by Billy Smith
The task confronting the gospel preacher is to declare “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). This requires his understanding of the biblical message, of the specific needs of his audience, and how to bring these two elements, message and men, together effectively. Sermons should not be presented in general, but for particular people with particular needs in particular places. “Preaching in every age is the music of a harp string, held taut by the tension between the novelty of the age and the antiquity of the gospel.”
The glory of preaching, however, can lose its edge to the pressure of constantly producing sermons along with the rigors of ministerial duties. Preachers often make the uncomfortable discovery that they are not spending sufficient time, nor finding adequate time, to prepare their lessons as they should. Left to their own schemes, they necessarily make themselves at home with the themes that fit their own minds. Consequently, the good news of God is not presented in its wholeness, and the needs of the audience are not consistently met.
The concept of planned preaching provides a workable solution to this problem. Planned preaching is the process of choosing in advance sermon themes, texts, and objectives for a specific group of people, over a given period of time, according to a definite plan. The preacher who commits himself to a program of planned preaching faces two significant decisions. First, what unit of time will be covered in the program, and second, what major emphasis will govern the program’s design?
The beginner in advanced planning should begin with monthly plans. This, being short, requires less forethought, and is less subject to change than the longer plans. This pattern would both accustom the preacher to the discipline of planning and prepare him to plan even further in advance, although it does not provide the “long view” for his preaching program.
The second natural time segment is the quarterly plan, the most popular approach because of its opportunities for series preaching in quarters, its parallel to the quarterly system of the Bible school program, and the “four seasons” of the calendar year. Preachers also feel greater freedom to change their plans when needed than they would if their plans were further in advance.
A third time unit for planning is biannually. This plan is preferred by those who believe that life moves so quickly and moods change so precipitously that it is impossible to project accurately the needs for an entire year. This would continue the growth of the preacher as an advanced planner in moving from the monthly to the quarterly to the biannual plan.
While each of these units enjoys its advantages, homiletical literature on this subject is dominated by the insistence that the preacher plan his preaching annually, what George Gibson calls “the grand architecture of the year.” The year’s pulpit work rises, not like a home thrown up by a small child, but rationally and soundly, like a building constructed by a master architect who understands the principles of balance, stress, support, and design.
Once the choice of time unit is selected for his program, the planner must then decide on the emphasis that will govern the program’s design. A host of possibilities is available to the planned preacher, a summary of which is provided here.
The most frequently recommended design is by following the calendar, regarded as the simplest way to plan. For Catholics and many Protestant groups, this begins with the Christian Year and the themes that are suggested by its seven traditional seasons. The preacher who does not make use of the Christian Year calendar will still note Sundays of special seasonal significance, such as Christmas and Easter. He may also make use of the civil calendar to set aside dates of special importance in the life of his people, such as New Year’s Day, Mother’s and Father’s Days, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving. A third feature of calendar planning is the congregational calendar. With the input of the church leadership, the sermon planner considers significant dates in the program of the church for the coming year, such as Homecoming, Vacation Bible School, Purpose Sunday, or the promotion of any congregational program.
A second prominent emphasis or scheme for planned preaching is to preach through books of the Bible, what Henry Sloane Coffin called “a course (or series) of sermons.” Andrew Blackwood proposed that an entire quarter be devoted to one book, and he illustrated how the four quarters of the year could be devoted to the thorough exposition of four Bible books. With such a plan used continually, he proposed how the preacher could plan fourteen years in advance. A related plan is a series of “book sermons,” where the preacher determines the main theme of one Bible book, discovers the original situation and relates it to contemporary life, using carefully selected material from the book.
A third scheme in advanced planning is preaching to meet human needs, specifically the needs of your congregation, dealing with the real problems of real people. This plan enjoys increasing popularity and is rooted in the preaching of both the prophets and the apostles who spoke the message their hearers most needed to hear. This has been described as “preaching helpfully,” from one who has a shepherd heart cultivated by calling, counseling, and contact, who stands by the roadside as Jesus stood observing the human parade, reading faces, hearing heart cries, and feeling the fears and hopes of his people. One great preacher of the past was described this way, “The greatness of his preaching lies in the fact that each person in the congregation thinks he is preaching to him.” In addition to his knowledge of the congregation, the preacher may also survey the members for the purpose of discovering needs and area of study that might otherwise go undetected. This provides the congregation a sense of involvement in developing the minister’s preaching plan.
A fourth design for advanced planning is the monthly series, which over the course of a year could be described as a “series of series.” The plan is marked by what it does not do as well as by what it does. It does not follow a central theme or emphasis throughout the year; instead, there are twelve monthly preaching programs, each with its own theme, that fit together to make the one year’s preaching program. Because life is lived in monthly units (salaries and bills paid monthly, etc.), the month makes an excellent unit for sermon series, where several sermons are used to explore themes too demanding to be covered on a single occasion. Because sermon series should be kept relatively brief, both morning and evening services of one month can be used to develop a series of eight lessons on a designated theme.
A fifth pattern for advanced planning is the selection of an overall theme for the year for the whole life of the church. The one hundred sermons for the year would all relate to this guiding theme. The annual theme may be expressed as an apparent need (“Evaluation”), or as a challenge (“Every Member an Evangelist”), or in the words of scripture (“To Live is Christ”). While this plan might overlook some needed themes, it certainly provides the opportunity for the themes selected to be discussed in greater depth.
A final principle of advanced planning emphasizes the importance of the planner himself, the man of God. Homileticians faithfully refer to the two primary sources of sermon subjects, the application of the word of God to the needs of people. But the man who is working night and day (Acts 20:31) with the people of God, himself immersed with the sacred writings and their relevance for life, also becomes a source for sermon selection. Out of his knowledge of the great themes of scripture, and because of his knowledge of his people’s thoughts, questions, hopes, and aspirations, he determines what portion of God’s truth will be presented when.
All of this is to say that balanced preaching comes from a balanced man who shares his growing faith with his congregation.
Regardless of the design chosen for planned preaching, much of the material used will be the same. The important thing is that there be a plan. And when the choice of plan is made, the initial planning of lessons begins and should include at least “the three T’s: text, topic, and title.” The individual lessons are not developed in advance, but from week to week so that the preacher may be able to “sniff the atmosphere” as he prepares each new sermon. May the Lord bless us as we endeavor to become more effective planned preachers!
Billy Smith is the Dean of Biblical Studies at Freed-Hardeman University and preaches for the Henderson Church of Christ in Henderson, Tennessee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Dwight E. Stevenson, Preaching on the Books of the New Testament (New York: Harper & Bros., 1956). 1.
 George M. Gibson, Planned Preaching (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954), 24.
 Henry Sloan Coffin, What To Preach (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1926), 13.
 Andrew A. Blackwood, Preaching From the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1941).
 David H. C. Read, Preaching about the Needs of Real People (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1988), 23.