We hear this all the time: You shouldn’t plan your sermons or series so far in advance? What about the Holy Spirit? Aren’t you putting Him in a box with your sermon calendars, series, and sermon-writing software?
So today we’re going to work through our response to those concerns. These are important questions- we would never want to limit the work of God. However, we think that refusing to plan does two things: first, it often serves as an excuse for not doing the work. It also uses a very narrow view of the Holy Spirit and how He works.
One of our favorite responses we’ve ever heard to this question comes from a comment on Facebook from Pastor Tracy: “A preacher was complaining about needing so much time to prepare sermons. A friend told him to stop trying so hard and just listen to the Holy Spirit speak. So the pastor decided one week that he would try that. And sure enough, when he got up to preach that Sunday, the Holy Spirit spoke to him and said, ‘Son, you’re not prepared.’”
The only problem with framing planning as “putting the Holy Spirit in a box” is that it means the Holy Spirit has to speak to you on a particular subject within two weeks to two days before you preach your sermon. You’re not giving yourself time to marinate over the topics and passages. In the process, you’re doing yourself (as a communicator) and your congregation a disservice. You won’t be able to find the best or most compelling illustrations or words. Instead, you’ll have to settle for what comes to the top of your mind. If you have more time to prepare, you have more time to develop a richer and fuller message.
That’s not saying that you won’t have times when you feel that the Holy Spirit is leading you in a different direction than you’d planned- and that’s okay! In those cases, by all means, change the plan. But you shouldn’t throw away the many benefits of planning because you think you can’t plan and be sensitive to the Holy Spirit.
In Scripture, there are times that God gives a word to a prophet, and it’s for his specific context, but it’s also for later generations. We know that God planned the ministry of Jesus from the beginning- even before the fall! God can work thousands and thousands of years in advance. So we know that God could speak to us, today, about something that we need to speak about next year. If we say, “I’m not going to plan because I want to be sensitive to the Spirit of God,” then you’re saying that He can’t speak months or years in advance, which simply isn’t true. Plus, when we wait to the last minute, we’re not able to dig as deeply into Scripture- and it’s so important that we “study to show ourselves approved”
There’s a verse that’s brought up sometimes- Luke 12:11-12. In it, Jesus is talking about not preparing what to say in advance when you’re brought before judges and magistrates and letting the Holy Spirit give you words to say in your own defense. It’s often taken out of context. He’s not necessarily talking about preaching from the Word of God, but it does mean to be guided by the Holy Spirit when those difficult times come. We can pull that verse out of context and say, “Well, we shouldn’t study.” But we see throughout Scripture, God telling people to learn, to grow, to study, and to rely on the Scripture.
God can work while you’re on stage, giving you the words at the moment, and sometimes He does. Sometimes He can change our sermon last-minute. And sometimes, He tells us, “Hey, I want you to preach through this series in a couple of years.” Whenever we follow His leading, it’s amazing.
Without a plan, you fall prey to another trap: one-sided or uneven discipleship of your people.
You should constantly be praying and asking, what do I need to communicate about the gospel so that my people have a full picture of Who God is? When people move on, our community is in crisis, or people face hard times, they need to have a strong foundation. Your part in that is to set up a cycle so that you know you’re covering what people need to know on a consistent basis.
Our prayer for you is that you would be sensitive to the Holy Spirit as you plan and prepare, but that you’d be diligent in planning as well, and inputting intention behind what you say. The Lord can lead you in a different direction, but if you prepare you KNOW you’re not being lazy or waiting until the last minute to prepare while using a spiritual excuse. Do your part as a communicator.
You know this: when you stand up on a Sunday, you’re preaching to so many people:
The single mom who’s struggling.
The married couple with an empty nest.
And everyone in between.
They’re in different places in life, different seasons, and different financial circumstances. But you’re coming with one message for everyone- a message that you have to make powerful and digestible for everyone in the room. That takes a lot of skill, work, and practice. So, the more that you can be prepared, the more that you can be comfortable with the content. And the more time you have for the Holy Spirit to work in your heart and life, the better you’re going to be able to communicate the truths of God’s Word.
So, does it make you a bad pastor to plan? The short answer? No.
It’s important to realize that God can speak to other people which can also speak to you. For example, a few years ago we were developing a sermon series called Burned, which is about hypocrisy & how sometimes that can leave people feeling burned by the church. As we were developing this series, we were praying about it.
After we released it, we got an email from someone who had just come to a church- they preached that series and they said, “Man, our church had been burned by people who had been here for the past couple of years” and the Holy Spirit really worked through that. It was so cool to see how the Holy Spirit was speaking through the writers and designers at Ministry Pass, and then taking what was happening & speaking through that pastor.
As pastors, we don’t want to put God in a box and say, “God can only speak to me, and only when I’m on the stage or a couple of days away from preaching.” God can do that, but we also know that there’s something richer going on and we, as Christians and brothers and sisters, can help each other. When you think about it, it’s amazing when the Holy Spirit pulls all of those pieces together.