application a little weak? Was that theology a little heretical? Was that message a little long? You want to make sure the feedback is as exhaustive as possible. This will ensure your sermon is as great as possible.
The Sermon Is The Main Thing - I polled over 30 growing churches to learn how they allocate their service time. I polled from growing churches because I want my church to be a growing church. I want to learn their best practices and apply it in my setting. On average these churches allocate their service time with 10, 40 and 50. 10% to hosting. 40% to worship. And 50% of the service is dedicated to the sermon. I’m not gonna discuss whether or not a sermon is the best way to spend half of our services - that’s another talk. Let’s just acknowledge that growing churches spend half of their service time on the sermon. The sermon is the main thing. Since the sermon is such a priority in our churches, it should receive a degree of review.
It Makes Future Messages Better - The sermon review not only makes an individual message better, it also makes future messages better. You can apply review from your current message to your next message. If the review panel keeps telling me I have too many points each week, then maybe I should have less points next week. I’m sure you’ve heard about the benefits of compound interest for your finances. How it builds upon itself. Well a review system is compound learning for your sermons. What you hear and learn one week doesn’t just apply to that week. It applies to future weeks as well.
Go The Extra Mile - Most preachers take 10-20 hours each week to prepare their sermon. The review process should only take you 90 minutes. 45 minutes to preach and 45 minutes to review. So let’s go the extra mile and create room for these 90 minutes in our work weeks to do the review. Right now most preachers only hear feedback after the sermon has been preached, “good job pastor”. Most preachers don’t get input before the message, “you did a good job but here is how you can do a great job”. Feedback after a message makes the preacher FEEL better. Input before the message makes the preacher PREACH better. So go the extra mile. Do a review.
It Becomes A Leadership Pipeline - Think about how much knowledge and experience pastors and preachers have. Now think of what it would do if they invited a panel to review them. Think of how much knowledge and experience would naturally be observed by those on the panel. These people would see behind the curtain. They would get a better understanding of how a message is prepared. How to take the spiritual pulse of a congregation and how to respond to it through a sermon. They would see what vulnerability and humility looks like up close. The review process can become a leadership pipeline for new and aspiring communicators as they watch and learn.
Gives You A Weekend - A review gives you a degree of accountability since your panel is expecting you will have the sermon ready by the end of the work week. Not by the end of the weekend. This forced rhythm is a huge benefit that cannot be overstated. It gives you a weekend. And your weekend gives you professional and personal margins. Professionally you will be launching instead of limping into Sunday. Personally you will have the needed time to invest in yourself and those around you. Having a weekend fills your tanks, strengthens your marriage and develops your children. It allows you to put your family before your church. My pastor Tim Lucas who taught me these principles has a deal with his wife. He can work as late as he needs to on Thursday night to finish polishing his message after the review. But when she wakes up at 6 on Friday morning, he better be in bed beside her. The church gets him during the week. But she gets him on the weekend. Getting a weekend helps you avoid burnout, saves your marriage from divorce and helps your kids from rejecting Jesus.
Gives Your Team A Weekend - Your team can’t have a weekend if you don’t have a weekend. And conversely, if you have a weekend, your team can as well. Since your message involves other moving parts, the sooner you get your work done, the sooner others can get their work done. This means your worship leader won’t be picking out a response song on Saturday morning. That your graphic designer won’t be selecting fonts on Saturday afternoon. That your videographer won’t be editing a video on Saturday night. As pastors and preachers, we need to remember that our message is the first domino to fall. And there are a bunch of subsequent dominos lined up waiting behind it. Giving your team a weekend helps them avoid burnout, stay committed to their work in the church and more importantly, stay committed to their faith in Christ.
Review With Trusted Advisers - Proverbs talks about wisdom being found in the counsel of many. So you need a panel of trusted advisers. I have seen 3-4 work well. Any less and there are not enough perspectives. Any more and the process takes too long. Now I say “trusted advisers” because you need people that have your best interest at heart. You need to trust they aren’t their to skewer you. This isn’t American Idol. You do not want any Simon Cowell’s on the panel. These are people that lovingly tell the truth. They are people that exhibit Proverbs 27:6 “Faithful are the wounds of a friend”. In other words, you are not looking for a panel of yes men and women. You are looking for people to speak truthfully into your message.
Review With A Diversity Of Advisers - You want people that bring different perspectives to the table. So get a diversity of advisers. Someone to watch how you look. Were you smiling enough? Someone to watch what you said. Did you deliver the line better than how your wrote the line? Someone to watch what you wrote. Are the slides spelt correctly, are there any typos? Someone to watch for structure and flow. Did you have the right content, but just maybe in the wrong order? Someone to watch for time. If you are looking to preach for 45 minutes, do you have someone timing the sermon? Someone to watch for believers and unbelievers. Do you have content that applies to both groups of people? As much diversity - age, gender, ethnicity, religious background - you can get on the panel of advisors, the better.
Start With An Overview Then Go Page By Page - Starting with an overview from the panel lets the preacher know how the message landed. They can quickly get a sense of what worked and what didn’t. This overview should be less than a minute and generally positive. Starting with an overview also let’s the preacher catch their breath and mentally change gears. It can be difficult preaching content for 45 minutes and then jumping right into nitty and gritty details. After the overview go page by page. The panel should have been writing notes down on their copy of the manuscripts during the message. They can now bring up these notes as you go through page by page.
It’s Not A Democracy - The review process is not a democracy. It’s a benevolent dictatorship. And the preacher is the dictator. The panel isn’t voting where to take the message. Instead they are simply presenting their feedback. The preacher then decides to take or leave the feedback. So not only does the preacher need to have thick skin for this to work, the panel needs to have thick skin as well. Some of their feedback will be implemented. And some will not. The panel needs to be ok with that for the process to work. If not, then a preacher starts to make decisions based on how to appease members of the panel instead of how to engage members of the congregation. Not a good place to be at.
So we’ve talked about what a review is, why to do it and how to do it. You’ve heard my arguments for a review, but some of you might have arguments against it. You might be thinking, I don’t have time to do a review. Or, this review process will eliminate promptings from the Holy Spirit. Or, there aren’t others I trust enough to invite onto a panel. I hear these tensions you bring up, but let’s explore how these tensions can be overcome.
I Don’t Have Time - Here’s the deal, you are gonna do the same amount of message prep each week, I’m just saying do it earlier in the week. When pastors say, “I don’t have time for a review” what I hear is, “I don’t know how to manage my time for a review”. And this problem is totally understandable. But it is also totally surmountable. Here’s the solution. Instead of front loading your work week with meetings and back loading it with message prep, just reserve it. Message prep on Mondays and Tuesdays and meetings on Wednesdays and Thursdays. If you do this, you will find that extra 90 minutes for the message review.
It Isn’t Spirit Driven - There is a misnomer out there, that the Spirit can only work at the last minute. That pastors can only received revelation for Sunday morning on Saturday night. But if God was able to layout his plan of redemption in eternity past, don’t you think He could help guide you to write a message a couple days early? The Spirit wants to equip you for Sunday. Trust Him. Start your message prep earlier in the week. Also realize that preparation does not eradicate the possibility of spontaneity. It doesn’t erase your ability to respond to the Spirit on Sunday morning. Instead it supports it. You can’t be confident in taking a detour unless you know destination. You can’t be confident to go off script unless you first have a script. Preparation gives you the confidence and freedom to go where you feel you need to in the moment.
I Can’t Trust Others - Now I never really hear pastors saying this. But this is what I infer from their actions. There is sometimes a lack of vulnerability and even humility that keeps pastors from opening themselves up to a review process. And I understand. It takes vulnerability to have people pick apart your work. But here’s the deal. People are already picking apart your work. Your whole congregation does it as they drive home from church. If you allow a select few to shred your message in front of your face, it will minimize the amount of people shredding it behind your back.
So that was the what, why, and how on sermon reviews. I hope you found the info helpful. It is the best ministry advice I have to offer. Now let me flip the script and ask you, what is the best ministry advice you have to offer? Think it through and share it with others. This is how we grow as a church. It is also how we grow as individuals. When you share your ideas and learnings with others, it crystallizes your thinking and sharpens your practice. So take the plunge, write a blog, post on Facebook, open up your car window and holler at strangers. Share your best ministry advice with the world. We need to hear from you to make ourselves better. So do it.