One Hundred Sermons

A few weeks ago, thankfully without any fanfare, I preached my 100th sermon. I know this number not because I carefully keep track, but because there are 100 files in my computer’s “Sermon” folder. Many of you more seasoned pastors might scoff at a piddly number like 100, but I’m guessing that, of those who graduated from Columbia Seminary with me in 2009, I’m one of the fastest to reach 100. Many others, even most, won’t get there for years. Why?

Many of my seminary classmates are serving as associate pastors at larger churches. In such a position one gains valuable experience by learning from the other pastors on staff. But another perk — or problem, depending on your perspective — is that many associate pastors preach rather seldom. I have friends who preach once a month, others preach once every six weeks, and even a few preach only once every few months. As it would happen, several of the classmates I consider the most skilled pastors in my class, preach only ten or so times a year. I think that’s a crying shame, but their supervisors didn’t ask me.

As I studied for my M.Div. I took a yearlong internship in Scotland, where I preached a bunch. I’m now a solo pastor and preach pretty much every Sunday.

That sais, here’s the top ten things I learned after preaching 100 sermons (pretend the numbering is backwards from 10 to 1,even  though it isn’t due to formatting oddities) :

  1. Context. Context. Context.
  2. I really like preaching from the Old Testament.
  3. I really dislike preaching from both the Old Testament and New Testament in one sermon (or, really, any two texts).
  4. I wish I used my Biblical language skills more, but I don’t.
  5. 1500-1800 words is usually about right.
  6. I preach much better with a manuscript than with an outline (though, yes, many people are the opposite).
  7. I’ve fallen into using about three sermon forms fairly regularly. For this congregation, I think my lack of creativity actually helps many hear the word.
  8. Pretty much every manuscript, at some point has a line like, “looking deeper, there’s a more complex and challenging interpretation.” (Though I often cut it out of the draft.)
  9. The size of the space in which I’m preaching, and number of people attending worship, really affects the rhetoric I use.
  10. Context. Context. Context.

Ok, preachers out there. What have you learned or been struck by in your last 100 sermons?

image by Simon Cataudo


  1. says

    I am waiting for my congregation to realize I have about 3 sermons.
    I also like preaching from the Old Testament.
    And Chuck Campbell is going to have to pry my manuscript out of my cold, dead hands.

  2. Emily says

    Curious about my number of sermons, I just added them up – not quite as convenient as your sermon folder, I had to look in a few different context sorted sermon folders. I’ve preached 110 sermons.

    I agree with you on context, context, context.

    I’ve also learned to think about groupings of sermons. In any given season:
    Does my preaching include a mix of OT, Psalms, Gospel, and Epistles? This helps to push and challenge me, and helps ensure the congregation is hearing a wide variety of scripture, as we only do 2 scripture readings on Sundays.

    Does it include some sermons focused more on teaching, others on doing or being, and still others whose main aim is pastoral care?

    1200-1500 words is usually right for me.

    I don’t plan out sermon series, though I am doing one this fall for our bicentennial celebration – 3 weeks on the church. However, the lectionary often leads me into a series that I notice more about half way through.

  3. Sam says

    Great post. I never thought to count before but it looks like I’m at about 107 sermons since gradutating from seminary.

    For me 1900-2100 words is more the length.

    I love reading your stuff Adam.

  4. Marc van Bulck says

    I would also add “Have someone read / edit your sermons.” A lesson I learned the hard way (cough!) from Anna Carter Florence. That’s not always possible on a week-to-week basis, I would imagine, but for those of us who only preach every so often and can afford the time for it, it has helped enormously.

  5. Andrew Whaley says

    Two things I’ve experienced preaching a whopping 8 consecutive Sundays…(bringing the grand total to 12 sermons, so keep that in mind as you read any insights I have):

    1. Be reading good writing either theological writing, fiction, news magazines, etc.

    2. Listen to/read other sermons (not as a proof reader or to critique a friends’ sermons but simply to remember how to listen). The preacher needs to hear a sermon as much as s/he needs to preach one.

  6. DennisS says

    I agree with the list of 10, (I could have written the same words) except 7 & 8.

    In my first call, I’m approaching 300 sermons (over 5 years as a solo pastor). Sermons the first year or so were 2500-2800 words. A retired pastor/mentor suggested to me that if you can’t say it in 1500 words, then give it up. Well, the sermons are generally just less than 1800 words now.

    I like to include one illustration from my life, or how this doctrine or passage affects me personally. This is usually brief, but it helps people know that I am taking the text personally into my life. Hopefully it helps them to do the same. Sometimes it is the only thing that people remember, and it helps them to make it personal.

    It is preferable to have one illustration or comment that folks can laugh at – preferably toward the middle, so that folks can keep their attention on the sermon (and have something to remember and tell others during the week). I try not to force this. If the text or sermon doesn’t lend itself to this, then perhaps some other point (such as announcements or offering) can be humorous.

    Andrew is on to something regarding the reading of good writing. This week I’ve read two books that are over 50 years old, and they have brought some wonderful ideas and illustrations, along with a good communication style.

    I almost always go with a manuscript (except outdoor worship services). This is partially because the text gets taken to shut-ins and sent to several who are incarcerated (after any real names are edited out).

    The first year I followed the lectionary at least 80% of the time. This has gradually decreased to about a third of the time, as we are frequently doing lectio continua, or a series. A couple years ago the sermons for 6 consecutive weeks came from the same passage (2Peter 1:3-12). Several commented that they appreciated that deep study.

    I definitely like preaching the OT, including texts not in the lectionary. I haven’t gone back yet to see where most of the biblical texts are located thus far. I do know that if I have preached a text previously, that I do NOT go back and look at the previous sermon.

    I do read sermons online, and I find ideas in them. Generally they are from the previous week – like yours posted here, Adam.

    If I note a problem with a sermon, I will contact the preacher. I heard a sermon this week on the radio, and I knew 80% of it was directly from a sermon that could be found online. I contacted the preacher directly with a lengthy email, but it turns out that it was a lay person – filling in for the pastor that week. I sent the link to the sermon online, to compare with what was broadcast on the radio, then to speak with the one who used it.

    This week I also read a sermon online from Mark 7 (via my RSS reader). I felt it was way off-base, mischaracterizing the text. So, I took the time to outline Mark to help this preacher to see that they missed the context, context, context.

    Should I be challenging others preaching – after only 5 years of preaching experience? Well, I think it is appropriate. I’m not going to set myself up as the sermon police, but when I come across something I feel a certain responsibility to interact.

    I see that 9 of the next 21 weeks I plan to preach from the OT text – of which 6 are a series on prayer from the psalms. There are two other series as well, of three weeks each. At the beginning of next year I hope to put together a series on Eschatology. There are so many who seem to have so many different ideas about this – it will be good to have more of a common framework and language. It’s something I haven’t preached upon much, and a good series on this should be very helpful.

  7. Catherine says

    I don’t want Marci to die, but I like the image of Chuck prying a manuscript from her cold dead hand.

  8. Sarah Erickson says

    Love the discussion, agree with many comments, esp. about reading other good writing. Love the OT and esp. the Psalms as preaching texts; also fond of those Gospels. Generally a one-text preacher but may read at least two if allusions/imagery connects well – and generally somehow work in lectionary texts or images/references in the liturgy if working from lectinary. Manuscripts allow me to watch word count and self-edit, hopefully more effectively. Given that I generally am serving as a guest/supply preacher – less chance that folks will catch on to my sermon slant/forms – like Marci and Adam – probably around 3!

  9. Ryan Baer says

    Adam – Great post. I put all of my sermon manuscripts from 2009 into one document and did a word count, and it came to 96,680 words (including the scripture texts)!

    Up until June of this year, I was right there with Marci. I’d rather stab myself in the eye than not have a manuscript.

    But this summer, I suddenly got a wild hair and started preaching from the center of the chancel, with only a few notes scribbled on a post-it in the Bible I hold in my hand.

    The response from the congregation has been tremendous. I think it’s really helped me connect with them in terms of delivery, and it’s helped me not become bored with my own preaching. It takes a good three or four more hours of prep to preach that way, though, because it means I have to practice, practice, practice. I’ve been going into the sanctuary on Friday afternoon and running it at least three or four times until I feel like I’ve got it. Then I come in early on Sunday morning and do it once more in the empty church before it’s time to start.

    Two of my closest friends in the presbytery are associate pastors at nearby “big steeple” churches. We all agree – it’s just a different animal being a solo pastor who carries the burden and gift of weekly preaching as opposed to having weeks upon weeks to prepare.

  10. says

    Okay…You got me curious.

    I preach 1200 – 1500 word sermons. Usually, 1200 – 1300.
    I like exploring the flow of the lectionary and let series emerge.
    Sermon Series rule! They help keep me from trying to say everything I know about a passage in one sermon.
    I occasionally use an outline.
    I like to include the congregation in the sermon. Ask questions, etc.
    Be brave.

    Finally, I have learned that my preaching suffers when I am anxious about life in the congregation. I become fearful, unwilling to rock the boat or be honest with what I hear from the Spirit. The more I can let go, the better my preaching is.

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been preaching weekly for 4+ years now. It was fun to work it out.

  11. says

    “How many points should a sermon have?”

    “At least one.”

    this was a great idea!
    -I still (usually) write a manuscript, but try not to preach from it so much.
    -I like getting out of the pulpit, but am not comfortable traveling up and down the aisle.
    -I think Tripp is right about anxiety in the congregation.
    -I’ve been preaching for 16 years, so, I think that’s a lot of sermons (I don’t know how many). Yes, I am now an associate, but did spend my first 4 years solo.
    -size of the space AND how full it is makes a big difference in gesture/rhetoric, etc.

  12. says

    Agree on the 1500-1800 limit. For me, at least, if I’m sticking to one text it is difficult to go longer than this with any substance.

    I, too, have been experimenting with lectionary based series. I very much enjoyed preaching a series on Galatians recently. I’m doing one on Reuben Job’s book ‘Three Simple Rules’ based on the current Luke readings. I like the series concept because it feels like we’re all going somewhere together from week to week. I’ve been challenged by Hamilton’s Unleashing the Word to be bold enough to go off-lectionary…but haven’t had the stones to do it yet.

    What about technology? I’m in my first appointment, and pleasantly found that a predecessor had put in a screen/projector/sound system. I know this is anathema to some, but I’ve enjoyed using the occasional video and pictures. I find the hard part is using the technology as a tool, and not a crutch…but showing a picture is infinitely more valuable than describing something ad nauseum.

    I’m not sure about jokes, but I agree about illustrations. And I don’t feel bad at all about using books of illustrations because, unless I’m using a movie reference or bit of recent news, I just don’t have many in the hopper. I got to do a workshop with Fred Craddock, and he advised against jokes. He said the joke will either bomb and take away from the sermon, or, odds are, you’re telling them a joke they’ve heard before. My own two cents is that – even assuming that the text demands a joke, which to me should be a rare occurrence – joke-telling smacks more of entertainment than truth telling. But then, there’s a reason I’m never going to pastor a megachurch.

    Good thoughts. Thank you.

  13. says

    I am about to preach my 100th sermon THIS WEEK!

    I just started counting a few weeks ago, and i was at 96… so our church is now asking the #.. a little pressure, but it really is not about me, so it’s all good:)

    thank you for this post.

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