Perhaps one of the most important things anyone who preaches regularly to a group can do is construct a sermon plan. In fact, I think it is imperative. Too often we haphazardly choose a text weekly that we think is important, but we don't see the full scope of need in the congregation.
Pastors often will preach to issues that are not really problems in their congregation if they don't follow some plan. For example, in some denominational traditions legalism is seen as a problem. So using a one size fits all mentality, the preacher simply assumes that her or his church has this problem and preaches against legalism. However, even in the most legalistic denominations, one can still find churches where that is not a problem. What would we say about a physician who simply assumed that you had cancer and started giving you chemotherapy without any verification that it was a problem? You would call that doctor a quack or worse. Some of us are guilty of the same problem in the pulpit.
Now how do you go about putting together a plan? There are basically three steps.
Step 1: Determine Where the People Are
Here you need to understand what the people in your congregation are experiencing right now. Who are the leaders in the congregation? What are the predominant values in the congregation? How does the congregation see itself in light of the parent body (if there is one)?
During this phase, you might learn that many people are hurting due to deaths in the congregation. You should address death in a congregation. Sometimes we think that just because we preached the funeral, or even if the family is no longer a member of the congregation, that the congregation is over it. No, you look at the congregation and learn if it is still grieving. It is your job to help the congregation in that transition. It is also your job to help the congregation move on.
Once again, from a solid study of God's Word, prayer, and the context of the congregation, you need to have an idea of where the people need to go. Often Preachers have an idea of the direction that they want the church to move, but it is not a very detailed understanding. I would encourage you to make this description as clear as possible. Where do you want the people to end up after your preaching?
OK, so you say that there is legalism in the church, what is the criteria for determination of its removal? I wrote the other day about a church that had contemporary worship services for years. The people have all accepted it and no longer fight over it, worship wars are no longer a problem in that church. However, due to the church being in a denomination that has many that are against such services, the preachers continue to harp on the need for contemporary worship. However, the particular church has no such problem and thus the pastor is not preaching to that congregation. Certainly there are times to address the larger society whether denominational or cultural, but something is wrong when you are constantly harping on a subject that is not a problem in your church. You might be stunting the growth of your congregation by your lack of solid analysis of the real problems and needs of your congregational body.
Step 3: Create a Sermon Plan
Now you have a real description of the condition of the people. In addition, you have a concrete description of where they need to go. Now plan individual sermons that will address those problems. When I began seeing my chiropractor, he took an X-Ray. That gave him a real look at my present condition. He then showed me a healthy back. That was a real look at where I needed to go. He then constructed a weekly plan of how to take me from where I was to where I need to be.
OK, so you say legalism is a problem in your church, and you have fully identified that what you would like to see is a more loving and open spirit in your church. Now you recognize that some of the themes you need to address are "doctrine of the church" and what is a church and how we will always have people falling short, but the church is there to be God's hand of grace. You may need to address the doctrine of "forgiveness." Maybe you noted that the reason for the legalism is due to an unforgiving spirit in the church, so you must address that theme. Whatever the case you should find a number of themes that need addressing from this kind of analysis.
Start Over with a Real Analysis Again
After a while, like my chiropractor, you need to take another x-ray of the congregation. Do not simply assume that the problems, issues, and themes that need addressing last year are the same ones that need addressing this year. Start over again and begin again. Make sure that you don't turn a church of legalists into a church of lawless people because you have not updated your sermonic plan to current realities. If you will but follow these simple steps, you will address the real needs of your congregation.
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