I want to take a few minutes to share how I draft a sermon.
In her wonderful book on writing Bird by Bird Anne Lamott writes about three kinds of drafts for writing. The first is the “down draft.” This is the draft where you just get your thoughts on paper. It is almost always bad and cannot go to the publisher in that form. The “up draft” is your edit. It is when you go through and clean up your “down draft.” You fix the wording, drop pointless and tangential paragraphs, and make a much more pleasurable document. The final draft is the “dental draft.” It is so-named because you look at the draft much like a dentist does a mouth full of teeth. Each movement in the writing is a tooth. Are the teeth in line? Are some teeth in the wrong place? Is there a missing tooth where something else needs to be added? Is there a cavity in a certain paragraph where two more sentences are necessary?
I love this image of a dental draft. I think it is so valuable for writing sermons. As I look back at my first couple years of preaching while I was in seminary, I know that I preached a lot of down drafts and up drafts. I did not have the time or skill to get to the final draft. Dental drafts take time. You have to work at them. You have to sit with the material.
For sermons, I find that I like to preach in series or at least do my research early in the week. I need a couple of days of marinading in the material before I can put together the sermon. I find that I preach to myself all the time– walking around, mowing the lawn, in the shower, driving, on the treadmill… My wife tells me that she does not have to listen to my sermons on Sundays because she has already heard most of it by then.
Of course, I think the idea of preaching to myself is important not just for writing sermons. As the pastor and preacher, it is even more important that I am drowned in the gospel. I need the message of the week to be rocking me down to the marrow. The sermons are always better when I get into the pulpit and am excited to deliver the message because I think it is going to be important.
There is a lot of discussion about preaching from manuscripts versus preaching from an outline versus preaching from memory. I find that the marinade method of crafting a sermon often makes it pointless for me to write a complete manuscript. If is is in me and I have worked out a lot of my specific wording throughout the week then I do not normally need more than some notes or an outline on the page.
Some sermons come together better than others. I remember I had one sermon that came to me on a Tuesday night at 11pm. I took 45 minutes and typed a complete manuscript. I did not look at the manuscript at all the rest of the week and preached it on Sunday almost word for word without more than a couple glances at the page. I wish that was all my sermons. Some, however, don’t gel for me until Sunday morning at Panera Bread. If I am honest, some sermons never totally come together.
I think the other challenge that I faced and many other preachers face today is that they do not see the dental draft process as valuable. Maybe it is something in the water at seminary, but young pastors often see themselves as dispensers of information. Now I see myself more as a poet. I am more like an artist or a storyteller. This is an interesting way for me to see myself, because I have never been an artist. My drawings are about on the same level as when I was 7 year olds. I play the guitar, but I am in no way a musician. But I am an artist, because I want to craft sermons and say things in a way that makes sense and moves people. I approach worship planning and leading in much the same way.
The other thing I like about Lamott’s description of a dental draft is the editing process. Do the movements of this sermon line up? Are they in the right order? Is there a weak point in the journey?
Sometimes a tooth needs pulled. I find that I do not like to remove things that I write or witty things that I think of from my sermons or my writing. But I have found that the best sermons, are like the best term papers. It is always better when you have too much material and get to be selective and only put in your best stuff. As a sermon take shape, I purpose or central idea begins to form. In the end everything that does not add to that main idea has to be shot in the back yard, no matter how creative or how loved it was.